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June 05, 2007

Traveller Culture: Emily Kingham visits a Travellers' Horse Fair and discovers that nothing romantic is today left of Traveller Culture - all that is left of it today is menace and dodgy dealing

Posted by Emily Kingham

After encountering so many Travellers in the prison in South East England in which she works as a writer-in-residence (see: Bare-knuckle boxing, fixed fights and growing up Romany: Emily Kingham hears a Traveller's Tale), Emily Kingham decided to visit a Travellers' Horse Fair. This was enough to dispel any lingering romantic notions about Traveller Culture - or what is left of it today.

When I discovered that travellers formed the largest ethnic minority in southeast England this came as something of a shock. One never reads directives about this particular group in governmental dissertations on diversity. When I googled the words "Essex" and "travellers", I found a document from Essex County Council pertaining to the sensitive subject of

policy for the management of unauthorised camping.
That was it. I was dismayed to find that, online, there is no record of Romany cultural history within Essex, certainly no "celebration", as our Head of Diversity would put it. I was determined to learn more about the traveller community. A colleague at the prison, Jessamy, grew up on a farm in Essex, the bottom field of which was often home to travellers. She had known travellers as a child and studied prejudice toward them as an adult. She lent me a book written in the 1950s by a Roma that was charming and insightful and not at all rose-tinted. The lives Dominic Reeves describes were squalid, muddy and chaotic. But their painted caravans, their oral tradition, and the vigour of their nomadic spirit could not fail to be picturesque.

What has really continued to the present day, however, is the "wheeler-dealer" culture he relates. Travellers will sit around their fires swindling each other till the cows come home. Bargaining - and pulling a fast one - are part and parcel of the culture of dispossessed people.

Jessamy suggested we take a field trip to Stow-on-the-Wold Horse Fair, a twice-yearly gathering of travellers from all over the UK. We would take her caravan, park it alongside the travellers and spend the night in it. I had no idea what to expect, but had visions of lots of mud, painted caravans, lots of tinware, horses, more mud, and the possibility of being swindled into buying a horse.

We arrived at three o'clock in the afternoon. The predictably muddy field was swimming in large, white vans. Some of these mobile homes had a plot of astro-turf laid outside their doors, to protect the occupants' feet. Most had satellite dishes and lavishly decorated interiors. These people have money, I thought. A woman called to us from a car parked behind our caravan. She was sitting in the back seat, and the sticky smell of dope nearly knocked me sideways. She was charming and effusive, and bombarding me with questions - the general thrust of which was to find out who I was and what I was doing there. "Do you have any beers? Are you here to party?" she asked. There were three others in the car who remained silent and made no eye contact with me throughout her lively interrogation. The rapidity and volubility of her approach was almost designed to be confusing.

I wasn't sure what to say to her. She was very friendly and invited confidence. But the spark in her eyes denoted something else. She's a player, I thought. She's been here before.

You know when you meet someone like this that they'll be fun, but the fun won't be entirely innocent. There'll be an edge to it, or some other agenda. I walked away feeling apprehensive.

Jessamy had already begun erecting the awning to the side of the caravan, and a small tent for the chemical loo. She was surrounded by a group of little girls - aged between six and eight. They were all intent on helping her. "Watch them like a hawk", she said, as one climbed into the caravan. Again, I could not help noticing how these girls bombarded us with questions. It was like a concerted attempt at distracting our attention - from what I wasn't sure. On the other hand it would be easy to become too suspicious: they were high-spirited, inquisitive little girls, who were doing their best to help us and were very handy with a mallet - which was more than I was. And children are always attracted to novelties, which Jessamy and I so obviously were.

The older girls, I could not help noticing, were incredibly pneumatic. They had all-over manufactured tans; they wore thigh boots and not much else. It was clear what their agenda was, and it wasn't A-levels. The older women had that look of Mediterranean housewives - slightly down-at-heel and preoccupied. No wonder Jessamy and I stood out so dramatically. Both in our forties, we are neither frumpy nor pneumatic.

I wandered about the site and was asked several times what I was doing there. A woman asked if I was from the RSPCA. This was after I had asked if I could take a photograph of the cockerel tethered to the wheel of her caravan.

From there I found a field of horses - Gypsy Vanner Stallions, a sturdy, piebald breed they looked thoroughly miserable and ill-kempt. I wanted to take more photos but a little girl warned me that the horses would kick if I got too close. I had already seen how rough the men were with the horses so it didn't surprise me that they should be so aggressive. The same little girl was following me by now. She asked if I was a traveller. When I said I wasn't, she asked for 50p. When I didn't give it to her, she cursed me. All this under the eye of her older male companion.

I was struck by the trajectory of my encounter with this child. First, she initiated contact by offering friendly advice. Then she asked a seemingly innocent question that was actually eliciting information that might be useful. Then she asked for money. Finally, she abused me. This was done under starting orders, it seemed, from the man standing in the background watching over her.

There was nothing much going on at this fair, apart from men sitting around fires shouting at each other, and women sitting in caravans or doing housework. I was beginning to wonder what on earth I was doing there.

I decided to re-join Jessamy, who was painting the scene in front of her. We had parked by a muddy track along which teenaged boys were riding horses bareback. They gallopped up and down showing off their horsemanship and their marshalling of the horses' strength. On the other side of the track, three vans, one a traditionally painted vardo, were parked around a blazing log fire. There was a horse box full of complaining horses and a donkey tethered to a stake in the mud. Several men were sitting round the fire. It was just as I had read in the book Jessamy had lent me. I thought, yes, I could sit back and watch this for a while.

Jessamy herself, though, was the object of fascination. She was drawing a crowd of young boys of between seven and nine years old. They were asking her about her painting, and demanding she do their portraits. They were beginning to overwhelm us with their demands so I tried to deflect attention from Jessamy's equipment by asking them questions. They did not respond. An older boy joined us. He was about nine and immediately asked Jessamy if he could have a paint brush. She explained that he could not and he grabbed one anyway. The mood changed. The boys started lifting brushes, paint pots, the little table she had set them on and taunting us. I asked the older boy his name. I seemed to catch him off-guard.

"Jonathon", he said, and immediately resumed hostilities by abusing Jessamy in the crudest terms. The others joined in.

Once we had retrieved Jessamy's painting materials, Jonathan sat down in front of us as though he was about to tell a story. In fact, he was about to tell us a story: a highly complex pornographic story that had taken a wealth of experience of deviant practices and anatomical knowledge to deliver. The delivery itself was so detached, so devoid of emotion, it was as though he were having an out-of-body experience. It was as though he was an old man remembering a long-ago event. It was unnerving, not just because he was so young and his words were so obscene, but that he was so clearly inhabiting a different space from the rest of us. He was, technically speaking, a psychopath.

The other little boys, predictably, were sniggering. They seemed quite normal compared to Jonathan.

In an attempt to stem the flow of obscenities, I asked Jonathon how old he was, using his name to bring him back to reality. He looked momentarily shocked, and so did his friends. "Ooh, that's personal", said one. There was silence. Then they recovered their wits, and chanted as a group, "He's too young for you! He's too young for you!"

That such a thought should enter their minds was horrifying. Is this what they expect from adults? That there is always an agenda? It got worse. Jonathan fished in his pocket and brought a knife out - a proper knife, not a little boy's Swiss Army knife - and held it to my throat. He said, in that same dreamy (psychopathic) voice, "I like doing nasty things with this".

I said nothing, and he put it away.

By now, the other boys had found poles and sticks to beat us with. They were surrounding us, and nonchalant young men were standing by watching. The pacing steed had been replaced by a manic squad bike that was running circles around me and Jessamy. While I was fending off Jonathan, Jessamy was protecting the awning that the boys were pulling down. In despair she turned to a man who had stuck his head out of a neighbouring caravan.

"What can I do to stop these children tormenting us?" she asked

"Pack up and go", he said.

So we did.

Back in the safety of prison, I told Will, the editor of my magazine team about my experience.

"Were they kids or adults?" he asked, when I told him I'd been virtually assaulted.

"Children", I replied.

"They're the worst", he said.

Apparently, it is the travellers' way to encourage their children to run riot. That way, I suppose, they don't have to, thereby evading the worst the Law can offer. What can the police do with children except caution them?

As we made our hasty exit, the children started chanting again, "You see, we're pikeys, we're dirty fucking pikeys!"

It doesn't take a crystal ball to recognize that the prejudice travellers have encountered has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's what they have come to expect so they get there first, so to speak.

"They're do-as-you-likeys", said Will. "They're a law unto themselves. The police won't touch them because they're frightened of being sued for discrimination."

So they're "do-as-you-likeys". Sometimes I rejoice at the vigour of vernacular. What Will, an Essex boy, didn't realize is that so many of the words he uses are from the Romany, such as "chor" for "steal". Funnily enough, he's stopped using that word now. He told me that as a boy, he and his gang had had a run-in with travellers that had resulted in the Essex boys being targetted with shot-guns. Relations since then have not been friendly. In fact, he said, the Irish travellers are "the worst", and when Irish men come into the prison, they are quick to explain that they are from the "Republic", i.e. they're not travellers. Jessamy, too, said that the travellers we encountered were Irish.

They didn't sound Irish to me. But I suppose someone has to be the lowest of the low.

Will went on to explain that I probably had rather romantic notions of traveller culture. ("You don't say!" I wanted to exclaim.) In reality, he said, travellers have absorbed what is going on around them: because of the wheeler-dealer culture, they have taken on board the proliferation of drugs, guns, and violence that is around them. The chaos, however, was always there. It is this chaos that I suspect Jessamy was drawn to - or the freedom that the Nomadic spirit represents. But there is no place for orderly, middle-class women in a travellers' encampment. They resented the intrusion as much as Essex County Council resent their encampments. As for me, I’ll do anything, go anywere, for a story.

But I was shocked. Leading a borderline existence on the fringes of society leads to a complete breakdown in trust. The boys switch in and out of childhood as the occasion demands. The girls use their perceived innocence in order to manipulate. In effect, there is no childhood. There is no innocence, no joy, and no love for the larger world.

As the van drove off, one of Jonathon's sidekicks asked me, "Where are you going?" It was as though he had suddenly reverted to being a seven- or eight-year-old boy again, which of course he was, but in that moment, I had stopped seeing this.

"As if I'd tell you where we're going", I found myself saying to a child.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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Superb piece. Worth far more than the £10 or so worth of journalism I buy at the newstand every week. Emily, you have hit a vein of gold.

Posted by: B Wood at June 7, 2007 04:15 PM

Very interesting 'Emily', you're almost there now.

You've just got to divest yourself of the remaining Marxist baggage.

"the culture of dispossessed people."

"Leading a borderline existence on the fringes of society leads to a complete breakdown in trust."

etc etc

"there is no place for orderly, middle-class women in a travellers' encampment."

So where do you stand on travellers camping next door to orderly middle-class women? Still firmly on the side of travellers I presume. Still, you are waking up gradually.

How do you propose to fix the problems with the travelling community?

Policing is not allowed as you point out. They are above the law in some respects.

Coercion is not allowed.

Social engineering of traveller 'culture' - not allowed obviously, too insensitive, would probably require coercion anyway.

So what are we left with, social engineering of the majority population I suppose. Try to make them not notice travellers and their actions, make them afraid to complain, silence them with hate crime laws. That sort of thing.

Thats what we are doing now isn't it.

Posted by: Lurker at June 12, 2007 12:45 AM

Is this REALLY what Gypsies and Travellers are like? I mean, ALL of them? Would you assume that, having met some drunks in the local High Street one Friday night, that all house-dwellers behaved in this way? A bit worrying, this sort of 'journalism'.

Posted by: Bryan Lawrence at June 13, 2007 04:41 PM

ok, you must of been stoned out of your box my girl. you cant even get your own name right. this is not how this fair is at all, and if you were paid to go there i suggest you give back all that money as you have sat at home on drugs and wine having a good laugh to your self.
you should right for the New Statesman kid.

Posted by: gypsyandproud at June 13, 2007 10:32 PM

They dont all have to be like that Bryan.

So what do you think needs to change Bryan?

Its an in-group out-group problem. To the travellers we simply dont exist on the same level as them. Stealing from a fellow traveller is wrong, stealing from us is just doing what they need for their 'tribe'.

At the very least we should hold them accountable to the same rules we have to live under, instead they are held to a lower standard. Im talking here about income tax, VAT, road tax, car insurance, MoTs, driving licences. All that stuff. If those rules were ruthlessly enforced, much of their wealth and mobility would be sapped away.

Posted by: Geezer at June 14, 2007 02:08 AM

Having worked with Travellers for the last few years, what the article describes doesn't surprise me. But Travellers are socio-economically divided like the rest of society. Some are materially wealthy and civilised, others piss poor and similarly broadly decent people. Others are degenerate criminals who offer their children little more than neglect and the example of choring and disrespecting others. Most that I meet are not that different from the rest of us.

Neither romanticising or demonising is helpful.

Posted by: Whodyamaflip at June 14, 2007 10:24 PM

And regarding change - how do you change anything?

Where do you start?
I'd say firstly allow Travellers to purchase plots of land to live on - right now planning laws make it damn hard to get anywhere with this. And this equally applies to anyone who wants to live on a piece of land eg in a caravan, bus, self-build. Additionally, quality transit sites would give them a place to legally move to and from as they traditionally choose to do. Where are the sites? Too costly - Trident wasn't?

Secondly - deal with the problem of mobile Travellers fly-tipping.
What I see is local authorities turning a blind eye and then paying hundreds of thousands to clear it up. This should be punished, but lack of will and resources prevail.

More resources into trading standards along with policing criminal and anti-social behaviour. Tougher sentences should act as deterrents.

And most importantly getting unwilling Travellers to allow their children to go to school, so they can learn the 3 R's and more (with the greater opportunites this provides) - which requires wider prosecution powers.

There is little political will to deal with these problems. And probably never will be - as with climate change, resource wars, barking mad mismanagement of the NHS and increasing emotional poverty across society. I doubt anything will be done to tackle any of these problems in any significant way.

Posted by: Whodyamaflip at June 14, 2007 10:56 PM

An interesting account, which I think mirrors the unfortunate experiences that anybody, looking like an uninformed member of the oppressive majority, will get when they just barge into the middle of the space of an oppressed minority. It is a shame the writer didn't encounter someone with enough savvy to try to take more interest in her, but not all that surprising.

I have now been visiting Travellers for forty years, including many unnanounced visits to Travellers I have never met before, and have almost always been made welcome, or if the visit was inconvenient, been warned off most politely.

The genreral rule is to ask first before you do anything, act humbly, acknowledge your ignorance, show respect, and simply allow the Travellers you meet to guide and protect you. Trust in the Traveller community is built through the network of perrsonal acquaintace and relations. Nowadays I guess if I meet new groups of Travellers, I'll spend at least half an hour talking about mutual acquaintances befgore anything else.

And then - at Stow - or anywhere - the riches and variety and roots of Gypsy/Romani/Traveller culture will gradually unforld themselves. There is no quick guide to this, any more than the Home Office can really provide a a 6-page guide to living in England for immigrants. The most important thing is a humble willingness to learn. And after 40 years in the fields of Gypsy politics and Romani Studies, and publishing ten boioks and dozens of articles, I still learen new stuff every day.

Posted by: Thomas Acton at June 16, 2007 10:04 AM

Oh its 'Romani' now is it, is that so you can point at the oiks who still use 'Romany'? Lets hope, in a few years, when the word is again arbitarily changed to 'Rhomanee' for example they remember to send you the memo. Otherwise you might end up looking like one of the oiks too.

Posted by: Lurker at June 23, 2007 01:23 AM

In your surprisingly uninformed article I notice that you mention me as the author 'of a book written in the 1950's by a Roma'. I would not call myself a 'Roma' as it is not a term used in England by anyone other than would-be Academics. The book 'Smoke in the Lanes' has become quite famous and has even been reprinted a year or two ago. You may perhaps be interested to learn that I have just been published again, after forty years. The new book 'Beneath the Blue Sky' (a line from an old Romani song) deals with life on the roads from the early 1960's to the end of the 1990's. Mechanised of course......'Swimming in large white vans'. The latter evokes a sea of white Transit vans, not the true picture of the field at Stow. That is to say it was full of modern luxury trailer caravans and newish vans and lorries, with a scattering of wondefully ornate vintage trailers from the 1970's and earlier: coupled with some magnificently restored and re-painted lorries from the same period, brought up specially to the fair to be shown off or sold. To this colourful scene your only reaction seemed to consist of a very 'sour grapes' attitude without ANY appreciation of the scene. 'These people have money I thought' you observed accusingly. Why shouldn't they have money? I ask Everyone else has. You have. I have. Your story of the 'sticky smell of dope' from the car was very unlikely. But even if it were true then so what? There is more 'dope' smoked by GAUJO people by far than by Travellers. Your slur on teenage girls and your sneer about 'A-levels' was just snobbery in its worst form, just despicable. And as for your assertion that 'Travellers will sit around their fires swindling (!!) eachother till the cows come home....bargaining and pulling a fast one.... are part and parcel of the culture of a dispossessed people' the latter statement is complete b******* and is an insult to people who enjoy dealing, be they dealing in diamonds, property or scrap metal. It is a way of life! It just adds to the display of complete ignorance on the subject about which you so airily express your life shielded cosy views. Have you never heard of people living (not as criminals) by their wits and resources? Away from 'hours', Unions, inflation-proof pensions and the like? We DO exist!!! Travellers are, apart from those who have been coaxed into taking 9 to 5 jobs and living in council accomodation, the last link with freedom of spirit......I am in my seventies and still go out hawking every day with my lorry....very happy and grateful I am at doing so. Not for me the armchair and slippers and sheltered accomodation! I'm afraid that it was part of your ignorance of Travellers ways that you, two women on their own, placed yourselves in the field at Stow amongst people, all known to each other, who were rightly suspicious at your audacity, nay rudness, in joining uninvited what is really an exclusive club-members twice yearly holiday, to meet up with friends and relatives, for marriages to be arranged and even old scores to be settled, most of those present only encounter each other at TRAVELLERS fairs. That you were so thick skinned and arrogant that you started taking photographs and even began painting the scene is almost beyond belief in its lack of either good manners or sensitivity! (And all this when you felt it likely that you would be 'swindled into buying a horse'. How would that have happened for Gods sake? would you even have had the cash to pay for one? Absolutely pathetic!) If YOU were at an exclusive club meeting how would you have felt if two non-members suddenly gatecrashed it and started photographing you? How can you present yourself (as you have done) as a hard-nosed reporter 'As for me I'll do anything, go anwhere for a story' yet be so feeble that you packed up and left because of a few children? If you had just told them to 'F*** off' when you first arrived they wouldn't have bothered you...might even have respected you! Travellers children, wise in the ways of the world from an early age, but certainly not devoid of joy or happiness, and safe in the love of their parents (few, if any from 'broken homes') are quick to pick up the vibes from an unwelcome or 'dithery' stranger. Who can blame them? If you wish to write to me (which I doubt) please try to read my last book before doing was well-reviewed in T.L.S of 19th October by Michael Holroyd.

Dominic Reeve.

Posted by: Dominic Reeve at November 25, 2007 01:24 AM

I'm not surprised Emily Kingham chooses not to use her real name. My mother is from a (Scottish) Travelling family. Her father was a great reader, a soldier and, later, a commercial traveller. My mother served an apprenticeship as a tailor, worked in munitions, on the buses and finally as a travel agent. All through my childhood we had a trailer, parked legally and sometimes less legally - if she could not find a place to stop - for us to escape the rat-race a bit. She is now in her 80s and still has an affinity withTravelling people. She was excited when I went to the Appleby Fair. I'm going to show her your article and she's going to buy a trailer again and come and park on your lawn.

Posted by: ross bradshaw at November 27, 2007 07:13 PM

For clarity I should say that she will be coming to park on Kingham's lawn, not Dominic Reeve's!

Posted by: ross bradshaw at November 28, 2007 06:40 PM

Oh, dear, oh, dear, Emily. The warning signs are in your piece at the start. I have never seen a reporter write such a feature without using their own byline; except in the days when newspapers awarded them sparingly, as a reward for good work. As for “Kingham”, well ho, bloody ho, although it's better than “Emily Cirencester” -- possibly.
This is one of the silliest bits of self-styled journalism I have seen in a long time; xenophobic, even, in its descriptions of your inept attempt to observe people who live outside your world, and shocking in that it comes from a person who is educated, albeit in a system that has lumbered your outlook with concepts such as “celebrating” and “head of diversity” (sorry, “Head of Diversity”; these phrases always come with capital letters), the clichés and conversational props of your trade.
Professor Acton, Dominic Reeve and a few others have said most of what I would say. Personally, however, I write “Romany” rather than “Romani”, preferring to use my native language; it works best for communication. And how dim-witted and inappropriate that you describe Mr Reeve as “Roma”, a word propagated by non-Gypsies who seem to have little understanding (as opposed to knowledge) of Romanies and Irish Travellers but a great understanding of the orthodoxies of their “empowering” professions. Mind, it could have been worse, could have been “Rromani” (sic).
Emily, you will not take kindly to this, but I suggest you apply to join the National Union of Journalists Contrary to what Mr Reeve seems to imply, a union has it uses including, in the NUJ's case, trying, like a medieval guild, to maintain professional standards. At present, your writing might even rub up the union’s ethical code the wrong way. In the NUJ you would learn about the necessity for research (more than reading a few old books) before you launch into new topics.
Otherwise, please stick to trying to teach prisoners to write – for life – a sentence that on the basis of your Stow-on-the-Wold outburst you surely deserve.
-- David Altheer, freelance hack, London

Posted by: David Altheer at November 28, 2007 06:45 PM

It was with increasing astonishment that I read this 'article' purporting to describe Stow Fair, a gathering I am fortunate enough to attend regularly and thoroughly enjoy. It saddens me greatly to think that those with no knowledge or experience of Travelling people could read this and 'swallow' it as FACT. If you did experience an unpleasant situation that is very unfortunate, but to denigrate an entire group of people as you have done is nothing less than disgraceful. Your whole representation of 'Stow' is one of distortion and malice. That you have no knowledge or the slightest comprehension of Traveller culture is glaringly obvious from several comments you make: ".......Gypsy vanner stallions, a sturdy, piebald breed, they looked thoroughly miserable and ill-kempt". As Travellers highly value thier horses and the whole point of the fair is to 'show off' or sell them it's hardly logical that they would be 'ill-kempt'. And what are we supposed to conclude from such remarks as ".....the girls use their percieved innocence to manipulate": "......they wore thigh high boots and not much else. It was clear what their agenda was......" Romany people have extremely high moral values in their attitudes to certain matters, to anyone 'outside' your remarks would have an obvious (incorrect!!!) implication. Even more disturbing is your twice mentioned opinion of a young boy being 'a psycopath'! I trust you have the medical or professional qualifications to back up this diagnosis? But I think your pre-concieved notion of what you would encounter and your views on Travelling people are summed up nicely with your comment "......but I suppose somebody has to be THE LOWEST OF THE LOW".
I could write more but thankfully somebody far more 'qualified' than me has already responded. My 'distress' at your article is only slightly mitigated in the knowledge that my friends and aquaintances and personal experiences bear no resemblance to what you describe. I will say I am disgusted that a so called 'professional writer' has produced this drivel..........however, having read your previous article on 'bare knuckle fighting', the fact that you were told that the story should be taken 'with a pinch of salt' your attitude was "that doesn't matter....its a good story", just about sums up your level of professionalism. This approach may be fine for a writer of fiction, but for a supposed 'reporter' FACTS should be paramount.
A final thought: I wonder what would be the scenario if 'two middle class ladies' parked their caravan in a side street on some 'sink estate' to view the goings-on of the 'residents'.....????

Kenneth Mayhew

Posted by: Kenneth Mayhew at December 4, 2007 04:03 PM

'Emily Kingham' - I read your article with a sense of increasing depression. The only good thing that came out of your observations is that it generated a reaction on this thread from the greatest living writer on the British Travelling people: Dominic Reeve.

As Mr Reeve, Kenneth Mayhew, David Altheer and one or two others have already made many justified and factual criticisms both of your astonishingly poor article and your reactions to people you were a stranger and outsider to, there is very little I wish to add.

Over the years I have attended Appleby Fair a few times and used to attend the largely Traveller-supported Southall Horse Market near London in the late 1950's and early 1960's. These are both venues where I have seen artists sketching in peace. Juliet Jeffery, a very talented non-Traveller artist, has been sketching and painting at Appleby Fair for about 40 years; generations of Travellers have got used to seeing her and her easel and treat her with respect. It is all a matter of being diplomatic and slowly winning acceptance by having Travellers approve of you and your art.

I was once shown a framed reproduction of Sir Alfred Munnings's famous Gypsy painting (I believe it is in Birmingham City Art Gallery) 'Arrival at Epsom Downs for Derby Week 1922' by a woman who was recognisibly the girl in the painting leading the goat. She was still proud forty years later of the fact that Munnings had painted her and members of her family.

This must say something that contradicts your conclusions about hostility. As a matter of fact, I was lucky enough to be at Stow Fair in the Spring of this year, perhaps I actually passed by you, and despite the mud and the rain it was a wonderful day, not that I was there on any kind of business beyond being thrilled at the revival of 1970's trailers and commercial vehicles, the horse-drawn vehicles including wagons and the sheer electric buzz generated by nearly everyone around.

I would ask you this: what would happen if you and a companion turned up uninvited and knowing no one at, say, the Leander Club marquee at Henley Regatta or the Enclosure at Ascot, or somewhere like these events, and tried to gate-crash them armed with easels and paintbrushes? We know Stow Fair is open to all comers and in theory anyone can pitch there but this misses the point that horse fairs are Travellers' 'space'. Oh and and by the way, the land at Stow that you were stopping on is actually owned by a Romany man.

Posted by: Brian Raywid at December 6, 2007 01:31 AM

First of all, there seems to be some confusion: I am a writer, not a reporter. I wrote about what I saw at the Stow Horse Fair, what happened to me, and what I thought about it. I was expressing my opinion. I do not claim to be an authority on Traveller culture. But I am an authority on what happened to me. Despite the shocking threats of violence to which I was subject, I still have the sense to see that one of the causes of that violence might have been the presence of two non-Travellers in Traveller territory. I make this point in the piece. This does not, however, excuse the violence.

Secondly, I take photographs wherever I go, and I always ask permission before I do so. This permission was granted at the fair.

Thirdly, I have been to Henley Regatta in a similar spirit: one of observation. Personally speaking, I find groups of any kind to be oppressive. However, I doubt if "gate-crashers" with easels and watercolours sitting quietly on the banks of the river to paint scenes of the Regatta would be subject to verbal or physical abuse.

My last response to a specific point is this: anyone who thinks drug abuse is not rife in the Traveller community can fairly be accused of gross naivete. Travellers themselves have told me that their young people are smoking crack, heroin, etc. Drugs effect everyone.

I have written three pieces about my experiences of Travellers. In my first piece - the story of the bare-knuckle boxer who quite possibly wasn't a bare-knuckle boxer - I was trying to make a point about storytelling, myth-making, fantasy and self-dramatisation. I felt privileged to be told that story. There was some emotional truth in it - even if it was just that of someone who so desperately wanted to be a hero that he had to tell "lies" about it. Most stories do that in one way or another.

You see, I am far more interested in the individual than the group. The storyteller in this instance happened to be a Traveller. The culture of which he is part has a strong oral storytelling tradition. I wanted to find out more about it. I went to a horse fair. I got chased out by vicious children, their nonchalant parents standing by. My last story concerned a Traveller woman who told my fortune. She was amazing. She held me spellbound. No one can say I do not appreciate the culture that Travellers bring to us. But I can see why Travellers bring a lot of heat on themselves as well.

Finally, no matter how angry I make my readers, I refuse to bow to the dictates of political correctness.
Emily Kingham

Posted by: Emily Kingham at December 10, 2007 04:40 PM

Not a bad answer, Miss "Kingham". But whether you present your work as reportage or storytelling makes little difference: it was poorly conceived and ill informed. (And badly spelt... "Drugs effect everyone"... hmm) You can write well (me, I quite liked your bare-knuckle boxing article). But then in your reply you lose your nerve and resort to cliché, saying "I refuse to bow to the dictates of political correctness". As a get-out, Miss "K", it's feeble, and from someone who loosely uses words such as "diversity” and misuses "Roma", not credible.

Posted by: David Altheer at December 24, 2007 12:04 AM

Well I am delighted to hear Dominic Reeve is still going strong, having just read all four of his books in quick succession, after I picked up a copy of the reprint from the library - and I might add, enjoyed Beshlie's lovely drawings. Dominic makes no attempts to romanticise the life but gave me some insight into what it was like. I am now reading up on traveller history, and I have to say I had no idea how cruel persecution against travellers was in Europe. All societies have their ways and their problems. Would any gaujo be happy with the idea of someone marching into their living room uninvited and starting to paint them? I doubt it. Some settled travellers turned up with wagons and ponies at the Rushcart Festival here last year. My friend and I cast an envious look at them: they seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot more than we were!

All the best Dominic, next time I am down south camping I will bring my scrap with me.

Posted by: Pam Bromley at January 26, 2008 11:58 AM

How foolish and blind.

Naive amateur journalism against a dis-advantaged dying culture, already stabbed in the zee by centuries of ignorance and often falsely blamed. Not perfect but neither is your gaje system, look at townlife today - so really your no different lady dinelo yek.

Sad scenario - career first "Emily" discovers in life kodak, biro and pad, speeds off to a mudded cultural frontier eager to make a quick article scoup - a nav for yourself as the trained intelligent journalist but in reality foolishly with little research. Then it goes horrible wrong. So blame the gyspies and pen that instead. Naively you stuck you head out of the train window to see what was coming and bumped into a retreating travellers cavalcade - a culture fighting extinction, wishing for peace and quiet.

You claim to be a Professional "Writer" yet your using a camera! How so that? like using a hammer to paint a picture or pulling a vardo with a spotted pig. If armed on the moment with a camera your a photographer and if professionally trained from a media stables you should know this. More importantly you needed to seek individual permissions from travellers before "snapping them" - not just from the fair organisers/props.

Don,t you think you owe it to the Romani / travellers to professionally "take the criticism on the chin" for your un-invited intrusion and show some respect to decent fokendi by apologising on this web page. Its really your own "shallow lick of the lollipop" that failed you by not fully understanding your topic before you place down your ink.

Another classic case of media student being let loose with head in clouds.

Bose Wales / Cymru tem
Romani Cymru Project

Posted by: Bose Wales at September 25, 2008 05:45 PM

I remember going to Midsummer Fair in Cambridge as a young kid. Once, when I was about 6 or 7, my older brother, a naughty kid - took me round the back of the fair to where all the flash trailers were - we thought they were the most magnificent vehicles we'd ever seen and were convinced that the people living in them must be famous!

We were nosing about like the little s*ds that we were, when a lady came out of one of the trailers and asked us whether we would like it if she were to trample about in the front garden of our house - "you see", she said "that would be the same as what you two are doing to me - this is my front garden. Now get back to the fair, both of you, because this is my home, and you are trespassing".

Well, I had been brought up to respect my elders and betters, and back home in the village where we lived, we would often have the Romany folk stopping, and our parents would oftentimes do business with them, and I'd always admired and liked their way of life, and I was rightly put to shame. I was mortified that we had offended this lady, albeit unknowingly. From that time forth, I was always cognisant of the Traveller's need for privacy and that it is just as important to them as it is to us gorgas.

Thus, I was horrified by Ms Emily's lack of sensitivity in this respect. We were just little kids and learned our lesson, but Ms Emily is a mature woman in her 40's. As for taking photo's, crikey lady, what do you expect? How would you like it? Your lack of awareness and manners is bad enough, and your judgemental attitude, even before you went to the fair, leaves a lot to be desired, but for you to then turn round and blame the Travellers because you suffered the consequences of your own bad etiquette is astounding. Have some humility and admit your mistakes! The world doesn't revolve around you and your cosy middle-class values, you know. They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but I do hope you learn something from all this, lady.

Posted by: Peebie R at October 18, 2008 03:44 PM

People who have been bred into hatred as children, will not respond to gorgers trying to be freindly to them, as they have learnt by example the horrors of being a gypsy or traveller. they have been subjected to hardship and blame and treated with absolute degradation everyday of their young lives, dont judge these children, judge the world in which these people have had to struggle
and survive in, were you totaly suprised at their response, they knew how you would portray them in your misguided understandings
so gave you something to write about.
They won you lost

Posted by: James Adams at November 11, 2008 03:30 PM

All this whingeing about "it's because of their dreadful upbringing and stigma of racialism". They're theiving vermin, which is why they're shunned and told to move on. If they behaved like decent human beings, they'd be treated properly.

Posted by: Pikeysarescum at March 25, 2009 02:43 AM

A really interesting debate this one. I have no ax to grind either way.

I think it is generally agreed that Emily and her friend were insensitive - rude even - to pitch up uninvited among traveller families, and then start taking pictures. Also, if she is a good writer, one would have expected her to research her subject before she went, which in this case she clearly didn't do.

However, I can't help noticing that no one on this forum has challenged Emily's version of events, so I can only conclude that they ring true. So why has no traveller criiticized the kids' totally unacceptable behaviour? Terrorizing 2 women who were there by themselves is not very brave. Yet no adult appears to have stopped them.

Sure, I realize that travellers have their own way of doing things, but the fact remains that they are part of British society, whether they like it or not, and therefore must observe basic standards of civilized behaviour like the rest of us.

That said, I generally do believe in in Romany rights. I recently read "Smoke in the Lanes", and loved it.

Posted by: Mark Hornsey at March 11, 2011 12:22 AM

Very interesting debate - I have no axe to grind either way. It seems obvious that Emily and her friend were insensitive in pitching up uninvited among travellers, and rude to start taking photographs of them.

However, the response from the travellers was way OTT. There was no excuse for a group of children to start terrorizing the two women, apparently with their parent's conscent, especially when there was no man there to defend them.

I am a great admirer of Dominic Reeve - I loved his "Smoke in the Lanes" - but with all due respect to him, well brought up English women are not going to tell small children to f--- off, however badly behaved the children are!

Posted by: Mark Hornsey at March 26, 2011 01:33 PM

My area is considered to have the highest proportion of travellers amongst the housed population anywhere in the western world. We have to live with them. It doesn't help to have people ignore the nightmare those that have the misfortune to cross them have to endure. Not all
travellers are lying thieving scoundrels who school their kids in intimidating people, but bitter experience shows most of them these days are like that. Unfortunately, travellers round here also have a very high murder rate, both as victims and perpetrators. I have had death threats from one family myself, one of whose sons went on to kill a man just weeks later. It all makes it rather difficult to hear the shrill defence being put up by some who do not have to live in fear. I know they have had it very hard in the past, and still do in other countries; here their troubles would vanish if they didn't lie, steal, threaten and kill. Even some of the older Gypsies themselves disown their younger neighbours, saying they are 'pikeys' not Romanys. It's the arrogant, abusive threatening behaviour of the majority of that community round here that is so difficult. Change that.

Posted by: Justin at November 15, 2011 11:45 PM
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