by Charles Smith
Chair, the Gypsy Council (GCECWCR)
When I first purchased a copy of the book it was 1973. I was 16 years old. I did not realise then that, after reading, it would have such an influence on the rest of my life.
Coming from a Gypsy background on my mother’s side, I had always been interested in the history and culture of the Gypsy people. My mother and grandparents had taught me many Romany words, and the ways of the Gypsies, and I felt a strong attraction to all things Gypsy from the earliest age. But my mother’s family had become permanently settled during the years just prior to the second World War and I was brought up in a house.
Although my father was a respected local business man, my mum was known to many as a Gypsy, her family was local and fairly well known and when I went to school I was the son of a Gypsy and was often called names by the other kids. I also experienced prejudice from some of the teachers, sometimes subtly, sometimes very blatant. This treatment had a profound effect on me. I knew I was different from the other kids. I became very proud of my Gypsy blood and also became a rebel and rebelled against all authority that wished to turn me into a nice little Gorjio who could give up his Gypsy ancestry. I have never to this day denied my ancestry and never will, although I can see why some Gypsy people do. Life can be a whole lot easier if nobody knows you are a Gypsy.
I knew from a very early age that what the Gorjios were saying about us was not true. My mother’s house was much cleaner than many of my Gorjio friends’ houses. We did not go out stealing and were not lazy. My grandparents had worked hard running their flower business and never had anything they couldn’t pay for in cash. So, by the time I left school, Gorjio intolerance and prejudice had turned me into what it had set out to destroy, whether knowingly or not. I believe that the education system of the early 1960s was there to create homogenised human beings, all set and brainwashed into being told what to do. Get a job, get married, get a mortgage, get a car, furniture, carpets, do as you’re told. Get on, don’t question those running things, get a pension and a pat on the head just like a good dog. This is not the life for a Gypsy.
Jeremy Sandford’s book was something totally new. Before this book, most things written about Gypsies was either out of date, romantic rubbish, or racist; often all three together. So, as a young Gypsy, I found Jeremy’s book thoroughly enlightening. Here were Gypsy people speaking for themselves. The only other books I can put in this league are those of Dominic Reeves, ‘Smoke in the Lane’ and ‘Which Ever Way We Turn’, but I never came across these until after I became involved with the National Gypsy Education Council (NGEC).
Jeremy’s book was actually for sale in the high streets of Britain. In W H Smiths a very large display was on offer right in the doorway of the shop. When I picked up my copy I felt like everyone was looking at me and thinking, ‘he must be a Gypsy’. I don’t suppose they were, of course. At last, a book about real Gypsy people, not some romantic group dancing round camp fires. This was the first book that I read from cover to cover, never before had a book captured me so. It took two days to read and I have often used it as a means of reference since.
Within this book, one of the most beautiful and poignant stories you will ever read is ‘Seven Weeks of Childhood’ by Johnny Connors, a man badly treated by life, locked up in prison for defending his wife, abused by the authorities both in Ireland and England, and yet still able to see the beauty in things like birds singing or a dog chasing a hare. Despite his ill treatment, he seems to bear no malice. This story should be essential reading in all schools and what a wonderful film it would make.
Prince Nathaniel Petulengro Lee, and all the other stories from the other Gypsies and Travellers, share a common theme. Sadness for the loss of the old ways, but also the great pride of being different, being a Gypsy or a Traveller.
One of the things that made that edition of this book so useful to me was the chapter ‘What the reader should do now’. It gave a list of things that people could do to support Gypsy people in their fight for Civil Rights. Before this, all I knew how to do was to react to people’s prejudice, unfortunately often in a way that did nothing to support my feelings if someone called me a Gyppo. I usually ended up in a fight, then people would say, ‘bloody Gypsies, always causing trouble’. Now, through Jeremy’s book, I was armed with real facts and figures and I started to put my argument in a much better way.
At least school had taught me to read and write, so I started writing letters to local papers, questioning their often one-sided articles on Gypsy issues and, to my amazement, they published them. I wrote off to the Gypsy organisations listed at the back of the book: The Gypsy Council, The National Gypsy Education Council, The Romany Guild, and ACERT. I was now being invited to meetings and sent book lists and information from all these groups, with the exception of The Gypsy Council who failed to acknowledge my letters.
I remember the first meeting that I attended, in London, just off Russell Square, a joint meeting held by ACERT and the National Gypsy Education Council. Before going in, I walked round the square twice to buck up enough courage. Here I met Gypsy people who were speaking for themselves: Tom Lee, Marjie Lee, and later Peter Mercer, Nathan and Josie Lee, and Gorjios like Thomas Acton and Donald Kendrick who I had only ever read about.
Thomas used to encourage me to speak at public meetings where sites were being proposed, often to very hostile audiences. I know in those days that what I actually said was not of great importance, but I began to realise that just the presence of a Gypsy representative in the crowd often made people realise that we were human beings and sometimes moderated some of the more extreme racists that turn up at these sort of meetings.
Many years passed and in 1996 the Gypsy Council (GCECWCR), of which I had now become Chair, became involved in the organisation of Stow Fair in the Cotswolds, an important Gypsy horse fair. While I was manning our mobile office, a man approached. He was dressed in a multi-coloured cardigan, lilac trousers, beads round his neck, carrying a knapsack and an accordion. He had a mop of grey hair, a huge smile, and looked like a 1960s hippie. This was, and is, Jeremy Sandford. It was his book which motivated and encouraged me to stand up for my rights and the rights of other Gypsy people, especially where he spoke of his hope that one day a Gypsy would appear who, remaining a Gypsy in every sense, would also have had a Gorjio education and thus be able to take them on at their own game and speak to Gorjios in their own language.
In my work with the NGEC and with GCECWCR, I have travelled all over Europe, and on those travels I have spoken with and shook hands with and mixed with prime ministers, top government officials, mayors, kings, queens, lords and ladies, members of parliament, film stars, actors and pop stars. None of these people have ever inspired me as much as Jeremy Sandford and his book ‘Gypsies’. Jeremy is now once again a committee member on the Gypsy Council (GCECWCR) and I am working with him on a video of Romany songs. He is still inspiring and I believe this book can still inspire and motivate today.
Read ‘Gypsies’ and be inspired!
by Charles Smith
Since this book was first published, many things have changed. The 1968 Caravan Sites Act has been and gone, never really achieving what it set out to do, which was to ensure that councils created enough sites to give a home to every Gypsy family in the land, so that the old days of illegal park-ups and fugitive lives would be at an end. Local authorities wriggled and squirmed, giving false information on numbers. Many managed to avoid providing any sites, claiming to have no Gypsies living in the areas, moving people on before the count, or just not acknowledging their existence.
This is still common practice. No government had the political guts to make councils comply with the 1968 Act. Many councils were awarded designation status, which permits them to expel all Gypsy caravans from their area, without providing any site provision. Gypsy people were simply moved on, with the result that an even heavier burden was put on to the more positive local authorities who were providing sites. Many of these more law-abiding and humane authorities became antagonised and less tolerant of illegal sites which were the result of them being surrounded by boroughs that made no provision.
The government should have made a time limit for compliance to the 1968 Act and made local authorities provide both permanent and transit sites. If this had happened, there would probably now be no illegal sites. The government had it in their grasp to solve the problem that Gypsy people had nowhere to park their trailers legally. The Gypsy Problem was a term in frequent use at the time this book was first published and was still being used well into the 1980s by local authorities and government departments, a term incidentally used by the Nazis. It was the Gypsy people who insisted that this term stop being used, not accepting its use. Gorjio Problem would have been, and probably is, more relevant. Gypsy problems on the whole are caused by Gorjio intolerance. This is shown all through Jeremy’s book when he talks to the Gypsy and Traveller people.
One positive thing which resulted from more Gypsies settling on sites was that more children started to get education. Traveller Education Services were set up all over the country and in many places the culture of the Gypsy people was recognised. To start with, very few Gypsy children went into secondary schools, and some of the leaders of the time were calling for earlier leaving ages and even separate schooling. Many parents were fearful that their children would become tainted by Gorjio children. I think there may be some truth in this, but it pays to learn how the Gorjios operate if we are ever to claim equal rights.
We now have young Gypsy people who do not hide their identity, training as solicitors, doctors, teachers, or simply being able to deal with Gorjio bureaucracy on a more equal footing, challenging planning decisions in court, using Gorjio ways to fight the Gorjio without giving up their own identity.
While the 1968 Act was in force, many Gypsy people also built their own sites and started to be more accepted in their local area, although most councils fought against any private sites tooth and nail. I believe this was because it meant they couldn’t control us like they could on their own sites.
No Gypsy family was ever given a proper secure tenancy on a local authority site and eviction was, and still is, a threat used to control people. Some sites have been passed off to the management of unscrupulous people within the Gypsy community without any heed of the views of those living on the sites. These landlords often prove to be worse than the local authorities with rules which conflict with Gypsy culture and tradition, such as no use of hose pipes to wash yards and trailers, no work on site, no animals, but the councils turn a blind eye and wash their hands of the situation, claiming that they had handed over the management to the Gypsies’ own representative.
So many Gypsy people remain in a precarious state, even when on a site. The 1968 Act also gave some Gypsy people a legal argument against eviction; if the local authority had made no site provision during this period, there were strong moral and legal arguments for forcing them not to evict Gypsies from the places where they’d parked illegally.
Then came the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. Despite huge public protest, the then Conservative government pushed through this horrendous piece of anti-Gypsy legislation which repealed the 1968 Act and forced Gypsies back into almost the same position they had been in in the 1960s, with caravan dwelling families being harrassed and forcibly moved on from one place to another, sometimes several times a day. Sites were being sold off or closed down with no new sites being built.
The worst result of all this is that there has been a fall in the number of children attending school. A recent report from Essex County Council states that due to their policy, one of eviction, fewer Gypsy children are attending school, but they claim that this policy, which they call the Essex Gypsy Code, is a success.
Throughout Jeremy’s book we read of the experiences that Gypsy people have of the police. This is one thing that has hardly changed. In fact, in many ways things recently have taken a turn for the worse. I believe that the police see the 1994 Criminal Justice Act as an open season on Gypsies. Raids on sites with disgusting racist behaviour, active participation in evictions, along with threats of arrest and seizure of people’s homes if they do not move, Travellers being sprayed with CS gas, and in 1998 a young Irish Traveller boy was crushed to death at an eviction instigated by a local councillor.
So, are things better now or not? Despite the bad things that are going on, I believe that the Gorjios cannot destroy our people or our culture. Gypsies are now more willing to speak up and defend their rights and way of life. There are now more and more Gypsy writers being published. Local authorities are being forced to talk to Gypsy people. European legislation, the Human Rights Act and Race Relations laws are being used against the bigots and racists who would destroy us.
In 1991 the then National Gypsy Education Council, of which I had become Chair, voted unanimously at its AGM to change its name to The Gypsy Council for Education, Culture, Welfare and Civil Rights (GCECWCR). The change in name was to reflect more fully the work of the organisation. The change in name also brought back people who had long ago become disillusioned with the old Gypsy Council when it became the National Gypsy Council.
We soon had an office and resource centre staffed by volunteers like Ann Bagehot and George Wilson, and we have gone from strength to strength. We now also have young Gypsy people working with us on work schemes, young people who started school 15 to 20 years ago, now making use of the education they’ve had in Gorjio schools to support their own people.
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