Sunday, 19 December 2010

Fiction Slips into Reality

It really is stranger than fiction when fiction becomes reality. Last week I felt as if I had stepped into a scene from my own novel Gypsies Stop tHere.

The public meeting was to discuss proposals for an inevitable development at Deepcut. The plan is for a ‘rural village’ utilising the footprint of the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut following its disbandment in a couple of years’ time. The process has reached the stage of inviting responses to Surrey Heath Borough Council Draft Strategic Planning Document (SPD) and four design options are offered; briefly linear, ‘one-heart’, ‘two heart’ or High Street based.

The key issues were predictable and understandable: traffic, traffic, traffic, roads, traffic and various pros and cons of the new development. Naturally, as local people, we are extremely anxious about the impact that additional housing, shops and amenities will have on our area. Anyone reading this who is interested in the details can of course follow on

It was when someone queried the possible inclusion of a few Gypsy pitches that I particularly listened up. ‘Here we go’ I thought. And indeed we did.

Firstly the difficulty with which the local Councillor had in addressing this question wins my sympathy. When I give talks to groups, the minute I show signs of siding with the Gypsies and Travellers, hostility mounts. For anyone in local politics, or indeed national politics, this is not a vote-winner and he wants to retain his position. All he could say was that Gypsies had no connection with the area and would not belong, or words to that effect. Of course, they are widely deemed not to belong anywhere and thus it has been through the centuries and, in the case of Romany Gypsies, right across Europe since they left India over 1,000 years ago.

The frustrating thing is that the very people who object exacerbate the ‘problem’ of unauthorised sites. As a rule, those tucked-away sites (how many of you have been on one?) where the amenities are in place and functioning, are kept immaculately and would put many of us householders to shame. I wish I was as tidy! Romany Gypsies take enormous pride in keeping their trailers neat and polished, themselves and their children squeaky clean. I am embarrassed that I have to patronise them in this way by saying this, but it seems it is necessary.

I heard typical unthinking comments that saddened and angered me. One person commented on the possibility of Gypsies being part of the community, along the lines, ‘What! and near a play centre?’ as if this were some plan for a leper colony or establishment for free-range convicts. Someone else commented with words to the effect, ‘Well obviously, this is not something we would want here, is it, everyone?’ Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are human beings who at times may seem outwardly defensive, but are actually so cowed by public opinion, they stick together and rarely appear to defend themselves at such meetings. They may be different in some ways; their old values are strongly towards family loyalty, living close to nature, being self-reliant, resourceful and not relying on the state. Bad press over the years and, arguably, unsightly behaviour of New Age Travellers who have sprung from mainstream society – yes, the likes of you and me - seem to have inculcated a different view in the public consciousness. Of course there are good and bad in all sections of society, but sticking labels on an entire group of people can only be bad – and indeed possibly illegal.

I am not going into all the reasons why this kind of bigoted racism should be a thing of the past; or why this group of people still sometimes chooses to live on the periphery. My books do enough and I give talks to resistant groups of people until I am blue in the face. I see things from the other side; attending Gypsy and Traveller forums; visiting sites where the antiquated drainage system overflows after a storm, and ‘sheds’ used for washing clothes and bathing children are freezing, and so on. For this the people pay rents and taxes – for a bit of hard standing, running water and electricity. Their home they provide themselves. I was invited to go to a workshop in Leatherhead on Thursday addressing issues relating to education of Traveller children; parents want their children to go to school, get qualifications and a good job. People are working very hard now to bring these people in from the cold. You may have seen Lord Avebury’s response to my piece on Pennypot Lane.

I would be pleased to see a small Gypsy site integrated with the new Deepcut proposals. Let us go down in history as being the first to actually welcome (some will say I am back in fiction again) this ethnic group. This is not to promote my books; my involvement has gone way beyond that, but I hope they do help to foster greater understanding. I’ve heard all the arguments during the past seven years or so I’ve been into this subject. It’s time we all stopped pre-judging and showed some humanity.