Big Fat Gypsy Weddings: Series Two: No Place Like Home

Somehow I managed to miss this one.  A whole series went out without it coming to my attention, and even when ‘Born to be Wed’ was on I was off Twitter and although I caught a couple of comments about gypsies I didn’t really put two and two together.  This time however, I came on to Twitter early enough in the evening that I spotted this:

which had been re-tweeted by a friend.

This is where I should have stopped.  But I didn’t, I stupidly wanted to know what was going on even though I knew it would make me angry.  So I found the hash tag and I clicked on it.  It made me angry.  Very very angry.  When I calmed down a bit I decided that I should probably find the program and watch it so I knew what I was getting angry about.  Last Wednesday I did so.  Funnily enough I did not laugh, maybe I’m too serious; I just didn’t find it funny.  This is a program about weddings and weddings are, by their very nature, things that people go a bit crazy over; there have been other programs about weddings, I didn’t watch them either.

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In the opening sequence the voice-over claims that the documentary team have gained unprecedented access to the traveller community.  I have no doubt that this is true; however, what they’ve done with their unprecedented access is not unprecedented.  The team wanted to create ‘good television’ and I suppose they have done that.  I have no idea what the viewing figures are but there seems to be a fair amount of Twitter chatter around each transmission.  The problem with ‘good television’ is that it inevitably shows the worst of any community.  Things going right, or things which show that minority communities are ‘normal’, are apparently not ‘good television’.  In the twitter commentary I spotted at least one person describing this episode as ‘train wreck television’ which is odd as nothing actually went wrong apart from the destruction of the Hove Field site.  I don’t know what series one was like, but if this particular episode of series two was anything to go by what the producers have done with their unprecedented access is reinforce stereotypes, which will possibly force the traveller community to be even more secretive and the static community even more determined not to let them settle in ‘their backyards’.

The voice-over and the interviewer focus throughout on the differences between the traveller community and the static community, the questions put were often divisive, encouraging argument and bad feeling.  This was particularly true of questions put to the couple whose wedding was being covered: with Sam and Pat (one of whom is a traveller, the other not) being repeatedly asked about the difficulties they would face.  However, they have known each other since they were children, with Sam describing Pat as her best friend, and Sam knows a lot about the traveller community that she will be joining.  Despite Channel 4 stating on their website that “Romany gypsy Pat faces criticism for marrying a non-gypsy” there was little evidence of this in the program itself, apart from in the voice-over where every time Sam was introduced she was prefaced with the phrase ‘non-gypsy’.  The interviewer also made a big deal about the purchase of a caravan, pushing Sam to the point where, having already said ‘I won’t care if I lives in a bin as long as I can be with you’ she ended up getting irritated with him.  The interviewer just didn’t seem to be able to comprehend the concept that she knew what she was getting herself into.  He continued to push the line about a caravan not being the same as a house, even after he misunderstood her comment about bunks, and asked if she meant ‘bunk beds?’.  She then explained that this meant benches (actually the two are often the same thing at different times).  The interviewer also asked questions which caused the traveller girls to vocalise some of the stereotypes that they hold about the static community.  Including that they consider gorga to be rude, commenting in particular about swearing in front of their mam’s and about not caring who’s around them.  Sam has clearly heard it all before and asked them not to have a go at her culture, they stop – having explained that they didn’t mean Sam, that she’s been in the family for years and knows how to behave – but the interviewer keeps asking questions until she is forced to ask him to stop as well.

There were two sets of first communions shown.  The first (an all traveller communion of eight year olds organised by their grandmother Mary Doll) included some who were wearing traditional white dresses with many layered skirts, as well as some who were wearing slinkier lycra style dresses; the second (organised by their mother Margaret) was of two six year olds.  The six year olds were receiving their first communion early as the site they live on, Dale Farm, is threatened with eviction and if the travellers are evicted they will have to split up.  Communions in the traveller community are a large family event including big parties and are described as a rehearsal for the girls’ wedding days – it is important to Margaret that her daughters get to experience a traditional traveller communion, so they are receiving it early.  The communions themselves were barely mentioned in the Twitter commentary (though I did note one commenter who questioned if they understood what the holy communion really meant – I wish to point out to this person that pilgrims are travellers), however the dancing and the makeup was.  Firstly, the makeup: this is a big deal to these children and they will get dressed up for it as would any one for such an event – these girls do not wear makeup every day, cut them some slack.  There were lots of derogatory comments about the decision to give a six year old a spray tan for the event, in what way has this done her ANY harm?  The damage to her hips came from the dress not the tan, and her mother had been trying to persuade her to take it off sooner so that that didn’t happen.  Have you ever tried reasoning with a determined six year old?  She wasn’t sitting under sun lamps cooking her skin for goodness sake.  It’s just a spray tan.  I’ve seen six year olds belonging to the static community wandering around wearing equally revealing outfits and makeup on the streets.  These girls went to church and then had a party.  Secondly, the dancing: the interviewer asked the children where they’d learnt to dance like that and their response was ‘television’.  Yes, that’s right, ‘television’.  Which last time I checked was available to those in the static community as well.  Also remember context, ladies and gentlemen; these children are dancing at family events where they’re being looked after.  It’s only because of the cameras that you can watch them at all.  The way they were dressed was provocative and yes, they’re underage, but many from the static community dress older than they are as well.  Jenny McArdle former editor of Voice of the Traveller puts the style into context:

Most people are familiar with the very distinct fashion of a young Traveller girl; fake tan, hooped earrings, short skirts and belly tops adorn many a Traveller teenager. Some may say their dress is provocative but it’s very much a case of ‘look but don’t touch’. These ladies are proud of their bodies and comfortable in themselves and see no reason to stay covered up, they’re looking out for a husband and want to look their best. However many will admit that they marry as teenagers to get more freedom, desperate to move out of the family home and escape the strict influence of their parents.

Regardless of whether or not this program is good television it is certainly prejudiced.  A fact which is clear from the language used on the Channel 4 website; I found the above quote by clicking the link pictured on the right.  The use of the term ‘these people’ here states the position of the writer without actually breaking any laws.  Sadly, this is the norm, those of us who live itinerant lifestyles get used to it.  We learn who will be accepting and who will not, as Margaret (the mother of the two six year olds and a Dale Farm resident) states when asked.  Different does not mean inferior, just unfamiliar, and racism is racism.  How do we deal with it?  Where possible I get to know people before I let on that I live on a boat (which is really the acceptable end of the traveller world).  Sad isn’t it?  This is the 21st century and I have to pretend I’m something I’m not, in order not to be looked down on.  I don’t want to live in a house.  If you chopped me in half you’d find ‘traveller’ written all the way through me; if it weren’t a boat it would be a trailer, or a tipi.  For the moment I can still move, unlike most of the land based travellers, I can pitch up somewhere for a few months, a year or so and move on.  But it’s getting harder, maybe soon it’ll be me saying “our travelling life is over” as Mary Doll did.

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Another couple of comments that made me cross were around money: how much do gypsy’s earn? And, how much tax do they pay?  The answer to the tax question is obvious to anyone with half a brain.  If they’re employed, tax is deducted at source, so the same amount relative to earnings as anyone else.  Self-employment is a bit different, and the answer there as in the static community depends not only on the amount earned but also the quality of the accountant and the record keeping.  OK so now we’ve got that one out of the way, the answer to why travellers appear to have so much money is two-fold:

FIRSTLY: This program focuses on special events: weddings, first communions etc. In other words, occasions where there is always going to be a lot of money flying around.  A quick google search will give you an average UK wedding cost of anywhere between £11000 and £21000 depending on the site being looked at; I’m not quite sure why people appear surprised that there’s a lot of money flying around at a wedding.  Remember the travellers being shown are Catholic, there’s no divorce and barring death they’re not going to do this again.  Why not splash out?

SECONDLY: This one is, I’m afraid, going to make you angry but bear with me.  If you live in bricks and mortar you waste money.  Remember, I’ve lived in a house.

  • Houses, even flats, are bigger than trailers therefore you have a larger space to heat therefore you spend more money heating it.
  • Electronic goods – you don’t need three televisions in a trailer and none of them need to be 100 and whatever inches, ditto sound systems, games consoles etc.  I’m not saying travellers don’t have these things, merely that we don’t have so many.
  • Fridges encourage people to buy more food than they can eat, which then goes off and gets thrown away.  I’m not saying this never happens to travellers but you soon get sick of throwing stuff away and buy less, but more frequently.  Fridges in trailers are in general smaller than those in houses as well, so the amount of food you can buy is governed by the space available.
  • Clothes – I’ve lost count of the number of lifestyle programs that go through women’s wardrobes and demonstrate that they only actually wear a fraction of the clothes they own.  Why do you need twenty pairs of identical black trousers?  I own, in total, eight pairs of trousers.  Two are smart, five everyday and one is for painting.  That’s it.  It’s a space thing.  Every item of clothing I buy has to be justified in terms of both need and space.  Go on, count your clothes.
  • Impulse purchases – William Morris said have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.  We all have a little bit of tat in our lives, shoved at the back of cupboards, forgotten about.  Every new thing you bring in to a boat or a trailer has to have a space.  So if your cupboards are full something else has to go which leads to quite a lot of agonising over need.

Of course, not everyone who lives in bricks and mortar will have all of these ‘problems’ but in an age of disposable stuff it’s likely that at least some of the above apply to pretty much everyone who is static, as well as some travellers.  Add on to that that fuel bills are likely to be lower, as every amp or joule of energy is accounted for, and that’s quite a lot of savings that can be made just by giving up the static lifestyle.

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The episode ended with an event that few people picked up on: the horror of what happened at the Hove Field site; it was here that the program’s claim of unprecedented access to the traveller community really broke down.  Their unprecedented access appeared, in this instance, to mean they could interview two people.  One, a 25 year old woman, watching helpless as her home and those of her friends and family were destroyed by diggers because apparently another way couldn’t be found; who intervened when thugs trying to remove an elderly local woman protesting about the eviction hurt her in the process, while the police on site turned a blind eye.  The other, her 12 year old cousin, whose pitch was currently safe but who watched from the top of the joining wall and talked a lot of sense.  I understand the importance of narrative development and getting to know characters within the community, so maybe Cutting Edge are trying to be too broad here.  If they feel they can only develop one or two characters per site (there are over 1000 travellers living on the Dale Farm site) then maybe they should have focused their attentions on one or two sites and got to know the residents better, rather than jumping about all over the country giving surface glances of one or two individual’s lives.

According to the voice-over up to 90% of planning requests for traveller sites are turned down, something which is not surprising but is saddening.  (I’m not sure how well this is backed up by statistical analysis: of the 76 pitch developments requiring planning permission decisions between July and September 2010 41% were approved.  What the statistics don’t tell me is how many of these were appeal decisions, how long each group has been fighting for approval or what dent this has made in the huge mismatch between pitch provision and number of traveller families requiring pitches.  With something like this, the numbers are well hidden and I don’t have the time right now to do an FOI request to get to the bottom of it.)  What I do know is that without planning permission travellers only have the right to remain on their own land for up to 28 days per calendar year, and it seems to be accepted by most support groups including Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) that “The most likely outcome will be that your [planning] application will fail. You must expect this and expect to have to appeal against the decision.”  When applying for planning permission you also have to prove that you have ‘Gypsy status’ which appears quite difficult to do as it’s getting harder and harder to actually travel any more:

In planning law, anyone is a Gypsy if they travel for work. In other words, if they do seasonal work on farms, travel to fairs to trade, and things like that. It is useful to show that you come from a Traveller background (that your grandparents and parents were Travellers and live a Traveller life) and that you still travel yourself. This can just mean that you go travelling to see family or to weddings and funerals and to fairs throughout the year. But you must show that you do still travel, even if it is not as much as your parents or grandparents might have. (from FFT: Planning Permission).

I can think of places in the country where there are no suitable pitches for either trailers or boats, and where there is no chance of being able to develop some.

Do you still think it’s funny?

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See also: assumptions

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