No Place to Call Home by Katharine Quarmby: On the road again

An important book that raises bigger issues about socially isolated and alienated groups everywhere.

No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers
Katharine Quarmby
Oneworld, 320pp, £12.99

Images, rather than words, stand out when we look back on the long dispute over the Dale Farm travellers’ site in Essex: smoke rising behind TV reporters; a huge gantry defending the entrance of the six-acre former scrapyard near Basildon as police and bailiffs brought a ten-year saga to a traumatic, violent end. Those enduring pictorial memories are pertinent because – almost by definition – isolated, alienated communities such as this t one lack a voice. Or rather, their voices are usually drowned out by the powerful images in the public’s mind. Travellers? We know who they are. Tinkers, pikeys, didicoi. Dirty, violent, chavvy. The alternative, more romantic stereotype, of proud people who trade horses at Appleby and Stow, probably has the same degree of truth to it.

With the dust settling on the 2011 Dale Farm eviction, Katharine Quarmby attempts to fill in some of the missing words and to chart the relationship between the UK’s settled population and the nomads who live alongside it. The great strength of this book lies in the access Quarmby had to those whose story she seeks to tell. Guided by campaigners, she takes the reader into the homes of some of the families involved: the McCarthys, who defiantly took tea outside the high court as the eviction loomed; the Sheridans, who saw “settling down” as a way of providing their children with the education they’d never had. Through them – and with the help of a range of commentators and written sources – she charts centuries of discrimination, antipathy and conflict that led inexorably to where the Dale Farm families found themselves in the autumn of 2011 as the police and bailiffs closed in.

No Place to Call Home is best when it surprises. For instance, Quarmby gives voice to the frustrations of travellers who tried to keep open the lines of communication with local authorities and the police even as barricades were built and bricks were stockpiled. And she shows how the presence of activists who advised on tactics for resisting eviction was not universally welcomed.

The book is also successful in demonstrating that the fates of various traveller groups – Irish, English, Roma, even New Age – are linked by how the authorities treat them. For example, legislation designed mainly to curtail gatherings by “new” travellers has been applied to older communities, making the use of historic stopping places a criminal offence and dismantling the hard-won duty of local authorities to provide sites.

Yet most important is the human face the book gives to people often deprived of one. In this respect, the pictures speak loudest – Mary Ann McCarthy sitting on a neat leather sofa in her immaculate chalet at Dale Farm, vases and photos on the dresser giving the lie to public perceptions.

The book is a hard read if, like me, you listen with scepticism to pro-traveller activists who defend the flouting of planning laws and if you sympathise with local authorities caught between the warring factions. What were the Dale Farm families trying to achieve when they bought plots of land on the green belt and started putting down roots without recourse to the planning authorities? How could they have thought it was going to end well? Quarmby gets round to this, but she takes a while.

Writing about a separate dispute at a site at Meriden in the West Midlands, she describes the feelings of Senga Townsley and her family as they “pulled on” to a field owned by a friend, Noah Burton. Previously, the Townsleys had spent winters on a stud farm owned by Burton’s wife’s family, but when his marriage broke up they were left with few options.

Townsley recalls an earlier conversation with a friend who used the phrase “gypsy war” to describe moving on to land without permission. “You don’t want to do that, it causes real trouble,” she responded at the time. Yet later she found herself planning to do the same thing: “For me to sit here and say we didn’t know what we were doing would be a lie, but we didn’t understand the ramifications of it. We just knew this is what people did.”

Quarmby also takes time to ask some fundamental questions: what are the wider aspirations of the UK’s traveller communities? What do they want for their children? Do they hope to cling to the nomadic existence that their forebears lived for generations, dealing in horses, scrap metal and Royal Crown Derby china, or do they hope for a more settled life?

The book eventually provides answers: family, religion and a sense of community are most critical. Yet these are families without easy answers to how they can build a secure future for themselves while clinging to their cherished traditions.

Although it is slow to come to the point, No Place to Call Home is an important book that raises bigger issues about socially isolated and alienated groups everywhere. It underlines a truth – that a sense of “otherness” brings with it a dividend: it binds families and it binds communities.

Ask yourself this: why did the Dale Farm families live on the roadside near the site after the eviction, despite being offered housing and even other traveller sites? Without electricity or running water and with children ill and out of school, why did they not go? It was because the more hostile the world seems, the more your family – immediate, extended and wider, in the sense of clan or tribe – matters. They stayed there, together.

In some respects, it is the power of that sense of togetherness in these marginalised communities that keeps them apart from the rest. It will take much more than the combined force of local authorities, police, bailiffs and courts to break down that barrier.

Fran Abrams’s most recent book is “Songs of Innocence: the Story of British Childhood” (Atlantic Books, £20)

A family at the Dale Farm camp. Photo: Mary Turner

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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