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Gypsy culture is much more than dresses and make-up

Katharine Quarmby

cfb2c095 2e72 4c71 8282 b405d34cc0c6 625x352 300x168 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.

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  • sam_milton

    “Try looking at small towns where certain families are notorious. There
    are people like that everywhere and in all walks of life. That’s my
    point.”
    yes – but no-one is excusing their behaviour or calling anyone who criticises it “a racist” or “a hater”

  • sam_milton

    ” In the 16th century Romany gypsies were enslaved. Not considered human”
    So what?
    English people were enslaved in the 17th Century by the Sallee Rovers – pirates from Morocco.
    Why would you think that this is an excuse for criminal and antisocial behaviour in the C21st?
    Any why do you think that English people should be held responsible for what happened to Romany gypsies in the C16th?

  • sam_milton

    “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.”
    Was Quarmby allowed to use the lavatory facilities in the neat chalet? Given that gorgias are considered so unclean by gypsies that they usually would not be permitted to do so.
    Or maybe Ms. McCarthy was a traditionalist who sent her kids out with a bit of bog roll to crap on public land,on the basis that it is unclean to do such things in the home? Never mind the hygiene issues then posed for their gorgia neighbours.
    And why hasn’t Quarmby recognised that “gorgia” is as insulting a term as “pikey”?

  • themardler

    The Big fats are not Gypsies, they are Irish tinkers/travellers-the real gypsies round here don’t mix with them as far as I can see and the showmen will not have them anywhere near them. I suspect close examination of the lifestyles of these people whilst in Ireland and certainly 50 years ago would bear no resemblence to their lifestyles here and close examination of some traditions might prove them to be as recent as their relative affluence. As for the reality of gypsy and traveller life. This summer it is the kids riding their ponies and fishing in a river but last winter it was eight kids and two adults in a touring size caravan on a grass verge beside a road in minus 10C tmeperatures and snow..Now if you and I stuck our kids of both sexes from 0-16 in such close proximity in a caravan in the garden in such severe weather we would have social services frowning at us. If you or I attempted to isolate our children completely from external influences ( unless we were doing it in the name of religion of course) we would also have social services looking at us.For all the romanticising the liberals do the truth is that gypsy life is an anachronism. There is nothing left for them to do in the countryside, the great orchards and fruit fields have gone and much is mechanised so there is no need to travel. Their big kids spend their days looking after their little kids and learn nothing to make them employable but their lifestyles are sustainable only with benefits ( that’s if one is charitable and ignores the clear evidence of dodgy dealings.) Making a virtue of a lifestyle adopted out of necessity which can never have been easy seems perverse.

  • themardler

    When people like Mr Leveridge make reasonable posts it makes me feel ashamed of some of the things I sometimes think about the traveller community because I know that when I, my father and grandfather were young, gypsy and settled people worked alongside and sometimes lived alongside one another year round comfortably and with mutual understanding. Many of us may have former travellers somewhere in our families-I myself have a Leveridge.But I do know that many of the unhappinesses that have happened recently have been because rural people have seen a very real change in how and when they feel safe in their homes and farms.I think it is grossly unfair to accuse people of racism when what they are doing is expressing anger about a wave of intrusion, sometimes criminal, where there have been convictions and it is known who is responsible time after time.Not might be or could be, but was. By and large rural people are not hasty nor nasty, but when violent crimes on householders, raids on rural businesses and thefts escalated after the large influx of irish travellers to the eastern counties it is pretty galling for residents to be called racist by council officials when they object to new sites. And pretty galling to see traveller weddings on TV parading their “traditions” which sort of include being as racist about the rest of us as the rest of us are accused of! The Irish travellers have done the British Romany community no favours at all, they have put pressure on sites and made the settled community wary of all travellers.

  • thesonofmyrahindley

    Since when did these dirty Irish Travellers suddenly become a “race” ?

    Was it when they found out they could start demanding special treatment if they were classed as a race.

    These people should not be championed. They raise their children appalingly.

  • sophia

    The scrap yard for your information actually had dwellings there and a massive brick building in the middle of the land, that basildon council allowed on the precious ‘green belt’. The Irish Travellers brought the land as they knew it could be built on, due to the scrap yard, the dwellings on the land plus fixtures and fittings everywhere! So if your knowledge wasn’t A class on planning law, your saw the land was being utilized and lived on.. Would you not then buy it in to use in the same way? – whos Quarmby?

  • sophia

    And why do you assume this? has your mates down the pub been talking about who their saw in the post office this morning or is this something channel 4 has driven you to believe, if you want to know the facts Traveller and Gypsies may claim the ‘dole’ this would be a small majority as many find it humiliating most of them are hard working, just like my family – of course some Gypsy and Traveller claim the dole but why generalize or make up rumors that we pull up in BMWs collecting it.. What about benefit fraudsters or criminal gains, drug dealers? I’m sure some of them do that .. why don’t you have a go at them for once?


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