Dea Birkett

Why do we envy nomads but treat Travellers so badly?

Frances McDormand in Nomadland (photo: Searchlight Pictures)

Oh for the open road! Who doesn’t want to abandon the suffocating suburbs – waking to an alarm at the same time every single morning, hearing brown envelopes pushed through the front door, filling the dishwasher, paying that damned mortgage – and head out for endless sunsets falling over infinitely empty land?

Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand as a woman who leaves her home behind after she loses her husband and her job and travels around the United States in a campervan, is predicted to win Oscar for Best Picture this weekend. The film, whose large cast mainly consists of real-life nomads, has led to a flush of appreciation and enthusiasm for a less settled life. This portrait of those who give up all worldly possessions for a modest motorhome calls to people whose lives are surrounded by picket fences. It’s a long held and very common dream. That bunch of keys – to the front door, the back, the garage and all those window locks – hangs heavy not only in your pocket, but on your heart. What would it be like to never have to turn a key in a lock again?

This suppression of the nomadic life is as old as the secret longing to be part of it

I’m just locking the door for the last time for several months, as I do every year, to go on tour with the circus in my 11-foot caravan home. As a circus person, I’m intrigued by the naïve wishfulness surrounding Nomadland and the travelling life. Because at the same time as Hollywood and settled people hold this lifestyle up as a romantic ideal, the same world condemns it.

Travelling people themselves have never been so vilified. A little mentioned aspect of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently going through Parliament is that it attacks the very existence of Britain’s last nomadic communities.

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