No Place to Call Home by Katharine Quarmby
21st Nov 2013
Katharine Quarmby is a journalist and film-maker, whose first non-fiction book, Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People, was published in 2011.
She writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman and the Huffington Post. She is also the author of a children’s book, Fussy Freya, and a personal memoir, Blood & Water: An Anglo-Iranian Love Story.
Published in September, No Place to Call Home: Gypsies, Travellers and the Road Beyond Dale Farm consolidates Quarmby’s reputation as a socially-conscious writer. Her interest was sparked when, in 2006, she was commissioned to write an article about Gypsies and Travellers for the Economist.
The controversial 2011 eviction of Travellers at Dale Farm – the largest of its kind in English history – is at the heart of this book.The legal battle surrounding the Dale Farm site in Essex was already well underway. The events leading to the controversial 2011 eviction of Travellers at Dale Farm – the largest of its kind in English history – are at the heart of the book.
Quarmby brings to life the many characters who played a role, including Mary Ann McCarthy and her five daughters; the Sheridan family; and the very different approaches of lifelong activist Grattan Puxon, and Gypsy Council vice-chair Candy Sheridan. Opposing views, from local resident Len Gridley and Basildon Council leader Tony Ball, also feature in the narrative.
To fully understand the tension between Britain’s itinerant groups, including Scottish and Irish Travellers, and Romani Gypsies and the ‘settled’ community, Quarmby looks back to the 16th century when Gypsies were branded with a ‘V’ (for vagrancy) and deployed as slaves.
Until the last Gypsy execution in 1650, Gypsies could be hanged simply for being Gypsies, although by the 18th century deportation and imprisonment (even for children) had replaced death as the preferred penalty for Gypsies and other convicted vagrants.
Irish Travellers were among those who emigrated to Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Caravan Sites Act of 1968 made it mandatory for local councils to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers. However, in 1994 this legislation was reversed by the Criminal Justice Act.
Quarmby also considers the modern phenomenon of ‘New Age Travellers’; the racism experienced in recent years by Gypsies migrating from Eastern Europe to Scotland; and the 15 year-old Traveller, Johnny Delaney, who was kicked to death in 2003.
One chapter focuses on another disputed camp, at Meriden near Birmingham, where protest group Meriden RAID have been treated rather more sympathetically in the media than the Travellers themselves, gaining significant public support.
To her credit, Quarmby is not afraid to address the more negative aspects of Gypsy and Traveller culture, including the 2012 trial of a Luton family found guilty of enslaving homeless men on their site.
She also relates the tragic story of Bridget Joyce, a Traveller whose abusive ex-husband forced her to witness her partner’s murder. She died several months after the attack went to court.
Gypsy and Traveller culture remains unavoidably insular and somewhat male-dominated, though more women are now entering higher education, with some winning praise in art – Delaine Le Bas – and literature – Jess Smith.
Most of Quarmby’s interviewees are women, and there is a sense that despite inequalities, they retain a distinctly matriarchal power-base within their traditional communities.
As a new media storm erupts over the discovery of ‘Maria’, believed to be an abducted child, on a Gypsy camp in Greece, it’s clear that the picture of an isolated, often misunderstood people as painted in No Place to Call Home is not confined to our own shores. Katharine Quarmby humanises the nomadic way of life, which has all been often reduced to inflammatory headlines.