Over the past twenty-five years teachers of Gypsy and Traveller children have faced the dilemma that the texts generally available in schools for social studies, history, language and literature generally omit all mention of Travellers. In doing so most school books do not merely bolster anti-Gypsy racism by giving a false view of society and history, but they also put Traveller children off education, often for good by giving them the tradition that a knowledge of their own identity is incompatible with academic knowledge. They have reacted to that dilemma by producing their own work. Thomas Acton explains.
The first examples of these self published books in the 1970s were somewhat amateurish; David Smith, then an art education lecturer at Scraptoft College, remarked of one of mine that its drawings ‘might permanently damage the aesthetic capabilities of children exposed to them’. The same charge could not be brought against the books here reviewed, which all have high production values, glossy paper and colour photographs throughout. These are ‘real books’ which will combat, rather than reinforce the marginality of Traveller children in the classroom.
A cultural meeting place
The function of, and the audience for, these books, however, is different in each case. Each text is to some extent a meeting place of Traveller and non-Traveller cultures, which can be used in the inter-cultural classroom, but the first, Gypsies and Travellers in their own Words, is the one that responds most closely to the agenda of Traveller adults from the old Traveller and Romani communities of the Western European Isles, from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It is a monumental compilation of oral histories, backed up by old and new photographs, covering family life, fairs, education, Romani and Gammon language, waggons and horses, sites and politics, that will stir the nostalgia of any Traveller, and anyone who has been involved with Travellers during the last fifty years. Modern graphic designers may frown at the way material is packed into the book, but the crowded detail exactly corresponds to the richness of Traveller culture and its aesthetic appreciation of intricacy. In text and pictures, but also in spirit, it pays due tribute to the patron saint of English Gypsy decorative art, the late Jimmy Berry. To some extent the book works on the principle of old local newspapers: every name mentioned is another certain sale. And in the case of Travellers more than one sale. Selling a stack of these from a stall at Stow Fair, I found that virtually every Traveller who picked the book up found people they knew in it. This book is the antithesis of the folkloristic concepts of ‘anon.’ and ‘trad.’. It is chock-full of real, named people, and the teachers and Travellers, who have so lovingly facilitated this fantastic living kaleidoscope, have carefully faded themselves into the background. The publishers are to be congratulated on risking a print run of 3,000, some three times the normal print run of a Traveller Education Service publication, which may be why this one is relatively cheap. Most have been sold already and become collectors’ items, bound to increase in value.
History and current situation
Despite all that, this would not be a good introductory text for the non-Gypsy who knows nothing about Gypsies unless they were, say, in an upper secondary school class which included Travellers who could elucidate and contextualise difficult points for non-Travellers. Fully to appreciate Gypsies and Travellers in their own Words, the non-Traveller needs some general education about Travellers first. Given that Travellers have been part of British society for half a millennium this should have happened centuries ago; realising the tragic historical explanations of why it did not is the starting point for understanding, and then transcending, the racism and community relations difficulties of today. This is the function of The Travelling People produced by three East London Traveller Education Services, which explains the basic facts of history and the current social situation of Romani and Traveller communities in Britain. It covers New Travellers, Showmen and Romani asylum-seekers as well as the territorially defined Gypsy and Traveller groups, all with extremely positive thumbnail sketches, that celebrate diversity rather than presenting any one group as somehow more authentic. Inevitably the presentation is a little simplistic (the rounding-out of population figures may provoke the pedantic); but it is a great deal more subtle than what will be presented to its readership from other sources, and it contains a useful bibliography for teachers (whom, the authors recognise, may have as many questions as the pupils).
Inevitably this book is aimed more at non-Travellers than at Travellers, although it may tell some Traveller children things they did not know about other Traveller groups. But the quality of the photographs and the clarity of the text means that if this book were used with a class of non-Traveller children with just one Gypsy in it, the Gypsy child should be affirmed, not embarrassed, by it.
Both of the above books are somewhat remedial in character; that is to say they provide information and resources that have hitherto been lacking, and can now be assumed to be lacking in older pupils, students and teachers. The long-term solution to that problem, however, must be providing appropriate text for those at the earliest stage of their education, which show Travellers as members of the general community like any other minority. Where’s Mouse does exactly that, a first stage reader which in only 26 different words (and a number of evocative photographs) tells the story of a little boy, Dylan, looking for his dog (comically named ‘Mouse’ – but we don’t find that out until the end; we start off thinking he’s looking for a real mouse). Dylan is a charming little fellow anyone would like for a brother; Mouse is the dog we can all have a soft spot for. They just happen to live on a Traveller caravan site. Bravo! Let’s hope future booklets may give us more adventures of Dylan and Mouse.
The high quality of these books is by no means unique. The resource fair held every two years by the National Association of Teachers with Travellers brings together a cornucopia of such publications. Their quality, innovation and rootedness in the community present a challenge to all educational publishing.
Gypsies and Travellers in their own Words
Peter Saunders, Jim Clarke, Sally Kendall, Anna Lee, Sakie Lee, Freda Matthews, 2000, Leeds Traveller Education Service, 254pp, A4, numerous colour and black and white photographs, 0 9508029 9 9, c.£25 hard covers
The Travelling People
Anthea Wormington, Siân Newman and Chris Lilly, 2001, Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets Traveller Education Services, 25pp, 24.5 cm x 17.5 cm, colour photographs throughout, 0 9538008 3 0, c. £6.50
Val Hawksworth, Jean Flynn and Sylvia Murphy, 2000, Cardiff Traveller Education Service, 15pp, A5, colour photographs, no ISBN, c.£4.50
Thomas Acton, M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.), F.R.S.A. is Professor of Romani Studies, University of Greenwich.