Monday 31 May 2010

O Porrajmos

Come closer.

Closer ... look, Mrs Angry has a crystal ball, and she can tell you the future, if you like.
Go on, cross her palm with silver ...

(Well, that's one stereotype out of the way, anyway. )

But what does she see?

Oh dear, look: she sees a mist forming, a cloud: dark clouds, rolling over the horizon towards our happy valley here in Broken Barnet ...

What can it mean?

Let me explain.

Earlier this year there were reports in the local press about the plans by Mayor Boris Johnson to 'impose' a duty on London boroughs to provide stopping places for gypsies and travellers. There was wild talk of the number that Barnet might be expected to accommodate, and panic in the streets of suburbia along the lines of 'there goes the neighbourhood'. Our favourite local politician, dear old Brian Coleman, yes, it's that man again, popped up on a tv discussion about the Mayor's plan with his predictably warm and humane observations on the subject.

In March this year, a story appeared in the local Times group newspapers that the BBC's Politics Show had presented a debate on the GLA's assessment of the accommodation needs of gypsy and travelling people in the London boroughs. This assessment had concluded that 553 new pitches were necessary, to be placed around the capital over the next five years.

For some reason, the Times' report referred to the possible allocation of 'up to 13 sites' in Barnet. This as we will see is completely wrong. But whatever the proposed figure, our Mr Coleman was not happy. He proclaimed that he would not welcome 'one single site' in our borough and said also that any site would not be for 'communities that had been in the UK for decades, but instead a group of people who "offer to Tarmac your drive" ... He also claimed that, despite thorough examination of the borough by successive Tory and Labour councils, no suitable sites had ever been found. Not one, anywhere in Barnet. Furthermore, he stated, no councillor of any mainstream political party would ever support traveller sites in their ward.

Added Coleman: 'We're not talking traditional gypsies here, we're not talking about this romantic vision of gypsies in attractive caravans, we're talking about the itinerant Irish traveller community who come over and want to resurface people's drives and repair their roofs. This is a commuter who comes over from Ireland looking for work that should frankly stay put in Ireland.'

Labour MP Andrew Slaughter, also present on this show, commented that Coleman's remarks were 'inflammatory and quite disgraceful' and pointed out that they 'would be completely unacceptable when talking about any other ethnic minority'.

Let's look at these comments in more depth.

We have never had a single site suitable in the entire borough for use as a stopping place for gypsies and travellers. If there were, Brian might tolerate some 'romantic' Romany gypsies in 'attractive' caravans, but not 'itinerant' Irish travellers who dare to come to England in order to make a living. Ok.

In the local Times report of 24th March it was stated that the Mayor's target figure of '22 sites' would be reduced to 16. On the 25th March the same reporter referred to 16 PITCHES, which, I have found, is actually what was proposed, and there seems to have been a fundamental and profound confusion between sites and pitches. No one is suggesting there should be 22 or 16 sites in the borough, the proposals, I repeat are for 16 pitches, ie to accommodate 16 individual families on ONE site. This article again confuses sites with pitches in reference to the London wide targets and quotes a Barnet council statement denying again that there were any suitable locations for a site in Barnet, and that 'the evidence does not support the need for a site in the borough'.

Currently, there is nowhere at all in our borough where gypsies and travelling people can legally stop. Barnet has always refused to provide a site. Why? I decided to ask the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit. It seems that our borough is the only outer London borough never to offer a site for this purpose, despite a statutory obligation to do so between 1968 to 1994. The other three boroughs are Inner London authorities - Westminster, Islington and the City of London, all of which have argued they cannot do so due to lack of space, an unconvincing argument which hardly applies to Barnet. In the period of 26 years when Barnet blatantly ignored its statutory duty to provide one single site for gypsies, it had a very successful policy of evictions of travelling people forced to stop on the roadside, so successful that no gypsy or traveller was ever around long enough to provide evidence for a case to go to a judicial review which would have challenged the lack of provision.

According to Barnet Council, there is no demand for a stopping place. This is absolute nonsense. Since the sixteenth century at least, in our borough we have had the annual Barnet Fair, a traditional horse trading fair, attracting gypsies from all over the country and beyond. Gypsies and travellers have always passed through this area, and no doubt some would like to settle here now. If they stop here, they would be moved on because there is no where they can legally stay.

In our borough the need to provide a stopping place for gypsies and travellers has been resisted, defiantly, for no reason other than prejudice and political cowardice. No, actually, let's not pussyfoot around, it's not prejudice, it is racism, and of the most blatant and shameful kind.

So that cloud on the horizon is looming right over our heads now. Soon, this issue will become a political football: there are already rumours that certain politicians will seek to use the placement of any site in a spiteful, deliberately provocative way. You can be assured that any site will not be proposed in a Conservative ward, but that gives the current administration plenty of scope, doesn't it? Feelings will run high, all the worst of human nature will show itself in nasty opposition to wherever the site might be allocated, local politicians will fall over themselves to resist the site being put anywhere. It may be that since the election, the GLA will renege on its promises anyway: nothing would surprise me.

We are supposed to live in a world dominated by political correctness, where everyone pays at least lipservice to the idea that racism is unacceptable and intolerable. But there is one last area where racism still openly is accepted and tolerated, and that is in our attitude to gypsies and travellers. Again, I have to ask: why?

There is barely a week goes by without some scaremongering, shameful story in the tabloids, especially the Daily Mail, in which the latest supposed outrage by gypsies is highlighted and used to demonise an entire group of human beings eking out a living on the far margins of our society. Only last week there was a story in the Mail about a gypsy who was driven out of a village by the villagers who objected to his attempts to settle in their midst. He had made the terrible mistake of buying a bungalow, with a plot of land, and parking his mobile home there, intending to settle there with his family because, he said, he wanted his children to grow up in one place in order to have an education. Typical gypsy trouble making. Drive him out of town. And they did. His new neighbours were so desperate to move him out of their village they actually clubbed together and bought the place off him. I'm not surprised he accepted their money: I wouldn't want to live in a place like that either.

Every report in the tabloid press continues the stereotypical view of travelling people: that they are all criminal, worthless trouble makers who are not entitled to respect or decent living conditions. In fact it is not an exaggeration to say they are portrayed as in some way sub human, in a way that is strongly and horribly reminiscent of the treatment of the Jewish people throughout centuries of European history, or the experience of the black population in South Africa under apartheid.

Gypsy culture has ancient roots, and a long and fascinating history: since leaving its homeland in Northern India hundreds of years ago, this group - or groups - of people have been present in Europe and Britain since the medieval period, clinging to a traditional way of life treated with often fatal suspicion by the host countries through which it has always travelled, and forcibly excluded from the mainstream societies there too. In more recent times, the traditional nomadic way of life, the old skills, have become largely unsustainable as traditional ways of making a living have become irrelevant in the modern world. Not much call for basket weaving, peg making, or mending pots and pans these days, is there?

Romani culture is, of course, very distinct from the Irish Travelling tradition. Irish travellers are not Romani, although there has been intermarriage between the two traditions; originally it is believed the travellers in Ireland were the heirs of a lost nomadic culture, a tribal people possibly strengthened by those made homeless in the displacement of the Famine period. Again, the traditional way of life, largely dependent on horse trading, has become increasingly impossible to continue, and other means of earning a living have become necessary for them too, yes - scrap dealing and laying tarmac, Brian: what else can they do?

So: romantic gypsies are ok, as long as they are look like something from an Augustus John painting, and live in a painted wagon, and dance around a camp fire to the tune of a violin. Trouble is, Augustus John's fantasy of living down amongst the raggle taggle gypsies-o was based largely round his wife Dorelia, who was really the daughter of a respectable clerk from Camberwell, and was part of a Victorian fantasy ideal of the gypsy life which never really existed. And all the vardos, the wagons, have anyway now been bought up by investment bankers in the Cotswolds, to put at the end of their gardens as playhouses for Theo and Matilda.

Romani gypsies in the twenty first century are largely settled on permanent sites or assimilated into the larger community. Those that do move about use modern mobile caravans, not the old fashioned wagons. You don't hear about the successfully run permanent sites, do you, because there is no headline grabbing news in people just getting on with their normal lives. I'll bet you didn't know, either, that there is a signifiant and growing number of English Romanis who are members of the evangelical Christian movement: again, this does not fit the Daily Mail stereotype of criminal, feckless 'pikeys' who need to be run out of town by outraged little Englanders.

Irish travellers have to make a living, you know, Brian. In case you haven't noticed, Ireland is a member of the European Union, and Irish people have always had the right anyway to live in Britain, in fact, for many centuries had no choice but to be British citizens. They have as much right to be 'over here' as you or anyone else. They are, after all, only doing what your man Tebbit suggested, getting on the move to look for work.

And what, I hear you ask, do you know about it, Mrs Angry? Do you want travellers living next door to you? Excuse me, while I laugh bitterly in the corner for a moment. If you want an answer to that question, I refer you to the previous series of blogs detailing our experiences living next door to the Smith family. Throughout this ordeal, courtesy of the caring Conservative controlled London Borough of Broken Barnet, we were often asked the following about our neighbours: are they travellers? No, not travellers. Are they ... white? Yes, they are white. Oh. Are they ... eastern European? No: white, English, all the way, sorry to disappoint. As you will know, if you are familiar with our story, this family and their chums caused us nothing but misery but their vile behaviour.

A few years ago, though, we did have Irish Traveller neighbours, who took a six month rental on a flat directly across the road from us. Everyone was horrified when they moved in, of course. In fact, they caused no trouble at all: I repeat - no trouble at all. They were quiet, and polite, kept themselves to themselves. In keeping with Traveller code on protecting younger girls, the daughters were not allowed to go out on their own, and spent their time looking after the younger children. The boys were ruled with a rod of iron by their father, who kept them all out on the road with their scrap metal van all day, working to support the family. Admittedly the children appeared not to go to school, and one of the boys I noticed in a local shop had difficulty counting money; and no doubt they didn't pay income tax on their income, but equally they were not dependent on benefit and worked hard to keep themselves fed and clothed. Unlike the Smiths, they had no subsidised lifestyle; they did not indulge in drugs and alcohol abuse, and they did not lie about all day and night upsetting their neighbours. I can tell you which family I would rather have living next door to me again.

And why do I give a monkeys anyway, you may be wondering?

Well, because my own great grandmother was from a gypsy family. Yes, me. (Along with those Durham miners, look what lurks in the Angry family closet. Don't tell Brian - he'll probably have me escorted to the borders of the borough by the police, and moved on, with a kick up the arse. )But look: I can string two words together, I am housetrained, kind of, and I haven't stolen anyone's baby or nicked the lead off anyone's roof recently. On the other hand, as has been suggested elsewhere, I am more than happy to arrange for Mr Coleman's driveway to be covered in tarmac, provided he promises to lie down on top of it first ...

Am I ashamed to be of Romani and Traveller descent? No, I am not. Quite the reverse, in fact. My forebears were hard working, skilled craftsmen who travelled hundreds of miles a year, often on foot, to earn a living to support their families, in the face of traditional mindless prejudice and exclusion, whilst others' ancestors were lolling about out in the gutter, out of their heads on gin - or maybe sitting with head bowed in the Workhouse. They didn't starve or rely on parish handouts. They only settled once industrialisation made their way of life completely redundant, and after a while, unfortunately, in their new circumstances, their background became a family secret, something to pretend had never happened. Other parts of the family, though, continued travelling, some going to the USA with a large number of other Romanichels where some of them still live as part of a travelling community.

In County Durham, where my family settled, eventually, there are now six gypsy and traveller sites, with a total of 113 pitches. Listen to what Durham County Council has to say about the proviusion of sites for these people:

"Travelling people have always been a part of our community in County Durham.

Over recent years many of the traditional stopping places have been lost and this can lead to conflict between people who live in the county and travelling people who are passing through, seeking a place to stay. Constantly moving on Gypsy and Travelling families is not the answer.

We welcome different cultures within our community.

Our aim is to meet the needs of the Gypsy and Traveller communities who permanently live in County Durham and those who pass through the county and need temporary places to stay."

These sites are well managed, and those stopping there are able to gain access to education and healthcare for their families. Healthcare is of particular importance as mortality rates amongst travelling people are significantly higher than in the mainstream population.

If you want to know more about the Traveller way of life, and are prepared to set your preconceived ideas aside, you might like to watch the recently broadcast documentary 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' which presents a more balanced and humane approach to presenting how these people live. (Update February 2011: a new series with this title has been shown, to a very uneasy reaction from the travelling community, and some predicatably appalling media coverage). They are shown for what they are: families with the same needs and ambitions as anyone else, and, like any other culture, including good people, bad people, and all the rest in between. But be warned, there are some truly awful wedding dresses featured.

If you want to know more about the Romani life style, there are many, many books and films that you can find that will tell you what you want to know. June 2010 is actually Gypsy Roma Traveller Month, if you are interested. If you visit Youtube, you will find excerpts from the brilliant movie 'Latcho Drom' which is both a celebration of Romani life and a reminder of the darker side of their experience in more recent history. Search for the clip of Margita Makulova, and the song she sings about the blackbird who went into her heart, and stole it, and wait until the end of the song so that you see why she sings it - which brings me to an explanation of the title of this blog.

O Porrajmos is the name given by some Roma people to the Gypsy Holocaust.

I say some, because to others it is a foul word which they are reluctant to utter. You may not know that, proportionate to the estimated pre war population, the number of gypsies killed in the Holocaust was comparable to the loss in the murdered Jewish population of Europe: it is believed that up to one million gypsies lost their lives. If you go to the Imperial War Museum, you may be horrified, and shocked, as I was, to learn about the forgotten fate of Europe's gypsies: the numbers sent to Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, Treblinka and other death camps, the unspeakable 'experiments' carried out by Mengele and other Nazi 'scientists' on Romani people, including children, and sets of twins. Much has been written about the appalling persecution and destruction suffered by the Jewish people: because of the transient nature of gypsy life, and the fact that theirs is largely an oral rather than written culture, the prejudice and vilification which has pursued their way of life has been largely overlooked. Worse still, such hatred and persecution continues to this day, and in our society.

Councillor Coleman has always been a staunch supporter of the Jewish community, and has even spoken in tribute at Holocaust Memorial events. This is only to be admired, but it might be more admirable if he would also remember the other victims of Nazi genocide, and the struggle of modern day gypsies and travellers to find acceptance in mainstream society. A starting place might be to drop his objections, and the objections of his colleagues, to the provision of one single place in our borough where such people can stop and find the most basic requirements of life: water, electricity, maybe the chance to settle and allow their children access to education and healthcare.

Is that too much to ask?


Jaybird said...

Thank you for this Mrs A. It is perhaps surprising the Mr Coleman was not referred to the standards committee (again) for making the racist comments you allege.

I thought there was a duty on local authorities to provide suitable places and that they could be judicially reviewed if they did not.

Mrs Angry said...

Jaybird: as you may know, Romany gypsies and Irish travellers are both recognised in law as ethnic groups, and discrimination against such people would therefore, one might assume,be illegal. If comments like these had been made against any other ethnic minority, I think there would have been universal outrage.Can you imagine even if such remarks were made about Polish plumbers, or Australian bar staff? The truth is that people who scapegoat gypsies and travellers in this way, be they tabloid press or cynical small time politicians, know that they are so marginalised from society that they can get away with treating them in this appalling way. There are no votes to be gained in being seen to be fair to gypsies, are there? As for the duty on authorities to provide sites, apparently no travelling gypsy families have been able to stop long enough in Barnet to provide a case for judicial review. Barnet, I am told, is extremely efficient at ejecting any who dare to stop, as they would have to,in any unoffical location in the borough. As a child I can remember gypsies traditionally used to stop on the grass verges near Spur Road. The council put bollards all along both sides of the road one year to prevent them stopping, and that was that.

Unknown said...

Gypsies always used to stop in Mayes Lane Barnet. My Gypsy grandfather told me this. Our family now live up the road from Barnet in and around Bushey Watford.

Mrs Angry said...

when would that be, Jackie,do you know?