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

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.