In the York Castle Museum there used to be a Gypsy vardo dating from the last years of the 19th century. We went to look for it the other day only to be told that it is now in poor condition and in storage somewhere. This was sad for Louise because in its functional life before becoming a heritage attraction it sheltered the births of members of her family and once travelled in convoy with her long-lost grandfather, Gentleman Jim.
After many years of multicultural living, most of us profess nowadays to abhor ethnic or racial prejudices. Our progressive society is all grown up now and we imagine that our ethnic minority neighbours might readily chuckle with us at the story of a magistrate sentenced to diversity training for admonishing a defendant to stay away from the ‘Paki’ shop he had just robbed. Bruce Forsyth told us only the other day that enforced BBC apologies for light-hearted racial banter in Strictly Come Dancing were political correctness gone mad. For in our modern globalised world we are accustomed to diversity now and discriminating against our fellow citizens of different origins to our own is a thing of the past.
But the truth remains that being compelled to live too ‘up close and personal’ with others who look or behave differently to us is still unappealing to many. We prefer to choose for ourselves the contexts for how and where and when we embrace diversity in our lives and not to have it forced upon us. If we are honest, however non-discriminatory we might think ourselves to be, we have to admit that both racial and social prejudices persist within us. For, as Gordon Brown reminded us when he recently derided the Etonian privileges of the opposition front bench, class resentments still simmer just beneath the surface too.
Racial prejudice is how we humans tend to express our inter-tribal anxieties and insecurities – and class prejudice is how we discriminate against those who look much the same as us. And I imagine that as economic and resource pressures become increasingly felt in this uncertain future of ours and we are casting around for someone else to blame, tensions over ethnicity and inequality will escalate in coming years. For many more economic and climate migrants are predicted to arrive on our shores and, as the gap widens between the autonomy of affluence and the lack of agency of the poor, widespread social unrest seems all but inevitable.
Some may think me overly pessimistic. For instance, where I am living now there is no evident hostility expressed towards local minorities of Asian, African, Caribbean, Central or Eastern European origins. But Gypsies and Travellers are still quite openly reviled.
Recently a Gypsy funeral passed through the village where Louise works and, driving to collect her, I watched it pass by. The stately horse-drawn hearse was followed by a cavalcade of limousines full of smartly dressed mourners and at first I assumed it was the funeral of a local civic dignitary. Then trailing at the end came a long procession of ponies and carts driven by swarthy looking men in trilbies and bright neck-scarves.
Apart from the impatience of the queuing traffic, the event passed off as a solemn and dignified affair. But reading an account in the local paper afterwards, I learned of the upset of the four hundred mourners that local pubs and shops had barred their doors not only in the village where the funeral took place but in neighbouring communities as well. Despite the deceased Romany patriarch having lived amongst them for more than forty years, the response of the middle-England local community was to expect the worst.
My local Transitions group has recently obtained a neglected council-owned orchard to restore. It is located next to a small Gypsy and Traveller site and I have been surprised at the wariness expressed by some members of the dangers this proximity entails. And at the disability centre where Louise works she often listens to derogatory gossip about local Traveller families which is seldom borne out by the facts. Sometimes she challenges these far-fetched stories and reveals her own Romany origins. But far from changing the perjorative opinions of some of her colleagues, this has only resulted in them no longer being expressed in front of her.
In the Guardian culture pages Roxy Freeman wrote of her Gypsy upbringing and of her struggles to overcome prejudice in trying to adapt to the conventions of modern society. And Bruce Chatwin wrote in The Songlines about the hostility that nomadic peoples have often provoked in those who inhabit more settled and stable comfort zones. My own researches into Louise’s family past suggest that, far from denigrating the culture of the Gypsies, there is much to be learned about family and community solidarity from their resilient and adaptable self-reliance. Like the Native American Indians and other so-called ‘primitive’ cultures degraded by industrial civilisation, there is knowledge and wisdom in the tenacious survival of the ‘noble savages’ who live amongst us that seems likely to be relevant to us all in our less sheltered lives to come.