It’s Empathy Day today, and I’m delighted that one of the books I co-wrote with Richard O’Neill, last year, illustrated by Hannah Tolson and published by Child’s Play, is on the list of 21 recommended books for the day (and beyond).
Ossiri and the Bala Mengro is the story of a young girl from the Traveller community, who longs to be a musician. She isn’t very good, yet she perseveres and has adventures on her travels with her loving family. We very much hope that this story shows that whilst people from a variety of backgrounds, such as the Romani and Traveller communities, may seem different, at heart people often have a lot in common. It was a lot of fun to write with my co-writer, the English Traveller Richard O’Neill, whose stories have been handed down in oral form through many generations.
Good books open doors onto other lives; they show the humanity in all sorts of lives (yes, even when authors shape-shift and become cats, dogs or aliens). We are experiencing migration across the world in increasing numbers, as people flee war, environmental crisis and terrorism. My own mother fled from Yugoslavia with my (then pregnant) grandmother after the Second World War, to escape Communist rule. They had lived through bombing, under Nazi occupation and had lost close family members. They had been internally displaced and, by the war’s end, had been deprived of almost everything. When they arrived at Croydon Airport they had one small suitcase (the size of Paddington’s suitcase) between them. They were lucky to be welcomed when they arrived here, with the assistance of the Red Cross, by distant family members and strangers alike. (You can read my mum’s story, ‘Becoming English’ in A Country of Refuge, published last year) So building bridges between cultures is very close to my heart and the natural, heart-felt kindness that children feel and show towards strangers is always a joy to see.
I hope that the books I have written for the last ten years all show an attention to empathy – whether it is towards disabled people, Gypsies, Roma and Travellers or yes, even wilful girls like my very own Fussy Freya (my first book for children) who refuse to eat!
Happy Empathy Day and congratulations to all the authors on the list, and heart-felt thanks to Empathy Lab for all their hard work.
About a month ago, I designed and sent out a short survey about disability hate crime, concentrating on motivation, but also covering a few other questions such as location of incidents, gender and race of attackers and nature of the incident or attack. This was done under the auspices of the Disability Hate Crime Network, for which I work as one of the pro bono co-ordinators. Grateful thanks to all the co-ordinators, for all their input – it was so valuable – particularly Simon Green’s thoughts in the very early stages, when we came up with the idea, and later Anne Novis, Stephen Brookes, Mark Cutter, Mel Close, Rosemary Irwin, Sarah Hewitt and Beverley Smith.
We are all very grateful to everyone who has done the survey – it is only a small survey, but we believe it does shed some light on the motivation for some attacks, and hopefully it will lead to more detailed research in the future.
Thanks also to the Guardian newspaper, which has commissioned me to write a short comment piece on the research in Guardian Society. Thanks to Survey Monkey for the survey template. It’s appreciated. It allows not-for-profit organisations like ourselves, with no funding, to carry out small bits of research for free (except for our time). We hope it contributes to the wider debate on what fuels disability hate crime.
Summary of key findings from disability hate crime motivation survey
Question 1: do you define yourself to be a disabled person?
89% of those completing the survey defined themselves as disabled people.
Some of those who didn’t self-define were completing the survey because other family members had experienced hate crimes.
65 shared their conditions, with some explaining they had done because they felt it had triggered an attack.
One person, who had a number of conditions including anxiety and depression came home after suffering a horrific sexual assault and murderous attack. They wrote: “My neighbours had seen my facial injuries and saw I had lost my front teeth and had put two and two together after watching the local news on TV. They could see how vulnerable I was, and this was when everything escalated so badly that I sold my house to a landlord, moved out and had to rent for a while…I did this as I was desperate to escape the bullying for my daughter and myself.”
Another, with rheumatoid arthritis, causing impaired mobility, was targeted because of their blue badge, as was an amputee, who was shouted at for using a disabled parking bay and called a ‘scrounger’. Another wheelchair user felt they were targeted for having a visible disability.
Question 2: have you experienced a hate crime or hate incident?
87.2% of those responding had experienced a hate crime or incident.
11% had not.
61 explained more about their experiences, which were wide-ranging. Some flashpoints, however, were familiar – public transport, disabled parking bays, jealousy about perceived ‘perks’ and ‘not looking disabled’:
One person said: “I have had cars parked close to the rear of my car to make it difficult for me to load my wheelchair…I’ve experienced a number of incidents. I’ve been chastised
for managing to walk to my front gate without my walking stick, (it’s only a couple of steps). I’ve been insulted for using a disabled toilet and slapped on a bus for using a designated seat. I’ve twice been reported to the DWP for being a ‘bogus’ claimant…had my car repeatedly scratched (16 reports to police), had my car spat on and an egg thrown on it.
Another said: “I was having much needed repairs to our conservatory when a neighbour shouted over the hedge ‘if I was living on benefits I’d have a conservatory too!’ The conservatory came with the house and was over twenty years old.
Another reported: “I’ve had a man trying to take away my walking stick saying I was “too young and beautiful” to use it. I’ve had two men try to shove me out of the way on a pavement because I was walking too slowly and they were trying to get to a pub,
On occasion, children were involved: “I was deliberately barged into by more than one of a group of 8 year French old children who were on the same site as a convention I attended. The children from this language school were harassing disabled attenders of our convention, kicking sticks/crutches out from under people and barging into them “accidentally”. Their supervising adults weren’t supervising properly. My friend who was with me didn’t see the first child bash into me, but she heard them making remarks about my arms and saw the second child bash into me. I was furious as I had noticed the children barging adults off the paths around the site. I complained to the university venue who were useless and my convention organisers who were superb and reported it to the police alongside a number of other disablist, LGB and T phobic hatecrimes our bi convention got on that site. The police took a statement and went around pestering the university venue management till the children’s supervisors were found and doing their supervising which reduced the harassment a bit. The police then didn’t follow up as promised which I found frustrating and I knew no charges could be pressed as identifying the specific children would be hard.”
Another talked about public transport: “I was travelling on a bus to shopping one day and the bus was quite full but a guy who had a pram wanted to sit with his partner and wanted to sit at the front where I was sitting and demanded I move. I said no, and tried to explain about my disability. He called me a ‘spas’ and a ‘mong’ and said I should not be left out.
A lack of understanding of disability is evident:
“I was asked why I use a wheelchair some times but had been seen using sticks on others days, I tried to explain that my condition varies from day to day and on days when I can walk I try to do so. I was then told I was just fat and lazy and was doing it to get benefits. I have been abused for using a blue badge. Been called a spastic, and to go to bloody work…I have been spat at.”
Of the 61 who gave further details about their experience, 11 mentioned being called ‘scroungers’ or being told to get off benefits, or that they were too lazy to work.
Question 3 – What was the location of the hate crime or incident?
The locations chimed with places that both the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and I, in both Getting Away with Murder and in my book, Scapegoat, have identified as flashpoints for disabled people in previous research.
24% of attacks happened at home; 57% on the street, 4% in care environments, 20% on public transport, 12.8% in schools or educational establishments, 3% in hospitals and more than one place – 28.5%. This last category allowed people to name other places where attacks took place as well. 26 people added extra comments. A small number reported being attacked or harassed on social media or at work.
Other attacks happened in pubs, supermarkets and in the car. One person said: “This is not a single incident, rather an accumulation of incidents that are very similar. It makes you dread using public transport at times.” 6 out of 26 said that attacks happened in supermarkets and shops.
Question 4: What do you think the motivation for the attack was?
67 answered, and 33 skipped this question.
Interestingly, few people – two – pin-pointed ‘scrounger rhetoric’ as behind disability hate crime although it is important to stress that a larger number had mentioned it in previous answers. 34 said ‘disability hate’ or ‘disability’ without going further. A number – 7- felt that ‘vulnerability’ – a feeling that the attacker could ‘get away with attacking them without any come-back had increased the hatred towards them. There was also a clear theme of jealousy toward perceived ‘perks’ of disability – which some non-disabled people had tried to either exploit or had attacked the disabled person for, out of hostility. One person felt they had been targeted because of their ethnicity and disability.
One person said: “I think the main motivation is “because they can” .. I am in no position to defend myself.. Although the harassment escalated when I took over the tenancy of a local authority garage located on an access road these people believe to be “theirs” (it isn’t)….After taking on the tenancy I started to experience an increase in frequency of incidents of abuse, threats and harrassment culminating in me no longer using the garage, hardly ever leaving the flat and if I do getting in the car and going away from here, no longer sitting in the garden with a book/the radio, constantly being jumpy and nervous, etc..”
The person who experienced the sexual assault wrote: “They saw me ill following the serious assault and I believe the motive was my vulnerability (I had had no problems with these particular neighbours when my health had been normal).”
Another felt that they had been exploited and targeted:
“They saw my disability and were aware of benefits I received. One person became my boyfriend and would threaten to finish with me or harm himself if I didn’t give him money, or buy him mobile phone s. I ended up with eight mobile phone contracts, which I later found out he was selling and using the money for drugs.”
Another wrote:”I wish I knew. People are just plain spiteful. I was an easy target who could never fight back physically, so, I was a punchbag, both physically and mentally.”
One person felt it was a mixture of motives: “exploitation of vulnerable people, attacking someone who can’t fight back, your word against theirs, sadism”.
Another felt it was partly due to the benefits crackdown: “Bigotry, fuelled by propaganda against people on benefits”.
Another person saw it as mixed too: “Venting a prejudice is I think the main motivation. There’s usually some kind of ‘useless’ part of the labelling, a bit of ageism, a bit of disablism, and a very unpleasant bit of invective. Plus a ‘get out of my way, or why are you blocking everything up’, or some such. A typical one, ‘get out of my fucking way you old hag’, or ‘bitch or get back to your shithole you geriatric cow’.”
There was a sense of the perceived uselessness and invisibility of disability. One person wrote: “On one occasion when I fell a man just stepped over me like I was vermin… I have been shoved backwards into the lift as I attempted to leave. Two women walked past me – instead of allowing me to move forward they just carried on walking, pushing me backwards back into the lift door. I felt ignored and overall humiliated.”
Another wrote: “Most of the abuse is from strangers , who now think that every one who is disabled is lying about being ill. Because this government are spreading so many lies, regarding us. Also relations who think you can be better and go to work as you are not ill every day. Also I am sorry to say at church through ignorance. Also benefit assessments. I have also been pushed off of sticks by a stranger who was very abusive.”
This was echoed by others, along with a strong sense of jealousy:
“Disability hostility, resentment as think I get money, that I don’t work or worth helping. Jealousy of adapted car, irritation as may be in their way on street, young people think its funny, therefore worth ridiculing me, some truly believe we are drain on society, should never be allowed to be born or live, others think easy target.”
Another identified a freak-show element: “Mockery of disability. The teenagers concerned were known to the police and to local school teachers as perennial troublemakers.”
These came up again: The perpetrators were three young women who were shouting at a middle-aged man with Down’s Syndrome and calling him brain dead….Their motivation appears to be ignorance and/or perceived comedy value.”
Question 5: What gender was your attacker?
69 respondents answered this question and 31 skipped it.
30% of sole attackers were male, and 17% female. Interestingly, there was more than one attacker in 49% of cases and in most of those women were involved (accounting for the rest of the attackers). It’s worth mentioning that in the latest Crown Prosecution Service Hate Crime Report, women are defendants in around 25% of disability hate crimes, but only around 13-15% of other forms of hate crimes, except crimes against older people, where they are also defendants in around 22% of the cases. Clearly, as I have written before, there needs to be far more research on the role of women in disability hate crime (and older people, a cross-cutting group).
One person recalled:
“Pushed from chair by women, verbally abused by both men and women. Usually older people.”
Another said: “Male in most incidents, some verbal incidents have included females in group (at least one group appeared to be a family with adult children), one verbal incident involved a female only.”
Another wrote: “Worst incident – an older white woman. Otherwise, mostly men.”
Another wrote: “Two separate incidents attacked by black male gang of young men, attack on street Young mother with child abused me in shop car park.
Question 6: What was the approximate age of your attacker?
Age of attackers: 61 answered this, and 39 skipped it. The percentages did not add up to 100%, because of group attacks.
Under 16: 19.67% (12)
16-20: 18.03% (11)
21-30: 32.79% (20)
31-40: 32.79% (20)
41-50: 29.51 (18)
51-60: 11.48% (7)
61 and over 11.48% (7)
Prefer not to say 3.28% (2)
Many pointed out they were attacked by more than one person, so more than one age group but perhaps there is a small chink of light that the percentages of attacks by younger people are slightly lower than people in the midrange for age.
Question 7: What do you think was the ethnic group of your attacker?
63 answered and 37 skipped
90% of attackers were white, 5% were mixed heritage, and other counted for 5%
White people are slightly over-represented as attackers in this survey – the last census found that 86% of the population identify as white.
Question 8: What is your gender?
71 answered and 29 skipped.
53% of respondents were female, and 45% male, with others preferring not to say.
Question 9: What is your ethnicity?
94% were white, 1% were mixed heritage, 1% was a highly identifiable racial group (so I am not including it here) and the remaining preferred not to say.
If you would like to join the Network and have an interest in disability hate crime, please go to:
If you would like to know more about disability hate crime, you can read the first report I wrote:
If you would like to read my book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011), an investigation into disability hate crime in the UK and further afield, you can buy it in good bookshops or online at:
Over the last few years many disability hate crime campaigners have called for perpetrator analysis. I am one of those: I have been advocating for it since 2008, when I wrote the disability hate crime report, Getting Away With Murder, (for the UK Disabled People’s Council, Disability Now magazine and Scope). At the (British) Disability Hate Crime Network, run on email and Facebook, of which I am one of the co-ordinators, we believe that perpetrator analysis is important because without knowing more about why people commit this crime, it is very difficult to design programmes that prevent it from happening or dissuade offenders from committing similar crimes again in the future. (I recommended it again in my book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, published by Portobello Books in 2011.) The Equality and Human Rights Commission recommended it in its report, Hidden in Plain Sight, published in the same year. The government promised to carry it out – which we joint coordinators at the Disability Hate Crime Network welcomed.
But it hasn’t happened, much to the frustration of many working on disability hate crime. It has been promised, through the National Offender Management Service and the College of Policing, but as far as we have been told, has not yet been published, despite many requests to see the data.
Simon Green, a co-ordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network and I were talking about motivation recently. He was talking about the crimes against him, and how it was clear what the motivation was. So we came up with the notion: if the analysis of offenders is not going to be published, why don’t we ask victims and survivors of disability hate crime whether they know why the crime against them was committed? Often people who have experienced this crime have very useful thoughts to feed into our knowledge of the crime – but at the moment, that knowledge is not being tapped.
We decided to do a short snapshot survey of people who have experienced disability hate crime to ask them this question and a few other questions that might throw light on the crime – such as location of the crime, gender, age of the attacker and so on. We hope the results may throw some light on disability hate crime and possibly lead to a longer and more detailed study, if there is funding available.
Please do complete the survey – but only if you are living in the UK and have experienced disability hate crime. We hope that the results will tell us more about motivation – the missing part of the jigsaw. In so doing, it may aid prevention of this crime in the future.
I would like to thank all the co-ordinators for helpful comments on the design of the short survey. All identifying details will of course remain anonymous; only non-identifying details will be shared and once analysed the data will be destroyed.
In 2013, when my book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers came out, I interviewed some elders from the community about the importance of taking part in elections and what they intended to do. Of course things have moved on since then and Operation Traveller Vote has grown far bigger than anyone could have anticipated. But I thought the extract might be interesting for people to read anyhow. Whatever you do, please vote…..
Extract from No Place to Call Home, Revival:
Religion is hugely important to many in the communities, but the struggles that Gypsies and Travellers are facing require not just spiritual answers, but political ones. For all its flaws, it seems as though the Pentecostal church will be the most likely source of political leadership in the coming years. ‘There will still be a community in one hundred years’ time, but they won’t speak much Romani, and many of them will be living in houses, with
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a Romani Bible they can’t read. The music and songs will go on,’ Donald Kenrick, the Romani scholar said. ‘Many of them will be Pentecostals.’14 Could a Martin Luther King arise out of this new church, and harness together the cords of political and religious strength? For other passions are stirring at the grass roots of the community, and though they have links to Light and Life, these passions are directed at a very different agenda.
Just a handful of English Gypsies and Irish Travellers have made it into political life in the UK over the past forty years. These include the late Charlie Smith, who was elected a Labour council- lor in the 1990s and went on to become mayor of Castle Point in 2003; a year later, he was the only English Gypsy named to sit on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Candy Sheridan too, had twice been elected a councillor for the Liberal Democrats in North Norfolk, but stepped down just before the 2010 election. A number of organisations were becoming increasingly vocal, as well, with well-respected spokespeople, such as Candy and Joe Jones at the Gypsy Council, Siobhan Spencer at the Derbyshire Gypsy Liaison Group, Helen Jones at Leeds GATE and Yvonne McNamara at the Irish Traveller Movement. Some young people, including Blue Jones and Nadi Foy, were standing up to articulate the voice of the community.
They had allies, of course, including many of the activists from Camp Constant, who had since formed the Travellers Solidarity Network and launched the ‘Fight for Sites’ initiative. Some in the communities had welcomed this support, but just as many felt that this outside intervention would only worsen their situ- ation. In October 2012, for the one-year anniversary of the Dale Farm clearance, the activists had staged a demonstration outside the Department of Communities and Local Government. Most of the Dale Farm residents were by now sick of the media coverage, and some said they were tired of the connection with the activ- ists and felt it was not useful to their cause. In the end, although the Travellers Solidarity Network sent a minibus to Dale Farm to collect residents living roadside, only three women had come out – and all three turned pale and shocked when some of the
activists allowed the demonstration to become physical, and police began arresting people. The network remains active, and many in it are genuinely committed to greater equality for the com- munity. However, whether the network will ever be trusted by a critical mass in this very disparate grouping of peoples, bound by strong family and historical ties that are difficult to penetrate and understand, remains to be seen.
Billy Welch, for his part, wants to build on the enthusiasm from within the Gypsy and Traveller community – particularly in his hometown of Darlington. At least eleven per cent, and up to fifteen per cent, of Darlington’s population self-declare as Gypsies or Travellers. The real figure may be higher, nearer to a third, as many have moved to houses in town and may not identify them- selves for fear of harassment. Nearby Doncaster and York also have significant populations of Romani Gypsies and Travellers. This is where Billy said he intends to start his initiative, in the next round of local elections.
‘We have gathered together influential people in the Gypsy and Traveller community, the shera rom, and the big men from the Irish Traveller community,’ he explained. They had recruited, for instance, ‘Big Dan’ Rooney, a one-time bare-knuckle boxer who was now a prominent preacher with Light and Life, as well as the Irish Traveller Alexander J. Thompson. Billy’s cousins, Davey Jones and Jackie Boyd from the Light and Life church were part of the conversation too. ‘We are all talking to each other about what needs to change,’ Billy said. ‘We have all these Gypsy and Traveller organisations, around 120 all around the country, and yet they aren’t run by people like us, the elders. The government loves a “yes man”, so they have built up a white man’s structure. We are going to change all that.’ His big dream is that his people do it for themselves by being less secretive and engaging more with settled society. He wants to launch an Obama-style ‘Yes, We Can’ political campaign among his people, starting with getting people to the polls. ‘We need a voice,’ he says, ‘So we need to vote.’
Billy estimated that close to a million people in the UK could claim some Gypsy or Traveller origin – a potential electorate
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that he said was all but ignored. Even if the figure were nearer to the official estimate of some 300,000, if the community voted together, this number could tip seats to preferred candidates in some areas. ‘Eighty per cent of our people live in houses now, and they don’t put that they are Gypsy on the census. We think the gorgers [settled people] can do what they want with their world; we live in our own world. My people aren’t interested, but they will have to be, the world isn’t the same place it was fifteen years ago. They are smothering us with laws and restrictions. We’ve got no voice in Parliament. When the authorities come down on us, I want my people to vote; I want the government to know how many of us there are. When there is a tight election, we could be the difference to someone getting kicked out. That is the only way we will get treated as equals, have some value in society. We need to register to vote. We are going to have to get involved in their world as well.’
He decided to launch his voter drive at the Appleby Fair in June 2013. Twenty people, some from the Light and Life church and others from clans from around the country, would distribute leaflets and talk to people as they wandered the fair grounds. ‘I’m the shera rom of my tribe, and I’m talking to the heads of all the other families. Some of them cover big areas, some small, but they are all influential. The communities will listen to us. We will decide which party is the best for us and this will be a collective decision. In some areas, with around one million of us, we can swing a vote; round here we can definitely swing it.’ He had heard from families in Scotland and Wales who supported his political campaigning as well.
Billy was motivated to become politically engaged by an expe- rience some twenty years before. He was on his way home from a business trip to Germany, and was set upon by a National Front gang. He was beaten so badly that his family didn’t recognise him when they visited him in hospital. Yet no action had been taken against the perpetrators of the attack. Then, in 2011, his outrage was renewed when he was barred from his local pub on the grounds that he was a Gypsy. Billy fought that case with the
aid of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but he was aware that, up and down the country, Gypsies and Travellers were being targeted for their ethnicity and routinely refused access to hotels, restaurants, pubs and clubs. He wanted to change that – make a stand, not just for himself, but for the community.
The attitude of Gypsies and Travellers needed to change, he explained. ‘Our people have had a very coloured view of author- ity. The wider world has been out there and we have lived in our little world and thought, What they do doesn’t concern us, that nothing that we would ever do would influence anything in the community, so we have just got on with our life. But things have changed. A lot has happened in the wider world. It’s about time we started taking charge of our own destiny, started to influence. If we don’t vote, we will never improve the situation,’ he said.
‘We live in a democracy and we don’t use it. Because we don’t vote, we don’t have a value. Until we become worth something in electoral terms, to both local government and national govern- ment, they will continue to privilege the settled community over us. We are our own worst enemy, and that needs to change.’ Other groups were also planning to help – Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, fresh from working on the Obama re-election campaign, had offered advice. The Gypsy Council was helping to register the residents roadside at Dale Farm too – in an auda- cious plan to vote in Len Gridley onto Basildon Council in 2014, to question the eviction and the money spent.
Buy No Place in any good bookshop, or online at Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/No-Place-Call-Home-Travellers/dp/1851689494
It was great to hear Sam Lee talk about his project, collecting songs from Irish Travellers and the Romani people, on Radio 4 this week. This is such important work, and Sam’s been patiently doing it for some years now. Romani and Traveller singers have kept the flame of our common folk music alive, for many decades, if not centuries. We all owe them so much. Here’s an extract from my 2013 book, No Place to Call Home, where I write about Romani, Roma and Traveller music and its importance, with an interview with Sam. The chapter, Revival, also looks at literature (poetry being something else and well worth following at the moment as well), religion and art generally.
Romani and Traveller music – extract from Revival, Chapter 14 No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers Katharine Quarmby (Oneworld, 2013)
PLEASE APPLY TO THE PUBLISHERS IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO REPRODUCE – NO REPRODUCTION WITHOUT PERMISSION. UNDER COPYRIGHT.
Identity was also in the mind of the Scottish singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, whose ballad ‘The Travelling People’ has become almost an anthem. Without Gypsies and Travellers, MacColl argued, the traditional folk music of Britain and Ireland could have died out. These communities passed the old lyrics and music down, generation after generation, for centuries. In his day, MacColl had patiently collected field recordings of both songs and speech in Gypsy and Traveller encampments. Other singers, including June Tabor, soon followed his lead, as well as people from the communi- ties themselves, such as Sheila Stewart, Thomas McCarthy and the Orchard family. Now, some twenty-five years after MacColl’s death, such cultural preservation work is being honoured and valued. The young musician Sam Lee was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2012 for his debut album, A Ground of its Own, featuring songs collected from Gypsies and Travellers. Though not a Gypsy or Traveller himself, Lee had trained for four years under the legendary ballad singer Stanley Robertson, a Scottish Traveller.
The resurgence of interest in so-called folk music is not a peculiarly English phenomenon. New bands with Roma roots have formed across Europe, including the Romanian Gypsy bands Taraf de Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia and the Macedonian brass band Kocani Orkestar. The annual Guca Brass Band Festival in Serbia hosts many up and coming Roma bands who perform in the traditional style, but there are also new fusion groups combining Gypsy and Traveller sounds with rap, punk and jazz, including Jewish klezmer. Night clubs play records by the Shukar Collective, Besh o droM and Balkan Beat Box – including a special Nuit Tsigane (‘Gypsy Night’) in hot spots such as Le Divan du Monde in Paris. Often, at Appleby and Stow, the young Gypsy men driving cars rather than ponies are listening to this rap or punk-inflected music out of Eastern Europe.
Sam Lee, however, has been more focused on the traditional string music beloved by the older members of the travelling com- munity – songs like ‘On Yonder Ill’ and ‘Goodbye, My Darling’ – that he had collected from all over England, Scotland and Ireland. Many of the songs touch on matters of love and separation – but also tell of a steely will to survive. As a young Jewish man from North London, he had been inspired to collect these songs in large part because of learning about the treatment of Gypsies and Travellers in Britain. ‘Many are the indigenous people of this country – although Gypsies are not originally from here, the Irish and Scotch Travellers are pre-Celtic, as old a community as you will ever get in Britain. But the treatment they have had was very [similar to] what happened to Native peoples in other places. For instance, in 1968, when sites were opened up here, that was the same year that the Canadian government forcibly settled the Canadian peoples, such as the Inuit … So there is that amazing time contiguity. There is also the nature of the lifestyle of the older Gypsies. Many were born in tents, and so many have lived outdoors, and because of that, they have this amazing affinity with the outside. To have that regularly enforced on such a deeply ancestral level, is quite a … nature–man relationship that many tribal peoples have.’
Lee had begun by patiently knocking on doors on sites where he didn’t know anybody. Mostly he’d had been welcomed, albeit with some caution, and as families got to know him, he experi- enced great warmth and hospitality. The fact that he was Jewish – ‘another wandering tribe’, as he termed it – seemed to help. During his apprenticeship under Robertson, his role was ‘keeper of songs’. Most folk singers raid the archives of field recordings gathered by other musicians, most notably those housed in Camden’s Cecil Sharp House, considered the home of English folk music. But Sam wanted to hear it from the Romani people themselves – they were not dead, just because their songs had been collected. He said that simple fact came as a surprise to some in the folk scene. ‘None of them believed there were any singers out there; they thought it was dead. They didn’t know about Gypsy culture; they thought that the precious oral tradition was dead, but actually it’s still there. I have recorded songs from fell-pack huntsman, farmers, not just Gypsies – music is alive everywhere. The folk music world just wants its safe world on Radio 2 … It likes soft, fluffy, comfortable stuff. I have brought loads of Gypsy families down to Cecil Sharp House and it’s terrifying for them. They sit down in the library and sing these ballads that they have no idea are hundreds of years old. And some people say, “Wow, it’s lovely,” but they have no idea what to do. It’s like bringing the dinosaur into the Natural History Museum and saying, “Hey, watch it dance,” and they say they only know about bones.’
He went on: ‘Mahler said, “Tradition is tending the flame, not worshipping the ashes,” and I think there is a huge amount of ash-worshipping in the folk world … Nobody is putting much effort into keeping the flame alight, and we mustn’t let it die.’
FROM: NO PLACE TO CALL HOME: http://www.amazon.co.uk/No-Place-Call-Home-Travellers/dp/1851689494/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
Also available, as a Newsweek Europe e-book about the rise of Evangelical Christianity amongst Europe’s Romanies: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Romani-Pilgrims-Europes-moral-force-ebook/dp/B00O9EZVCK/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
NO REPRODUCTION WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM THE PUBLISHERS. UNDER COPYRIGHT.
is my third Single, as they are now called, to come out in the last couple of years. The first was an exploration of my search for my Iranian birth father, Blood and Water. The second was a short story, loosely fictionalised, about filming in Rwanda, after the 1994 genocide, called Aftermath. This is the second in my very loose family trilogy – this time a story about my mother’s family history (my adoptive mother), who is half Serbian, Spanish and a little bit English (less than me, as she delights in saying). This story is about her Bosnian Serb grandfather, Dean Kosta Bozic, who was rumoured to have known, and blessed Gavrilo Princip, if not his bloody enterprise, just before the fateful assassination in 1914 that became the trigger for the First World War. We do not know if this is true, but my grandmother always used to say that there was, somewhere, a photo of Kosta Bozic and Gavrilo Princip together. It is true, Tim Butcher, the brilliant author of The Trigger told me, that Princip lodged with members of the Bozic family – whether they were close relatives of Kosta is also not recorded. Kosta was also arrested, in 1916, charged and found guilty of high treason. Like Princip he contracted TB and died of it – in his case, just after leaving prison. It is also true that he is buried, and then dug up to be buried again with greater ceremony by a grateful Serb nation. It was then found that his right arm was miraculously whole – the rest of him was bones. This was probably due to the aromatic spices in the censer he swung, day in, day out, as an Orthodox priest, and which preserved the flesh, but was hailed as a kind of miracle.
Anyway, I have taken the ‘facts’, as related to me by my grandmother, researched historical facts, and fused them into this short story. I hope it works. The next and last part of the trilogy is my dad’s story (my adoptive dad), who is from Yorkshire farming and hunting stock. His family, from way back, used to be keepers of hounds for hunting folk. They were the Smith family, and I will be telling their story, with much embroidery, and bodice ripping (and some real diary entries, honest), next. My dad is quaking in his boots and keeps on trying to divert me to other stories….
I enjoyed doing my talk at the Wadham Human Rights Forum at Oxford University, on how human rights journalism is evolving in the age of the Internet – and how to fund the new human rights journalism. The Forum has had some wonderful thinkers visit – from Clive Stafford-Smith to James Harding, former editor of the Times and some great human rights scholars. I was honoured to be one of their number.
Lord Macdonald, who is now the Warden of Wadham, is also the former Director of Public Prosecutions and a really doughty defender of human rights. His work within the criminal justice system, to uphold the rights of the individual against the state, remains so important and ground-breaking. Now, at Wadham, he is encouraging young people from modest backgrounds to aspire to Oxbridge – also a radical aim – and also encouraging disabled students to reach high.
You can see it here – I’ve also suggested some links to some interesting thinkers on the future – both journalists and techies.