Dale Farm has been in the news a lot recently, so most people will know it’s a traveller site in Essex, where an eviction is looming. Some of the reporting about the site has been misleading, such as the plans to ‘return the site to greenbelt’. Travellers set up home there ten years ago, on a disused scrapyard, not the lush green fields ‘greenbelt’ suggests. The travellers own the land they are living on. They also own a couple of proper ‘greenbelt’ fields next door, where they graze their horses.
Another piece of misinformation is that the 90 families living there have been offered other places to live. They haven’t. The old people there say they can’t bear to be constantly moving on with the endless police hassle they’ve faced all their lives but found a refuge from, by getting together to buy the land.
They are a people in transition. Many of the men and women aged around 60+ grew up in horse-drawn vehicles, moving where there was seasonal work, horse fairs, good grazing etc. Most of this site’s owners came from Ireland to find work. Now all the common land is owned by someone, everywhere is fenced round. It’s a battle to even keep some footpaths across land open! Wherever the travellers stopped, they received abuse and harassment by people in houses, the police called every time, they got moved on constantly. Some residents don’t read or write because they couldn’t go to school. In a documentary recently, I found it really moving to hear how one grandmother had been taught to read by the children as they were now able to go to school by staying in one place.
The seasonal work is now on the continent for many of the young men of the community. They can do this when they know their womenfolk are living together not needing to constantly move on. Three generations live in community in a way we all used to do. The grandparents are closely involved in the upbringing of the grandchildren, with aunts, uncles and cousins close by.
Many of the residents at Dale Farm are Catholic, with statues of Mary in carefully tended shrines on each plot. The immaculately kept caravans put my boat to shame. The children ‘play out’ all day in the school holidays, older ones looking after and bossing around the younger ones, climbing, digging, building rubble dens etc without much adult interference, but clean themselves up sharpish when they go home! If you need anything, you will instantly be offered it by 5 people at once! It’s very hard to say no, thank you! I mention all this because it seems so reminiscent of village life, say one or two hundred years ago.
I don’t mean to romanticise a pretty tough way of life but I hate that they are to be cleared away like rubbish. I hate that their way of life is seen as invalid because it isn’t the same as that of most house-dwellers. What’s so great about buying a house you have to spend all your life working to pay for, filling it with stuff you’ll throw away in a year or two. What’s so wonderful about living alienated from your family and not ever speaking to your neighbours. This isn’t just about gypsy/Roma/ travellers. After all, those of us who live aboard are also living outside accepted norms too. Some of us travel around alone, others group together in communities and try to live much like the caravan travellers. Some people make use of empty buildings, squatting them for a while, injecting crumbling buildings with new life, often creating community social spaces.
The intolerance of difference isn’t anything new but the current drive to iron out society so that we are all part of the same shoddy system is worrying I think. Squatting was popular after the war when returning soldiers had no-where to live when their homes had been bombed. People made use of what they could find and that was accepted. Now the government is trying to make it illegal, at a time when buying a home is impossible for so many. The money spent on evicting people who it will cost lots of money rehousing, seems a mad expense.
Government money is propping up the eviction of Dale Farm. An estimated 18 million pounds has been earmarked for the eviction, including £6million from the Home Office. What a stupid waste of money. What a pointless uprooting of a settled and close community. What a worrying example of State-financed intolerance and racial prejudice. It's something happening more and more in other European countries with France and Italy recently clearing gypsy camps, forcibly fingerprinting gyspies. A few weeks ago, a site was cleared in Paris, the residents made to board a train, adults and children seperated and under police escort, taken out of the city. The parallels with the trnsportation of jews and gypsies under the Vichy government have rightly caused an outcry. We do things more subtly over here. We crush dissent and difference through long drawn-out legal battles and with various 'consultations' and justifications, but the result is the same.
Don’t wait for them to come for the boaters. If you can, support the Dale Farm travellers in their fight to resist the eviction. There’s a march (details here: http://dalefarm.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/demo/) or just to find out more about it, here’s the website: http://dalefarm.wordpress.com/