Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Great Romani artists - Helios Gomez

If you've never heard of Helios Gomez, neither had I. 

Even the present-day Spanish authorities aren't too comfortable with his memory, and have partly or wholly destroyed the beautiful  Capilla Gitana, - Gypsy Chapel  - which he created by painting frescoes on the walls of his cell when he was imprisoned in the Modelo prison in Barcelona in 1945-6 and 1948-5).  I have only found two images of this once much-loved work of art, the most remarkable of which is this uniquely fresh and vivid painting of Madonna and Child.

Helios was a revolutionary who fought against Franco both as a soldier and as an artist.  Most of the pictures by which posterity will know him were published as anti-fascist propaganda, but his true legacy is lovingly remembered by the Associaci√≥ Cultural Helios G√≥mez.

I only heard of Helios through an interview with Damian Le Bas by Clare-Marie Grigg, editor of Impirica.  Damian himself is editor of Travellers' Times as well as being a poet. I hope he won't mind my saying that you couldn't find a better introduction to him than Clare-Marie's interview and his own poem and video, Belong.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Guest Blog by Jake Bowers

I'm very honoured to have Jake's permission to reproduce this:

David Blunkett is feeding Romaphobia

The former home secretary's comments about Romany culture, and his claims we will cause riots, are ignorant and likely to fuel violence and prejudice
David Blunkett
David Blunkett said the behaviour of Roma people in the Page Hall area of the Sheffield was 'aggravating' to local people. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian
Ask any Romany woman who still reads palms and you will be told an essential fact – predicting a particular future makes it far more likely to happen. If you believe you are to meet a talk, dark, handsome stranger, then you are far more likely to find him.
However, it wasn't handsome strangers being predicted this week, but antisocial, ill-educated and dirty ones. When David Blunkett told BBC Radio Sheffield that the arrival of a large number of Slovak Roma migrants in his home city would lead to rioting, he wasn't so much predicting social conflict as adding to it. The behaviour of the Romany in the Page Hall area of the city, he said, was "aggravating" to local people. "We have got to change the behaviour and the culture of the incoming community, the Roma community, because there's going to be an explosion otherwise. We all know that." Among his charges was that we Roma don't want to educate our children, we congregate in large numbers on the streets, and we dump rubbish.
Romany individuals, of course, may well be guilty of littering and not sending their kids to school, but to suggest such behaviour is cultural is blatantly racist. From Gravesend to Glasgow I could take Blunkett to Roma migrant families who are fantastic neighbours, and parents who relish the chance to settle in a multicultural environment where they are no longer judged for being different.
Young men such as Artur Conka, for example, whose family escaped the grinding poverty of the Lunik IX ghetto in Slovakia, and who is fully integrating into British society. As a photography graduate he is using his skills to educate the British public about the plight of those he left behind – because he knows that every effort he makes to adapt must be matched by an effort to teach people about the community he comes from. Like every Roma migrant he attempts to disarm the fear evoked by the word Gypsy.
Such a fear of Gypsies is ancient and potent, but it has a name – Romaphobia. It recently led to blond Romany children across Europe being snatched and traumatised by state authorities. If politicians such as Blunkett make Romaphobia acceptable, it will indeed lead to racial violence in British cities. As January 2014 approaches and the anti-immigration lobby warns of the arrival of millions from Romania and Bulgaria, it's essential that progressive politicians – and I'm assuming Blunkett considers himself one – understand why 200,000 Roma migrants have already fled poverty, persecution and discrimination to live in the relative comfort of British cities. I'm sure Blunkett campaigned to end South African apartheid, but does he understand the social apartheid that blights millions of Roma across eastern Europe?
Ion Beldimari and familyIon Beldimari and his family. Photograph: Jake Bowers
Ion Beldimari lives in the ragged settlement of Smardioasa in southern Romania. He and his wife and five children live in a two-room mud hovel with no windows or doors. "We live in dread of winter because we have so little shelter," he told me when I visited in September. The family goes hungry if Ion and his eldest son cannot find enough scrap metal or plastic bottles to fill their horse-drawn cart. Like millions of Roma across Europe, they don't so much dump rubbish as recycle it to survive.
Then there's the myth that we don't like to educate our kids. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most Roma migrants I've met come to Britain precisely because they want their children to integrate, and not be forced into special schools where they are deemed "educationally subnormal". In the Czech Republic, for example, 35% of all children in special schools are Romany, perhaps 10 times the proportion in the overall population.
So as politicians churn out old prejudices about my community, I hope for just one thing – understanding. Because the thing we lack most of all isn't education, housing or even employment, it's the rarest commodity of all – empathy. And until media and politicians truly understand what we are attempting to escape, Romaphobia will continue to blight lives.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Feeding a myth

I recently read "Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two" by Maggie Smith-Bendell, at just about the same time that a Greek couple were being accused of abducting a child, and Irish police removed another fair-haired child from a Traveller family on suspicion that she too was abducted.  Two headlines, from opposite ends of Europe, that occupied a lot of media attention for days on end.

The fact that the true stories, as originally explained to the police by both these families, bore no relation whatsoever to the false accusations received very little coverage in comparison, and the fact that nomadic people everywhere have for centuries lived in dread of the state removing their children from them received no mention whatsoever that I saw.

An early part of Maggie's book reminded me of this truth, however - the very reverse of the impression that was then being conveyed by the media. Maggie's parents were thrown into a total panic by the news that a farmer and his wife would like to adopt their son, and immediately fled the farm, where they had hoped to overwinter, leaving behind some treasured possessions that they could ill afford to do without, including their precious "banties". In this particular case, the family eventually learned that the farmer and his wife had no power to take their son from them.  But the state always has had that power, and still uses it on occasion. A nomadic family is then completely vulnerable, and may have no resources to put their opposing case forward, nor to ensure appropriate care for their lost child.

The point I want to make, is that this is how a lie works.  The evil that we do, we attribute to the victim.  We widely publicise our allegations.  And then we let the story die away.  The victim's innocence may be proven later, but nothing can un-write the headlines that have fed the evil myth.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Finding your dream team

Thanks to the wonders of the internet,  and specifically Twitter, I have been finding people who think like me and feel like me on issues I really care about. It's been much harder to convince the people I know who are still somewhat nervous about social networking via the internet to get online and get connected!

This week I was thrilled to discover some poems full of fire and passion by a Gypsy teenager. Another friend has found an interesting blog written by a Gypsy's wife, and I found one written by author Miriam Wakerly, whose books Gypsies Stop tHere and No Gypsies Served  I've already talked about.

I wanted to say that it felt like finding my karass but I know some of my dream team would definitely hate the idea that they are there to fulfill God's will.  BUT, ever since Kurt Vonnegut wrote about the idea in Cat's Cradle  I've been impressed by the idea that, somewhere in the world, there is a family more real than flesh and blood to which I somehow really belong.  I wonder if anyone else ever feels like that?

My dream team all hate injustice, despise prejudice, believe in treating people as individuals and never as stereotypes and are against anything that limits our rightful freedom to be ourselves and to express our identity and culture. (Dylan the dog is in it, of course - here he enjoys being himself at Sandbanks,)

If any of my flesh and blood family are reading this, most of you would definitely qualify to be in my dream team, not because of any accident of birth, but because of who you are.  OK?

Friday, 11 October 2013

Real people with real lives

Last week the grass verge at a local road junction sprouted a wonderful crop of interesting wooden mushrooms.  They were the work of two sculptors who share a travelling life, each towing his own caravan, but stopping and displaying their wares together. Jim and Dave (not their real names) have been to the area before, but I hadn't stopped to speak to them, because I wasn't sure of my welcome.

"They're really nice boys," said Adrian, our Chaplain for Gypsies and Travellers, so I took my courage in both hands and bumped up the kerb onto the grass.

Jim was obviously busy in the gazebo that stood behind his caravan, outlining the shape of a new sculpture with a chainsaw, but stopped when he noticed me, and listened politely as I introduced myself. I explained that I wanted to represent the reality of Travellers' lives, and was happy to tell their stories, and this short story immediately came to his mind:

'We were in Sussex. It was about half past eight in the evening, and I'd been working hard all day.  I was still carrying on to finish off a piece of work, when somebody drove by, opened a car window and called out, "Get a job, you bum!"  I wonder what he thought I was doing?  I've got a job. Couldn't he see that?'

Possibly not, Jim.  It's hard to shift people from their preconceived ideas.

The sculptures seemed to be all about wildlife, with birds of prey figuring prominently. I was particularly drawn to a barn owl and an otter, and glad I'd stopped.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Dismantling prejudice

My favourite character in the Diskworld (after Granny Weatherwax, of course!) is Captain Sam Vimes of the Night Watch.  We first meet him in "Guards! Guards!"staggering slowly down the street in the grey light of a drizzly dawn and collapsing drunkenly into the gutter outside the Watch House.  Terry Pratchett uses this scandalous, lovable, irrational,courageous, stubborn,loyal, bigoted, idealistic character as a lever to open up the hard shell of our prejudices and enable us, alternately, to laugh at them or to recognise them as reprehensible. Even while we are disapproving of him, we cannot help acknowledging how like us he is.

For a start, his prejudices are much like ours.  You don't refer to dwarfs and trolls as "gritsuckers" and "rocks" because they are "fellow sapient races who have chosen to throw in their lots with the people of the city". In truth, as his men note, he doesn't like anyone much, which enables them to see his negative comments as a consistent characteristic of the man, rather than as any evidence  of bias. But vampires are a different matter, and so are aristocrats like Lord Rust.

In "Jingo" Pratchett makes one of his most sustained attacks on xenophobia, while being enormously entertaining and inventively funny. Vimes sets off to war, not in order to join in, but to arrest the combatants for breach of the peace.

"Snuff", written fourteen years later, is a much darker novel. The cynical Lord Vetinari, Vimes' boss and despotic ruler of Ankh Morpork, is found, uncharacteristically "awash with tears" as he contemplates the goblin race. "Vermin, Drumknott," he reflects aloud to his secretary, "an entire race reduced to vermin!"  Vimes being Vimes, he finds himself fighting for the lives of the goblin race simply because people like Lord Rust feel able to treat them as expendable vermin.  And Pratchett being Pratchett, he too is driven to show us why we should give our sympathies in this story to this apparently unlovely and unlovable race.

Within the story of "Snuff" itself, Vimes' most effective ally is his aristocratic wife Sybil.  Much as he deplores the aristocracy in general, Vimes cannot help admiring the way Sybil can use her breeding to good effect in support of truth, justice and other good things like a fry-up with black crunchy bits. When he introduces his wife to the wonderful music of goblin harpist Tears of the Mushroom, Lady Sybil doesn't take long to see a way to make acceptance of the goblin race not only possible, but fashionable.

It's hard to say how much the hugely popular Diskworld series has contributed to Britain's acceptance and celebration of itself as a multicultural society.  The controlled experiment of a Britain without any knowledge of the Diskworld doesn't exist.  The nearest analogues we can find, other European countries, or other anglophone countries, are probably not closely matched enough to be good comparators. But whenever I contemplate the relentless racism that faces nomadic peoples in this country, I am grateful that I can find the example of a consummate artist like Terry Pratchett who has consistently drawn attention to the facile stupidity of racism, and its sinister outcomes.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Never Again!

It's always a happy day when I see that a new Ben Elton book has come out.  The latest, "Two Brothers" was no exception. In a year when the Borders Agency has stopped people in the street and at train stations because they looked as if they might be illegal immigrants, the Home Office has toured its own special hate campaign around on huge posters and the police have abused the powers given them by search warrants to harass, rob and humiliate an elderly Romani activist and his wife and others, it told such an instructive story.

We find ourselves in 1920s Berlin, and as the story unfolds, we see how the gathering horror that was Nazi Germany and its holocaust begins to take shape. The hounding and persecution of Jews begins with hate speech, progresses through spiteful and petty indignities and rises to a crescendo of agonisingly brutal bullying. Ben Elton writes with such immediacy and detail that the reader cannot doubt that he has meticulously researched his story.

By the end of the novel, we don't need to be told that many children like the two brothers of the title did not survive the Nazi era. The holocaust hangs over the scene all too tangibly.

I put this book down more determined than ever to say, at every opportunity, "This must not happen here!" But I also felt a dreadful sense of foreboding, because it seemed to me that we are already in the beginning stages of a process that is heading in the same direction.  I wonder how many of us will mark Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January next year, and stand up to say, "Never Again"?

It has always seemed to me that the English believe it couldn't happen here.  I have always known it could. We may point to the successful assimilation of Jews into British life, but dig a little deeper, whether into history or into current affairs, and you will quickly see that murderous prejudice targets other, more vulnerable groups as well. The holocaust engulfed several groups of people who can all too easily become targets for random acts of violence as well as hate campaigns.  People with learning disabilities, for example, were used to test the efficiency of the Zyklon-B gas eventually used in the gas chambers. Homosexuals were also targeted, and so were Roma and Sinti Gypsies, who died in unknown numbers, possibly as many as half a million, in a forgotten and hidden genocide.

I say "hidden," because many of the state-sponsored murders were carried out without leaving written records. Men, women and children were simply rounded up, taken into the forests, made to dig graves, and then shot and buried. But state records do exist for some 200 Roma and Sinti children who were gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The Buchenwald Railway project exists to preserve and honour their memory. http://www.dw.de/buchenwald-memorial-gives-names-to-sinti-and-roma-victims/a-16965403.  The German web site, "gedenksteine buchenwaldbahn" lets you enter any of the names you see on the memorial stones, and to find a brief biography of the child named. Most horribly, this story consists of bare details gleaned from official Nazi records, which have no humanity about them at all.  If you don't read German, you can just click on a tab to get an English translation. http://gedenksteine-buchenwaldbahn.de/630/

"Why do we want to remember these horrible things?" says a colleague of mine, who resists any remembrance of the holocaust. It's because we need to remind ourselves to say, "Never again!" loud and clear in our own time and our own country - before it's too late.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Who do you believe you are?

Miriam Wakerly's "No Gypsies Served" begins with a chillingly real situation following on from the campaign for a Gypsy site that we read about in "Gypsies Stop tHere". The heroine receives a threatening anonymous letter that seems to be linked to her advocacy for the Gypsies.  This has actually happened to someone I know and have worked with,  so I was instantly hooked on the story!

The other totally believable storyline is about the importance that Romany Gypsies attach to their identity as Romanies.  If you saw Countryfile yesterday, you will have seen this illustrated in real life.  A Romany living a "settled" life was interviewed as he walked with his horse in front of a traditional wagon or "vardo", which he takes out on the droves every summer, to allow his children to see the traditional Gypsy way of life.  His children were in the vardo, obviously enjoying every minute of their lovely nostalgic trip, and when he asked his little girl "What are you, Gypsy or Gorgie?" her reply was immediate: "Gypsy!"

In "No Gypsies Served"  the hero, Dunstan, is trying to come to terms with the feeling that he has betrayed his family by staying away from them, and living a settled life, even if it is in a mobile home.  As he delves into his memories of his early life, we are aware of how strong the bonds are that bind the Romany community together, and how important that identity is to every Gypsy.  This understanding leaves us deeply concerned for the heroine, who has unwittingly caused great offence by implying that Dunstan is no longer a Gypsy. I always say that you will never find a truer friend that a Romany Gypsy who has come to trust you.  But equally, you will find it very hard to regain trust if you have caused offence!

Like the father interviewed in Countryfile, Miriam Wakerly is keenly aware of the pain of a whole community whose valued way of life has almost completely disappeared, and paints a vivid picture of its joys and hardships. As Dunstan attends the funeral of his old friend Copper, the chilling facts of the injustices that persist for the Gypsy community haunt the story. Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities experience the worst health outcomes of all communities in the UK, and have a life expectancy 10 years lower than the average. And the "No Gypsies served" scenario still happens in our country to this day.

As Copper's funeral was described, I had a vivid memory of standing outside my local parish church and watching white-faced, black-clad groups of grieving Gypsies arriving for a funeral, and feeling overwhelmed by the depth of the loss they felt.

So although this is a work of fiction, the research and the genuine empathy which went into its writing make it a really moving experience.  Like Gypsies Stop tHere, it deserves the widest possible audience.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Racial Justice Sunday

UK needs affirmative action plan, says Jesse Jackson” according, that is, to the Guardian headline on Friday 6th September.

(God bless the Guardian, and thank you for Jesse Jackson.  Also, vice versa)

Today, Hugh Muir asks (also in the Guardian) where is Britain’s Jesse Jackson?

I was sorry and ashamed that the church I attended allowed Racial Justice Sunday to pass without doing anything to raise awareness of the injustices in our supposedly egalitarian and tolerant society.  Injustices like these:

        Roma and Gypsy and Traveller communities experiencing the worst health outcomes of all communities in the UK, and a life expectancy 10 years lower than the average

        Roma, Gypsy and Traveller pupils continuing to be the most at risk of under-achievement in our education system

Nor did the leader of the service use her sermon (on Paul’s epistle to Philemon) to point out that Christianity can and should put us in a new and radically different relationship with people at the bottom of the social pile.

Nobody gave thanks for the beautiful and wonderful diversity of our society.

So let me say, I am glad to share my lovely homeland with the Romani people, with Irish Travellers and with Showmen. I recognise their contribution to our culture, their amazing history, their stubborn resilience and their enormous gift for helping us simply to enjoy life – if only we let them draw up alongside us, and share our space for a while!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Art as an agent of social change

I watched the end of Hollyoaks today, and was confirmed in my view that art does contribute to the climate in which attitudes and social conditions can change.  In the closing seconds,just before 7 o'clock, a man declared his love for another man Not many years ago, this would have been unthinkable on prime time TV.

I would acknowledge that TV is a very powerful medium, because it has much greater penetration than, for example, printed books.  But I'm still a book person.  I like something I can turn to at will, and don't have to wait for, can carry anywhere, and enjoy anywhere.  So I'm hoping there are still enough readers out there to create a powerful block of public opinion through reading, sharing and discussing Miriam Wakerly's book, Gypsies Stop tHere.

We are introduced to the Gypsies' history and current situation gradually, through the eyes of the non-Gypsy heroine, which was a good strategy. It gave us someone like us to identify with, at a point in the story where we might possibly have resisted identifying with a Gypsy heroine. I was greatly impressed by the realism that Miriam brought to the description of the local reaction to the expected arrival of a group of nomadic Gypsies.

Yet at the same time, she resisted to urge to become heatedly polemical, continuing to present her story through the eyes of a thoughtful and fair-minded heroine, who engaged our sympathy. I was also gripped by the heroine's own very strong story.  When this was brought together with the plight of a young Gypsy mother fleeing domestic violence with two small children in tow, I was taking the book with me wherever I went, because I was so keen to know how it all worked out.

The Gypsy mother and her hot-headed, angry husband are never less than human and clearly drawn characters.  The reader gains in confidence that Miriam has not set out idealise her characters, but to present them as clearly and truthfully as possible in the context of a well worked-out plot.

I would say that the happy ending came a bit too quickly and easily for realism, but now that I've read the sequel, I know this wouldn't be fair.  I hope lots of people will read Gypsies Stop tHere and begin to see our Gypsy visitors as real human beings, rather than as romantic stereotypes or dreadful bogeymen.

For geeks like me who love such things, there was even a helpful glossary of Romani words at the end.  I couldn't wait to turn to No Gypsies Served!

Monday, 2 September 2013

"When you can, say something." - we change the word a little bit at a time.

Still looking for ways to change the world, and I promise I will write about a great book tomorrow.  But for today, here is someone doing her bit to change "tolerance" to "acceptance",

Oh, how I wish we were even at tolerance for Travelling people! But we're not, are we?  Have a look at this picture.  What does it say to you?
The web page it came from is a wonderful example of a Council being both as negative as it dares about Travellers - to stay within the Race Relations Act, and to appeal to the prejudices of its voters - and as positive as it dares to be about Travellers' rights, so that it can explain any small modicum of humanity in the way Travellers are treated.  There is not one word of any reason why local people might be glad to see Travellers spending some time in their locality.  Can you just imagine how they would be pilloried if they said any such thing? http://www.gateshead.gov.uk/Housing/helpsupportadvice/GypsiesandTravellers/Unauthorised.aspx

But equally, can you imagine the outcry if any other ethnic group were treated with such open hatred and prejudice?

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A beautifully written story about a Somerset Gypsy girl's life

I thoroughly enjoyed Rosemary Penfold's story. I related easily to Rosemary's love of the natural world, which echoes the almost mystical reverence which Tom Odley has for it. As a gaujo, I couldn't say how typical or realistic her account of a Gypsy childhood was, but as soon as she started to write about her experiences as a home help, I recognised the richly comic, tragic and interesting stories as typical of older people in the rural south west, and was completely gripped!

Sadly, I don't think this book is very likely to change anybody's attitude, as anyone unsympathetic towards Gypsies is probably unlikely to read it.

Nevertheless, it will be a rich mine of  statements correcting common misconceptions and prejudices.  Rosemary has a lovely, pithy, common-sense way of expressing her rebuttals of such ideas.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Let's change the world

How do the attitudes of a whole society change? 

I've been thinking this week about what the key factors may have been in the change of attitudes that the USA and the UK have seen towards African Americans and Black people. Even more startling for the speed with which it has happened has been the change from criminal activity to legalised marriage that has been brought about for the lesbian and gay community. (I'm not writing “LGBT” because I'm not so sure that any change in attitudes is really discernable for transgendered and bisexual people.)

We tend to think in terms of powerful personalities who have made an impact politically, such as William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King, but I believe this is probably because of the way we tell stories to ourselves.  Outstanding individuals become symbols for a whole complex  maelstrom of currents and counter-currents in society, and without in any way wanting to diminish their towering achievements, I have wanted to consider what else has been involved.

It seems to me – and anyone is welcome to disagree – that the key is to achieve communication across different and even opposing parts of society, so that a particular viewpoint becomes common currency, even if not everyone agrees with it.  There are all sorts of ways, major and minor that this has been achieved by and for Black people and homosexual and gay people, but I have come to think that artists of all kinds are key communicators.

A Google search on “attitudes to homosexuality” led me fairly quickly to an article suggesting that the 1961 film “Victim”  starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Sims had significantly shifted attitudes. http://www.historytoday.com/andrew-roberts/shifting-attitudes-homosexuality
 I also seem to remember an early storyline in Eastenders that presented a homosexual couple very sympathetically. Try looking at all the images for “Gay pride” on Google images, and you will see that humour allied to imaginative visual artistry can also be very compelling. The Swedes can take credit for any smiles this picture brings. The road is outside the Russian Embassy in Stockholm:

As far as Gypsies and Travellers are concerned, there has not to my knowledge been any work of art with a comparable impact ( unless you count the dreadful Channel 4 series, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”, of which they should be thoroughly ashamed).  Travellers remain the minority about whom one of my colleagues wrote,” no other race would be subject to such unconcealed discrimination and loathing.”  In fact, attitudes to Gypsies and Travellers always make me think of that insightful Bertrand Russell quote:
“Few people can be happy unless they hate some other person, nation, or creed.” So how can people be given a good feeling about changing a negative attitude that has seemingly performed a useful function for them? Can we help them to identify with a hero who has a different attitude, or even with a victim of their hatred who can be shown to deserve their respect?

Hopeful that there may be an answer, or at least he beginnings of one, I’ve asked Amazon to send me all the Miriam Wakerly books I could find, and one by Rosemary Penfold that Amazon identified as a result of my request.  Watch this space, and I’ll let you know if I’ve found the beginning of a revolution in attitudes. http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Miriam%20Wakerly

And remember, it really matters.  A Romany friend recently despaired, saying on facebook, “travellers will never be accepted by gaugis.”  Could you live with feeling like the whole of our society was rejecting you?  And because of who you are, not because of what you do!

Monday, 12 August 2013

The long road

Some say it was a thousand years ago that a group of people from the Indian sub-continent began a westward trek that took them eventually across almost the whole of Europe, and into Britain in about 1500. http://www.bbc.co.uk/kent/voices/romany_roots.shtml

On their long journey, they encountered enslavement, forced labour, and attempted extermination by he Nazis.

Attitudes towards the Romany and other Traveller people in this country remain at best ambivalent or stereotyped and at worst unashamedly racist. An example of the most extreme racism, which absolutely refuses to see the Romany person as a human being with feelings, family and a point of view is the Dorset reaction to the annual migration through Bournemouth, Poole and much of rural Dorset of groups of Travellers following traditional patterns of migration in search of work.

 On the 10th August, the headline in the local press read, “We are doing all we can to stop illegal camps, say councils”, and the leader of Bournemouth Council was quoted as saying, “Our strict safeguarding, inhospitable attitude and better defences should help residents feel reassured that we are doing absolutely everything we can to ensure they are inconvenienced as little as possible.”

If this degree of hatred and intolerance were directed at any other group in society, it would be widely seen as intolerable, and there might even be prosecutions under equality laws.  As far as I could see, nobody except the Traveller community group  Kushti Bok pointed out that, if there were no legal sites, Travellers were bound to end up on illegal encampments.  Or is this too logical for politicians pandering to racist hysteria in the press?

The apparent good news that a temporary camp has been set up is soon revealed, in the same story, as simply a ploy to give the police powers they otherwise wouldn’t have.

All credit to Jenny Awford, who took the trouble to interview the Kushti Bok director, one 66-year-old Romany woman and the chief officer of Dorset Race Equality Council. Jenny’s headline was “Councils have “completely failed us”, say travellers.

It’s not just the councils, though, is it?  Where are the local community groups urging the councils to provide refuse collections for temporary camps?  If there isn’t any refuse collection, can you really be surprised if rubbish is left behind?

Where are the human rights groups, arguing for everyone’s right to have somewhere to sleep?

And, most shameful of all, where are the churches standing alongside the rejected outsider in compassionate solidarity? And where are the Christians pointing out that every single human being is of infinite value, because we’re all made in God’s image?

Jesus weeps.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Education and does it have to be in school?


I am very honoured to have David Bowen's permission to share his further explanation (below) about why new rules are so disadvantaging Traveller families.

There are two pressing problems facing Travellers: land and education.  Steps are being taken, via the Diocese and Local Authorities, to address the former.  The latter is also acute.

Since April, when the Government introduced new rules about registering attendance at school, Travellers have been inconvenienced, possibly quite seriously.  Under the old rules, a family that Travelled for work, so including show families as well as others, could get permission for their children's absence from school during the travelling time.  Schools were expected to (and sometimes did)  provide suitable work for the children during their absences.  Now, under the new rules, all absence counts towards the school's success in OfSTED inspections.  If attendance falls below 95% the school will not achieve success under the inspection regime, no matter the cause of the absence. To make matters worse, headteachers may no longer approve absence for Travellers (or anyone).  Thus schools will be very tempted to take children off the school roll for the period when they are travelling.  This means that children may get lost, that parents become totally responsible for the education of their children without the help of the school, and that there may not be a place available when the family returns to its base.  All this is bad.

Show families are particularly worried about these
new arrangements.  However, they have serious implications for all Traveller families.  Nothing seems to be being done about it.  

Marx (Karl not Groucho) said that before attempting to change things it was essential to raise awareness.  That seems to me absolutely right.  I we are going to get a better deal for Traveller children in the education world, it is first necessary to get those who hold the purse strings and who make the policy to realise that there is a serious problem.  

There are a whole range of possible answers (and probably far more than we have thought of) from establishing a "virtual free school" to providing books and a syllabus to parents.  Some might be very radical, but all should be considered.  



Let's dream a dream.  Let's imagine children and parents being consulted on how they wanted education to be provided. Let's imagine governments of all complexions giving utmost priority to pupils at risk of not achieving their full potential. Let's imagine every child being launched into adulthood with all the skills they need to achieve their dreams.  Are you really going to tell me this isn't possible in the twenty-first century? Isn't it more likely that there are vested interests that don't want it to happen? Jenny

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Education: When government is more hindrance than help

Guest post by Revd. Adrian Brook, Chaplain to Gypsies, Travellers and Showmen in the Diocese of Salisbury

Historically Travellers had little or no schooling partly because of their nomadic lifestyle and partly because they could not see a need for it. In more recent times however it has been recognised that a basic education has value but there is still an underlying reluctance for most Traveller parents to send their children to school. The reasons for this are varied and complex but one underlying factor is that schooling invariably erodes cultural identity.

The fact that Gypsy, Roma and children of Irish Traveller heritage (GRT) are the lowest achieving ethnic group is well documented. This has been recognised by successive governments who have tried to address this problem by various strategies and means but have met with limited success.
Read comments from the Ministerial Working Group report on tackling inequalities experienced by GRT children:

The measures outlined address some of the areas that are contributing factors towards underachievement but all focus on regular attendance at school as the solution. This is not a realistic solution for groups with nomadic lifestyles.  Recent government proposals to scrap clause 6 of section 444 of the Education Act 1996 will compound this problem further and has caused a lot of concern among Travellers as well as professional bodies involved in Traveller education. The Traveller Education Support Service provided by the Dorset Education Authority has also been scrapped which will have a particularly damaging effect on children whose parents work on travelling funfairs.
A delegation from the Showmen’s Guild recently met with Michael Gove MP, The Education Secretary, to express their concerns about the proposed changes to section 444(6).

Distance learning has proved to be the most successful strategy for Traveller schooling particularly for those with a nomadic lifestyle, unfortunately support in this area has also been withdrawn.
See statement from the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers:

Through my own experience and studies I feel that a well-resourced distance learning facility would enable GRT to have an education such that it would allow them as a minority group to maintain their distinctiveness but be able to operate within the majority society with an equal capability.
With today’s communication IT and media it would be possible to provide schooling through virtual tutors which would overcome difficulties related to attendance and continuity. There are a growing number of distance learning providers and ‘virtual academies’ but they are expensive to use and tend to be in specialist areas.  STETS, in our own diocese, relies heavily on distance learning.
Distance learning requires the pupil to be motivated and should ideally involve the whole family. This could be tackled by using a non-curriculum based approach such as the Learn to Live programme which has been successfully piloted by Devon County Council. It has worked particularly well with pupils facing exclusion.  Learn to Live is a person centred approach that relies on personal and corporate advocacy. See link:

As I see it there are two possibilities by which the programme could be delivered to Traveller pupils.
  • ·         As a Free School or virtual academy with which the pupil is registered. This has the advantage that it would qualify for government funding plus schools could buy a place for an excluded pupil as it would be an ‘alternative provider’ Thus it would be self-funding. It would also overcome the problems posed by the proposed abolition of section 444 (6)

  • ·         As a body to resource Home Education.  This would be easier in some ways and would also get around the section 444(6) problem, but it may be more difficult to fund.

This is a very brief resume of the idea but I hope it can be given serious consideration.  

Monday, 22 July 2013

Negative stereotypes

The Stour and Avon magazine provided a classic example, last week, of the way the local press are willing to keep negative stereotypes alive.  After Travellers had spent nine days in the West Parley area, the reporter refers their presence as an “invasion”, and manages to imply that they left a lot of clearing up for others to do after their stay.

First let me tackle the issue of an invasion.  People of a nomadic  lifestyle would be happy to encamp on open land in a way that did not impact on the public use of that land, if it were available to them, or to stop on reputable sites for temporary encampments if any were available to them.  The fact is that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to get agreement for the creation of legal sites and most open spaces in Dorset are now surrounded by bunds (earth banks) and/or large rocks and/or barriers with a limited height restriction, precisely to prevent encampments. It seems to me illogical to deprive people of anywhere to stop, so that people can get water, eat and sleep, and then to complain if they make an entry onto the nearest available land they can access. Everyone has to be somewhere.

Then let’s think about biased reporting.  None of these “invasion” stories ever gives any space to the Traveller point of view, and there is never any evidence of the reporter having contacted the group concerned to seek their side of the story.  But I personally have visited both traditional Romany and so-called “New Age” Travellers who take great pains to leave a camping site immaculately clean and tidy.  I am amazed that, in a county with an immense fly-tipping problem, nobody ever seems to wonder whether rubbish has arrived on site after the departure of the Travellers.

Let’s also think about local authority duties and powers.  The duties of local authorities extend to everyone in their area, not just to those permanently resident there.  Yet Dorset has always adamantly refused to provide water or rubbish collection services to people in temporary encampments.  I wonder how easy local residents would find it to keep their environment clean and tidy if rubbish collections ceased altogether?  The evidence from refuse collectors’ strikes suggests that it would quickly become impossible.

Finally, what about institutional racism?  The parish chairman talks about putting in place a “warning system” for the future.  I wonder did it never occur to him that a welcoming system might be more fruitful?  Like saying, “Welcome to our village, here is some information about local services.”
If lines of dialogue could be opened up, perhaps the next time they came that way, Travellers might be willing to find somewhere more convenient to stop!

Monday, 15 July 2013

In search of equality

Ever since the 1999 OFSTED report that described Gypsy Roma and Traveller children as "the group most at risk in the education system", there have been official expressions of concern, some genuine efforts to find out what works and a depressing lack of progress.

Common-sense ideas have included the suggestion that racism and bullying need to be tackled.  Brilliant ideas included providing children who travelled away from their winter-base school with a laptop and Internet access, so that they can experience ICT-enhanced learning, and stay in contact with the school via e-mail.

Sadly, schools by themselves can hardly be expected to tackle the level of racism that exists in our society towards Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. As the CRE has noted,
    “For this group (Gypsies and Travellers), Great Britain is still like the American Deep South for black people in the 1950s. Extreme levels of 
public hostility exist in relation to Gypsies and Travellers –fuelled in part by irresponsible media reporting of the kind that would be met with outrage if it was targeted at any other ethnic group.”
In this context, bullying can be quite subtle and hard to challenge. If nobody wants to be friends with you, how do teachers tackle that?  As one 13 year-old wrote:
    "Most of my teachers won't have time for me.  They think I am just wasting their time because all the other Travellers that have been to my school have never stuck it out because it is so lonesome."

Meanwhile, the Department for Education itself has sternly discouraged any attempts towards flexi-education, writing:
     "Where parents have entered in to flexi-schooling arrangements, schools may continue to offer those arrangements. Pupils should be marked absent from school during periods when they are receiving home education."
Which, of course, shows as a drop in performance for the school, and loses them funding.  So far from being incentivised to prepare distance learning materials, teachers co-operating will be penalised. Nice one, DfE!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Gypsy and Traveller Children and their Education.

The headteacher of my primary school was not likely to be ignored or forgotten.  She had bright pink hair, spoke with a Lancashire accent and was a passionate advocate of the rights of Gypsy children to an education.  In the 1950s there were almost no local authority sites, so most Gypsy families travelled from place to place, as seasonal work ebbed and flowed across the country.  A Gypsy child would be very unlikely to appear in your school, because most schools wouldn't accept them, and most Gypsy parents wouldn't trust "gorgios" with their children anyway.

But it just so happened that Phoebe had transferred to us from a small village school whose catchment area included a sizeable Gypsy encampment.  Somehow, she had persuaded, encouraged and charmed that community into sending their children to school, and she wasn't about to allow anyone to jeopardise any Gypsy child's attendance at her school by discriminatory behaviour or outright bullying. Many times I have wished that Phoebe were still around today!

When schools say, "Oh, it's not racism, it's just name-calling," I wish for a Phoebe.

When schools say, "We haven't the resources to meet their needs," I wish for a Phoebe.

When schools just refuse to admit Traveller children, and the local authority isn't told anything about it, I wish for a Phoebe.

But really, all it needs is a recognition of our common humanity.  As one artistic child colourfully said:

Monday, 1 July 2013

Re-dedication: Gypsies, Travellers and Showmen

For four years, this blog has been dedicated to recording the progress of, and messages about and from Mike Yemba Soro.  Now that Mike has completed his university course and got a job, I am re-dedicating this blog.  But first, congratulations for Mike, who has worked so hard and learnt so much.
Mike has faithfully kept in touch, and thanked all the people in this country who supported him - quite an onerous task on top of all the study, and I am truly grateful to him for it.

Now I am proposing to dedicate this blog to issues affecting Gypsies, Travellers and Showmen.