Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dale Farm: Monday was E Day

Sunday 18th September

With so many accusations and counter-accusations about the Dale Farm travellers flying about, it's hard for most people, including me, to understand how Basildon Council decided to forcibly evict about 400 people who are living on land they own. The problem is that they don't have planning permission to live there. Some travellers at Dale Farm are on legal sites; others are not. After ten years of legal wrangling, the bailiffs are due on Monday. Amnesty UK, Vanessa Redgrave, and a long list of the Great and the Good have been campaigning for a stay of execution of the eviction, arguing that the travellers have nowhere to go, that it's an infringement of their human rights, and that they must have a place that is culturally appropriate for the traveller lifestyle. And so on. A lot of supporters have turned up to help resist the eviction.

The people at Dale Farm are Irish Travellers, not Romany Gypsies:
These are the so-called “Irish Gypsies”, who are Celtic by ethnicity. They are by tradition caravan-dwellers and metal-workers. Their origins are remote, very likely the ancestors of these Travellers were wandering blacksmiths already present in the island before the arrival of Roma in the British Isles, and this hypothesis would reasonably explain why Roma did not settle in Ireland.
They are Catholics with strong links to Ireland. In fact, some of them have very strong links to the town of Rathkeale in County Wexford, which some claim is their "spiritual home", though no one seems to know why. As Catholics, the families that live at Dale Farm, who spend their high days and holidays in Rathkeale, have gradually been increasing in number, as Catholics will. The Telegraph and the regional BBC TV News, Look East, have reported the link with Rathkeale over the last week, but it's old news. A Basildon Echo reporter, Jon Austin, did a story about the travellers' property interests four years ago, when he found out that traveller clans had land or rented homes in other parts of the UK, not just in Ireland. Although some of the travellers' supporters have said that this is all nonsense and a deliberate ploy to undermine the travellers' position, it does seem that their claims that they have "nowhere to go" are not entirely true for all of them.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Dale Farm situation, and whether or not some of the people there have anywhere else to go, the Government (the current one, and the previous one) has failed to ensure that there are enough sites for travellers around the country. It only "encourages" local authorities to provide sites, and as travellers's sites are deeply unpopular with non-travellers, local councillors know that they'll lose votes if they propose any. I was amused that a government website refers to "seeking to remove barriers that are stopping them from taking part in the Big Society." I doubt that travellers are any more interested in the Big Society than the rest of us.

The UN's got involved, and there are claims that the eviction is "racially motivated", however I'm having a bit of trouble understanding the pleas for a "culturally sensitive" solution to the problem. Since multiculturalism became all the rage under Tony Blair's premiership, when religion seemed to become more important than ethnicity, culturally sensitive people have been desperate to demonstrate how sensitive they are towards other people's cultures. At the same time, groups such as the conservative Lancashire Pakistanis and the Hasidic Jews in Stamford Hill, London, have shown absolutely no inclination to integrate into British society, but have carried on as living anachronisms, sticking to social rules that conflict with modern values and generally disadvantage women. The travellers' "culture" is about travelling, they say, but in reality it seems to be more about squatting wherever they feel like it, as they claim that they can't bear to lives in houses but want to be out in the open air. Romany gypsies and Irish travellers have been nomadic for generations. Some stick to their own tribal communities and avoid integrating with the Gorgios (as the Romanies call us) or the Gadje (the Irish Travellers's word for us). In effect, they impose their own form of apartheid. In many traveller communities, it's almost impossible for young people, particularly young women, to get involved with non-travellers. Their fathers and brothers enforce a strict non-fraternisation code. Domestic violence seems to be more common in the traveller communities than in the population as a whole, and "cultural barriers" prevent the women from escaping violent relationships. So which bits of their "culture" are we supposed to respect? And why should any group living in the 21st century in our over-crowded country, on our over-crowded planet, expect special privileges, such as being provided with land where they can settle as a group, rather than spreading themselves about, as other families have to do?

East Sussex County Council says it's a fallacy that travellers don't pay taxes, because those who live on legal sites pay council tax and rent like everyone else. But do they pay income tax? Since they transact business in cash and most older travellers are illiterate, I doubt that any of them fill in a tax return. Some may not have much money and rely on state benefits, for good reasons, while others are obviously doing very nicely, thank you, though you'll have a hard job to prove it. One of the men in this series of videos (You Tube - The truth about Irish Travellers), who earns a living laying tarmac, says he does a lot of work in America, where he has a house.

It seems that many of us who've taken an interest in the Dale Farm situation feel conflicted about it, including Richard Parry, who's got to know the families very well over the last six years. He, like many, queries the huge cost of the eviction and the problems that the families will face, but accepts that green belt land must be protected. Basildon Council has already spent an enormous amount of money on legal fees and is unlikely to have a change of heart at this late stage. It just seems absurd that it should have taken ten years to get to this stage, without taking up better, and cheaper, options. Perhaps Dale Farm has been a no go area for council officials, but if the site had been properly managed from the start, it should have been possible to turn away travellers who didn't have permission to stay before they got settled. It should have been possible to employ private investigators to check on the claims that some have made about having nowhere to go, and sort out the liars before finding suitable alternatives for the rest. It should have been possible for the travellers to cultivate better relationships with their neighbours, so that they weren't all tarred with the same negative brush. But compromise appears to have been impossible.

Here are more sites that you might find interesting:

As a footnote: 36 years ago, I lived on a council caravan site with Romany Gypsies as neighbours, after I'd been made homeless (that's another story). As an impoverished single mum with a small baby, I was grateful for the help and support I got from them, in return for helping them with letter-writing and form-filling. They gave me things, like an old stone sink that I still have in my garden, and a coal scuttle that I used for years, and my immediate neighbours, who traded in rags, used to set aside clothes, towels and bedding for me, after they'd collected the remains of jumble sales. We got along fine, and there was none of the mess and rubbish around the place that you see in many places after travellers have moved on. One old couple settled there when they got too old to carry on travelling. Other families stayed so that their children could go to school. Similar groups have settled in other parts of the country, some in houses, though they still maintain their close family ties. Click here for a film about a group in Lambeth, made to celebrate their way of life, and BBC Kent on "Romany Roots". Living with gypsies needn't be difficult.

Update: Monday 19th September

5.30pm, and there seems to be a stalemate. Some daft woman has tied herself to the gates with something so that if the bailiffs force them open, she'll be garotted. The bailiffs are saying it's a "health and safety issue".

I like the Daily Mash's version of events that starts "IRISH travelling folk will today reaffirm their ancient, mystic right not to have planning permission for their houses.":
Another local resident, Jane Thompson, said: "I've got nothing against people who roam the countryside while not leaving a horrible mess and being really nice to everybody. I would gladly grant them planning permission in my heart. But some of them have been at Dale Farm at least 10 years. Forgive me for saying so, but they don't seem to be very good at travelling."
Meanwhile, the local primary school has lost almost all its pupils. Out of 110, 107 lived at Dale Farm. For several years now, the school had plummeted down the league tables as non-traveller parents withdrew their children, the whole of the governing body quit, and teachers struggled on the brink of nervous breakdowns. It's had one of the worst attendance rates in the UK, which suggests that the travellers' kids' education was being disrupted long before the eviction loomed.

6pm, and the news that Mr Justice Edwards-Stuart granted the travellers an injunction so that the bailiffs can't do anything before another hearing on Friday. The judge seemed to think that there hadn't been enough enformation about what is allowed on each pitch, and what must be removed. Makes no sense to me. Half of Dale Farm is legal, the other half isn't. What could be clearer than that?

I spotted Gloria Hunniford at the gates of Dale Farm on the local BBC TV news. Irish solidarity? Stupid BBC presenter referred to "Romany gypsies", which they're not.

Update: Tuesday 20th September

Last night's Dispatches on Channel 4 was interesting. Reporter Deborah Davies spoke to travellers and some of the people who've had to put up with their anti-social habits, like crapping in field margins and near public footpaths. When she asked a couple of girls if they didn't have toilets in their caravans, they said they did but it wasn't their way to use a toilet inside a caravan, so close to where they cook food; that's disgusting, apparently. One woman spoke of seeing the kids walk off into the bushes clutching toilet rolls, and there were bits of used toilet roll all over the place. After they leave an illegal encampment, a specialist unit has to go in and clear up all the faeces.

What about sanitation at Dale Farm? Is there any?

Wherever travellers have parked as they move around in the summer, it's left to local authorities to clear up tree prunings and lumps of hardcore and asphalt that they've dumped, in addition to all the rest of their rubbish. This is stuff that they've collected while trimming hedges and laying driveways for people, so it's commercial waste that attracts charges for disposal on landfill sites. Rather than pay, they go fly tipping. It costs tax payers between £100 and £150 million a year to deal with fly tipping.

Candy Sheridan, who's related to the Sheridans of Dale Farm, is a Liberal Democrat councillor and a member of the Gypsy Council. She tried to achieve a compromise with the bailiffs about how the eviction was carried out, and has been threatened and warned that she won't be allowed back on the site.

The programme ended with a pony pulling a traditional gypsy caravan along a road, uphill. Not a horse; a pony. It made me wonder about the welfare of the travellers' dogs, ponies, horses and hens.

I get the feeling that even people who'd previously been sympathetic towards the Dale Farm travellers have changed their minds as they've learned more about them, such as the suggestion that Basildon Council should pay them £6 million for the land, which isn't worth a fraction of that, and their refusal to move into council accommodation or onto other sites where there are spare pitches. Unreasonable demands that can't be met, such as being offered one site where they can move en masse, have lost them support. Even Max Clifford would struggle to improve their PR ratings. Someone on Twitter responded to this blog:
Very interesting post. I really struggle with this myself. My experience (keeping poultry) with travellers was awful. Regular thefts of any bird they thought they could fight, breaking doors/gates to get in. A neighbour had bloodied birds thrown back over his fence (dead). When he built a shed to keep the birds safe, they set fire to it. Police not interested. Of course it's all anecdotal, and I wouldn't like to generalise but I have to admit it has tainted my opinion a little.
The general perception is that travellers want to be able to continue living as they please without accepting the same rules as everyone else, and without contributing anything to society outside their own insular community. News Thump sums up their image perfectly:
“We’ve highlighted the part of the statue book that we’re happy with. And firstly, you have to ignore the sections on tax – I think our relationship with the tax authorities could be described as tenuous at best. And is taking something that doesn’t belong to you really theft? I heard that possession is nine tenths of the law, so when I possess something it becomes mine and I don’t see how that can be illegal. And all this stuff about violence, I’m assuming we can ignore that amongst ourselves, right? We do love a good fight, you see. And ‘planning permission’? We’re not convinced this is really a law anyway.  Reason? Oh, say we don’t agree on religious grounds. But apart from that, yes, we’re as lawful as they come.”
Is it racial prejudice that's prompting criticism of them, as some suggest? How can it be? They're not a separate racial group, like the Roma. They're Irish. Irish people as a whole are probably just as fed up with the travellers as the rest of us.

When people start using words like "culture" to describe the behaviour of any group, they find themselves justifying all sorts of nonsense for fear of offending or upsetting people. Consequently, unreasonable behaviour remains unchallenged. This has been a problem associated with "multiculturalism" in the UK, which has led to honour killings, the unfair and medieval treatment of women, and a continuing reluctance of some minorities to seek proper healthcare or education. Ask yourself what sort of cultural values ought to be encouraged, and which ones deserve to be consigned to history.

According to Tim Black at Spiked (who thinks this is a freedom issue, not a humanitarian crisis), not being able to build on land you own is "a cruel restriction on people’s freedom and liberty." So, if I buy a field I can build a house on it, right? What, anywhere?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sunday voices on 9/11

There's a poem by Joyce Grenfell that I've often used at funerals:
If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower not inscribe a stone,
Nor when I'm gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must.
Parting is hell
But life goes on
So sing as well.
That line about a "Sunday voice" struck a chord the first time I read it. I've avoided listening or watching any of the 9/11 stuff on TV because I knew there'd be a lot of Sunday voices. And what about those pits in the ground where the twin towers stood? They're deep, and they've got water in them. The first time I saw them it occurred to me that they'd be a magnet for would-be suicides. It would have been far better to use the site for a practical, positive, life-affirming purpose.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Too much and too little

I've been listening to The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4. It was about food poverty and food banks. Like the Americans, it seems an increasing number of British people are relying on free food from food banks to avoid going hungry and to feed their children. One woman spoke about how her husband had had a wage increase, which meant that they lost some of their benefits, ending up worse off. An American academic was interviewed about the difficulties of distributing food vouchers in the US, where they're not necessarily used to buy the most nutritional food. I've read elsewhere that they've been used to pay for sugary drinks that rot children's teeth and contribute to obesity.

In England and Wales we're throwing away 3.6m tonnes of food waste a year, which adds up to £9bn a year. A lot of it is due to over-buying food in supermarkets and then throwing out stuff because it's past its "best before" date, which isn't the same as the "use by" date. See the link on the right (Love Food, Hate Waste).

I'm old enough to remember post-war ration books. I might still have one somewhere. When food was rationed, most people ate a healthy diet because it was carefully balanced by nutritionists. Many more people were doing physical work too, so they burned off the calories from saturated fats and sugar. When I worked on a farm, my breakfast (after I'd already done a couple of hours work) was double-yolked eggs, bacon, sausages, fried bread, tea and toast and marmalade with butter. I weighed far less than I do now, and was far healthier.

Maybe it's time to bring rationing back? It would make people think twice about throwing good food away, while ensuring the low paid ate properly. You could favour British producers and save a fortune on food-related health care. Yes, I know it won't happen, but I can dream.
Illustration: WW2 propaganda poster.

Who broke Britain? No one.

David Cameron goes on about "broken Britain", as though it was once a law-abiding haven where socially responsible people with family values lived; the sort that Margaret Thatcher was fond of referring to. Who broke it? And how? When did this happen? Cameron did history at A level, then PPE at Oxford, so maybe his grasp of history, particularly social history, is tenuous, but it doesn't take much research to discover that things have been a lot worse in the recent past. Far from being "broken", Britian's fixed a lot of things.

They mentioned an interesting fact on QI; crime went up by 57% during the Blitz. Hitler provided a helpful distraction while home-grown criminals went looting. Some pretended to be ARP wardens, complete with helmets, so that no one questioned them when they were helping themselves. They didn't confine themselves to looting shops, the wartime criminals; some went into bomb-damaged homes and helped themselves to other people's valuables, even while there were bodies close by.

Last month's riots started when a few idiots high-jacked a peaceful demonstration. Once the fires started and civil disorder spread, urban criminals seized the opportunity to go looting. It was nothing like as widespread as what happened in the Blitz. The proportion of offences committed by people who already had criminal records has been disputed - Boris Johnson claimed it was three quarters (in one report, it said he referred to "three fourths"), while the police say that they targeted known criminals - but whoever was right, criminal opportunism seems to explain a lot of it.

It's been said that civilisation is a thin veneer. There will always be people who'll exploit any opportunity to get things the easy way; by helping themselves. There will always be people who behave as if no one else matters. They're a minority. Nothing is "broken".

As for "family values" - here are just a few examples of "the good old days":
  • The number of births outside wedlock shot up during and immediately after the war.
  • Infanticide was far more common than now in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, as girls in service who'd been raped by their male employers or their employers' sons were desperate enough to abandon their babies to die because they had no means of support.
  • During the same era, the fear of crime drove people to wear spiked collars, like the ones worn by modern S & M aficionados, to protect themselves from thieves who garrotted their victims - today's muggers are tame in comparison.
  • There were enormous numbers of prostitutes in London and other cities during Victoria's reign, and many wives were infected with VD by their erring husbands.

Since the 1960s, when many imagined that the introduction of the pill and women's liberation meant the end of civilisation as they knew it, we've become far less tolerant of drunkenness, domestic violence, and casual criminality. Most people's lives are far safer, healthier and more comfortable than the lives of their great-grandparents (as a funeral celebrant, I've heard lots of life stories about people who were born at the beginning of the 20th century).

Nobody broke Britain. Cameron's fluent in bullshit and crap at running the country.