The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain by Damian Le Bas Review and Author Interview
Chatto & Windus, 2018
The image of Traveller people in English popular culture and media is, to put it mildly, negative. The most recent portrayal that springs to mind is the Birmingham-set crime series Peaky Blinders; the best that can be said about the characters is that at least they display fierce family loyalty, impressive organisational ability and cracking personal style. As a population routinely vilified in the tabloids with no invitation to dialogue, it is not surprising that English Gypsies themselves have generally found refuge in taciturnity: much discussed, but seldom discussing.
At the same time, is important to note that the massive gulf between Travellers and the rest of society, particularly the working class, has been in some respects over-egged. For one thing, there is the fact of an outsize contribution to the arts by Romany people or those of partial Romany heritage (Tracey Emin, Michael Caine, Charlie Chaplin, Ronnie Wood, Bob Hoskins, etc ad infinitum). The current fashion for genealogical research has also startled many urban working class people with the discovery of unexpected ancestors up their Victorian family trees. While growing up in Kent in the middle of hop- and fruit country, my father knew a lot of Traveller kids at school, some from the massive campsite at Corke’s meadow at the base of Leeson’s hill (they were, he says, “incredibly tough”). They represented a mysterious independence and freedom, out in all weathers. Later, many of the families moved into houses on my father’s council estate in St Mary Cray. Being a large and integrated part of the community, however, did not protect them from a backlash as a result of Channel 4’s programme My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding a few years ago.
Such incidents inspired Damian Le Bas to write his beautiful, enlightening and very personal memoir The Stopping Places to provide the rest of us with an accessible, popular introduction to Gypsy culture. After an unusually privileged educational trajectory —with encouragement from his parents and formidable great-grandmother Nan, Le Bas won a scholarship to a public school and then completed a degree in theology at Oxford, attaining glittering results— he eventually decided to hit the road in his blue Ford Transit van in search of his roots, in the form of the atchin tans, the stopping places where his family had stayed for generations while on the road, and also to find out how to be an Englishman who is also a Gypsy. At the start of this project he does not properly appreciate the scale of his undertaking, until he is disconcerted by a phone conversation with his uncle ( “‘Well, if you go to every stopping place in the country you’ll be doing it for a hundred and fifty years, won’t you?’ ….I feel deflated as my limits start to crystallise before me”). Not only is the task overwhelming, Le Bas also battles with a feeling of imposter syndrome, which interestingly begins to disappear once he has appropriately decorated the inside of the van with bright textiles belonging to his artist mother. There are also frictions with other Travellers along the way: some episodes of wary verbal circling, a near-fight at Appleby Horse Fair, and difficulties with a Government-sanctioned transit site that operates more like a gated community. Indeed, Le Bas is notably frank about internecine tensions throughout, noting of one visit to an important horseman: “The New Forest is an English Gypsy redoubt, and Billy is lukewarm on inter-tribal solidarity.” This reviewer was startled to discover that English Gypsies regard their Welsh counterparts as occupying a higher, linguistically pure and somewhat mythical plane, but that the latter do not return the compliment, describing English Gypsies as “the bengeske hachiwichi—the diabolical hedgehogs.” Throughout the book, the reader notices a striking parallel between English Travellers’ nostalgia and somewhat negative view of their contemporary culture, and a similar turn of mind in the wider English working class.
In counterpoint to Travellers’ now-more-familiar outsider status, summed up by Le Bas grimly as “belonging to nowhere,” throughout pre-Second World War English literature there also appears the romanticised image of the Gypsy as embodying an English traditional rural order, part of the scene and in touch with a deeper England in a way connected to the travelling life. This trope figures in, for example, the anti-Enclosures poetry of John Clare, George Borrow’s Victorian novels Lavengro and The Romany Rye, and The Wind in the Willows (to name a few), and resurfaces in Jez Butterworth’s 2009 troublesome and wondrous state-of-England play Jerusalem, particularly in Johnny 'Rooster' Byron’s famous closing monologue “I’ve seen a lot of strange things in this wood.” This connection between Travellers and an old rural culture under duress is evoked in Le Bas’ very interesting exchange with an old, non-Gypsy woodsman in the New Forest area: “He speaks about local Travelling families, the Coopers and the Sherwoods and the Sherreds; about how the forest used to be a happier place back then, before the Forestry Commission ruled everything, back when the place could look after itself.” In Le Bas’ retelling of Nan’s memories concerning a place called Messenger’s Meadow (“Such an English name, so familiar: the unhurried, light-heeled sprung rhythm”) an intense pastoralism comes through powerfully: “Nan described Messenger’s Meadow as a miniature land of perpetual summer, all yellow with buttercups, edged by a crystal-clear stream. A place of tap-dancing on old boards and playing the spoons and harmonica, an enchanted corner of England.” It was here that Nan first heard of the outbreak of the war, a dream-like episode of heightened reality: “a girl in long petticoats came running over the field to say England was fighting the Germans.”
The journey around the stopping places summons up the image of the Traveller as a countryman with roots spreading like ley lines throughout the landscape, revealing a hidden and in many ways more intimate English geography, almost like an alternative dimension humming below the surface of a mainstream perceived reality. The book also provides lovingly detailed descriptions of rural Gypsy pursuits and crafts, such as Christmas wreath-making and the now-forbidden gathering of mistletoe, and the skills and knowledge involved. Le Bas recollects a conversation about mistletoe with “four west country Romany women,” in which he noted that when “one of them talked about climbing trees with her brothers on frosty days when the fields were the colour of peppermint, gathering mistletoe, I saw how the others’ eyes started to widen, their gazes dipping down to the floor, seer-like.” It’s one of many passages in the book that bring an unexpected lump in the throat. (Another surprising commonality with mainstream working-class culture that the book reveals is a shared grievance at cultural loss brought about by perceived over-regulation by an interfering state.) The portrait of Le Bas’ great-grandfather Nandad, a quiet and deeply knowledgeable horseman, with his collection of Beswick horses and his old video tapes of horse fairs on which “Where the rest of the world saw a crowd of anonymous horses, munching the grass of a verge with all the interestingness of a passing cloud, he saw his passion kaleidoscoped into fractals of thrilling complexity,” is particularly moving. This contrary perception of the Gypsy as the more-authentic ruralist also chimes with Travellers’ traditional role as preservers and propagators of English folk tradition. Le Bas reveals that this function was abandoned around the time of the shift from the horse to motorised transport, a deep cultural caesura in other ways as well and the focus of much melancholy harking-back (“Nandad never left the epoch of the horse —it was a better time, a simpler time, a time in which he fully belonged, and he drove his van slowly, apparently reluctant to go any faster than the speed of a good trotting cob”). The revelation that folk music has since been replaced by open-road Americana struck me initially as saddening and then as faintly risible, given the comparative smallness and navigability of England. By the end of the book, however, after Le Bas has concluded his tour of the stopping places, it makes sense. Travelling at this slow pace, stopping in out-of-the-way places at intervals, casts an unfamiliar light on England that shows it to be, in fact, a vast, mythical, and sometimes dangerous landscape.
A particular strength of Le Bas’ account, apart from its touching portrayals of his older relatives —Nan, a deeply-felt presence who endearingly addresses her great-grandson as ‘mate,’ is always there to give him the wisdom of her long life— is its strong focus on Traveller material culture: clothing and fashion (immaculateness, gold and Harris Tweed figure prominently), horse fairs, and accoutrements for travelling, most critically the right sort of stainless steel wash stand and washing bowl to enable the stringent and ritualistic approach to cleanliness required by cultural taboos. Right at the start, Le Bas relates detailed childhood memories of twice-weekly trips to Petersfield in Hampshire, where his family had a flower-selling pitch: “There were boxes of daffodils packed squeaky tight; tall green buckets of chrysanthemums, yellow and copper and pink; stargazer lilies that burst into purple and white streaked with orange. There were little black buckets of freesias, their buds like fruit humbug sweets sucked to a tiny, bright core. Spray carnations, the white ones frill-edged with light red, yellow ones tinged with peach. Ferns in dark greens jostled against the million tiny white stars of gypsophila.”
Although the book does a superb job of introducing a little-known and sometimes secretive world to the rest of us, it also —perhaps unintentionally— prompts reflection on the erosion of rural and working-class cultures in the post-war era more generally. The only criticism to be made is that Le Bas is a little too vague about the various legal developments, becoming particularly virulent in the 1990s, that have contributed to the encroachment and claustrophobia experienced by Travellers who still try to lead life on the road. This is understandable, since the general reader at whom the book is aimed might tune out of discussions of dry statutes, but it is a shame notwithstanding. It is to be hoped that Le Bas will continue in his quest to make Traveller culture comprehensible to the rest of us, and that he will also pursue his evident gift for limpid, unfussy and transcendent nature writing.--Isabel Taylor
Interview with Damian Le Bas
Traveller culture has been perceived by the outside world as secretive. What are the reasons for that? Given its ground-breaking nature, were you nervous in the run-up to the book being published?
Well, Gypsies and Travellers can be very secretive. If you take something like language, it's easy to see why: the Nazi scientist Eva Justin learned the Romani language to win the trust of German Romanies, then used it to hunt down and kill them. So secrecy is often a response to prejudice: perhaps it's also caused some mistrust, but the problem with that line of thinking is that it can easily slide into a kind of apologetics for the horrendous abuses of Romanies and ethnic Travellers by the powers that be. (And clannishness and secrecy don't justify the state abduction of children or genocide, to give two examples.) But back to the question. There are actually many books by Gypsies and Travellers, most of which have been published in the last few decades. Some are far older: much of the 1875 book The Dialect of the English Gypsies was composed by the Romany Sylvester Boswell. But this notion that anyone who writes a book is somehow breaking ranks persists to this day. For some Gypsies, the written word carries this legacy of threat. Generations only encountered writing in the form of the summons, the eviction notice, the warning against trespass. It reminds me of Joad's description of his father's fear of writing in The Grapes of Wrath: “Kinda scares ’im, I guess. Ever’ time Pa seen writin’, somebody took somepin away from ’im.” So yes, there's this fear both of writing, and of giving things away. Most Travellers I’ve spoken to have been supportive of what I'm trying to do, so it's not a universal fear these days. Some family members did tell me they disagreed with me writing a book. But I hadn’t even started writing it yet and they were accusing me of writing a book I had no intention of writing. We don't speak any more.
You're extremely honest in your portrayal of yourself and your experiences throughout the book. Was it a struggle to write and publish a book this personal?
I wrote tens of thousands of words of a kind of preamble — the sort of thing poets call "throat-clearing" — before I really got underway with the book I was trying to write. It was basically a long and tortuous argument about whether I had the moral right to write The Stopping Places. Almost none of it appears in the book but it was something I had to do. It wasn't the self-description I struggled with. It was this idea that writing about Romany culture is a kind of betrayal. And it's something about non-fiction in particular. Poetry isn't the same: maybe it's seen as closer to song. (Although the great Polish Romany poet Papusza was banished from her community, purportedly because of her poetry about the Romany way of life). I concluded that correcting misunderstandings of my culture, and writing about it in a respectful way, addressing it as a serious thing with beautiful aspects: this isn't betrayal, surely. But then look how long my answer to this question is. Perhaps I protest too much and still haven't really sorted this out. I was certainly nervous about describing family members and left a lot of that until the end. There's a great responsibility when you're trying to paint a picture of someone else. Maybe that's why a lot of painters prefer to stick to self-portraits.
Despite your glittering academic career, you actually say very little about your experiences at school and university, and what does filter through in the book is largely negative (such as the teacher who made an idiotic joke about Travellers). Was this the impression that you wanted to convey, or did you enjoy your experiences overall?
My experiences of school and university weren't largely negative, but my experiences of people talking about Travellers at school and university certainly were. Anti-Gypsy sentiment is a standard conversational trope, and people make the assumption that no one present will be offended. It's like, “Well of course there can't actually be any Gypsies in the room! We're at Oxford here!” The fact that I was often having a great time in education just heightened the tension of these moments. When you're enjoying yourself, feeling part of something in a productive or carefree manner, then a sudden statement denigrating your family and culture can cast a cloud over those things.
In literature about England at the time of the Enclosures, such as the poetry of John Clare, Travellers are often portrayed as emblematic of the English countryside (and by extension of England) and a former freedom, with a sort of special inside-outside status. Do you feel that this symbolic function was unique to that particular time, or does it go back further? Has this symbolism has been largely lost in recent years, or has it mutated (c.f. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem?) How did you feel about the latter work?
That symbolism is still there but for most people it's located in the past. The good old Gypsies of long ago were the salt of the rural earth: these fake (insert insulting term) or whatever they are, they're the weeds of suburbia. There's a total lack of acknowledgement that the former people were mostly just the ancestors of the latter, and that the situation has always been complicated. The reason I did a chapter about London is because it's always had a large Gypsy population — places like Holland Park were historically poor quarters with large Romany communities. But yes, the tendency to put Gypsies in, for instance, fine art has certainly shifted away from the traditionally romantic and into a different territory. I thought the character of 'Rooster' Byron in Jerusalem was intriguing: during the first half of the play, he lives in a manner that would have most modern Romanies absolutely aghast, but as the layers of his personality are stripped back, we get this strange, rich fire of Romany rootedness and connection to the past, when he calls forth all his ancestors with a cry of “Come, you giants!” But mostly I loved Mark Rylance's portrayal, especially when he realises he's going to have to leave his life and he emerges from the trailer almost transfigured, the clown turned deadly serious, the vest and sweat all gone, wearing a sharp-cut three piece suit and trilby hat. It was like the way Gypsies are seen, giving way to how we see ourselves. I was mesmerised and wrote to Mark Rylance to tell him how much that moment meant to me. I think Iona Kenrick did the clothes and she really nailed it.
On the same theme of changes that have negatively affected the Travelling community, you make a very interesting and surprising observation in the book: “It was surprising to think that the mechanisation of agriculture had begun so far back in the past. To Travellers it was the still-recent scapegoat for everything: the amoral and inevitable creeping phenomenon that had robbed us of our place.” Could you expand more on what you mean by this comment?
All I meant was that when it comes to the mechanisation of agriculture, the writing was on the wall longer ago than the average Gypsy conversation about it seems to suggest. Travellers tend to talk about it as though it was a post-war phenomenon, but that's because many of them still did traditional agricultural jobs long after the war had ended. Some depended almost completely on traditional fieldwork right into the twenty-first century. But when you look at something like the Scammel Mechanical Horse, which was an early 1930s invention, the name says it all: it was a deliberate attempt to replace the horse with a machine, and I was simply surprised by how long ago all that had started. Perhaps that's a sign of my naivety, but I think it also says something about the mindset of the people I grew up around. Certainly ‘mechanisation’ or equivalent words always carried a pretty pejorative air. There was an irony in there, though, as the people using the words in this way were in love with their lorries and vans. But they understood the irony and would crack jokes about it as well.
In the very moving passage about your great-grandad’s love of horses, a similar theme comes up: “For his part, Nandad never left the epoch of the horse—it was a better time, a simpler time, a time in which he fully belonged, and he drove his van slowly, apparently reluctant to go any faster than the speed of a good trotting cob.” Do you yourself think that the horse era was actually better for Travellers?
I really don't think it's possible to answer that question. Certainly some Travellers seemed to find the changes — the pace of them especially — hard. There's lots about the old days that Travellers don't miss. In a word, the winter. But when it comes to things like the beauty of the wagons, the prevalence of the Romani language, the fiddle-playing, the horse riding, the dancing, most of us are at least a bit wistful about all that. Which is why many Travellers can't wait to experience a bit more of that stuff, which they do at the fairs.
Have the tensions between different groups of Travellers which you describe in the book also been exacerbated by the modern age?
It's hard to tell what it was like in past ages because so little evidence remains. There are inherited Nawken (Scottish Traveller) tales about the arrival of the Gypsies in fifteenth century Scotland, and in them is transmitted this sense of a weird mixture of apprehension and camaraderie. One thing that's certainly true is that the rate of encounters between Gypsy and Traveller groups who appear strange to each other has increased in recent decades as international travel has become more affordable. In the sixties this was mostly visible in the number of Irish Travellers coming to England; in the last two decades it's been Roma people from central and eastern Europe coming to Britain. There isn't always tension. There's just as often cooperation and marriage.
I grew up as a folk music-obsessed teenager surrounded by scratchy old Topic Voice of the People source recordings, and I was dismayed on reading your book to discover that Traveller musical taste has changed from the sometimes mysterious folk ballads that they used to preserve to Americana, a change which you suggest ran exactly parallel with the fading-out of the wagon and horse era and the advent of motorised vehicles. Are some still involved in the folk scene, or has this particular cultural change been fairly complete?
I'm sorry to hear you're dismayed —and you're not the first person to feel that way about it! I described it from a certain angle, coming from a family who embraced the American stuff a long time ago. The fact is Travellers were actually very conservative in their retention of the old British and Irish folk ballads, often hanging onto them when they'd died out almost everywhere else. You'd have been surprised to hear the ballad of Barbara Allen sung in a 1960s pub, but Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker discovered that lots of Gypsies and Travellers still knew these songs. Even in recent years, there have been articles about how Romany families like the Blacks and the Orchards, Scottish Traveller families like the Stewarts, and Irish Travellers like Thomas McCarthy, are still keeping the centuries-old ballads alive. But it's no longer the norm, just as it isn't really anywhere else. When the old ones got up to sing a song when I was little, it was probably a thirties, forties or fifties American song. As with everything, it's an oversimplification. Nan still occasionally sings the traditional song You're Going to Dartmoor, which her parents sang 100 years ago.
Certain passages in the book seem to suggest a cultural inferiority complex amongst English Travellers, between mystical Welsh Traveller authenticity on the one hand and Continental Traveller joie de vivre and self-confidence on the other. Was this intentional on your part, or have I misinterpreted them?
Maybe it says more about me than anyone else! The Gypsylorists — intellectuals with a passion for Gypsy culture — ended up putting Welsh Romany culture on a pedestal, and they had their reasons, like the great tradition of playing the Welsh harp, and the preservation of an old form of the Romani language. John Sampson in particular. But most English Gypsy people are very proud and exhibit little jealousy of other cultures. Particularly if they're well off: they're quite happy being them. I've just sometimes felt like a bit of a boring bloke compared to a lot of the Gypsies I've met elsewhere. But given the size of the characters I'm talking about, I reckon most people would.
The book has had a warm reception in the mainstream media, but I am interested in what sort of reception it has had in the Traveller community. Are people largely happy about it now that they’ve read it?
Most people who've contacted me have said very lovely things about it. Both people who are, if you like, fully entrenched in Traveller life, and those for whom it's further back in the family and my book's been a bit of a way back in. I've been deeply moved by many of the letters and emails I've had. Just today I had a very kind message from a Romany woman who'd regretted keeping quiet about her background whilst at university. She said my book had helped her work through a few things and it's always amazing to get a message like that, especially if like many writers you can tend to berate yourself about the meaning of your work. Word has got back to me of a few angry tirades on Facebook but that's to be expected.
From time to time in the book and in your other interviews I sense a nervousness about how representative you can claim to be. How much of this is due to your unusual life story (scholarships to elite schools and Oxford) in the context of your class background —which put me in mind of the sense of cultural dislocation often felt by working class intellectuals in general, as diagnosed by Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy— and how much to your feeling of not measuring up to previous Traveller generations, that their skills (knowledge of horses, herbalism, etc) have not been passed on to you? Do you think that this preoccupation on your part is also a manifestation of a wider Millennial focus on identity?
Education is definitely part of it. You end up foregoing certain experiences in favour of others, and you can end up feeling —in Tolkien's words— like "a lesser son of greater sires": people who could live off the land and weave baskets that could carry water. It's a trade-off like any other and I agree that it echoes the wider phenomenon of strange homecomings for educated working class people: the sort of thing eloquently described by Alan Bennett, say. But as the Romany journalist and activist Lisa Smith says, education gives you the opportunity to learn about your heritage in a different way, and in the long run you have to hope it complements your culture. I'm definitely not representative of any sort of consummate Gypsy skillset —I'm not a horseman or a boxer, for instance— but there have been times when I'm stopping by the roadside cooking a Joey Grey [Ed. note: a traditional soup eaten on the road] and playing the spoons that I've wondered if I look like some sort of concocted Gypsy stereotype, when really that's just how I sometimes live. It's more that Travellers tend to be suspicious of spokespersons and self-appointed or self-important types, and I share that to a degree, so the last thing I'd want to do is to try to paint myself as some sort of a representative. I just try to speak reasonably about my culture, and correct outright lies.
As for the wider Millennial focus on identity, my thinking and writing is bound to have been influenced by that, like everyone else's. The Stopping Places is a journey towards more mercurial senses of self, of belonging and of universal humanity. It is to me, anyway. Likewise, I see Millennials, with exceptions, as perhaps less preoccupied with simple (and therefore fantastical) notions of ethnicity or national culture, and therefore less prone to vote for their political manifestations. (UKIP is an obvious example. My generation weren't its power base.) On the other hand, maybe the way younger Travellers feel about the past —grateful to have avoided its hardships, whilst mourning the heightened sense of togetherness people once had— is part of a wider nostalgia, but I'm not sure I see Millennials as being especially prone to that.
There are some passages of beautiful, unforced and unpretentious nature writing in your book, which generally displays a remarkable affinity for animals (“I feel watchful, like a hare in its winter seat”). Does this sort of writing derive from your heritage, and can we look forward to more of it?
I was brought up by people who had an incredibly sharp eye for animals, birds and plants so a bit of that's come down to me. And you have things like the old Romany empathy with the hare, say, but not the rabbit (the hare lives lightly on the land and stands up to box like a pugilist; the rabbit entrenches itself in one home and tends to run away). But in terms of how I write about nature, I've probably been more influenced by my favourite writers on nature and the British landscape: Nan Shepherd, Roger Deakin, John McPhee, Ted Hughes, George Mackay Brown, Amy Liptrot, and of course Robert MacFarlane, and others. In the run-up to writing The Stopping Places I'd been reading lots of books which cast the land and the life within it in a different light. It's exhilarating when someone finds a way to tilt or refocus your perspective on things familiarity may have dimmed the magic of. I also love the work of Sylvain Tesson, but sadly only one of his books is available in English translation. In terms of the future, yes, I intend to keep writing about the outside world and I hope I'm able to.
Towards the end of the book, you describe a new perspective on the identity conflict hinted at throughout: “I flirt with the thought that I don’t care if I’m a Gypsy or not any more. Somewhere along the way, the question seems to have lost its importance. After all, I have a been a free man, at least for a while.” Has this issue been resolved definitely by your experiences on the road, or is it a continuing theme for you?
Aha! I thought it had been resolved and for a while I felt all smug and zen about it. Then time passed, I realised that these sorts of questions are never resolved, and that things will keep pulling me back onto the road until they put me in a box.
How do you feel about the whole enterprise, looking back? Do you plan to regularly go travelling, now that you have acquired the necessary skills?
I'm more relaxed about it now. It doesn't seem like this achingly significant cultural act, a reclamation of the rights of my Gypsy ancestors (or my ancestors in general, since all humans were nomads once). It's just something I can't help doing, I do it with less fuss, and I'm a bit more adept at it. I think of living on the road as an absolute human right that must necessarily be maintained, in spite of all the many state attempts to stamp it out, or to turn it into nothing but a recreation. I also think it would do a lot of people good to try it, if only for a short while. It doesn't half enhance your appreciation of modern domestic conveniences.
What’s next for you in your work? I’ve read that you’re on a mission to revive and rescue the English Romani language. Do you have any concrete projects planned yet?
Ha! That's a job that's well beyond me. But the language is a major passion of mine and I intend to keep using it and beating this drum of mine that it's an unacknowledged British language of old and strong provenance. I'm working on some poetry stuff, including one collaborative project that's very exciting for me, and I've got a few future books in my sights. But I've been very busy with stuff related to The Stopping Places and trying to soak that up as well. You only get to do a first book once.
I was struck by the key role of Nan, who is a very engaging character in the book. Is your close relationship with your great-grandmother unusual within the Traveller community? How is Nan these days, and what does she make of the book’s success?
Nan is very well. I'm staying at her place tonight, we had a good chat earlier on about people who are gone, how times have changed and all that. At ninety-two she's the senior member of our family and her memories and insights, her ethics and her provision of stability and a centre of gravity for the family are very important to us. I'd say my relationship with her is pretty rare, not just among Travellers but in general, simply because I'm thirty-four and most people don't have great-grandparents at that age. I consider myself very lucky, and I hope Nan might feel vindicated to a degree by the way the book's been received, especially since she stood by me when others said I shouldn't write it. She's read it twice and assures me she likes it, which means the world to me.
Damian Le Bas was interviewed by Isabel Taylor. Many thanks to Damian for his time.