Gypsy culture is much more than dresses and make-up
Ask anyone in the street what the word “Gypsy” means to them and they will almost certainly come up with “Dale Farm” or Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. And the images the public link to Gypsies and Travellers at the moment? Big dresses, spray tans, skimpy outfits, and make-up slathered on with a trowel – as well as scruffy activists defending Travellers at Dale Farm on eviction day.
It’s a far cry from the world I’ve been visiting, on and off since 2006, when I first started reporting from Dale Farm for The Economist and met Mary-Ann McCarthy in her neat chalet, in which lovingly dusted Christian icons vied for space with flowers. Since then I have driven that 40 mile journey to Dale Farm more times than I can remember, getting to know members of the Dale Farm extended families, as well as the church people (and later activists) who supported them, and the politicians and local residents who wanted them gone.
I’ve watched horse dealing at Stow and Appleby Fairs, talked to the Gypsy evangelical priests who are spearheading a Pentecostalist revival throughout the Gypsy community and spent countless hours drinking tea with Irish Traveller and Gypsy women. I’ve also spent time with the anti Gypsy site campaigners, such as those spearheading Meriden Residents Against Inappropriate Development. Out of these encounters, and the many conversations about religion, education, fortune-telling, employment, politics, housing – and women’s stuff – I see a culture far deeper and richer than the voyeuristic version of these communities displayed on television.
There is, of course, a grain of truth in Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and its spin off, Thelma’s Gypsy Girls. Some young Traveller girls do like to put on the Ritz, spray on tan and totter into town and back on high heels. Some aren’t used to education and employment (the statistics bear this out, with Gypsy and Traveller children lagging way behind in educational achievement) – but pinning a few radiant butterflies onto a board for the amusement of the British non-Gypsy public and claiming they are a representative sample – I just don’t think it’s cricket.
Go to Appleby or Stow Fair, where Britain’s nomads meet to exchange family news, to woo, to deal horses and buy china – and you will see some girls dressed to the nines, but absolutely not all. Many dress relatively modestly. Some are far more interested in riding their horses into the river than waxing and primping. And others are busy pursuing their careers – among them teachers, equestrians and healthcare assistants.
Talk to Gypsy elders and they splutter with indignation about the depiction of their culture on TV – and point out, for good measure, that almost all of those interviewed are Irish Travellers, not Romany Gypsies anyway. And yes, some do whisper, too, that Romany Gypsies see Irish Travellers as ‘gorgias’ – their word for ‘settled people’ and deny that the two cultures are one and the same. (It’s worth noting here that in America Irish Travellers and Gypsies live almost completely separate existences, rather than being considered as one grouping as they are in the UK.)
Almost all the Irish Traveller women I know from Dale Farm and further afield dress extremely modestly, in below the knee skirts, or plain trousers. They don’t have the money for spray tans – they are more concerned with cobbling together enough cash to take their kids to the leisure centre so they can give them a hot shower. The McCarthy sisters, who spearheaded the resistance to the site clearance at Dale Farm did take pleasure in dressing up for the final court appearances (and were even congratulated on their sartorial sense by one judge) but that was for a special occasion.
It would be funny, if it wasn’t so dangerous, this fixation with what Traveller women wear. You simply cannot reduce a whole culture to a few crystals, lipstick and a big skirt. The Irish Traveller Movement in Great Britain recently hosted a seminar on media reporting of Gypsy and Traveller matters at the Commons. Participants included Inspector Mark Watson, of Cheshire Police, who stressed the media’s responsibility to report on Gypsies and Travellers as fairly as possible, because most people never knowingly meet anyone from those communities. Many of those who gave evidence spoke of the negative backlash post Big Fat Gypsy Wedding on their lives or on those of their school-age children. News online comment threads were also mentioned. When I was reporting on the site clearance at Dale Farm for The Economist, I read (and reported for abuse) an online comment on another newspaper site that called for Travellers there to be gassed to death. Given what happened to European Roma in the Holocaust, this had awful historical resonance – and should never have been posted in the first place. Andy Slaughter MP, the Shadow Minister for Justice, said that discrimination for almost all racial groups had declined in the last few decades – except Gypsies and Travellers – and said that negative media coverage played a part in perpetuating that discrimination. He’s absolutely right.
I applaud anyone who wants to support young Gypsy and Traveller people into employment. But I’m not sure that turning them into a spectacle for the TV cameras is the way to further their careers. It makes good TV – but it isn’t good for those who are made objects of fun in the process.
Katharine Quarmby is writing a book about Britain’s Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. She was nominated for the Paul Foot Prize 2012.Tagged in: Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, dale farm, discrimination, European Roma, gypsy, holocaust, Romany Gypsy, Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, traveller
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