Monday, 10 October 2011

Why I cannot leave Gypsies and Travellers alone

I could have chosen an easier subject for a novel. Friends and family advised me against it; an agent told me a publisher would not consider a title with ‘Gypsy’ in it. All of this spurred me on. This was around 2006–7.

Since I am not a Gypsy myself, many people ask me how? and why? Looking for a novel theme, for a variety of reasons I have explained before, I was intrigued by the whole idea of a community living their secret lives on the edge of society, who seem to keep themselves together – and apart. Or, was it the rest of society that was ostracising them? Why was there such a mismatch between the old romantic notion of a Gypsy in his horse-drawn wagon and the more modern image? Hundreds more questions began to build up and I wanted to understand; I needed to know more. The more answers I found the more questions arose.

As I dug down into academic textbooks and spoke to their authors; made contact with Gypsy and Traveller organisations; searched the Internet; visited sites; listened to Gypsies and Travellers; attended meetings and events, my knowledge and understanding matured. I read of injustice, persecution through history and discrimination that persists today and felt moved to reach out and convey what I had learned, but in an entertaining rather than heavy-going, pedantic way. On the other side I was bombarded with folks who claim genuine grievances and have tales to tell of behaviour that perpetuates a negative stereotype. I listened to everything.

I wrote Gypsies Stop tHere and published it in 2008. Since then, I am pleased to say many Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers have found a voice, speaking up for themselves in the press, on blogs, chat-shows and documentaries, and writing their own best-selling memoires. When I was doing my research six years ago, they kept themselves quiet and I found few documented accounts of Gypsy lives today or within living memory. Those I did find, I read avidly – they are listed in the Bibliography.

My book happened to coincide with the start of Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month; the Travellers Times (and associated educational media) was raising its profile; more recently followed the outrageous Big Fat Gypsy Wedding series that may have done more harm than good (see previous posts on BFGW), but certainly stirred the public’s imagination. You may have spotted other, better informed documentaries offering less sensationalised representations. With the new Coalition government, legislation is sliding all over the place. Then reality kicks in with Dale Farm in Essex, a humanitarian and legal tangle that should never have happened, now on the cusp of an unsatisfactory and expensive resolution.

The opening of Gypsies Stop tHere, spoken by a keen, young, female activist, is: “People threatened with eviction, due to no fault of their own, being unjustly hounded out. It’s mediaeval the way they’re treated, don’t you think?” The arguments for and against follow, woven into the village story. I hope readers are tossed back and forth, weighing things up and really thinking about the issues from all angles.

After that book, I was sure I would move on to a new topic, but no! I knew there was more to say. I felt the present should be more clearly linked to the past; the three-way relationship between Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers and ‘mainstream society’ put into the context of recent history, through storytelling. It is clear that some people still despise Gypsies and Travellers en bloc, symptomatic of racism; and I hoped even they might find out more for themselves about this community’s struggles, as individuals, and how things have come to be as they are today.

So the sequel No Gypsies Served was published in 2010, both a sequel and a prequel. At book signings I found people new to the books, would choose Gypsies Stop tHere because it seemed logical to read the first one first, although you could just as easily read No Gypsies Served first.

That then was surely the end of Gypsies! I had started a novel set in the same village, Appley Green – nothing to do with Gypsies or Travellers! Good friends of mine think I am frankly obsessed (I would say fascinated) with my subject; some people would be pleased to see me weaned off this controversial and addictive theme, full of moral, social and legal conundrums. (Should that be conundra?)

After I was well into my new Appley Green story, somebody suggested I write the biography of a certain Gypsy man. A factual book, pure and simple? It’s what members of the Gypsy and Traveller community themselves often desperately want. They search through my books looking for photographs, hunting for a mention of their relatives. Fiction about Gypsies written by a non-gypsy is less attractive. But I had put Gypsies behind me, hadn’t I?

Meanwhile, I was being invited to speak on radio and give talks to groups of people, reflecting the growing interest in the culture, history and highly controversial issues. Now enjoying the writing of my new novel, I was very torn, but the temptation was irresistible and my decision inevitable.

So – two very different books then, I decided. Why not? I am retired and have the time. My subject, an elderly gent, whose identity is known to just a few people at the moment, lives some distance away and does not use email; so there were gaps of time that gave me space to continue with the novel. The arrangement worked very well.

The launch was planned for this December, in Waterstone’s as usual. However, the difference between a good biography and a better one, is a few months’ more work. Writing a factual book is anything but ‘pure and simple’. So, keeping with my plan to publish the biography and the novel at the same time, to please everyone, I should have them ready to go in the spring 2012.