How far have we really come in terms of our attitudes towards
travellers? Henry VIII made the status of gypsy a capital offence
in 1530. Nearly 500 years later the government still seems to want
to get rid of travellers, or to at least make it as difficult as
possible for them to continue to be different.
Born to a Romany father and “gorge” (house dwelling) mother,
growing up was confusing for me at times. I learned about
discrimination and fear of the authorities, but mostly I learned
about ignorance. In a society that boasts about celebrating
diversity and difference, show me a celebration that reaches as far
as the travelling communities. There are none. Just parish councils
and local governments colluding together to close down annual horse
fairs, or TV companies producing half-baked, middle-class dramas
which get away with portraying gypsies as dirty baby stealers with
red-spotted neckchiefs and crystal balls. It’s laughable, and even
more laughable that this is tolerated.
Take my father’s plight. He was a travelling man and bought a small
piece of land from money he had saved. He lived happily in a modest
caravan and kept a horse, dog and chickens. He knew that the local
authorities would not approve of him living on his own land and
would prefer him to conform, so he made a planning application to
build a bungalow. It was refused so, under human rights
legislation, he submitted another application as a travelling man.
He hoped the council would recognise his culture and traditions but
again the application was refused and he faced eviction.
He appealed against the decision to be moved from his own land.
However, the local authority did not believe he was a genuine gypsy
and claimed that access to the land was not permitted. The
authority told him to leave the land and join the overcrowded gypsy
site a mile away. But he explained how he wanted to live on his own
land in the tradition that made sense to him. The situation has yet
to be resolved.
There’s a paradox around travelling people in Britain today. People
cling to the romanticism of the gypsy ways without any acceptance
that the traditions that put them there have a place in the present
or the future.
Planning officers can be ignorant about the travelling culture
while local authorities herd travelling people into overcrowded
sites like animals, simply because they can. Surely it’s time we
really fell in love with diversity.
Jayne Wareham is an adoption and fostering social