Gypsy Britain: the community behind the media panic

In all the hysteria, the voices of Gypsies themselves are hard to find.

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Gypsies, Travellers, Traveller-Gypsies, Tinkler-Gypsies, Romanies, Roma: who are these people, the half-despised, half-envied “menace” who pitch their caravans on the outskirts of town? Are they related to the men with accordions and women with flouncy skirts, recently arrived in our cities? What about Scottish Travellers, whom the historian and folklorist Hamish Henderson credited as an ancient Celtic tribe, repository of ballads, folk songs and stories? And Irish Travellers, especially those now living in England – what about them? They are often yoked together with Gypsies for official purposes, or for bad press, but are the two groups content with that?

How many Gypsies are there anyway, in the UK? Well, it depends whom you count, or who offer themselves up to be counted. The first census to offer “Gypsy or Irish Traveller” as a recognised ethnic minority was in 2011: 58,000 people ticked that box, the majority living in houses. Romany or Roma was not an option, though Romany folk might claim to be the most authentic, indeed the only “Gypsies”. Romanies are now known to have originated in Rajasthan, reaching the British Isles in the 15th century; their language still shares elements with Hindi. At first they were mistaken for Egyptians, hence “Gypsy”, and treated with courtesy, but that didn’t last. Soon it became a hanging offence simply to be a Gypsy.

The historian David Cressy, in his book Gypsies (Oxford University Press, 432pp, £25), which gives a five-century account of their history in England, writes that throughout all that time, Gypsies have largely kept themselves to themselves: “Pamphleteers, creative writers, evangelicals, Gypsylorists, anthropologists and journalists have attempted to explain them, but the Gypsies have resisted intimate analysis.” To that we might add TV producers: Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was a hit series, though, as Cressy notes, self-identified English Romanies were among its most vocal critics.

Given that sense of privacy and resistance, the voices of Gypsies themselves are hard to find. Sometimes all you hear is media panic. The measured, mild-mannered tones of Damian Le Bas are therefore welcome. Le Bas can trace his Romany ancestry back at least six generations, and he lives, he says, “in a Romany psychological realm; a mental Gypsyland”. Although he knows the language, Le Bas is not “true-bred” Romany. Pale-skinned, he doesn’t look like Gypsies are supposed to look – think Heathcliff. But, as he says, who is true-bred anything now?

Le Bas’s family worked as flower-sellers and mechanics on the south coast. He learned his personal Gypsy history from his Nan, his great-grandmother. Although now a house-dweller, Nan walked beside a wagon until the 1940s. It was she who held in memory the “stopping places” or “atchin tans”, known to Travellers, and told Le Bas about them when he was a boy. Now, in a furnished van of his own, albeit with an engine, Le Bas set out to find these places, a “hidden Gypsy and Traveller map… the bedrock of our reality and, perhaps, the antidote to unending cycles of romanticisation and demonisation”.

We might imagine an eternal summer, quiet by-ways under spreading oaks, a grazing horse; but what emerges certainly isn’t romantic. Instead, it’s an often unlovely travelogue of modern Britain, far from the tourist sites and wealth-pockets. There are atchin tans all right: yards with height restrictors (“pikey barriers”), some nasty lay-bys, country lanes where a lone man-in-a-van arouses immediate suspicion, even among Gypsies themselves.

Le Bas is a thoughtful writer, observant of nature and with a lovely turn of phrase. One warms to him, because contrary to what we gorjies might imagine of a Gypsy, the farther from home he travels, the less comfortable he feels. He is lonely amid Scotland’s rain and mountains, and often quick to leave the stopping places he has re-discovered. Thankfully there are pleasant encounters, like that with a Hungarian Romany musician who just happens to be walking through Sussex.

Le Bas is brave enough to recount moments others might prefer to gloss over. One of his most telling anecdotes, possibly one it is unfair to highlight, occurs at Appleby’s famous fair. Arriving in the van, Le Bas and his wife behold “a thousand caravans a-glint with light reflecting off the sun”. “My people,” he says, “here another year, in spite of everything… still thwarting explanations.” They find a place to park up in the crowded hills, there are horses and bow-wagons. But there’s trouble. A young man wanders over. “How long have you two been Travellers for, then?” He asks. They are suspected of not being Gypsies – or not Gypsy enough. It could turn violent. After a delicate conversation peppered with Romany words, the couple elect to leave. Le Bas is upset for days, it’s the nearest thing to real bother they’ve had, and from a fellow Traveller.

Gypsy-hood has managed to survive into the 21st century, albeit changed: Travellers are not beyond history. Given the tensions, it’s perhaps not surprising that The Stopping Places is more concerned with places than with people. It is by turn lyrical, edgy and wistful. Aside from Appleby fair, Le Bas doesn’t seek out Travellers. Passing some trailers in a lay-by on Skye, he says, “I didn’t pull up, I never do.” Unfortunately then, there are no in-depth conversations or intimate encounters, not even with family. Fellow Gypsies remain strangers, hefted to their own parts of the country. In consequence, although the book is rich with lore and history, it’s more about ghost trails than Travellers’ living reality. And, it’s about Le Bas’s own identity. Here he is, a Romany with a degree from Oxford, trying to find his own internal stopping place.

It sounds like a lonely pursuit. Parked up in yet another lay-by, he says, “I spend the evening playing the spoons and whistling the same old songs,” or listening to ballads on his phone. 

Kathleen Jamie is a poet. Her collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

The Stopping Places: a Journey Through Gypsy Britain
Damian Le Bas
Chatto & Windus, 320pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit