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I was driving back to Soham from a business meeting in Cambridge when I came across the site. I was interested because of allegations against 'Gypsies' I'd read recently in the local press - accusing them of acts of vandalism, environmental damage and, of course, theft. I had no prior knowledge of Gypsies apart from they're among the groups of people adults tend to tell their children to stay away from and (in the days when I read it) 'Viz' had a strip titled 'The Thieving Gypsy Bastards'. I could only assume that this group of people is for some bizarre reason the subject of an accepted form of xenophobia in this country. The lifestyle they have followed for many centuries has proved to be more or less impregnable and so incorruptible by modern society in Britain and modern British society is reacting by destroying what it doesn't understand.
Over the last few years, a marked increase in the number of middle class adolescents who take to the road with romantic notions of emulating the Gypsies may well have exarcebated the plight of the genuine Gypsies as the adolescent's middle class parents have reacted by doing all that they could to have the few and inadequate facilities used by the travellers bulldozed off or made unavailable to them. It is then also possible that a large portion of the crimes that the Gypsies are blamed for are in fact carried out by local opportunists who can rely on the Gypsies getting blamed.
The Gypsies I met near Burwell were very friendly people. Their openness and warmth was in complete contrast to what my expectations would have been if I had believed a tenth of what I have heard about them. They were, however, extremely unhappy about the 'new pressures' that they are under. The speed with which people are moving them on and the hatred they encounter reflect the new desperate state of affairs. The engendered fear among the people I spoke to caused them to ask me not to publish photographs of their faces and not to publish their names.
All of the land in Britain has long since been divided up amongst the most 'successful' and the most aggressive people of times gone-by. The land put aside for use by people with no land of their own - or 'common land' is fast turning into shopping precincts, car parks or being sold off by councils to become thousands and thousands more acres of faceless suburbs... And it's us who accuse the Gypsies of vandalism and environmental damage? One of the things I was accutely aware of during my short time with the Gypsies - was their sense of community. Those people have a respect for each other which is getting increasingly rare in our stressed-up, overcrowded, over polluted suburban world.
Some would label Gypsies as uneducated criminal types. Those same people would find it hard to believe the rich cultural background of the Gypsy nation and the influential people who have favoured and been influenced by them. Blood groupings and linguistic analysis have suggested that the Gypsies originated from the Indus Basin in India. F.H. Grome notes the presence in 1322 of large numbers of Danuian captives in Egypt and speculates this to be reason for their name 'Gypsies'. The Gypsies who were already wide spread in Greek speaking Europe dispersed to Western Europe and then to the rest of the world after the year 1417. There are many words in the English language (some certainly and some thought to be) derived from the Gypsies own language, Romany. It is highly likely that the migrations of the Gypsies had a significant effect on the establishment of trading routes through out history. It is therefore apparent that these people have been consistently and unfairly overlooked in the history of modern civilisation.
The Gypsies in Barcelona in 1447 bore papal letters with them on their travels. During the 18th and 19th centuries royalty and 'Gypsiologists' were known to have positively encouraged the Gypsy culture in what has been called the missionary era. Block, who coined the term 'missionary era' cites individual attempts, in Poland and Prussia, by princes of the realm, to found settled colonies of Gypsies, none generally in the long term successful. A major set back in the diminishing fortunes of the Gypsies took place in 1936 in England, when commoners' rights of camping on racecourses such as the Epsom Downs were abolished. Could it be that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 has dealt the British Gypsy culture a fatal blow?
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Dr Derek Hawes, co-author of the study and lecturer at Bristol's School of Advanced Urban Studies, says that the restrictions on new sites and stopping places will have a particularly damaging effect on travelling children: 'The devastation comes when there is no place to stop because it means that travellers will be disenfranchised from services like education.' Severe cuts in the past two years in special education programmes for gypsy children in some areas will exarcebate educational problems of children on the road. 'By making it more difficult to live a nomadic life, and exerting pressure on gypsies to move into houses', says Derek Hawes, 'the effect will be to make a centuries-old way of life disappear altogether.' In his view, the only real potential for saving the nomadic way of life in Britain is challenges to the European courts.
British Gypsies: victims of ethnic cleansing? from SAUS Publications, School for Advanced Urban Studies, Rodney Lodge, Grange Road, Bristol BS8 4EA, £12.95.
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