Books · Colonisation · Education · Performance & Arts · Political · Whiteness & racism

A really important book

No Place to Call Home: Gypsies, Travellers, and the Road Beyond Dale FarmNo Place to Call Home: Gypsies, Travellers, and the Road Beyond Dale Farm by Katharine Quarmby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quarmby discusses the history of GRT* persecution drawing heavily on the work of Romani academic Ian Hancock and other historians. British legal history includes waves of hostility towards ‘vagrants’ and ‘itinerants’ and Gypsies were repeatedly expelled, criminalised or executed for being nomadic or on racial grounds. Enclosure affected Traveller groups profoundly as it did settled workers on the land. The romaticisation of nomadic lifestyles and Romany people as exotic ethnic others with a fading old world culture parallels views of Plains Indians and other First Nation peoples elsewhere. Confronted with actual flesh-and-blood gypsies settlers tend to regard them as degraded remnants or imposters assuming the identity of the sentimentalised ideal compared to which they fall short by being insufficiently ‘noble savage’: this is a genocidal strategy working in tandem with the stealing of Travellers’ children and draconian residence policies aimed at enforcing assimilation. It is significant that the Nuremburg report barely mentioned the killing of the Roma, despite the fact that historians believe a quarter of their European population was wiped out in the camps, considering that anti-Semites deny or underplay the atrocities committed against the Jews during and before the Nazi Holocaust. The ongoing virulent racism against GRT people is made comfortable by settled people’s failure to acknowledge or forgetting of the Porrajmos

Hostility from settled locals is a running theme, but the history Quarmby traces reveals that the state led the violence and shaping of attitudes towards nomadic/’vagrant’ people. It could be said that this is still the case: the state in the form of local councils everywhere continues to persecute. However, I suspect it does so on behalf of the landowners who hold such wide ranging influence over HM gov here (see George Monbiot’s excellent blog for multiple demonstrations of this fact, with receipts). Of course, GRTs are discriminated against even as landowners as the case of Dale Farm shows, but this only reveals the underlying class structure silently regulating property rights.

Zygmunt Baumann suggests reasons for the hostile, perennially genocidal attitude on the part of sedentary, homogenous and increaingly materialistic populations towards traditionally nomadic people that has persisted so long in Europe and especially the UK. Nomadic lifeways represent oppositional knowledges and ways of being to the coloniser capitalist state and its supporting mythologies of white supremacy and occupation-as-work. They have the potential to retain ecological integration that settled communities forgot in the ‘Enlightenment’ and horizontal colonial periods when ‘nature’ (in all its forms, outside and inside us) was to be conquered and subdued. New Traveller Tony Thomson has pointed out that nomadism has been the human habit for over 500,000 years: settling is a tiny blip. He also mentions that it directs us to a closer and more thoughtful relationship to the land and resources, which threatens an economic model based on the unsustainable exploitation of scarce materials. Quarmby quotes various politicians and who repeat genocidal opinions, tellingly

I think you are endeavouring to defend something that is historically outdated: the tinker and the wanderer. There may be places for them in other parts of the world, but there isn’t in an industrialised urban community

Since I and the political class issuing such statements live inside a sedentarist industrialised colonial mindset it can be difficult for us to notice that there is very little left of community in the context we have built. One of the most wonderful things in the book, although it is compromised by Quarmby’s rather conservative, objective tone (she strives to be even-handed) is the description of a large community of Eastern European Roma that moved into Govanhill in Strathclyde. They spent their evenings ‘shooting the breeze’ singing, making music and dancing in the street. (A local Chief Inspector opines ‘if you are a middle aged white female and you have lived all your life in Govanhill, then… all you see is foreign faces, your natural reaction is. “I don’t like this”‘. I’m enraged by this standard use of the white woman as frail creature to be defended (in which white feminism has all too often been complicit and worse) in order to justify racist attitudes and associated excessive policing and surveillance). Of course, it would annoy me, I need to sleep, I need to go to work in the morning, but doesn’t that reveal unambiguously how deeply my very emotions and physical needs are structurally and forcibly invested in an economic model that deprives me of communal leisure and ways of knowing and being in mutuality?

Yet the fear of and hostility towards GRT people extends from the settler/nomad binary and beyond actual (as opposed to assumed) lifestyle differences since the majority of people with these origins no longer travel, because many of the traditional services they once provided as they roved, such as seasonal agricultural work, heritage skills like mending pots and pans and dealing in scrap metal have been regulated or industrialised out of existence. Yet as well as significant structural disadvantages people identified as gypsies or travellers are subjected to overt racist abuse such as having their homes bombed, vandalised and terrorised, racial slurs, violent personal assault, being excluded from pubs, shops and wedding venues sometimes by ‘no gypsies’ signs and by inflammatory media reporting, exclusion from employment, exclusion from school and bullying, low teacher expectations and ignorance** and microagressions. English Gypsy Noah Burton reflects lucidly on his lifelong experience of ‘passing’, denying his origins in order to protect his livelihood and avoid being abused and excluded. Reflecting on the civil rights struggles of black and Asian people he says ‘They couldn’t pass. Maybe if we had been in that situation we would fight harder against racism against us’.

Quarmby’s book is ambitiously broad in scope, but goes into the Dale Farm furore in depth, as well as the rather different stand-off at Meriden. In the former case, I was most interested in and perturbed by the complicated and certainly not entirely positive role of non-Traveller activists, self-proclaimed allies, who set up camp at the site in force, organised by long-time GRT supporter Grattan Puxon. At Meriden, I was most intrigued by the machinations of the organisation that opposed the establishment of a site for the Gypsy group, whose protagonists became ‘consultants’, charging handsome fees for their services to other local groups seeking to oppose coucil plans to create legal sites for Gypsies and Travellers. Councils under legal pressure to find sites are hampered not only by internal reluctance but by nimbyist activism, now part funded by the taxpayer courtesy of the coalition government’s ‘Localism’ bill.

The book is full of GRT voices from the spectrum of communities, and Quarmby tries to reflect all sides of multifaceted conflicts and tensions. Other voices also offer food for thought, notably Luton-based CofE chaplain Martin Burrell who says

The Roma are an ethnic group of some twelve million people who say that they don’t want a patch each, just somewhere to live

And that may just be the height of radicalism in the days of late capitalism and the nation state as economic unit.

*GRT is an abbreviation standing for Gypsy/Roma/Traveller, an adjectival phrase which even in its compoundness fails to capture the full spectrum of people it attempts to describe, who include (without being limited to) Irish and Scottish Travellers, English, Scotch and Welsh Kale Romanies, Eastern European Roma and Sinti, Showpeople, Boaters and New Age Travellers

**I speak of teacher ignorance advisedly. When I took my PGCE we had to complete a diversity portfolio, one part of which was a very well organised task in which groups of three researched a topic and produced a workshop for the rest of the cohort, as well as producing an individual academic write-up. (That was in 2010-11, so ‘austerity’ cuts have widely phased this quality of diversity training out of initial teacher training altogether) My extensive research and discussions had a profound effect on me, but our group was still stunned when we gave our workshop by the entrenched anti-GRT attitudes of many of our peers. I hail, by the way, from a town so white that my primary school of 300 local children had only two recognisably non-‘Caucasian’ pupils in the whole time I was there, but which has a local authority traveller site on the edge of town, by the rubbish tip***. It is not particularly uncommon even to meet a woman or teenage girl in the market square selling sprigs of heather and telling fortunes in a lilting accent, dressed unexotically in jeans and tank top. (I have had my fortune told many times, and I am moderately confident that I will have a happy life, with some challenges.) We sedents of the rural provinces owe it to our nomad and other GRT neighbours to educate ourselves

***Quarmby reports on the ubiquitous practice on the part of local authorities of placing GRT sites, when they finally do create them, on contaminated, unsuitable or unsafe land.

The very best thing in the book for me is this from the brief section on GRT art and culture, by part-Romani poet-ecologist David Morley, an imagined conversation between C19th poet John Clare and his friend Wisdom Smith, a local Gypsy

The Act

A chorredo has burreder peeas than a Romany chal
(a tramp has more fun than a Gypsy)

Wisdom swings to his feet as if pulled by an invisible hand.
‘I shall show how this world wags without making one sound.’
And the Gypsy transforms himself first into a lawyer. He bends
a burning eye on invisible jurors. He simpers. He stands on his head
as the Judge and thunders silent sentence. Then Wisdom levitates
to tip-toe in pity and pride as a Reverend bent over his Bible
while an invisible scaffold gasps and bounces from a rope’s recoil.
The Gypsy hangs kicking until hacked down by invisible blades.
The world grinds to a stop on invisible springs, bearings and axis.
‘Do you ever tell lies Wisdom?’ ‘All the long day through, brother,’
laughs the Gypsy. He lights his long pipe beneath his hat’s brim.
‘But the brassiest of lies’ – the Gypsy plucks – ‘are like this heather:
a charm against visible harm and’ – he crushes it – ‘invisible harm.’
And the friends look at each other across the invisible stage of grass.

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