ON THE VERGE: THE GYPSIES OF ENGLAND By Donald Kenrick and Sian Bakewell. University of Hertfordshire Press. Pounds 5. - 0 900458 57 7.
How easily the phrases spring to mind: "raggle taggle gypsies, stinking gyppos, dirty tinkers - We don't want your sort here!" And how exactly the legislation mirrors these brickbats, from the Commons Act of 1960 which stopped camping on commons to the Public Order Act of 1986 which made trespass on vacant land a criminal offence.
Socialists and Liberals, for whom British tolerance is a cherished if fast-fading myth, have fought hard to enshrine protection for travelling people and have scored some victories, notably in the 1968 Caravan Sites Act which obliged councils to provide sites for gypsies and in the 1988 Education Reform Act which set up a fund for traveller education but the fact remains - and is overwhelmingly demonstrated in the 1994 Criminal Justic and Public Order Act, which removed the obligation on councils to provide sites - we do not like different lifestyles.
Gypsies are not very numerous. Donald Kenrick and Sian Bakewell in their informative and now updated handbook give figures of 53,000 for ethnic Romanies (for whom Romany is a language and who have been in this country for centuries); 8,000 for Irish travellers, a nomadic group who have been settling in this country over the last 150 years; 2,000 for Roma, ethnic gypsies from Europe who have settled here this century; 200 to 2,000 for Scots travellers, who pay annual visits to this country in caravans; and 50 for the Kale, several hundreds of whom live in Wales, the offspring of the Woods clan who migrated there from south west England in the 17th and l8th centuries. These figures relate only to England.
Why is this small set of groups perceived as so troublesome? Some of the reaction is, no doubt, hysteria, whipped up by media and politicians hungry for issues. Some is racism. Some comes from experiences of theft, rowdy behaviour and, for teachers, disruption and truancy (issues which the authors have skated over). But most is intolerance of dissenting voices. How else can one explain the several cases in which gypsies have applied for permission to build permanennt sites on land which they have bought and occupied for some time, only to be refused on the grounds that as they had settled there they were no longer gypsies and therefore not entitled to sites?
How else explain site rules which ban not only bonfires and trading, integral to the gypsy way of life, but also the parking of trailers by visiting relatives? More sinisterly, how explain baton charges and even one "exercise" using police armed with machine guns to "clear" sites of gypsy families? Sadly, all too often gypsy sites now hold only nuclear families huddled in caravans watching satellite television - raggle taggle indeed.
Teachers can have a role to play. For if gypsy children wish to preserve their way of life, they will need the skills necessary to fight decisions in the courts.