I wrote this late in 2010, things are coming to a head and I am about to return.
In London a few weeks ago I heard of a place called Dale Farm, just a few miles east of the M25. Apparently a group of ‘travelling’ gypsies, after legally being told to settle somewhere, had purchased this isolated piece of land in Essex. The gypsies had lived there for a very long time but were now about to be evicted from their homes, at the cost of millions to the taxpayer. Immediately a plan hatched to go and meet the people, to talk with them and see what they needed or wanted.
I arrived late, just as darkness was about to fall. The final five minutes takes me down a narrow single and pot-filled country lane with a few houses on it. Turning onto Dale Farm I am immediately struck by such an ordinary residential scene; kids playing in yards with council issued bins stood to attention at the front of well organised homes. There are caravans but most homes seem well established spacious shallots with small gardens and driveways. On the walk from the car a few dogs came to inspect me but they were tame, friendly and pleasant. I thought of the stereotype of gypsy dogs and thought of Bali where they are more like creatures of the living dead; two stereotypes that didn’t fit. This place clearly wasn’t a council estate, a country village or a suburban complex; this was another unique place in England with its own distinctive feel.
We had told Marion we would be late and she answered the door with her gorgeous great-granddaughter in hand. “Are you Martin? Come in, come in” her thick Irish accent coming over loud and clear. It all seemed too easy for a meeting of strangers, bearing in mind she’s expecting to be evicted. Marion calls out for her daughter so that we can talk more easily, even though the great-grandchild hardly makes a sound throughout our stay. Her home is immaculate, fashionable and well designed, matching rugs and sofas, everything colour coordinated (magnolia?) with a 28-inch television in the corner, complete with digital set-up. I must have seen eight large decorations or Jesus Christ before sitting down. The place was so clean I felt underdressed and like I was a messing up the front room but Marion just got on with chatting. When one of her grandchildren walked in she immediately set to fixing us a coffee. Having peered into some of the other homes this layout seemed by no means unique.
Marion and her daughter told us about the history of Dale Farm, the community of gypsies, and their family. She remained understandably reserved on some subjects because she was frightened of being evicted this was especially so with issues relating to the community. Dale Farm had been a big scrap yard, not ‘greenbelt’ by any stretch of the imagination, until the 1970s when they had taken the opportunity to purchase the land. It had taken two years to clean and clear the land; to make it liveable. The community had built and supplied all the amenities themselves; cess pits, electricity, running water. Basildon Council had done nothing although settled life eventually provided some benefits; while Marion and her daughter were largely illiterate her grandchildren had attended the local schools. Marion was Irish but all her children had been born in the UK and are British citizens.
A few months ago another settled gypsy community near Hoverfield was evicted from their homes, which were then bulldozed. The threat is real. This is England not some distant place like Jerusalem. Although like the Palestinians these people are happy in their homes and simply want to remain. As the red tape gets tighter petitioning and protesting won’t cut it, and this is a community that understand that such things never helped them anyway. Luckily some of us, like the gypsies themselves, are dynamic enough not to be taped in by bureaucratic pen pushers. Marion’s grandson walks in, he’s in the furniture business and plans to go to some clubland island like Tenerife for Christmas; all so normal.
There was one funny story Marion told us. Essex County Council had paid for the construction of a community hall right in the middle of Dale Farm. It is used as a youth club, to hold church services and as a storage space. Basildon Council were not pleased with this, they after all are the main instigators willing to spend over £10million to evict some two hundred children, men and women from their homes and livelihoods. Why? Because they are ‘Irish’; because they are ‘travellers’; because they are ‘gypsies’. Racism that’s why. You’ve heard it before but when Marion said it last night it somehow sounded more poetic, “all feel pain if ye tooth pains ya, we are no different.”
(To be clear; they own the land, over a thousand people live there but around two hundred are being threatened with eviction because of planning permission, even though all homes are mobile. It’s just an excuse to divide the community and at the end of day is an unjust racist programme. No realistic alternative is being provided).