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: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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

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