Book Review - No Place to Call Home

Gypsies and Travellers have endured unimaginable hardship and persecution for centuries as Katharine Quarmby demonstrates in her meticulously researched book.  During the 16th century the nomadic people arriving in Britain were often referred to as "Gypcians" (as the Roma were thought to come from Egypt rather than India) and, if not banished or executed, could find themselves enslaved. The Gypsies, together with Irish and Scotch travellers, were considered vagabonds and a 1572 law deemed them ‘outrageous enemies to the common weal’.

At the same time, many Irish travellers became Catholic scapegoats as they were to again, four hundred years later, during the Troubles. The enclosure of land that started in the Tudor period and continued well into the 19th century brought further hardship for Gypsies and Travellers who previously had been able to settle on common ground for brief periods. At its worst, discrimination can erupt into violence as was the case with Johnny Delaney, a fifteen-year-old who in 2003 was kicked to death in Ellesmere Port in a racially motivated attack. By far the most chilling period was undoubtedly during the Holocaust, when a quarter of Europe's Roma were killed. The casual racism against Gypsies that persists today is perhaps best exemplified by the shockingly negative stereotyping in Channel 4‘s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, first aired in 2012,  which caused a spate of hate crimes and direct action against Gypsy and Traveller families. 

At the heart of No Place to Call Home, though, is Quarmby’s account of the Dale Farm eviction that made international news in 2011. Members of the travelling community bought the six-acre plot in 2001. However, they did not obtain planning permission from Basildon District Council to take up residence there. The legal battle between the council and the Travellers lasted ten years. Quarmby interviewed many of the families involved, and lets them speak for themselves, although her passion becomes clear when she refers to the eviction as “a pyrrhic victory” for the Council. It cost local residents at least £4.8 million and brought untold miseries for the families who lost their homes. Some moved to a nearby legal site, while others remained camped on the road outside Dale Farm. Those with a legal pitch on the old site could not get back on to it as it had been bunded. One mother told Quarmby “They thought we would vanish into thin air…but we have nowhere else to go.”

Quarmby quotes the late travel writer Bruce Chatwin: “Prolonged settlement has a vertical axis of some ten thousand years, a drop in the ocean of evolutionary times. We are travellers from birth.” Chatwin championed the lifestyle and culture of the Australian aborigines who have suffered similar marginalisation and it is a fitting parallel. Quarmby’s book is a sad indictment of the centuries-old ill-treatment of Gypsies in Britain, whatever their ethnicity or faith.

Judging by the virulence of the online comments in response to reviews and articles on the subject, prejudice against Gypsies remains unchecked and Quarmby’s book is both necessary and timely.

Originally published in The Tablet