Criticism of the traveller community is not unusual. Recently, discussing traveller culture with peers, many already had formed opinions on what they believed to be traveller culture. When confronted on their opinions, however, it is unsurprising that many are misinformed and tarring the entire culture with the same brush. There are three strands of traveller culture, all with very different ideals and who often do not associate with one another: Romany Gypsies, ‘Irish Tinkers’ and the newly coined term ‘Plastic Gypsies’ to describe those who live in a similar way to Gypsies – but who are in fact not descended from traveller culture – in order to exploit the opportunities to avoid the costs of living in a settled community – ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ to sum up nicely.
Whenever the topic of traveller culture rears its controversial head, there is a reactionary steady flow of personal accounts of how Gypsies have in some way negatively affected lives, be that by parking caravans on local greens or fly tipping in back roads. It cannot be denied that, yes, these things do happen. No smoke without fire, after all. But when it comes to the traveller minority, it is clear that people cannot put their hand on heart and say that they do not judge the social minority on the few that dirty its name. Imagine plastering the entirety of the Black community with a derogatory comment. Picture the onslaught of righteous finger jabbing. Now imagine doing the same to the traveller community. The number of people bursting at the seams to defend them would most probably be limited.
Obviously, it is hard for the average person to defend traveller culture because, in all honesty, it is hard to defend such a closeted community. But how much has the settled population contributed to alienating traveller culture so much?
One way in which the settled population has contributed to the alienation of the traveller community is the racism that is aimed at them and is completely unquestioned. After questioning a descendent of the traveller community, he himself says: ‘Up until four or five years ago, there were still ‘No travellers allowed’ signs posted on the doors of pubs’. That kind of blatant racism screams America’s Deep South in the 1960s, not modern 21st century Britain, so the reaction of traveller over the years to become such a secular and self-reliant community is conceivable.
Secondly, and predictably, the media certainly has an influence. Blaming the media for a sensationalised negative portrayal of traveller culture is all too easy, but unfortunately true. The projected image of travellers by the media is readily accepted: travellers don’t pay tax; travellers are using the services that our tax provides; travellers live outside of the law with little or no consequences while the rest of us would never be able to get away with such things and so on. But it must be acknowledged that this image is easily projected. As recipients of the media, we are completely absorbed in the negative, so why on earth would the media portray the positive image of the traveller community when we are already awaiting the next wave of cynicism to satisfy us? Even the recent explosion of viewers of the documentary ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ which, to its credit, does try to cover some of the issues surrounding gypsy culture, such as the open racism that the community face and current cases of traveller camp eviction, is providing the nation with a biased image yet again of extravagant weddings and preposterous dresses for us to gawk at.
One of the most notorious traveller site evictions to be covered by the media was the internationally reported Dale Farm eviction. It perfectly epitomised the toil between the settled population and traveller culture, as well as brought the struggle to the forefront of the media, due to the nature of the eviction. The site was technically, legally owned by travellers, the only problem being the lack of planning permission that concluded in the expansion of the site being deemed illegal. By the day of eviction in October 2011, the site was home to the largest concentration of travellers in the UK, housing over 1000 people, 83 families, including 100 children; all reiterating the same concern: they had nowhere else to go. Local councils indeed offered council housing for those being removed from the illegal part of the site, but as one resident said: ‘what kind of option is that? It would be the death of our travelling culture, the death of our community’. Their claim stands to be true: there is nowhere else for them to go, as shown by the current oncoming eviction of the families from their new settlement on the private road leading to their previous home and the neighbouring Crays Hill site, because ultimately there are not many places in which traveller camps would be accepted and planning permission for them is as difficult, if not more, as it is for the settled population.
In the face of the difficulties posed by modern society, is there a future for travellers?
It’s their tradition to live the way they do. Admittedly it has changed over time, from quaint roll top horse drawn carts to admittedly slightly less pretty modern caravans, but the tradition of travelling is still the same and yet so little of them are actually able to travel anymore. The ultimate problem is that nobody wants a traveller site on their doorstep.
With the growing number of site evictions and the inability for travellers from being able to do exactly that, travel, it would seem that for those who want to continue with the tradition in which they were brought up in there are very little options. Either give up, settle, buy a residential home and live like the rest of us because, then, there would be much less hassle – or simply disappear; live as you want everywhere and nowhere.
So who can blame travellers for fighting for their rights to live as their race always has. I’d like to see us, the settled population, be forced out of our homes or obligated to live life invisibly without a struggle.