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We must mend our love-hate relationship with Gypsies. Society loves Gypsies for their romance but loathes them if they come closer. We need a new attitude to the Traveller community
BY David Altheer guardian.co.uk
Saturday 5 February 2011 10.00 GMT
For hundreds of years, Britain has celebrated and condemned Gypsies equally.
Rats in Downing Street? After the rodents showed up on TV news film scuttling around the doors of No 10, David Cameron's people mumbled about getting a cat – but a few days later called in the rat-catcher.
Queen Victoria would not have hesitated: at the first hint of rats she would have a flunky despatched to fetch the rat-catcher pronto. One of her favourites was Matthias Cooper, a Gypsy – and he did not let her down. Summoned one day to Windsor Castle, the Queen's main residence, he caught 50 rats and excitedly spread them on the expensive carpet. Edward, Prince of Wales, gave Cooper half a sovereign – a large sum at the time – for his work. Or perhaps it was to prevent further carpet damage.
"Matty", as he was known, was part of a group of Romanies camped near Claremont House in Esher, Surrey, where Victoria lived as a princess. She came to know the extended families of Coopers, Scamps and Smiths well, making little trips to take clothes and food to their tents, then doing sketches and watercolours of them. It's all in her diaries of 1836 and 1837. On 1 January 1837, she wrote: "I must say that through what I have seen of their characters they are a superior set of gypsies, full of respect, quiet, discerning and full of affection for one another." The tone is approving enough to make Cooper's descendants so proud of the royal link that they want to erect a memorial to "the royal rat-catcher", who lived into his 80s until he was hit by a train in 1900.
The young Queen's comments, however, with her "superior set of gypsies", implies that the usual set are not up to much. They typify society's appalling condescension to Gypsies: love them for the excitement and mystery we see in them, loathe them if they try to come closer.
The dichotomy continues to this day. During the last year, that love affair with the Gypsies has pushed two books written by Romanies, the brutally realistic Gypsy Boy and the nostalgic Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two, to the top 10 of bestseller lists for weeks. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was such a hit for Channel 4 that it commissioned a whole series, now screening in a weekly slot.
Contrast that with the loathing of Gypsies at Meriden in Warwickshire, a village often said to be at the geographical heart of middle England. Attitudes fit neatly with the middle England concept: local people have been making it clear for months that they'd like the Travellers to move off a parcel of greenbelt land they are trying to build on – and never come back. This is so often reflected by the media.
A recent example comes from Robin Page, who writes a provocative countryside column for the Daily Telegraph and, as a farmer, obviously merits respects as a rural commentator. His 28 January column includes an item on Gypsies: they "are the problem, those caravan dwellers who don't travel, pay no rent, drive around with no vehicle licence or car insurance, and who know as much about income tax as I do about algebra. They spend their time cruising around pinching whatever they can lay their hands on." But wait, he's not against "real gypsies". "Indeed," he adds, "I have spoken at a gypsy funeral and regularly attend Appleby Horse Fair."
His opinion is sadly no surprise: the noble Romany v phoney Gypsies concept has been with us for centuries. In 1562 English legislators, worried that Romanies were proving resistant to deportation, brought in an act that would snare also "counterfeit Egiptians" – local people who had married into families of the pesky immigrants. The state was determined to clamp down on everyone connected to Gypsies. It did not succeed, but it may have helped to create a literary genre. Later known as rogue literature, this rash of lurid pamphlets and books vilified and at the same time glorified the exploits of Gypsies, who were said to maraud across the country in huge gangs and to have prodigious appetites for alcohol, sex and deception.
The romanticising reached a peak in Victorian times, when George Borrow, a gentleman scholar from Norfolk, wrote Lavengro (1851), The Romany Rye (1857) and other narratives about his travels around Gypsy camps. Borrow's books sold well, setting firmly in the public mind the image of a wild yet dignified people of nature living among us and following traditions that came from somewhere far away and long ago.
Little has changed: we celebrate and condemn Romanies simultaneously. Queen Victoria may have had a soft spot for Gypsies. But unless we somehow get rid of this loathe-and-love-'em idea, it's going to be a while before they're welcomed into anybody's castle.