I’ve just come back from a wedding this weekend Well it is the supposed season. I showed some pictures to my friends, who noted, “But where are the bouncy meringue dresses?” I then launched into a perfunctory explanation. Of course they were comparing my family’s wedding to the television series, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which caused quite a furore some years ago. Most people who watched it seem to have an arbitrary opinion about travellers featured in it. Even if you didn’t watch it, I’m sure you still have your own views on the people who lead such a nomadic lifestyle.
However, it is unfortunate that the majority of those featured, and indeed who we see on television programmes, are mainly Irish who lead very different lives to the English. It is not a realistic portrayal of the community as a whole and is therefore misleading.
My family and I find it frustrating since I am from a Romany background and, as such, am painfully aware of how inaccurate the series has been.
It would be naïve to assume that just because a few gypsy girls dress up as a glamorous female Michelin Man, a whole community does the same. Just like ‘country people’ or rather ‘gorgers’ are different from travellers, so too are these people in the programme.
Most gypsies, and particularly not the English variety, would never be so disgustingly grandiose. To compare all gypsies to those in the series would be synonymous with claiming the English would prefer a pint of Guinness to Tetley Smith’s ale.
Seventy-five per cent of travellers live in houses, the rest reside in caravans. It is a shame that the traditional lifestyle is dying out and is being replaced by a modern, less simple life instead.
There are more constraints which restrict travellers, such as there not being enough caravan sites and denying many planning permission even when they want to build bathrooms and storage huts on their own land. Councils insist people go on housing lists as opposed to those for trailer sites which also prevents travellers from living as they once did. It forces them to conform and yet I doubt the same would be done to other minority groups.
As much as travellers thrive on weddings, other ceremonies, like funerals and christenings, are just as important. Unlike those portrayed on television, many travellers are more concerned about the occasion and making sure that all the guests are enjoying themselves as opposed to being obsessed with spending a caravan’s worth on a frilly frock.
Both the wedding dresses and cakes are slightly over-exaggerated and I can honestly say I have never seen either at any of the traveller events I have attended, which must amount to around 500 at least.
Travellers have many quirks and idiosyncracies, which the television programme did capture well. For instance, it is true that we do not use the actual toilet in a caravan at all. A plastic bucket is used instead, the kind that are used for washing cars.
I know most people find that shocking. It can be a tad embarrassing if you’re “on the road” and not on your own site where there are toilets, because there is the issue of finding somewhere to empty it.
It sure beats “dirtying” up your own though. The theory behind it is that travellers are very clean, hygienic people who despise mess, particularly on their own doorstep. It is contradictory that travellers are seen as dirty.
In fact, I know of someone who has had a two-year battle with the council because there is a whole field of rubbish next to the site they live on, not caused by them, but yet it hasn’t been cleared away and they daren’t go on to the land for fear of trespassing.
As a rule there won’t be a clock inside a trailer since travellers don’t have to adhere to any routine which demands they get to work on time, as most are self-employed, working for themselves.
They don’t have to meet their friends because they will more than likely live on the same site as them and therefore pop around unannounced for a cuppa. Many don’t join clubs or play sport like football or tennis because they’ll prefer to mingle “with their own”.
So they can literally do what they like and set their own agenda. It ultimately means that they are late for weddings and parties, but that is just their way.
“The grab” that was portrayed in the series is a ritual Irish travellers partake in, not the English. It is essentially guys “grabbing” women, despite them screaming and crying in protest. The lads drag them to a secret corner where they can have a quick kiss or grope.
This perturbs me because the general public will associate travellers with this kind of behaviour. There is no denying that there’s a patriarchal ABOVE … Traditional gypsy pastime of trotting at Seamer Horse Fair last year RIGHT … Celine Jackson stand proudly in the doorway of her traditional caravan influence in gypsy culture, but not one that goes as far as molesting young girls who are barely the age of consent.
Within the realms of that male dominance, women do tend to stay at home and look after the men. That is their given role. Even if they don’t have children, many don’t work.
Guys are content to earn a crust and assume responsibility to “get by”. Neither sex is really interested in a career, it’s more about enjoying the simple things in life and gaining a balance, rather than stressing out. I have certainly defied convention by carving out a broadcasting career for myself and not “settling down” (well I still haven’t yet) until 37 and having a baby at 39.
Because of this and for having “gorger” friends and partners, I have been ostracised. I wasn’t allowed either back to the house when I was a teenager living with my parents. I am the black sheep of my family for having a boyfriend who has no travelling roots whatsoever.
We are taught to “marry your own” and I have never had a traveller man as a partner. Of all my 50 cousins, all of whom never finished school, I am the only one not to have married or had a child. Most of them walked down the aisle before they even reached the ripe old age of 21. I am convinced that some of my family believe I am lesbian since I have never been married nor engaged, nor had children (though having children when you’re not married is disapproved of). I am considered a spinster despite living with my partner, which is also forbidden. We should at the very least be engaged. I would go as far to say that giving birth at such a mature age is abhorred by travellers.
My immediate family and I have fitted snugly into the local community and are, as many councils want gypsies and travellers to be, “settled”. Despite not living a nomadic lifestyle, we continue to carry out the Romany traditions by speaking the ‘cant’ or rather the Romany language, at home and travel in the caravan during the summer.
For most of my life I have kept my heritage a secret as I did not want people to assume I was like one of the characters from the television series.
Unfortunately, we all get branded like those people as that is the only variety the general public gets to see.
In that sense, who can blame me for concealing, or rather not revealing, my true identity? I wanted to be treated fairly and equally, like most others in this country but know that that would not have been the case had I been honest. I was born into this way of life and I have carved a new one for myself, still respecting my roots, but leaving behind some of those that did not benefit me.
I am not condoning the behaviour of all travellers and gypsies, most of my family are not angels. Within every group of people there are always those who are good, and those who are less good.
There perhaps needs to be another programme which depicts the life English travellers lead but that may not be so easy since they are quite clandestine. I think it would help people to understand the nuances between different sets of communities.
It would also be great to feature some travellers from the fairground fraternity, who are entirely different to gypsies, let’s not forget. Most of my friends never realised this and belonging to both sides, I know how difficult it is being accepted and fitting in.
They didn’t think they were different entities. Yet there is a hierarchy between the two groups.
You’ll find that most show people despise gypsies and hate being classed as the same. It is based on the premise that the latter do not pay taxes whereas it’s a legal requirement for those who own a fairground business.
I am currently writing a book about gypsies in the hope that I can try to readdress the balance between gorgers (non gypsies/country people) and travellers. It’s mainly anecdotal but is based on truth and real life experiences.
If there is something you would like to know about gypsies and travellers or have any questions, then please do ask.
Tweet me: @serenafarrow