Damian Le Bas is of Gypsy stock (he insists on the upper case throughout his book). His beloved great-grandmother told him stories in the Romani tongue of atchin tans, ‘the stopping places’ where families would put up for the night in wagons and hazel-rib tents. Le Bas makes a year-long journey round Britain, exploring these places and the lore behind them. It was a voyage, he says, from the fixed community he grew up in to ‘the world of wagons and tents that passed in the decades before I was born’. In those years, four generations of his family had a pitch at Petersfield market, where they sold flowers.
Le Bas is interested in the Gypsiness that has survived the ‘transition from nomadic to settled life’. As he explains: ‘I was raised, and still live, in a Romany psychological realm; a mental Gypsyland.’ He has non–Gypsy blood, fair hair and blue eyes, though ‘there is no such thing as a racially pure Gypsy: over a 1,000-year migration, it is virtually impossible that there will have been no mingling in the line’. A deep affection for his heritage underpins these pages. ‘In spite of my confusion over who I really was,’ he writes, ‘I loved our world.’
He travels in a transit van, sometimes in the company of his wife, though he also owns a 24-ft caravan. He speaks Romani, and includes a glossary of terms at the end. Inevitably, the narrative returns to notions of difference, belonging and cultural identity. Now in his early thirties, Le Bas was tagged a ‘dirty Gypsy’ at primary school, and went on to gain scholarships to boarding school and Oxford. He has a foot in both camps.
The book is structured geographically as he drives from Cornwall to Skye via London’s Gipsy Hill and the fabled Appleby Fair in Cumbria. Scotland turns out to be where most of Britain’s Gypsies first set foot, probably some time towards the end of the 15th century. Le Bas bivvies at Blairgowrie in Perth and Kinross, known as ‘the berry toon’ for its soft fruit, most of which Gypsies have always harvested, rolling into town in their caravans for the season. Along the way Le Bas explains the difference between Gypsies and Travellers, and examines their cultural roots and myriad sub-groups. An interlude in France portrays the great Romany pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue, where an image of Sara-la-Kali, the patron saint of Gypsies, is dipped in the Mediterranean, and where the author, thigh-deep in surf, experiences an epiphany.
He worked for four years as the editor of Travellers’ Times, the only national magazine for Gypsies and Travellers. but this is his first book. He also makes films to help councils understand how best to manage Traveller sites, and he attends Travellers’ conferences and quotes in these pages from Romani Studies. The book includes digressions on all aspects of the travelling life. Le Bas’s vision, however, is not rose-tinted. He acknowledges a violent thread running through Gypsy tradition, and ‘the pincer of demonisation and romanticisation in which the Romanies seem permanently to be trapped’. One of his worst experiences on the journey came at the hands of a threatening Gypsy. He refers often to ‘Gypsy vs gorjie tension’ — the latter meaning non-Gypsy.
Much of the history was unknown to me. In Romanian ‘territories’, most Gypsies were slaves — and slavery was not abolished in Romania until the mid-19th century. Similarly, I was hazy about ‘the core belief’ of Gypsy culture, and the nuances of the notion ‘that it is possible to live in a different way… being part of the world, but not imprisoned by the rules’. That said, Le Bas acknowledges that ‘for a supposedly “free and easy” tribe, we are rich in behavioural shibboleths’.
He has a fine prose style, vividly conjuring the smell of a hop pillow, the whinnying of a horse fair and the ‘wet-look hairstyles’ of the men, as well as the dead cold of a wagon in winter. There are practical tips too: never buy a caravan that’s been parked on grass for long, as the damp wrecks the plywood bunks.
An element of memoir clings to this excellent account of folk most of us don’t understand. There has long been a permanent Gypsy site where I live in Hampstead; I walk past it every day, yet have never met any of the residents. The end of the book hints at redemption, as Le Bas comes to terms with the conflicts of his dual world. But he is too good a writer to make a meal of it.
His book mediates a metaphorical journey between an embattled culture at ‘the rim of society’, which deserves understanding, and the non-Gypsy world, apt to judge it, yet not exactly excelling itself, as the Gypsies fight on.