Dale Farm is far cry from the Gypsy lifestyle romanticised by the arts
Wednesday 19 October will be remembered as a bleak day by those who claim allegiance with the UK's Traveller and Romany Gypsy communities. If the Dale Farm eviction marked a brutal beginning to the day, the screening on BBC2 of Panorama's Britian's Child Beggars marked a chilly close.
Dale Farm's residents were Irish Travellers. The child beggars and their Fagins were Romanian Roma. Two very separate communities united only by a historic memory of roaming and a tendency to be described (and to describe themselves) as "Gypsies" – that catch-all term derived from "Egyptians", as Constantinople's citizens labelled the dark-skinned people who arrived at their city in 1068. These pioneers were, it is thought, fleeing the Islamic armies then invading north-west India. Admittedly, the Travellers and the Roma also share a common plight: whether in Ireland, Romania or their adopted UK home, they are perceived as outsiders, their communities ostracised and marginalised.
As the author of a book on travelling with Gypsy musicians, I'm often asked what I make of the showdown at Dale Farm or the virulent reactions east Europe's Roma stir up from the tabloids and rightwing politicians. There are no easy answers, but one thing is for certain: at the dawn of the 21st century, Gypsy culture is denigrated and celebrated in equal measure. In the West End, Johnny "Rooster" Byron, the protagonist of Jez Butterworth's much-praised play Jerusalem, is Romany.
Memoirs such as Mikey Walsh's Gypsy Boy, Rosie McKinley's Gypsy Girl and Sam Skye Lee's Gypsy Bride have proved UK bestsellers. Romanian Gypsy bands Taraf de Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia have lit up the world's greatest theatres and attracted voluble praise from all manner of critics.
Gypsy culture has moved in and out of fashion over the centuries: DH Lawrence described the Gypsies as noble savages while Jimi Hendrix wrote songs and named a band after them – and in my post today was a CD called Brass Noir, which finds Berlin-based DJs championing Fanfare Ciocarlia and other Balkan brass bands as club tunes. Indeed, Serbia's annual Guca brass festival – the Gypsy Glastonbury – is now on every adventurous backpacker's list. American rock bands Gogol Bordello and A Hawk and A Hacksaw both borrow elements of eastern Gypsy music to spice up their sound, with Gogol's vocalist seemingly sharing the same stylist as Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. Scruffy chic seemingly being the trademark Romany fashion.
History always repeats itself and this is nothing new: from Caravaggio's palm-reading, pick-pocketing hustler to Bizet's Carmen, the arts have loved the Roma. At least as inspiration. While the Nazis were intent on committing genocide upon Europe's Gypsies, their top officers flocked to see Django Reinhardt play in Parisian clubs. And Roma communities across eastern Europe are today more impoverished and threatened by rightwing groups than ever since the end of the second world war.
Slovakia, not a nation noted for its tolerance of the Roma populace, has entered Cigan (Gypsy) – a film that transports Hamlet's son-and-stepfather struggle to an impoverished rural Gypsy village – into the 2012 Academy Awards for best foreign film. The Gypsy cinema of Emir Kusturica (Serbia) and Tony Gatlif (France) has proved profitable on arthouse screens and Cigan (which screened at the London film festival last week) may follow suit. But those few who get ahead in music or film don't account for the multitude left behind. Some of whom, as the Panorama film suggests, end up being trafficked to the UK to beg on our streets. Many of Dale Farm's former residents might be forced to join them there this winter.
In spite of all this, Dale Farm's struggle has attracted almost no support from artistic voices beyond that of Vanessa Redgrave. The 2009 Belfast pogroms against Romanian Roma, likewise, were met with silence from the likes of Bono and Bob Geldof. Romanticised but despised, the life of the Gypsy as celebrated by so many songs and paintings, novels and films, looks less enticing on this freezing October morning.