Travellers’ Tales book

It was one of those throwaway kind of comments which comes back at you like a boomerang. In June 2012 I was invited to a event in Manchester where the life stories of some local Irish Travellers had been turned into a small spoken-word piece of theatre. The tales had been collected by Sister Carmel, a Manchester nun who works with Gypsy and Traveller communities, and I told her I thought they deserved to be collected in one place after the play – a book or an ebook. I thought nothing more of it but a few months later Carmel came back to me and since then we’ve been working on turning her stories into a book. She collected a few more to get a better balance between men and women and a broader range of ages, and I then edited them, designed a book, contributed photos, came up with ideas and research, asked organisations for advice, applied for some funding, got turned down, wrote a more successful proposal, arranged printing, designed a flyer, printed the flyer, drew up an email mailing list and a list for promo copies and posted these all out. At times we both lost faith that we’d ever get this thing finished but thankfully it’s now out there. The ultimate aim is simply to challenge some stereotypes. Carmel was keen to get copies into prisons and police stations so we targeted various figures within Greater Manchester Police (including the diversity team, who were very grateful and promised to share) and 40 copies have been ordered already – two days after launch – to go into prisons. Other copies were sent to figures within councils who may come into contact with Gypsies and Travellers. And the response from within the community too has been great so far. Hard copies cost £2.50 each plus postage and it is also available online for free using the link below. Please email me at info@ciaraleeming.co.uk if you’d like to order one.

Appleby’s painted ladies

I’ve been meaning to combine some of my Appleby Horse Fair images from the past two years with some audio I collected this June, but the past six months have been so hectic that I’ve only just got around to it.

I’ve written on here before of my fascination with the other side of Appleby – the social side where young single travelling men and women hope to find that special person.

When I went for the first time, I was transfixed by the young women. It was freezing cold and drizzled for most of the four days and I spent the whole time decked out in several tops, gloves, a waterproof and a rather unattractive pair of green wellies. Yet the young Gypsy and Traveller girls floated around the fields and village like neon, fake-tanned birds of paradise – decked out in some of the skimpiest clothes you’ll see outside a nightclub. It was utterly unexpected.

As I learned more about their culture, this display became even more of a conundrum. These remain some of the UK’s most traditional communities in terms of moral values and a girl’s honour is all. Couples usually marry young and often start families by the time they are 17 or 18. Sex before marriage is frowned upon, divorce is rare and family is everything.

Appleby, I learned, is not only about horses – there are actually two distinct parallel events taking place. Just as the animals are washed and groomed in the hope they will catch a buyer’s eye, the 300-year-old fair has become a time when many single girls primp and preen in the hope they will snare their Prince Charming.

wedding belles

I don’t think I’ll ever make my living as a wedding photographer but I enjoyed shooting a traveller wedding in Cheshire today. It was an invite-only affair and so the couple was spared the free-for-all chaos that these dos sometimes have a reputation for. Once I wrestled back control from the video man and stopped him from barging into all my shots I actually started having fun. The fact that the bride has only just turned 19 though makes me feel ancient.

I’ve just returned…

…from Appleby Horse Fair, which turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag for me this year. Photographically it didn’t fall into place as I felt it did last year – partly because I was trying not to simply re-shoot the same pictures and hoped to approach the event from a different angle. Although I realise everyone must have moments when nothing seems to go right, I have to admit that this got to me a bit as the weekend went on. On the other hand I enjoyed myself and spent time with people I like and respect a great deal. That was valuable in itself and will hopefully yield other opportunities in the near future….

trapped on the margins

It feels like a long time since I first wrote about a family of vulnerable and homeless British Gypsies from the York area who are enduring almost medieval living conditions and being moved on every three weeks under an asbo that they were handed five years ago. Well precisely nothing has changed in that time and the story finally made it into print this week. I’m still shocked by their situation, which I’ve seen on several occasions with my own eyes. It’s an incredibly complex and politically sensitive issue of course. I hope the authorities in the area will pull the stops out to help them but I’m not going to hold my breath.

travellers’ rest

I’ve been thinking again about the Gypsy/Traveller issue recently, as I have a feature due to be published soon on this homeless Romany family. As it happens I was speaking to someone yesterday who works in this field and we discussed the problem of homelessness.

No one knows the exact scale of the problem but Gypsies and Travellers with no legal place to park their trailers are classed as statutory homeless. And since Maggie Thatcher’s 1994 Criminal Justice Act essentially outlawed their way of life, a shortage of council and private sites has forced many even further onto society’s margins than they were before. Without a permanent address it can be difficult to get a child enrolled at school, to find a doctor or get a job. The Act removed an earlier requirement for local authorities to provide stopping places. Some councils went as far as closing existing sites. The resulting explosion in unauthorised camps, where trailers pull up on school fields and business parks – only to be threatened with expensive court action – has led to tension with settled communities.

For all its faults, the Labour government has made some attempts to deal with this. Under the Housing Act 2004 and later government guidance, local authorities were required to assess and respond to the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their areas – to ensure they have decent, appropriate accommodation like other members of society. The first time English authorities did their counts in 2006 they found 6,000 additional pitches were needed to deal with the level of homelessness as it was then. At the current rate of action, I’m told it would take a staggering 19 years to get anywhere close to providing that number of caravan slabs – let alone the inevitable increase in need since the last survey.

Some councils have been more proactive than others and most are very behind. But for those who are moving on it, funding can be sourced from the government’s Innovation fund to get on with building. Allerdale in Cumbria is one area that is making strides – it hopes to build small family-sized plots using sweat equity from the residents and handing over management to members of the travelling community. Nevertheless the situation is far from promising – this issue is a difficult sell for politicians, not helped by the hysterical stereotyping of Gypsies and Travellers by local papers and the tabloid media.

The situation looks even more grim as the election approaches. Last month, the Tories unveiled their pledge to target Gypsies and Travellers through the creation of a new crime – “intentional trespass.” Trespass is currently a civil offence, meaning that local authorities or landowners who want to deal with it must serve an eviction notice through the courts – an often slow and expensive process. The Conserative proposals would mean that “illegal” encampments could result in immediate arrests, criminal charges and everything else that this brings. They also vow to overturn the Human Rights Act – which they believe is being abused by minorities like travelling people – to make it harder for Gypsies and Travellers to get planning permission and to scrap the compulsion on councils to address the lack of sites.

It’ll never work, because it misses the central point that most unauthorised encampments only exist because there are not enough legal stopping places, thanks of course to an equally enlightened Tory policy. As the LGIU think tank puts it: “Forcible removal of people from sites does not solve the problem of their accommodation or welfare. It is most probable that these proposals will cost local authorities more money and simply promote conflict and force movement with little chance of making a positive difference. Some people need to have a group to blame and these policy proposals will feed their prejudices.”

A man calling himself “Gypsy” on the Tory blog site adds: “We are not allowed to travel and were not allowed to settle,is there no place for romany gypsies in human society give us a chance there is good and bad among all ,dont use gypsy travelers for extra votes….” [sic]