A melancholy trip among the Travellers

Gypsies leave the annual Appleby horse fair in Cumbria (Getty)

The Stopping Places
by Damian le Bas, Chatto and Windus, 320pp, £15

Where have they all gone? Well might you ask. There was a time when the Gypsies were a permanent feature of our landscape and a staple of our literature. Think of the remarkable figure of Meg Merrilies in Sir Walter Scott’s wonderful tale Guy Mannering or the Gypsies who frighten Harriet in Jane Austen’s Emma.

Or the various Gypsy folk who regularly feature in the works of 20th-century authors as different as Iris Murdoch and Enid Blyton. It is decades since I have read Blyton, or pored over her illustrations, but the pictures of those horse-drawn caravans and the look of the Gypsies she wrote about linger in the mind. But now, in modern Britain, Gypsies and Travellers are hardly visible; though, as this interesting book makes clear, they have not gone away, even if they have changed a great deal.

For the casual traveller in the Balkans, in Romania and Bulgaria, it is a shock to find the Gypsies are still very much in evidence, in large numbers, and as a visible (and sometimes unpopular) minority. They have their own language – Damian Le Bas, a British Gypsy, can make himself understood in Romania, and when he engages with the central European Roma he meets in Britain. It is this language that tells us that the Gypsies are nomads whose origins lie in northern India, and who first came to Europe at the end of the first millennium, reaching Britain some 400 years later.

The Gypsies first appear in the historical record in Scotland, in 1505, when King James IV made them a loan of £7 – one of the more surprising facts that this book reveals. They were described as “Egyptians” because of their dark skin, a feature that some British Travellers still have, and which is common in the Balkans too. Le Bas, by contrast, is fair-haired and blue-eyed, something that makes him an object of suspicion from time to time in this very close-knit, introspective community.

Le Bas’ aim in the book, subtitled “A Journey through Gypsy Britain”, is to travel to the various atchin tans, or stopping places, once visited by his great-grandmother (now in her 90s) in “the caravan time”. It turns out to be a melancholy journey, because most of these places are now deserted, and he is visiting a territory that is now of historic interest alone. He does meet Travellers from time to time, and quite often finds them less than forthcoming, as when he has to leave Appleby Fair having been given an unmistakeable hint that, as an unfamiliar face, he is not welcome.

Le Bas grew up in Sussex, though his family had a market stall selling flowers in Petersfield – Hampshire being the heartland, along with Kent, of the Traveller community. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital, and then at Oxford University. This makes him rather a stand-out in the community. The Travellers I know are Irish, though most have been born in England, and all have preserved their unmistakeable accent. None of them can read or write. This discovery came to me late in the day, and made me realise just how futile it was to give them hymn books or newsletters as they come into church.

Gypsy religion is a matter that Le Bas touches on, as his travels take him to France and to the annual feast of St Sarah “the Black” in Saintes Maries de la Mer. He notes that the Travellers always take their religion from their surrounding culture: in the Balkans some of them are Muslim.

In Britain, they are increasingly targeted by evangelical groups. Irish Catholic Travellers often ask: “What do you think of the Christians?”, by which they mean the Evangelicals.

Taking to the open road in search of the journeys his forebears made is not quite the liberating experience that Le Bas hoped for. As he observes late on in the book: “For all its flighty connotations, Gypsy culture can be stifling in its demands for living in line with its hidden rules … Gypsies are just as likely to feel confined as anybody else.” This rings true. The hostile Traveller he meets at Appleby Fair is, he speculates, not just drunk but “on the coke”. The Gypsy life is not immune to the stresses that drive others to drink and drugs.

And Gypsies and Travellers (Le Bas uses the terms interchangeably) have to cope with something of which the rest of us may be unaware. Le Bas notes that one of the atchin tans has what are called “pikey bars” – a metal height restrictor designed to keep out caravans. In contemporary Britain, this is a sign of the last officially endorsed form of racial discrimination.

As a Catholic reading this book, one realises that the Gypsies are strangers in our midst. They have been here for hundreds of years, but they have never integrated. Have we made them welcome? In an age when Pope Francis and others often remind us to welcome the stranger, perhaps we should ask whether we have overlooked these fellow citizens – and in some cases, co-religionists – who have been in our midst for so long.