Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Moving on: the road from Barnet Fair to Dale Farm

A gypsy family and caravan at Barnet Fair, early twentieth century

A German gypsy holocaust survivor returns to Auschwitz

Travelling children at Dale Farm, : facing a twenty first century cultural genocide?

*Update 5pm: see below & see comment 10.30pm

A decision is due to be given at the High Court this afternoon in regard to three applications for judicial review of the eviction of residents at the Dale Farm travellers' site. Amongst the reasons for a review given by legal representatives for the residents of this site are the failure of the local authority to consider the needs of vulnerable residents: the sick, elderly, and up to one hundred children who live there, and whose education will be seriously disrupted by the eviction. Basildon Council has already admitted that it cannot lawfully remove all of the residents, and supporters hope that the law will now recognise the rights of the other occcupants to remain in the homes they have lived in for so many years.

What, you may be asking, has this to do with Broken Barnet? Well, the answer is quite a lot, as it happens. Dale Farm would not have had to have been built, illegally, on green belt land, without planning permission, were it not for the many years of illegal refusal to comply with government policy on provision of legitimate sites by authorities like Barnet. In this borough, our council has defied the law - for 26 years - when there was a statutory requirement to provide stopping places for gypsies and travellers: not one single pitch, ie for one family, has ever been allowed. Barnet has evaded prosecution by a deliberate strategy, in partnership with the police, of instantly removing any gypsies or travellers who stop here, thus preventing the prosecution of the authority as no traveller has ever been able to stay long enough to provide the formal evidence needed for a trial case. Very clever: and utterly cynical.

In Borehamwood, right on the edge of Barnet, just over the boundary, there was once a gypsy travelling site called Twin Oaks: this was ruthlessly cleared a few years ago by the same company of bailiffs used at Dale Farm - Constant & Co - see here for details of the eviction. Many of the displaced families ended up at Dale Farm.

Don't imagine that how we do things in Broken Barnet is ever the norm elsewhere. In Durham, for example, where Mrs Angry's own travelling family members settled, there are well run official gypsy and traveller sites and a determined policy of support from the local county council. In July, the local Gazette paper had this article, which demonstrates a completely different attitude:

"A CELEBRATION of 500 years of gypsy and traveller history and tradition was marked in County Durham with a series of special events last week.

Residents were invited to discover more about the area’s gypsy and traveller communities and their culture as part of the fourth annual Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month.

The Four Clocks Centre, Bishop Auckland, was the venue for a variety of activities

Author John McKale discussed his new book ‘The Gypsies: Then and Now’ and showed off the memorabilia he has collected over the years, while residents from St Phillip’s Park, a permanent site in the town, provided a taste of life on the road with a cookery demonstration.

A Travellers’ Tales storytelling session kept younger visitors entertained, while Durham County Record Office displayed a selection of archive photographs.

Ashleigh Greathead, Durham County Council travellers’ liaison officer, said: “One of the key roles of the travellers’ liaison service is to promote the contribution they make to our community.

“These events offer a fascinating insight into the realities of a lifestyle that an awful lot of people will know little about it. Hopefully, it will also promote further understanding and respected between the communities."

The official excuse by Barnet for failing to make such provision has traditionally been that there is 'no demand' for such sites. This is rubbish, utter rubbish, and an attempt at justification for a racist, inhumane and shameful lack of compassion for a group of people - or peoples - who are classified as an ethnic group, yet are openly denied the most basic of human rights, to a family life, to healthcare, to education, by the actively racist attitudes of councils like ours.

As the title picture shows, in a print from 1849, Barnet Fair has been one of the most important gypsy events in England for centuries. Since Tudor times, the horse trading fair has annually attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of romany and then Irish traveller visitors to the area. The Fair continues, and a recent story in the local press regarding the hospitality, or lack of it, shown to local pubs, gives an interesting taste of prevailing attitudes.

According to a story in the local Times:

"Luigi Lusardi, manager of Ye old Mitre Inn, in Barnet High Street, said: "Trouble in the past has put us off and we want somewhere where our regulars can come in and have a quiet drink.

"We take responsibility for our regulars, which is our main priority and that’s why we have taken the decision to only let regulars in over those three days."

The Mitre is a very old pub and is known to have been visited by Pepys: not quite as old as the Fair, though. Mrs Angry must remember to ask permission to stay on her next visit. But contrast this to the response from another publican:

"Ricky and Roz who run The Misty Moon of Barnet High Street, said:"We welcome travellers into our doors with open arms.

We've welcomed them in for three years now and never experienced any trouble.

"They are happy go lucky people and if you treat them with respect and courtesy, you will receive the same back."

Ah: treating people with respect. That's an idea, isn't it?

Recently there was an interesting article on the Travellers Times website, written by Rose Firth, of Shelter (see here ) with the heading - 'Gypsies and Travellers: Extermination of a People through destruction of a way of life'. Bit strong, you might think. But look at the facts listed here:

"The majority of caravan homes are on authorised sites. However, over half of these sites are currently in locations that are not suitable for residential living with 26% directly adjacent to motorways, 13% next to aircraft runways, 12% next to rubbish tips and 4% next to sewage farms (BIHR, 2005). Those Gypsies and Travellers with no authorised place on which to pitch their caravan homes are forced to camp illegally either on their own land without the requisite planning permission or on the land of others. Often such unauthorised sites lack basic facilities and can be situated in highly dangerous places. The position of having no authorised place to live often entails a vicious cycle of eviction, expulsion from a Local Authority’s area, reluctant travel to a new unauthorised site followed by further eviction etc.

This way of life, on the fringes of legality and of society leads to much disruption in terms of being able to successfully maintain regular employment (meaning poverty rates are high) as well as in terms of accessing essential services such as education and health care (meaning that the health status of Gypsies and Travellers is much poorer than that of the general population, for example, the life expectancy of Traveller men is 10 years less than the national average) (Cemlyn et al., 2009:49) ."

The article continues with an explanation of the centuries of state persecution faced by gypsies and travellers in this country. Romany gypsies first arrived in England and Scotland in Tudor times, having moved throughout Europe after a much earlier exodus from India. Travellers from Ireland started to come over as a result of the displacement caused by the mid nineteenth century Famine, although some, as in my family, had been visiting seasonally at an earlier period. From the beginning of the first gypsy arrivals,a deep suspicion of these foreign visitors and their differing customs, language and religious practices was expressed in the most violent way, sanctioned by new laws: gypsies were to be executed merely for being gypsies:

"Early State laws against Gypsies and Travellers were overtly genocidal in nature. For example, in 1554 the State enacted a law stating that Gypsies were to be liable for punishment by the death penalty (Mayall, 1995:24).

The end of the “Atchin Tans”

Subsequent laws, although less violent in nature, were equally intent on destruction of the Gypsy and Traveller way of life. In 1810, George III enacted the “Hawkers and Pedlars Act” which was closely followed, in 1822, by the “Vagrancy Act” and the “Turnpike Road Act” (Hawes & Perez, 1996:16). These Acts required Gypsies to be licensed as such and consolidated the definition of Gypsies and Travellers as vagrants as well as providing that any Gypsies found camping on the side of the road should be liable to a fine. In 1824 George IV enacted an even stronger Vagrancy Act which was aimed more specifically at Gypsies and their cultural practices including their forms of earning money and living. Forceful evictions of traditional communal stopping places such as Corke’s Meadow, Belvedere, Erith Marshes and Darenth Woods continued into the post WWII era and in a few short years had been cleared for redevelopment despite holding significant cultural meaning as “atchin tans” to the Gypsies and Travellers they had serviced for generations."

Throughout the following decades, more and more legislation has made it impossible for gypsies an travellers to travel or to find temporary or permanent stopping places.

The article concludes:

"The minority of Gypsy and Traveller caravan homes are on unauthorised sites due either to a deficiency in Local Authority provision or an inability to obtain planning permission for caravan use on their privately owned land. Taken individually the laws, policies and practices still invoked against Gypsies and Traveller today may not seem so overtly genocidal at first glance as those of the distant past, but an in-depth investigation of how they work together reveals that the space, both physical and metaphysical, in which Gypsies are able to exist in accordance with their cultural identity is stifling small. The final solution to the Gypsy and Traveller housing crisis cannot be to continue this 500-year-old cultural genocide. It must be to protect travelling and caravan living as a way of life."

The final solution of the Nazis to the gypsy 'problem' was to annihilate them, of course. Gypsies were first studied by Nazi racial purity 'experts' and 'scientists', and made the subject of the most vile experiments, and then killed in massacres, and finally 'disposed of' in the concentration camps. No one knows how many died, but it is estimated that proportionately, in terms of total European population, as many gypsies were murdered in the Holocaust as Jewish victims.

This is a forgotten holocaust, perhaps because it is still continuing, as the article suggests, in a cultural genocide, not just as blatantly in many parts of Europe, but by stealth, here in on the front pages of the Daily Mail, and in the planning departments of local authorities. We don't execute gypsies anymore, or put a bullet in their head: we use a more subtle form of ethnic cleansing: deprive them of their human rights and wait for them to disappear.

Earlier this year, Mrs Angry was up in Durham, standing on the bridge below the cathedral, admiring the magnificent view, and thinking about her mother, who loved that particular spot. And then something rather touching happened. On the bridge, she noted, were two gypsy women, selling lucky charms, glass pebbles. One came up to Mrs Angry, who bought a charm, and fell into conversation with her. Asked where she was from, she flinched, lowered her voice and said apologetically, Oh -well, we're travelling people, you know ...

Mrs Angry thought how horrible it must be to have to feel so embarrassed about such an admission, and replied that actually, some of her mother's family were travelling people too, in the past. On exchanging names, it emerged that this woman still travelled with some of Mrs Angry's distant relatives, which was quite extraordinary. Only last week, in fact she learnt that her own family whom she had imagined had settled generations ago, were still living a nomadic life within living memory of other relatives. These details are hard to uncover, because so much of gypsy and travelling culture is hidden, for reasons of self protection - a need for secrecy in a society that treats such people with a deep seated fear and loathing.

In our family, the secret behind my grandfather's dysfunctional upbringing was only uncovered in my lifetime, as so much of it had been kept secret. He had been given away to foster parents as a new born baby because his mother was ill, and he refused ever to speak about the family he felt had rejected him, although some contact was maintained. So we knew very little about his family's past, and decided to find out what his real background was. The truth reads like some awful Catherine Cookson novel. It's all documented, though, and a salutory tale.

My great grandmother Ruth was from a gypsy family, a mixture of Irish travellers and Romany gypsies who travelled widely in the north - mostly Durham, Yorkshire and the border areas. Their wandering is traceable by the disparate places, in several counties, where children were baptised. Eventually they based themselves in a pit village in Durham. Ruth's mother, Mary, who judging by a photograph taken in middle age, must have been very striking, dark but with blazingly pale, fiercesome eyes, had had some sort of liason with a son of one of the local mine owning grandees, resulting in my great grandmother, a generous dowry and a hastily arranged marriage to a suitably grateful tradesman in need of capital.

A new social 'respectability' meant the brothers and sisters who married Boswells and Smiths and Whartons (with fabulous names like Vestris, Gilderoy, Delindar, and Lemani) and carried on travelling, both here and the USA, became an embarrassment, to be forgotten about, not spoken of.

In a terrible reversal of the travelling life, Ruth spent the rest of her life in a locked room, incarcerated in the county asylum - according to her medical notes, she had had postnatal psychosis, and could not cope with her domestic duties, so had tried to take her own life. There was no treatment then, of course, for such conditions. Years later, still in the asylum, she got hold of a box of matches and set fire to herself. Whether an unconscious echo or not, in gypsy culture, traditionally, you would set fire to the past when someone died, by burning all their clothes, and personal possessions, and even their wagon. Perhaps this was the only way to end things, by fire: a personal holocaust.

Many people will say that gypsy and travellers' ways are incompatible with modern life, and that is arguably the case. The nomadic lifestyle they followed may be pointless now, when obviously the traditional trades and crafts they had no longer serve any purpose, and only trades such as dealing in scrap metal and tarmac laying provide any sort of living.

But if there is an incompatibility, it is the result not only of inevitable change, and the loss of identity, but also due to an historical, sustained policy of persecution, an institutionalised hostility which has driven such people to the margins of society - and made sure that they stayed there. If Dale Farm does not prove to be a turning point in the relentless annihilation of their way of life then perhaps the accusation of a cultural genocide will prove, in the end, to be an accurate prediction, and not an exaggeration. The fire is burning.

*Update 5pm Wednesday:

The residents' fight against eviction has been lost, following a judgement in the High Court this afternoon. Residents may appeal, but now 400 people, including 100 children, stand to lose their homes, and see their community torn apart.

1 comment:

Mrs Angry said...

How interesting, and fitting, on today of all days, to watch 'Who do you think you are', with artist Tracey Emin, whose family were revealed to be English gypsies, also with connections to Boswells,Smiths and other well known Romany families. Her family's story described the same pattern of loss of identity, secrecy, and difficulty of adjustment to a settled life, but it was good to see her take such interest - and pride - in her background.