Thursday, 16 May 2019

The Stopping Places: a Journey Through Gypsy Britain by Damian le Bas

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

In a Jhalak Prize longlist dominated this year (2019) by non-fiction books, this one stood out for me. It struck me as I read it that anti-Roma prejudice could be called ‘the last non-taboo’ – a bigotry to which many otherwise liberal members of the white middle classes would still admit to without blushing.

It is also a voice rarely heard. Almost my only other encounter with non-romanticised writing about contemporary Romanies was at the 2011 Sanctuary London event, when New Zealand author Garth Cartwright read from his book Princes Among Men, an account of his travels with the gypsy musicians in the mahalas (ghettos) of Eastern Europe – and even then, that was writing ABOUT Romanies, not the voice of a Roma author. I am sure part of that is my failure to look, but it is certainly a voice is desperate need of boosting.

Damian le Bas comes from a long line of English Romanies based around Surrey. He was raised in a Romany family, speaks the Romani language and has suffered his fair share of anti-Roma prejudice. But because he is of mixed blood – with fair skin and fair hair – even some of his own family don’t fully accept him as a true Gypsy (the word, always capitalised, that he himself most often uses to describe his people).

So one autumn he sets out in a white transit van to discover the aitchin tans – stopping places – used by Romanies and Travellers around the country. He starts with the ones his family have used for generations – Pagham’s Copse, Butler’s Down, Messenger’s Meadow, names that are unlikely to appear on any map.

Then he branches out, travelling around the country, going to famous horse fairs like Horsmonden in Kent and Appleby in Cumbria. He crosses the channel to attend the annual ceremony of Sara-la-Kali in Petit Camargue – where the Manouche (French Romanies) commemorate the arrival of the first Gypsy in Europe. He follows the trail of the Welsh Gypsies of Lake Bala – said to be the home of the purest form of Romani spoken in Britain. (Though why, le Bas asks, is English praised for its ability to adapt, to taken on board words from other languages and to invent new ones, and yet Romani scorned for the same adaptability?) At his furthest point north, finds the site in Scotland of the first recorded Gypsy presence in Britain, at the beginning of the 16thC.

His writing throughout is richly evocative – as in this description, early in the book, of his family’s flower selling business at Petersfield market.

“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 tight bright core...”

In the course of le Bas’s year long journey discovers the rigours of living on the road through winter, and the joys of the summer. He rediscovers some of the tricks and habits that made such a life possible. He encounters friendliness among settled folk who remember Gypsies as season workers in hop fields and on fruit farms, and rare hostility from fellow Romanies determined to maintain old demarcations.

By the end of the year, le Bas has begun to come to terms with his dual identity, reflecting:

“I am at the roadside, miles from anyone I know, and yet still in my place, inside my home, my own little world. I feel a mounting dislocation form the constant need for an endpoint ... I’ve lost the constant need to get somewhere.
We are all somewhere, I tell myself. I go back to the van and put the key in the igniting, in no great hurry to hear the engine start.”

The way of life that le Bas’s great grandmother, Nan, grew up with is gone, and with it some terrible hardships. Yet le Bas shows there was a time when Romany life slotted in with the seasonal nature of farm work and a kind of coexistence was possible. The present day almost complete lack of tolerance by settled communities of Travellers and Romanies is, in the end , in the interests of no one.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Travels in an Old Tongue by Pamela Petro; Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, Princes Among Men by Garth Cartwright.

Avoid If You Dislike: Pulling back layers of romanticism and demonisation

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea brewed by the side of the road

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

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