Rachel Kano talks to some fellow Travellers about the state of things in '96
Squall 14, Autumn 1996, pp. 40-41.
Way back when the CJA was just a twinkle in the Home Secretary’s eye, the proposed legislation provoked a torrent of words. With few notable exceptions little was heard from Travellers. Some evidently took a “wait and see” attitude, others dismissed the Bill as more of the same from a hostile regime. As it gained publicity Travellers acquired the grim glamour of an oppressed minority, well-intentioned sympathy, media scamulation and ghetto groupies with their boot laces fashionably undone, naturally followed.
Two years since the Bill became law it is clear that if the CJA was designed as a noose to hang us by, then the knot is coming undone.
Judicial review of the Crowborough eviction illustrated the Government’s essential error in using half-baked, ill-conceived legislation to score political points.
The review concluded that the CJA sections relating to Travellers contravene existing legislation ie. the Children’s Act. And it also established the legal precedent by which local authorities are required to take into account the circumstances of individuals affected before they may legally evict.
Justice Sedley may have pissed on M. Howard’s bonfire but it would obviously be naive to assume the battle is won. The CJA was only ever a part of the Tory’s final assault on Travellers. Festivals have been under attack for more than a decade and we now have the Job Seekers Allowance to look forward to.
There is a pattern in all this. The Tories see society as a business run to make money. Anything that doesn’t return a fat profit is ruthlessly cut away.
These are the economics of control. By prohibiting festivals , keeping us permanently on the run or trapped on ghetto sites unable to make a living or claim benefits, they hope to put us collectively out of business. At which point, they reason, we will simply disappear.
So where does that leave all those unwilling to leave the country and or unable to give up on their home? Despite all the obvious reasons for pessimism there are some who feel the CJA may have done us a few favours.
Paul, a long-term resident of Waterhall near Brighton is wary of how it might sound but says: “The CJA actually did some good, it made local authorities question what they actually thought about Travellers, whereas before they just moved us on. Now they’re having to think about human rights and what they actually believe.
“Toleration policies are developing, in reality the CJA has had almost the opposite effect to that intended. I’ll be vilified for saying this but it has also forced Travellers who didn’t leave the country into finding park-ups which are not privately owned.
“This has increased the pressure on local authorities to address the issue, certainly in the south there are toleration policies springing up all over.
“Unfortunately, councils don’t really understand the anarchy of it all, they like to see Travellers as a homogenised group and we’re obviously not.
“The problem in Brighton has been that the council wanted to set up a site for ‘local’ Travellers - but there’s no such thing - now they’re freaking out because there are 100 vehicles on their tolerated site that started off with ten.”
Waterhall may for the time being represent a haven for Travellers but not everyone there sees it as a positive development. According to Joe: “The site is like a huge council estate - you get there and you’re stuck. I’ve been on the road for 12 years and I’ve never been anywhere like it - the mood on site is one of utter apathy.
“If you’re moving regularly everything stays clean and good - the unit stays together… When you’re stuck in one place all the time the scumbags and the skagheads from town drag their £10 trailers on site and live amongst us. The site deteriorates, the place looks like hell and it is.”
There is evidence that the local council may have willingly abetted this process. One witness described seeing trailers with no tow hitches being dragged up to site on council trucks and dumped. It is also a fact that where there is a tolerated site anyone choosing to park-up elsewhere runs the risk of being forced on to the main site or out of the area.
Decker Lynn has chosen not to live on an open site for some time. She sees the fundamental issue as one of attitude: “We were lucky in finding a nice little park-up on a farm a couple of years ago. If I want to be accepted and happy in an area I know I’ll have to be extremely friendly to the locals - you can only show you are alright by example.
“My farmer does B&B - last year I was going down and cooking the evening meal - the punters don’t know I live in a bus in the back yard but it helps him and it helps me. “We go out of our way to be useful; putting up a marquee for the village fete, driving the school minibus, this is our contribution to the whole.
“Whether we like it or not we are still part of wider society. It starts with the family unit, goes on to site - but there is the village beyond that. We have to deal with society so we might as well be part of it. No-one has room to be a total individual.
“I don’t accept the idea that society owes me anything, people talk about the right to this or that but really we don’t have rights - we simply are.
“I firmly believe from each according to ability, to each according to need. I don’t want to be fighting all the time but if it comes to it I will. I’ve been on the frontline and I’ve had shitty times but there is no point in bitterness.
“I’ve been on the road about 12 years and run a cafe most of that time, but because there are virtually no free festivals left I’ve had to adapt to do the small pay festivals instead.
“That puts us under environmental health regulations many of which are daft when applied to a cafe in a field but it’s an achievement to do it when they say you can’t.
“I don’t think we should concentrate on what has been, we should be looking at what we are going to do next year and the year after. There are huge possibilities - look at what is needed and go out and do it.”
Pete is parked up at Selby in Y orkshire. He has been travelling as part of a fluctuating but relatively large group for some time.
“We went from Derbyshire to Lincolnshire and on into Scotland for the festivals. At one stage there were about 100 vehicles though the number now at Selby has reduced as people have gone off to do other things. There is definitely a great deal of antagonism towards us from the authorities - I was talking to a fairly high ranking officer at a roadblock at Otterbourne three years ago and he told me John Major had written to all the Chief Constables in the country telling them that in seven years there would be no more Travellers . Maybe he was winding me up - after all the police are notorious liars...
“I see a certain amount of apathy but also a great deal of positivity - doing what you want may take more ingenuity than in the past but it is still possible.
“Free parties have almost stepped in to replace festivals - at least for 12 hours you can all get together. I still believe this is a better way of living, low impact if you like, even the scuzziest, dirtiest site can be cleaned up - you can’t say that about a housing estate.
“The way society has developed, you work all your life, buy a house and die there, end of story. This has to be a healthier way of living.”
A not inconsiderable number of years ago John Major pledged to eradicate Travellers: “New age travellers - not in this age, not in any age.” And yet now he’s the one tottering on the brink of (political) extinction, having failed to deliver the goods. Governments come and go but Travellers, and the reasons they take to the road remain.
The problems we suffer are all too obvious and it’s easy to forget the positives. Enough money has been made by those who borrow from travelling culture, little of it filtering back to the community.
Positive, practical solutions can only come from within - as Decker Lynn says - we can’t afford expectations we can only depend on ourselves. Travellers have inherited the unsolved ills of wider society - surely it is futile to sit in our trailers waiting for society to sort them out.
The opinions given here are personal ones, no-one makes any claim to speak for “Travellers” as a group. We would like to hear other stories and opinions.
With thanks to FFT.