Why do we envy nomads but treat Travellers so badly?

25 April 2021

5:00 PM

25 April 2021

5:00 PM

Oh for the open road! Who doesn’t want to abandon the suffocating suburbs – waking to an alarm at the same time every single morning, hearing brown envelopes pushed through the front door, filling the dishwasher, paying that damned mortgage – and head out for endless sunsets falling over infinitely empty land?

Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand as a woman who leaves her home behind after she loses her husband and her job and travels around the United States in a campervan, is predicted to win Oscar for Best Picture this weekend. The film, whose large cast mainly consists of real-life nomads, has led to a flush of appreciation and enthusiasm for a less settled life. This portrait of those who give up all worldly possessions for a modest motorhome calls to people whose lives are surrounded by picket fences. It’s a long held and very common dream. That bunch of keys – to the front door, the back, the garage and all those window locks – hangs heavy not only in your pocket, but on your heart. What would it be like to never have to turn a key in a lock again?

I’m just locking the door for the last time for several months, as I do every year, to go on tour with the circus in my 11-foot caravan home. As a circus person, I’m intrigued by the naïve wishfulness surrounding Nomadland and the travelling life. Because at the same time as Hollywood and settled people hold this lifestyle up as a romantic ideal, the same world condemns it.

Travelling people themselves have never been so vilified. A little mentioned aspect of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently going through Parliament is that it attacks the very existence of Britain’s last nomadic communities. Home Secretary Priti Patel’s proposals will make it a crime for anyone to trespass on a piece of land with the intention of residing there. As one of Britain’s over 600,000 Gypsies and Travellers put it, ‘our very way of life will become an offence.’

This suppression of the nomadic life is as old as the secret longing to be part of it; travellers have long been objects of both awe and suspicion. Gypsies are one of the few people who can still be openly insulted without comeback or reprobation. You can call someone a tinker or pikey and no one will pick you up on it. The word ‘gypsy’ itself is often used as an insult. Priti Patel recently branded the whole travelling population as vagrant and vagabonds, claiming ‘criminality takes place and has happened through Traveller communities.’

Travellers expose the inequities and absurdities of the societies they move through. Their very existence challenges regularity and order, questioning the value of success, formal educational attainment, regular jobs, small families and big houses. They refuse to fit in and can’t be easily categorised and so are dubbed as outsiders.

Government support for Gypsies and Travellers is typically designed to make them realise the benefits of succumbing to the established order. They are incentivised to settle. Gypsy sites which, in a settled world would be described as villages or communities, are labelled ‘unauthorised encampments’. Programmes to support Gypsies, Roma and Travellers rarely mean enabling their travelling culture, but instead aim at persuading them to remain within four walls and conform to our own symbols of success. Since the 1980s, two thirds of traditional, informal stopping sites for travellers, some of which had been used for centuries, have been closed. The 1994 Criminal Justice Act repealed the duty of local authorities to provide official Travellers’ sites. Today, fewer than 10 per cent of Britain’s Gypsies, Roman and Travellers are nomadic.

Travellers’ education services which provide teachers and classes at fairgrounds and circus sites have been severely cut. At the same time, there are numerous programmes to encourage traveller children into mainstream schools where their skills and culture isn’t recognised. While we harbour a dream to become like them, we’re doing our best to make them more like us. Ironically, being nomadic is only acceptable if you’re a recent convert. If you were born on the move, you’re encouraged, pestered and bribed to become ‘civilised’ and mortgage up.

There are now fewer than 23,000 travelling caravans in England and Wales. Despite the itinerant longings stirred by Nomadland, this number will continue to decrease. Travelling circuses are part of that decline, with fewer pitching grounds at greater cost. Meanwhile, despite the challenges, some of us will continue to roam as long as we can. As we say in the circus, ‘See you on the road.’

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