I usually blog monthly, but my eye was caught by the article in the Saturday Telegraph by the writer and academic Germaine Greer. Greer asks why nomads, much romanticised by the British, are treated harshly when they come in the home grown form as at Dale Farm? Those of you, who know of my latest novel Casting Shadows, will also know that Gypsies play a significant part in my narrative and that my central character, Sally, also romanticises their lifestyle. Writing this novel brought me back to my own childhood, where Gypsies camped on a stretch of land behind my home. I spent a good deal of time spying on them, just as my character Sally does. They were treated with suspicion then, but they were needed by the local farmer and had a secure place in the rhythm of the seasons and pattern of harvests. Exotic and remote, yet they had their place in the natural order of country life until the farms were mechanised and our pegs and fake flowers came in plastic from the supermarket. Quite when the distinction between travellers and Roma blurred I am not certain. When I was a child I worked on the local farms picking seasonal fruit and vegetables alongside Gypsies; travellers, seem to me, to be a far later arrival, encompassing what my mother would have called Irish tinkers and then later hippies, the homeless and eco warriors. Tramps known as gentlemen of the road and farm hands where ever present, the countryside was alive with people, unlike today’s land, where a loan tractor ploughs its furrow on fast acres of land, sometimes unmanned guided only by satellite.
Certainly politicians, national and local, have once again failed miserably. Foresight and recognising the possible consequences of their decisions appears to skip the gene pool when it comes to our politicians and they have long since lost their moral compass, if they ever had one. We are now faced with Basildon council enforcing, very publicly, the green belt planning regulations that they should have enforced years ago before the illegal half of the site became established. At the same time our national government are de-regulating planning so that more housing can be built on, yes, the green belt. On our small over populated island these issues are always going to be hotly debated, not surprisingly people feel very strongly about protecting the natural environment. There was a time when Gypsies were an intrinsic part of that environment, and as one of my characters, Marguerite Buchanan, states, ‘Gypsies were really rather green.’ Certainly they were largely self-sustaining, needing little more than some grazing for the horses, a stream for water and something for the pot.
As Greer points out, we have no idea just how many travellers there are in this country and equally uncertain are the statistics for Roma. They have poor health and living on the margins of society, little formal education. As a society we still have to find a way to reconcile where the Roma that remain and the travellers who came after them can live out their nomadic lifestyle, balancing their needs and those of the settled community at the same time as protecting the green belt from whatever or whoever encroaches on it. Politicians beware!
Greer concludes that planning departments are known as ‘hotbeds of cronyism’ and that Dale Farm incenses local residents who see that the regulations have not been applied fairly. I would agree with her about the injustice and I certainly feel that the green belt must be protected from all development, after all that is the point of it. There is also fear of the ‘other,’ I live in a county that is on the way to nowhere, deep within the local community lies suspicion of the stranger, it has eased a little with the influx of incomers, but at heart that suspicion remains; we are all foreigners here and would do well to remember it.
This summer magazines were awash with pictures of beautifully restored Gypsy caravans and shepherd’s huts, it seems when our credit is crunched we yearn for a simpler way of life. But contrast this with the eyesores, the shanty, often illegal sites tucked on to scraps of unusable land beneath flyovers or beside highway grit stores. Perhaps if our home grown nomads, the Gypsies and travellers had retained their painted vardo/wagons they would be given attractive sites, embraced and seen as Greer says ‘proud, noble and picturesque’. As it is our opinions appear to be caught in a hinterland between tolerance and prejudice, romance and squalor.
If you would like to know more about rural life and Gypsies here are some suggestions.
The Museum of Rural Life. Reading. Berks. Which holds the Robert Dawson collection.
Gordon Boswell Museum. Spalding. A wonderful collection of Gypsy Vardo and a wealth of information on the Gypsy way of life.
The Patrin web journal. http://www.geocities.com/Paris/ 5121/lexicontrol.htm