Thursday, March 24, 2005

Travellers Tales

It’s time for all self-righteous men and women to stand up against Howard’s plans for gypsy pogroms, the bulldozing of their caravan sites, and the boiling down of Romany bones for soup, his opportunistic response to the shrill campaign of hatred waged by the Sun, Mail and Express against these colourful characters with their brightly painted vardas and their dukkerin.

When I moved to the sticks from the multiculti city some twenty year ago, my views of travellers were an amalgam derived from reading Jeremy Sandford and George Borrow, and listening to songs like this and this in folk clubs. I swore never to enter the pubs (and they were not a few) with ‘No Traveller’ signs on the doors. As far as I was concerned, they were just people like anyone else – the signs were just what I’d expect from the conservative bigots you’d find in a country town.

My village had two permanent traveller sites, one at either end. I got to know a few of them (in the pub with their wives). Nice people. When my motorbike broke down, one of them gave me a lift to Brum each day for a fortnight in his scrap wagon. But these were the respectable class of the site. You’d read about some of the less respectable young men in the local court reports. Still, apart from one massive domestic (full story here), you’d hardly have known the sites were there.

My local – one of three pubs in the village – fell on hard times. The bikers who made up the bulk of the customers had found new, more fashionable haunts further afield. The old regulars had switched pubs when the bikers arrived, and the landlord was stuck for customers. I would still wander up for a beer though – it was only 50 yards up the road.

One night I strolled up at 10 o’clock and noticed the car park was full of Transits. I wandered into the bar which was full of men – not a single female.

I was an easy-going, idealistic hippy type, not the cynical chap I am now, so when a young man plonked himself in front of me, put his face rather closer to mine than was comfortable, and said ‘Alright, mate ?’ I took him at face value, smiled back and chatted to him like an old mate (this total unawareness of my situation was probably of assistance in dealing with aggressive dealers in the car parks of Aston pubs as well). He didn’t seem as friendly for the rest of the evening as his initial approach had suggested, and I walked home thoughtfully. I didn’t visit the pub again for a fortnight or so, and then I heard it was closed.

The travellers (still without their women) had been boisterous for a few evenings, but then things got out of hand. Closing time had always been flexible, but when the landlord tried to put the towels on one Friday after midnight, he was forcibly prevented from doing so, the phone leads were yanked out (mobiles were still a yuppie toy) and a successful evening ended with the till from behind the bar making its exit in the back of a van. End of a traveller’s pub.

Although the men were all local, village opinion was surprisingly sanguine – what did he expect ? And in any case, the Prices and their patriarch were to cover themselves with glory within eighteen months.

One day the village awoke to find a new travellers site. A digger had moved the concrete blocks and flattened the gate into a field by the industrial estate. Twenty vans and assorted lorries and cars were on site. The Smith family had arrived.

Word soon spread. ‘Old man Smith’s got 8 sons’, said the local policeman, ‘but four of them are inside at the moment’. The young men of the site took to wandering up and down the village with rottweilers, taking a good look at everything. Sheds, outhouses, garages, barns were emptied of their contents – chainsaws, power tools, mowers, bicycles - at first by unknown hands and then what was left by the owners. People took to wandering round their gardens with iron bars at dusk and before going to bed. It really did feel like a state of siege.

What was worse was that the police and council seemed powerless. One man had his motorbike stolen and saw the young men riding it round the site. The police told him he’d have to go and get it himself. The village soon came to the conclusion that the police were desperate to avoid confrontation and that the travellers knew it.

Only one local man set foot on the site. He lived in the council houses immediately opposite, and his car was vandalised by some of the site children.

As told in the pub the night after, he walked onsite and asked to speak to the patriarch. As he waited, he was surrounded by the young men. Out came Old Man Smith and our man told his story. ‘What are you going to do about it ?’ the old man asked him, looking round at the young men. ‘You can beat the ---- out of me’ replied the villager, ‘but you’ll always have to watch your back if you do’. The old boy considered, then peeled off a sum of money from a large roll. ‘Will that pay for it ?’ General opinion was he’d been rewarded for courage rather than for the threat.

Soon after came the incident that indirectly led to the Smiths departure. The village shop was run by a charming spinster who also cared alone for her Downs syndrome brother. Everyone knew her and liked her. The Smith ladies had been in the shop that morning and bought a doll. In the afternoon they brought it back with no box, filthy and minus an arm. She wouldn’t return the money and there were bad words spoken.

At two o’clock the following morning the shopkeeper was woken by the crash of the plate glass shopfront as a block went in through it and what cigarettes and spirits were kept on display went out through it. The police arrived half an hour later, interviewed the shopkeeper, still in her nightclothes, on the pavement through the car window. Then having ascertained that the emergency glaziers had been called, ‘We’ll be off then’. They were actually going to leave her alone in the shop. She wouldn’t let them leave.

Up to this time the Prices had kept out of it. Whether the shop incident was connected only they can say. But a few nights later pretty much the entire Price menfolk – two camps worth – paid a visit to the Smiths, a visit which ended with shotguns being fired and armed police being called out. Suddenly the village was full of police cars, with a couple parked permanently at the entrance to the camp. The Smiths moved on a week later to torment some other poor souls and Old Price was the toast of the village.

I don’t want to give the impression that such visits by itinerants were frequent. We probably had four such in fifteen years, but all of them were trouble. I started to understand the blocked off laybys and the concrete blocks in the gateways of the fallow fields.

The other real trouble – involving violence and vandalism in addition to the usual epidemic of thefts - came from Irish tinkers, about whom I blogged here, but failed to mention the manner of their departure. Unlike the Smiths, there were probably only a dozen men all told in this group. The land on which they’d camped was owned by a Bristol ‘businessman’, who had run illegal Sunday markets until the council got an injunction. One aftenoon a couple of cars containing the businessman and seven men arrived at the site. The businessman got out and had a shortish conversation with the occupants, following which the two cars went for a little cruise around the vans before driving off (all this was witnessed by a friend and his wife, a local journalist, who lived a hundred yards from the vans). The site was clear in a week (clear of people, that is. The local council paid for the site to be cleared as a health hazard). Where the travellers went we knew not.

Only four such incidents in fifteen years, lasting probably six months altogether. We’ve been lucky really – the legendary Johnsons, Gloucestershire's finest, have never paid a visit. But when you’ve lived through such a visitation you get a little twitchy when you drive past a field that was empty on Friday and on Monday contains twenty vans. I left the village for my present home seven years ago. The nearest illegal camp is some five miles away, one of three in the area, close enough for me to find three young men in the garden a fortnight back, taking a look and enquiring if I knew of any cars for sale cheap ? Their car was newer than mine. And yes, I did take the number.

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