Author: Mattey Mitchell, Romany health campaigner and activist
Identity is a comical thing. If I tallied all the most common things I hear when meeting new people, a contender for heavyweight champion has to be this: ‘I’d never have guessed you were a Gypsy; you don’t seem that way at all’. It makes me laugh because the underlying suggestion is that Romanies must seem like something – but nobody is ever keen to tell us what that is. Is it living in ye olde wagon? Is it being a criminal, being economically disadvantaged, or being ignorant? Romany people can be all these things, sometimes all at once. We are human beings. More often than not, though, and despite what people think, we’re none of them at all. I am a Romany man born to two Romany parents. I’m also a university graduate, a scientist, and a political activist. I'm not typical, but I also don't need to be; as a people we can be successful, smart and accomplished without any of those things. This is the great comedy of identity; it means so many things, to so many people, that all you can be sure of is who you are yourself.
All I can say then is this: I was raised in the late ‘90s, when nomadism was still widely viable. Every man jack was on the road at least some point of the year, and everybody owned a Hobby, a Tabbert or a Buccaneer. People drove Shoguns and Cabstars with their childrens’ first shoes hanging from the rear-view mirror. People did talk Rumness – it’s far from a dead dialect – in a way that was authentic to us, and it is a language I still speak with my family now. We were old school. I didn’t know what the Criminal Justice Act 1994 was, or what its effects would be on my family and wider circle. I only knew that people slowly started coming off the road, and ‘the road’ became a more and more dangerous place. A year or two before we moved off the site I was brought up on, a grown man in the Southwest threw a lit vodka bottle at me (the kind with the flaming cloth stuck in the top). Luckily, these don’t explode as easily as they do in the films – you can bet I’ve looked it up – and after striking me it just sort of limply rolled away. The thing is, we had landowner permission to stop where we were that year. It wasn’t a dispute about land use; not about nomadism; not cultural disagreement; it was because I was, in his eyes, a “dirty pikey kid” who somehow deserved immolation. It’s my first clear memory of racism that isn’t wrapped up in the fog of childhood confusion. The police ought to have records of this – they were certainly present. They conveniently couldn’t find him afterwards, and decided that it was more appropriate to write it up as a ‘domestic dispute’ rather than pursue criminal justice. That’s my first clear memory of systemic racism – they come pretty thick and fast after that.
Anyway. We pulled off the site shortly after, and were resettled in a housing estate nearby. We continued to pull away, every summer, until I was well into my teens. That slowly dwindled as we waited for my sister or myself to be old enough to pull our own trailers (children of a certain age really need their own). Here’s the thing you also need to know about ‘pulling away’ – it’s not something you do for a holiday. It’s a cultural, economic and social act, and you ‘pull away’ with several families you’re close to. Sometimes other families join, sometimes families drop out, but it’s more often always the same familiar crowd.
The day we were waiting for, when everyone’s children had grown enough to pull trailers and everybody fancied ‘shifting’ again, never quite came. The silver age had passed us before we even realised it. The last place we genuinely travelled in the strictly traditional way was, I think, around Dorset. This was really the end of 1,000 years of continual, ancestral nomadism (for my family anyway) – from the time the Romani people first left whatever nation of origin we came from, to Wimborne.
You’ve got to laugh at the comedy of it.
Some people think this spells the end, that a Romany person (or a Traveller) is neither a Rom or a Traveller once they’ve stopped being nomads. The big joke on the Criminal Justice Act was that, if anything, Romany culture thrived. We evolved quickly. The mainstays of our identity were never about trailers. It was about family, holiday practices, customs, traditions, behaviours. It was about the food we ate and the language we spoke. It was about knowing why you didn’t eat a biscuit after the dog had sniffed it.
The most jarring thing about living in houses was actually how little things changed. We still socialised with the same families. We still cooked whole baulies (pigs – from a butcher, not a field) over a ten-gallon drum cut lengthways. We still threw a bit of plyboard down, doused it in salt, and watched the old men tap-dance while drinking beer or port and wine. They’d eventually tire and sing traditional songs, tell stories, and some even played spoons or mouth organs around the fire. We’d learn about the beng, the Romany iteration of the Devil, who was a bone-picking shapeshifter, and the angel of death that knocks three times. Then, naturally, everyone would get into their cups and ‘jump the fire’ – a comically-primitive group dance that you’d need to see to believe.
Must have been an eye-opener for the English suburbs.
We kept it to our back gardens – nowadays, children that grew up on that estate are just as familiar hearing our traditional songs as we are and they look back on them fondly. That’s one of my nicer memories. For us, though, it was just culture. Weddings, christenings, Christmases, even daily dinners and all the other typical events of everyday life went about the same way – and so Romany life continued.
Another thing that didn’t change was our limited access to services. Access to healthcare, to accommodation support, to education, social mobility or statutory protection. These are much broader themes that cannot fit into the boundaries of a single blog – they are deeply-ingrained and systemic. The point is, we were not and are not ‘Romany people’ – a proud race, distinct unto ourselves, quite ancient and diverse. Like Irish Travellers, Showmen, Scottish Travellers and all other traditionally nomadic groups, we are and were just “Gyppos”. No group deserves the title. Stripped in the public imagination of any redeemable characteristic. It quickly became apparent to us that this promise – that assimilation, compliance, and ‘living more like them’ would lead to equality, safety acceptance – was a complete lie.
A Big Fat Gorger Government Lie.
It sounds combative and harsh. Let me be clear – to say all non-Romany people are bad is the same as saying that all of us are bad. I’ve met and maintained friendships with many good, decent people – I’m engaged to one - and let’s not beat around the bush either. There are things we can change internally. We can take on a more optimistic attitude for one – stop thinking it’s all pointless (and also accept that sometimes it is). We can try and sympathise with the neighbour who might not be used to seeing a thirteen hand Welsh Section C nibbling on their grass verge (something my lot are guilty of). We can recognise that our sense of humour doesn’t always mirror the standard British sense of humour, and we might find dark things comical while finding light-hearted things said by a gorger to be deeply wicked. It’s a complicated relationship and all of us – on both sides of the field – could do more to meet in the middle.
But this brings us all the way back around to this: ‘You don’t seem that way at all’.
So what is ‘that way’? Evidently, whatever it is, I am indeed it – or as near to authentic as you can get in 2022. I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve been naïve, and that I’ve bought into another lie – that if we just modify our behaviour a tiny bit more, that if we just try to meet in the middle, we’ll finally reach that dangling carrot that is acceptance. But the only thing that seems to exist ‘that way’ is complete and total assimilation and, instead of acceptance, constant comparison to the monolithic monster of gorger imagination (which is the only place it does exist, in reality).
So when it comes to identity, what does all this mean? Evidently it is indeed a complex subject that I feel we can only answer one way:
We exist, and will exist, with our without nomadism; we know who we are. Are you ready to accept us?