There’s nothing new about this summer’s outbreak of gypsy-bashing, writes Clover Stroud, who puts it down to our secret wish to enjoy the same freedoms they do
It has not been a good summer for gypsies. In France, President Sarkozy has begun his purge: nearly a thousand Roma have been flown back to Bucharest, hundreds of their camps have been dismantled by police and one poor gypsy was shot dead during a car chase in Saint-Aignan.
The caustic wind of gypsy hatred wafted across the Channel to Britain as well. The papers filled up with angry news reports about illegal traveller caravan parks, and a landowner called Christopher Bayfield became so irate he fired a warning shot at trespassing gypsies — who turned out to be children aged just five and seven, hunting for ladybirds.
It’s the same every year, more or less, the gypsy-bashing. It began when they first emigrated here from India in the 11th century, and though it’s become less brutal, it hasn’t really let up since. Throughout Europe, from the 1400s onwards, gypsies were subject to hangings, head-shaving, forced labour and mutilation. Under Henry VIII, simply being a gypsy was a capital offence. During the second world war, up to a million and a half were killed in the Porajmos or ‘devouring’, and until as recently as 2004, there were cases of enforced sterilisation in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
So what’s at the heart of the hostility towards gypsies or travellers? I have a theory that it might be based on something closer to envy, which only very few of us would admit to.
We all secretly long to be free from the nagging state, from mortgages and councils. Though we’re not brave enough (or stupid enough) to give up the comfort and security of a nice house or flat, there’s a part of us that will always hunger for a caravan and camp, for the lyrical romance of the open road. That part should celebrate travellers and their lifestyle, but too often it resents them instead.
Here I should confess that I fell for the romance of gypsy life when I was a child. I remember experiencing the first real pangs of green-eyed jealousy as I watched gypsy children, my face pressed to the car window, as my mother drove me to school in Gloucestershire. A clutch of painted barrel-top wagons lined the verge, surrounded by ponies grazing on their tethers. There was a sign for knife-sharpening, and some trappings of showman glamour with palm and tarot readings too. Washing was strung out along the hedge, and the children played with their dogs in the woodsmoke that blew into the road. The scene was imbued with the picturesque allure of van Gogh’s paintings of gypsies in Arles in 1888. I was glassy-eyed with fascination for the children who occupied that dusty life. They weren’t worrying about their Latin prep, and I wanted to be them. By the time we drove back from school that afternoon, they’d gone.
But I couldn’t forget them. After leaving school, I spent two years before university travelling in England and Ireland in a wagon with a boyfriend who’d been living on the road since he was a young teen- ager. He taught me about driving horses and gypsy trade, where everything was for sale. We made a sort of living buying and selling ponies, trading them at horse fairs on the west coast of Ireland and then in the West Country of England. We didn’t make very much money but, living on the verge, didn’t need very much either. Gypsies pulled up at our camp several times a week, wanting to deal harness, horses, chickens, dogs. They had their eye on everything. Once, my boyfriend was offered a handsome stallion and a wad of cash in return for me, which he declined. I think he might still regret the decision.
A decade and a half later, a glimpse of a gypsy wagon always makes me turn my head, and even the prosaic sight of white caravans lined up in a lay-by leaves me with a pang of nostalgic fascination. The only way I could make my nine-year-old son interested in the pony I bought him was to take him to Appleby horse fair, because I knew the gypsy boys, riding two or even three up on their black-and-white cobs, with their Adidas tops and shaved heads, would be far more compelling for him than the girls in nylon breeches yelling at him to put his heels down at our local riding school.
Of course they’re a bit dangerous, which is certainly part of their appeal, but they are not without their values: the beliefs and traditions the rest of us have lost or forgotten or just thrown away. They don’t spend their time apologising for their history, as we do for ours. At the heart of gypsy society is an intense pride in who they are, and an aware of themselves as a community, with their own identity, music and even language.
Yes, some gypsies are criminals but their reputation is worse than the reality. If a car gets stolen and there’s a white caravan nearby, the reaction will always be to blame the gypsy. But many of them have an entrepreneurial streak, and still make their living as they’ve always done, dealing scrap, ground-working, and buying and selling horses. They have a powerful sense of faith, family and home, too. Home might be a caravan between the suburbs and the ring road, or underneath the thunder of the M40, but their devotion to it is authentic and is based on something much stronger than rising house prices. Gypsies have a strong religious faith, they believe in marriage, and in a girl saving her virginity for her wedding day.
This gypsy spirit is most evident to outsiders at their fairs, particularly at Stow Fair, the biannual gathering of gypsies and travellers in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire. ‘Gypsy horse fairs are seldom dull,’ wrote George Borrow in 1896. ‘There was shouting and whooping, neighing and braying; there was galloping and trotting... there were droves of wild ponies, and long rows of sober cart horses; there were donkeys and even mules: the last rare thing to be seen in damp misty England.’ Thankfully, little has changed. Here, boys flash their ponies up through the lanes, men deal in fat wads of cash, and unmarried girls parade the field in vertiginous heels and the brightest, tightest dresses, looking for a husband. Young mothers push Silver Cross prams through the mud, their babies immaculately dressed in frothy satin or tweed jackets, while the older women sit among their prized Royal Doulton china collections in their spotless trailers.
The voice, almost universally, of young gypsy girls is one of pride in themselves and who they are. ‘I call myself a gypsy because that’s what I am,’ April, a 15-year-old girl riding her father’s black cob around the fair, told me last year. ‘I’m different from you. We’re not the same and no part of me would want to be you, or have the things that you have. I’ve got my horses and a life outside. When I’m older I’ll have some children I hope, and my sister and cousins living near me to socialise with. I’m as free as a bird, and this is the only life I want.’
Free as a bird — isn’t that what we all want? Even if it’s impossible? I can’t forget, too, Mark Rylance’s performance as Johnny Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem, which brought a middle-class, largely middle-aged audience to its feet in rapturous standing ovation night after night at its two sellout runs. Byron is a gypsy fighting stultifying local housing regulations for his right to remain living in a very ancient, very English forest under threat of destruction. He is a showman, a mischief-maker and a latterday folk hero; audience and critics were wild about him and the show was a sell-out success. Society needs its Byrons as it needs its teachers, administrators, nurses, judges and IT experts.
Byron is a fictional character, but there are real Byrons out there — those gypsies we find so threatening, wi th their horses and dogs and their commitment to their way of life. As I sit behind my laptop with a pile of deadlines mounting up beside me I think about them, and about April the traveller girl. I think that if I can’t be free in that way, I’m glad at least that someone is.