In this post I’m going to briefly review three books that look at family life and disability. I’ve grouped these three together because disability affects individuals but also determine and impact life in a family. It’s easy to feel sometimes that the voices of those who live with people with a disabilty become segregated from disabled people themsleves, meaning that life in all its richness isn’t told in the round but as a series of separate stories.
I feel that our life as a family has been changed and enriched by all our family members – Great Uncle Henri, a French war veteran who was blinded in the First World War and ran an association of blind former soldiers, another French family member who had a spinal condition and my lovely great aunt Cecile, who had schizophrenia. Nearer to home my granddad was deaf, and in more recent generations family members are autistic. I don’t want to romanticise our experience of disability though – it’s not easy, dealing with stigma, poor social support and the impact of particular conditions on family life. One that has shaped my immediate family life most, depression, remains particularly poorly understood.
So I”ve been itching to look at these three books that all take a clear sighted look at disability, family life and the gaze of outside, which can other and stigmatise, making life harder than it needs to be.
Jan Grue’s memoir, I Live a Life Like Yours (Pushkin Press, 2021) is a beautifullly written memoir of Grue’s life as a journey through disability, translated by Becky Crook from the Norwegian. Grue, a Professor of Qualitative Research at the University of Oslo, draws on art, fiction and the lives of other disabled pioneers, such as the writer Mark O’Brien, to explore themes including family life, the body and relationships. It is a thoughtful meditation on how to be fully human with a disability when the external gaze is clinical or stigmatising – and how relationships with others, including his wife and son, restore a sense of subjectivity, rather than being objectified – and even judged. Grue makes the point that his life is similar to others in his family, but is experienced as different in a way that is often uncomfortable.
“I follow a timeline that others might have followed. I live in the same city where I grew up. I am an academic, a child of academics. I live a life like theirs. I am married and have a child with Ida, who is a woman who writers…These are the threads that hold my life together. This is the fabric.”
But as Grue says, when people meet him who knew him as a child, there is a sense of surprise, because he has “surpassed expectations”, prognoses. There is another sense too, that to live a life like everyone else’s, there is struggle – against the gaze, against the threat of institutionalisation, so that Grue and other disabled people are accepted, just as they are in a world of barriers where everything must be planned. “It is hard to be human beneath the institutional gaze.” Grue’s exploration of O’Brien’s own exploration of the troubled landscape of sex surrogacy and competing rights is particularly sensitive.
This is an outstanding book in which Grue’s experience becomes a fulcrum around which he explores a disabled life lived in connection with other people, both those who objectify and those who support and are supported by him being in the world, navigating it and peeling away the shame and stigma that still cling to disability like a burr on wool.
In The Cracks that Let the Light In, by Jessica Moxham (Octopus, 2021), the writer explores the subtitle – What I learned from my Disabled Son. Moxham explores how she and her husband, James, have raised their three children whilst supporting their eldest child, Ben, who uses a wheelchair and needs assistance to communicate. Life in a family with a disabled child is one where you take on the state in all its guises. Whether you like it or not you become an advocate, a campaigner for equal rights, and even pushing to raise a family becomes a political act. Life isn’t what you imagine, and Moxham feels her way through some of the thoughts that are often linked with life with a disabled child – that there is grief, even though your child is alive, for instance. Like Rue, she explores the idea that the young disabled child’s body should be put through exercises to change it, when she sees how her second son rolls and moves. “No matter how much time I had spent helping Ben roll or sit, he would not have been able to overcome the essentiall wobbliness and involuntary movement of his muscles. I am relieved rather than sad…Ben’s impairments cannot be taken away.” One vivid passage explores the fact that Ben’s disability means that he dribbles. A child at her son’s nursery calls it disgusting. There were surgical options and other interventions such as Botox. “All of these would involve recovery periods, side effects, disruption. We decided we wouldn’t intervene, but had he noticed the girl saying he was disgusting? I didn’t know whether we should reduce his dribbling to make him more acceptable to strangers…My aim is for our children to grow up thinking they are enough…I don’t want him to feel like he takes up more space than he is worth, or to force him to be a certain way because it’s perceived as more palatable.”
Moxham’s clear sense that some bodies work differently and that’s OK is nuanced, but challenging in a good way. She says she has got bolder over the years – but is also just getting on with life. “Sometimes I’m considering the careful use of particular words and tone, sometimes I’m policing other people’s language and sometimes I’m just shouting “Bum!” at my kids.
There is such a clear sense of family life going on, accepting each child’s idiosyncrasies. “We have pitched our tents on the undulating landscape of uncertainty and we’re making the most of it…we are all doing our best.”
Lastly, I wanted to mention Somebody Up There Likes Me: Living with the Threat of Huntington’s Disease (Amazon, 2021), written by Melanie Pearson about her family’s experience of being affected by the condition. Her mother and brother both had the condition, and she supported her brother through the condition. Pearson’s book is an exploration of how ignorant so many medical professionals are, and how poor the support is for those with the condition. Despite the hardship and bereavement, Pearson is very clear that this isn’t a misery memoir, but more of a road map through a condition that is hugely misunderstood, leaving families to support their members with it and the difficulty of choosing whether or not to have a test for it, knowing what your future might be.
It’s Empathy Day today, and I’m delighted that one of the books I co-wrote with Richard O’Neill, last year, illustrated by Hannah Tolson and published by Child’s Play, is on the list of 21 recommended books for the day (and beyond).
Ossiri and the Bala Mengro is the story of a young girl from the Traveller community, who longs to be a musician. She isn’t very good, yet she perseveres and has adventures on her travels with her loving family. We very much hope that this story shows that whilst people from a variety of backgrounds, such as the Romani and Traveller communities, may seem different, at heart people often have a lot in common. It was a lot of fun to write with my co-writer, the English Traveller Richard O’Neill, whose stories have been handed down in oral form through many generations.
Good books open doors onto other lives; they show the humanity in all sorts of lives (yes, even when authors shape-shift and become cats, dogs or aliens). We are experiencing migration across the world in increasing numbers, as people flee war, environmental crisis and terrorism. My own mother fled from Yugoslavia with my (then pregnant) grandmother after the Second World War, to escape Communist rule. They had lived through bombing, under Nazi occupation and had lost close family members. They had been internally displaced and, by the war’s end, had been deprived of almost everything. When they arrived at Croydon Airport they had one small suitcase (the size of Paddington’s suitcase) between them. They were lucky to be welcomed when they arrived here, with the assistance of the Red Cross, by distant family members and strangers alike. (You can read my mum’s story, ‘Becoming English’ in A Country of Refuge, published last year) So building bridges between cultures is very close to my heart and the natural, heart-felt kindness that children feel and show towards strangers is always a joy to see.
I hope that the books I have written for the last ten years all show an attention to empathy – whether it is towards disabled people, Gypsies, Roma and Travellers or yes, even wilful girls like my very own Fussy Freya (my first book for children) who refuse to eat!
Happy Empathy Day and congratulations to all the authors on the list, and heart-felt thanks to Empathy Lab for all their hard work.
About a month ago, I designed and sent out a short survey about disability hate crime, concentrating on motivation, but also covering a few other questions such as location of incidents, gender and race of attackers and nature of the incident or attack. This was done under the auspices of the Disability Hate Crime Network, for which I work as one of the pro bono co-ordinators. Grateful thanks to all the co-ordinators, for all their input – it was so valuable – particularly Simon Green’s thoughts in the very early stages, when we came up with the idea, and later Anne Novis, Stephen Brookes, Mark Cutter, Mel Close, Rosemary Irwin, Sarah Hewitt and Beverley Smith.
We are all very grateful to everyone who has done the survey – it is only a small survey, but we believe it does shed some light on the motivation for some attacks, and hopefully it will lead to more detailed research in the future.
Thanks also to the Guardian newspaper, which has commissioned me to write a short comment piece on the research in Guardian Society. Thanks to Survey Monkey for the survey template. It’s appreciated. It allows not-for-profit organisations like ourselves, with no funding, to carry out small bits of research for free (except for our time). We hope it contributes to the wider debate on what fuels disability hate crime.
Summary of key findings from disability hate crime motivation survey
Question 1: do you define yourself to be a disabled person?
89% of those completing the survey defined themselves as disabled people.
Some of those who didn’t self-define were completing the survey because other family members had experienced hate crimes.
65 shared their conditions, with some explaining they had done because they felt it had triggered an attack.
One person, who had a number of conditions including anxiety and depression came home after suffering a horrific sexual assault and murderous attack. They wrote: “My neighbours had seen my facial injuries and saw I had lost my front teeth and had put two and two together after watching the local news on TV. They could see how vulnerable I was, and this was when everything escalated so badly that I sold my house to a landlord, moved out and had to rent for a while…I did this as I was desperate to escape the bullying for my daughter and myself.”
Another, with rheumatoid arthritis, causing impaired mobility, was targeted because of their blue badge, as was an amputee, who was shouted at for using a disabled parking bay and called a ‘scrounger’. Another wheelchair user felt they were targeted for having a visible disability.
Question 2: have you experienced a hate crime or hate incident?
87.2% of those responding had experienced a hate crime or incident.
11% had not.
61 explained more about their experiences, which were wide-ranging. Some flashpoints, however, were familiar – public transport, disabled parking bays, jealousy about perceived ‘perks’ and ‘not looking disabled’:
One person said: “I have had cars parked close to the rear of my car to make it difficult for me to load my wheelchair…I’ve experienced a number of incidents. I’ve been chastised
for managing to walk to my front gate without my walking stick, (it’s only a couple of steps). I’ve been insulted for using a disabled toilet and slapped on a bus for using a designated seat. I’ve twice been reported to the DWP for being a ‘bogus’ claimant…had my car repeatedly scratched (16 reports to police), had my car spat on and an egg thrown on it.
Another said: “I was having much needed repairs to our conservatory when a neighbour shouted over the hedge ‘if I was living on benefits I’d have a conservatory too!’ The conservatory came with the house and was over twenty years old.
Another reported: “I’ve had a man trying to take away my walking stick saying I was “too young and beautiful” to use it. I’ve had two men try to shove me out of the way on a pavement because I was walking too slowly and they were trying to get to a pub,
On occasion, children were involved: “I was deliberately barged into by more than one of a group of 8 year French old children who were on the same site as a convention I attended. The children from this language school were harassing disabled attenders of our convention, kicking sticks/crutches out from under people and barging into them “accidentally”. Their supervising adults weren’t supervising properly. My friend who was with me didn’t see the first child bash into me, but she heard them making remarks about my arms and saw the second child bash into me. I was furious as I had noticed the children barging adults off the paths around the site. I complained to the university venue who were useless and my convention organisers who were superb and reported it to the police alongside a number of other disablist, LGB and T phobic hatecrimes our bi convention got on that site. The police took a statement and went around pestering the university venue management till the children’s supervisors were found and doing their supervising which reduced the harassment a bit. The police then didn’t follow up as promised which I found frustrating and I knew no charges could be pressed as identifying the specific children would be hard.”
Another talked about public transport: “I was travelling on a bus to shopping one day and the bus was quite full but a guy who had a pram wanted to sit with his partner and wanted to sit at the front where I was sitting and demanded I move. I said no, and tried to explain about my disability. He called me a ‘spas’ and a ‘mong’ and said I should not be left out.
A lack of understanding of disability is evident:
“I was asked why I use a wheelchair some times but had been seen using sticks on others days, I tried to explain that my condition varies from day to day and on days when I can walk I try to do so. I was then told I was just fat and lazy and was doing it to get benefits. I have been abused for using a blue badge. Been called a spastic, and to go to bloody work…I have been spat at.”
Of the 61 who gave further details about their experience, 11 mentioned being called ‘scroungers’ or being told to get off benefits, or that they were too lazy to work.
Question 3 – What was the location of the hate crime or incident?
The locations chimed with places that both the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and I, in both Getting Away with Murder and in my book, Scapegoat, have identified as flashpoints for disabled people in previous research.
24% of attacks happened at home; 57% on the street, 4% in care environments, 20% on public transport, 12.8% in schools or educational establishments, 3% in hospitals and more than one place – 28.5%. This last category allowed people to name other places where attacks took place as well. 26 people added extra comments. A small number reported being attacked or harassed on social media or at work.
Other attacks happened in pubs, supermarkets and in the car. One person said: “This is not a single incident, rather an accumulation of incidents that are very similar. It makes you dread using public transport at times.” 6 out of 26 said that attacks happened in supermarkets and shops.
Question 4: What do you think the motivation for the attack was?
67 answered, and 33 skipped this question.
Interestingly, few people – two – pin-pointed ‘scrounger rhetoric’ as behind disability hate crime although it is important to stress that a larger number had mentioned it in previous answers. 34 said ‘disability hate’ or ‘disability’ without going further. A number – 7- felt that ‘vulnerability’ – a feeling that the attacker could ‘get away with attacking them without any come-back had increased the hatred towards them. There was also a clear theme of jealousy toward perceived ‘perks’ of disability – which some non-disabled people had tried to either exploit or had attacked the disabled person for, out of hostility. One person felt they had been targeted because of their ethnicity and disability.
One person said: “I think the main motivation is “because they can” .. I am in no position to defend myself.. Although the harassment escalated when I took over the tenancy of a local authority garage located on an access road these people believe to be “theirs” (it isn’t)….After taking on the tenancy I started to experience an increase in frequency of incidents of abuse, threats and harrassment culminating in me no longer using the garage, hardly ever leaving the flat and if I do getting in the car and going away from here, no longer sitting in the garden with a book/the radio, constantly being jumpy and nervous, etc..”
The person who experienced the sexual assault wrote: “They saw me ill following the serious assault and I believe the motive was my vulnerability (I had had no problems with these particular neighbours when my health had been normal).”
Another felt that they had been exploited and targeted:
“They saw my disability and were aware of benefits I received. One person became my boyfriend and would threaten to finish with me or harm himself if I didn’t give him money, or buy him mobile phone s. I ended up with eight mobile phone contracts, which I later found out he was selling and using the money for drugs.”
Another wrote:”I wish I knew. People are just plain spiteful. I was an easy target who could never fight back physically, so, I was a punchbag, both physically and mentally.”
One person felt it was a mixture of motives: “exploitation of vulnerable people, attacking someone who can’t fight back, your word against theirs, sadism”.
Another felt it was partly due to the benefits crackdown: “Bigotry, fuelled by propaganda against people on benefits”.
Another person saw it as mixed too: “Venting a prejudice is I think the main motivation. There’s usually some kind of ‘useless’ part of the labelling, a bit of ageism, a bit of disablism, and a very unpleasant bit of invective. Plus a ‘get out of my way, or why are you blocking everything up’, or some such. A typical one, ‘get out of my fucking way you old hag’, or ‘bitch or get back to your shithole you geriatric cow’.”
There was a sense of the perceived uselessness and invisibility of disability. One person wrote: “On one occasion when I fell a man just stepped over me like I was vermin… I have been shoved backwards into the lift as I attempted to leave. Two women walked past me – instead of allowing me to move forward they just carried on walking, pushing me backwards back into the lift door. I felt ignored and overall humiliated.”
Another wrote: “Most of the abuse is from strangers , who now think that every one who is disabled is lying about being ill. Because this government are spreading so many lies, regarding us. Also relations who think you can be better and go to work as you are not ill every day. Also I am sorry to say at church through ignorance. Also benefit assessments. I have also been pushed off of sticks by a stranger who was very abusive.”
This was echoed by others, along with a strong sense of jealousy:
“Disability hostility, resentment as think I get money, that I don’t work or worth helping. Jealousy of adapted car, irritation as may be in their way on street, young people think its funny, therefore worth ridiculing me, some truly believe we are drain on society, should never be allowed to be born or live, others think easy target.”
Another identified a freak-show element: “Mockery of disability. The teenagers concerned were known to the police and to local school teachers as perennial troublemakers.”
These came up again: The perpetrators were three young women who were shouting at a middle-aged man with Down’s Syndrome and calling him brain dead….Their motivation appears to be ignorance and/or perceived comedy value.”
Question 5: What gender was your attacker?
69 respondents answered this question and 31 skipped it.
30% of sole attackers were male, and 17% female. Interestingly, there was more than one attacker in 49% of cases and in most of those women were involved (accounting for the rest of the attackers). It’s worth mentioning that in the latest Crown Prosecution Service Hate Crime Report, women are defendants in around 25% of disability hate crimes, but only around 13-15% of other forms of hate crimes, except crimes against older people, where they are also defendants in around 22% of the cases. Clearly, as I have written before, there needs to be far more research on the role of women in disability hate crime (and older people, a cross-cutting group).
One person recalled:
“Pushed from chair by women, verbally abused by both men and women. Usually older people.”
Another said: “Male in most incidents, some verbal incidents have included females in group (at least one group appeared to be a family with adult children), one verbal incident involved a female only.”
Another wrote: “Worst incident – an older white woman. Otherwise, mostly men.”
Another wrote: “Two separate incidents attacked by black male gang of young men, attack on street Young mother with child abused me in shop car park.
Question 6: What was the approximate age of your attacker?
Age of attackers: 61 answered this, and 39 skipped it. The percentages did not add up to 100%, because of group attacks.
Under 16: 19.67% (12)
16-20: 18.03% (11)
21-30: 32.79% (20)
31-40: 32.79% (20)
41-50: 29.51 (18)
51-60: 11.48% (7)
61 and over 11.48% (7)
Prefer not to say 3.28% (2)
Many pointed out they were attacked by more than one person, so more than one age group but perhaps there is a small chink of light that the percentages of attacks by younger people are slightly lower than people in the midrange for age.
Question 7: What do you think was the ethnic group of your attacker?
63 answered and 37 skipped
90% of attackers were white, 5% were mixed heritage, and other counted for 5%
White people are slightly over-represented as attackers in this survey – the last census found that 86% of the population identify as white.
Question 8: What is your gender?
71 answered and 29 skipped.
53% of respondents were female, and 45% male, with others preferring not to say.
Question 9: What is your ethnicity?
94% were white, 1% were mixed heritage, 1% was a highly identifiable racial group (so I am not including it here) and the remaining preferred not to say.
If you would like to join the Network and have an interest in disability hate crime, please go to:
If you would like to know more about disability hate crime, you can read the first report I wrote:
If you would like to read my book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011), an investigation into disability hate crime in the UK and further afield, you can buy it in good bookshops or online at:
Over the last few years many disability hate crime campaigners have called for perpetrator analysis. I am one of those: I have been advocating for it since 2008, when I wrote the disability hate crime report, Getting Away With Murder, (for the UK Disabled People’s Council, Disability Now magazine and Scope). At the (British) Disability Hate Crime Network, run on email and Facebook, of which I am one of the co-ordinators, we believe that perpetrator analysis is important because without knowing more about why people commit this crime, it is very difficult to design programmes that prevent it from happening or dissuade offenders from committing similar crimes again in the future. (I recommended it again in my book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, published by Portobello Books in 2011.) The Equality and Human Rights Commission recommended it in its report, Hidden in Plain Sight, published in the same year. The government promised to carry it out – which we joint coordinators at the Disability Hate Crime Network welcomed.
But it hasn’t happened, much to the frustration of many working on disability hate crime. It has been promised, through the National Offender Management Service and the College of Policing, but as far as we have been told, has not yet been published, despite many requests to see the data.
Simon Green, a co-ordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network and I were talking about motivation recently. He was talking about the crimes against him, and how it was clear what the motivation was. So we came up with the notion: if the analysis of offenders is not going to be published, why don’t we ask victims and survivors of disability hate crime whether they know why the crime against them was committed? Often people who have experienced this crime have very useful thoughts to feed into our knowledge of the crime – but at the moment, that knowledge is not being tapped.
We decided to do a short snapshot survey of people who have experienced disability hate crime to ask them this question and a few other questions that might throw light on the crime – such as location of the crime, gender, age of the attacker and so on. We hope the results may throw some light on disability hate crime and possibly lead to a longer and more detailed study, if there is funding available.
Please do complete the survey – but only if you are living in the UK and have experienced disability hate crime. We hope that the results will tell us more about motivation – the missing part of the jigsaw. In so doing, it may aid prevention of this crime in the future.
I would like to thank all the co-ordinators for helpful comments on the design of the short survey. All identifying details will of course remain anonymous; only non-identifying details will be shared and once analysed the data will be destroyed.
In 2013, when my book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers came out, I interviewed some elders from the community about the importance of taking part in elections and what they intended to do. Of course things have moved on since then and Operation Traveller Vote has grown far bigger than anyone could have anticipated. But I thought the extract might be interesting for people to read anyhow. Whatever you do, please vote…..
Extract from No Place to Call Home, Revival:
Religion is hugely important to many in the communities, but the struggles that Gypsies and Travellers are facing require not just spiritual answers, but political ones. For all its flaws, it seems as though the Pentecostal church will be the most likely source of political leadership in the coming years. ‘There will still be a community in one hundred years’ time, but they won’t speak much Romani, and many of them will be living in houses, with
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a Romani Bible they can’t read. The music and songs will go on,’ Donald Kenrick, the Romani scholar said. ‘Many of them will be Pentecostals.’14 Could a Martin Luther King arise out of this new church, and harness together the cords of political and religious strength? For other passions are stirring at the grass roots of the community, and though they have links to Light and Life, these passions are directed at a very different agenda.
Just a handful of English Gypsies and Irish Travellers have made it into political life in the UK over the past forty years. These include the late Charlie Smith, who was elected a Labour council- lor in the 1990s and went on to become mayor of Castle Point in 2003; a year later, he was the only English Gypsy named to sit on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Candy Sheridan too, had twice been elected a councillor for the Liberal Democrats in North Norfolk, but stepped down just before the 2010 election. A number of organisations were becoming increasingly vocal, as well, with well-respected spokespeople, such as Candy and Joe Jones at the Gypsy Council, Siobhan Spencer at the Derbyshire Gypsy Liaison Group, Helen Jones at Leeds GATE and Yvonne McNamara at the Irish Traveller Movement. Some young people, including Blue Jones and Nadi Foy, were standing up to articulate the voice of the community.
They had allies, of course, including many of the activists from Camp Constant, who had since formed the Travellers Solidarity Network and launched the ‘Fight for Sites’ initiative. Some in the communities had welcomed this support, but just as many felt that this outside intervention would only worsen their situ- ation. In October 2012, for the one-year anniversary of the Dale Farm clearance, the activists had staged a demonstration outside the Department of Communities and Local Government. Most of the Dale Farm residents were by now sick of the media coverage, and some said they were tired of the connection with the activ- ists and felt it was not useful to their cause. In the end, although the Travellers Solidarity Network sent a minibus to Dale Farm to collect residents living roadside, only three women had come out – and all three turned pale and shocked when some of the
activists allowed the demonstration to become physical, and police began arresting people. The network remains active, and many in it are genuinely committed to greater equality for the com- munity. However, whether the network will ever be trusted by a critical mass in this very disparate grouping of peoples, bound by strong family and historical ties that are difficult to penetrate and understand, remains to be seen.
Billy Welch, for his part, wants to build on the enthusiasm from within the Gypsy and Traveller community – particularly in his hometown of Darlington. At least eleven per cent, and up to fifteen per cent, of Darlington’s population self-declare as Gypsies or Travellers. The real figure may be higher, nearer to a third, as many have moved to houses in town and may not identify them- selves for fear of harassment. Nearby Doncaster and York also have significant populations of Romani Gypsies and Travellers. This is where Billy said he intends to start his initiative, in the next round of local elections.
‘We have gathered together influential people in the Gypsy and Traveller community, the shera rom, and the big men from the Irish Traveller community,’ he explained. They had recruited, for instance, ‘Big Dan’ Rooney, a one-time bare-knuckle boxer who was now a prominent preacher with Light and Life, as well as the Irish Traveller Alexander J. Thompson. Billy’s cousins, Davey Jones and Jackie Boyd from the Light and Life church were part of the conversation too. ‘We are all talking to each other about what needs to change,’ Billy said. ‘We have all these Gypsy and Traveller organisations, around 120 all around the country, and yet they aren’t run by people like us, the elders. The government loves a “yes man”, so they have built up a white man’s structure. We are going to change all that.’ His big dream is that his people do it for themselves by being less secretive and engaging more with settled society. He wants to launch an Obama-style ‘Yes, We Can’ political campaign among his people, starting with getting people to the polls. ‘We need a voice,’ he says, ‘So we need to vote.’
Billy estimated that close to a million people in the UK could claim some Gypsy or Traveller origin – a potential electorate
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that he said was all but ignored. Even if the figure were nearer to the official estimate of some 300,000, if the community voted together, this number could tip seats to preferred candidates in some areas. ‘Eighty per cent of our people live in houses now, and they don’t put that they are Gypsy on the census. We think the gorgers [settled people] can do what they want with their world; we live in our own world. My people aren’t interested, but they will have to be, the world isn’t the same place it was fifteen years ago. They are smothering us with laws and restrictions. We’ve got no voice in Parliament. When the authorities come down on us, I want my people to vote; I want the government to know how many of us there are. When there is a tight election, we could be the difference to someone getting kicked out. That is the only way we will get treated as equals, have some value in society. We need to register to vote. We are going to have to get involved in their world as well.’
He decided to launch his voter drive at the Appleby Fair in June 2013. Twenty people, some from the Light and Life church and others from clans from around the country, would distribute leaflets and talk to people as they wandered the fair grounds. ‘I’m the shera rom of my tribe, and I’m talking to the heads of all the other families. Some of them cover big areas, some small, but they are all influential. The communities will listen to us. We will decide which party is the best for us and this will be a collective decision. In some areas, with around one million of us, we can swing a vote; round here we can definitely swing it.’ He had heard from families in Scotland and Wales who supported his political campaigning as well.
Billy was motivated to become politically engaged by an expe- rience some twenty years before. He was on his way home from a business trip to Germany, and was set upon by a National Front gang. He was beaten so badly that his family didn’t recognise him when they visited him in hospital. Yet no action had been taken against the perpetrators of the attack. Then, in 2011, his outrage was renewed when he was barred from his local pub on the grounds that he was a Gypsy. Billy fought that case with the
aid of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but he was aware that, up and down the country, Gypsies and Travellers were being targeted for their ethnicity and routinely refused access to hotels, restaurants, pubs and clubs. He wanted to change that – make a stand, not just for himself, but for the community.
The attitude of Gypsies and Travellers needed to change, he explained. ‘Our people have had a very coloured view of author- ity. The wider world has been out there and we have lived in our little world and thought, What they do doesn’t concern us, that nothing that we would ever do would influence anything in the community, so we have just got on with our life. But things have changed. A lot has happened in the wider world. It’s about time we started taking charge of our own destiny, started to influence. If we don’t vote, we will never improve the situation,’ he said.
‘We live in a democracy and we don’t use it. Because we don’t vote, we don’t have a value. Until we become worth something in electoral terms, to both local government and national govern- ment, they will continue to privilege the settled community over us. We are our own worst enemy, and that needs to change.’ Other groups were also planning to help – Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, fresh from working on the Obama re-election campaign, had offered advice. The Gypsy Council was helping to register the residents roadside at Dale Farm too – in an auda- cious plan to vote in Len Gridley onto Basildon Council in 2014, to question the eviction and the money spent.
Buy No Place in any good bookshop, or online at Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/No-Place-Call-Home-Travellers/dp/1851689494
It was great to hear Sam Lee talk about his project, collecting songs from Irish Travellers and the Romani people, on Radio 4 this week. This is such important work, and Sam’s been patiently doing it for some years now. Romani and Traveller singers have kept the flame of our common folk music alive, for many decades, if not centuries. We all owe them so much. Here’s an extract from my 2013 book, No Place to Call Home, where I write about Romani, Roma and Traveller music and its importance, with an interview with Sam. The chapter, Revival, also looks at literature (poetry being something else and well worth following at the moment as well), religion and art generally.
Romani and Traveller music – extract from Revival, Chapter 14 No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers Katharine Quarmby (Oneworld, 2013)
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Identity was also in the mind of the Scottish singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, whose ballad ‘The Travelling People’ has become almost an anthem. Without Gypsies and Travellers, MacColl argued, the traditional folk music of Britain and Ireland could have died out. These communities passed the old lyrics and music down, generation after generation, for centuries. In his day, MacColl had patiently collected field recordings of both songs and speech in Gypsy and Traveller encampments. Other singers, including June Tabor, soon followed his lead, as well as people from the communi- ties themselves, such as Sheila Stewart, Thomas McCarthy and the Orchard family. Now, some twenty-five years after MacColl’s death, such cultural preservation work is being honoured and valued. The young musician Sam Lee was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2012 for his debut album, A Ground of its Own, featuring songs collected from Gypsies and Travellers. Though not a Gypsy or Traveller himself, Lee had trained for four years under the legendary ballad singer Stanley Robertson, a Scottish Traveller.
The resurgence of interest in so-called folk music is not a peculiarly English phenomenon. New bands with Roma roots have formed across Europe, including the Romanian Gypsy bands Taraf de Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia and the Macedonian brass band Kocani Orkestar. The annual Guca Brass Band Festival in Serbia hosts many up and coming Roma bands who perform in the traditional style, but there are also new fusion groups combining Gypsy and Traveller sounds with rap, punk and jazz, including Jewish klezmer. Night clubs play records by the Shukar Collective, Besh o droM and Balkan Beat Box – including a special Nuit Tsigane (‘Gypsy Night’) in hot spots such as Le Divan du Monde in Paris. Often, at Appleby and Stow, the young Gypsy men driving cars rather than ponies are listening to this rap or punk-inflected music out of Eastern Europe.
Sam Lee, however, has been more focused on the traditional string music beloved by the older members of the travelling com- munity – songs like ‘On Yonder Ill’ and ‘Goodbye, My Darling’ – that he had collected from all over England, Scotland and Ireland. Many of the songs touch on matters of love and separation – but also tell of a steely will to survive. As a young Jewish man from North London, he had been inspired to collect these songs in large part because of learning about the treatment of Gypsies and Travellers in Britain. ‘Many are the indigenous people of this country – although Gypsies are not originally from here, the Irish and Scotch Travellers are pre-Celtic, as old a community as you will ever get in Britain. But the treatment they have had was very [similar to] what happened to Native peoples in other places. For instance, in 1968, when sites were opened up here, that was the same year that the Canadian government forcibly settled the Canadian peoples, such as the Inuit … So there is that amazing time contiguity. There is also the nature of the lifestyle of the older Gypsies. Many were born in tents, and so many have lived outdoors, and because of that, they have this amazing affinity with the outside. To have that regularly enforced on such a deeply ancestral level, is quite a … nature–man relationship that many tribal peoples have.’
Lee had begun by patiently knocking on doors on sites where he didn’t know anybody. Mostly he’d had been welcomed, albeit with some caution, and as families got to know him, he experi- enced great warmth and hospitality. The fact that he was Jewish – ‘another wandering tribe’, as he termed it – seemed to help. During his apprenticeship under Robertson, his role was ‘keeper of songs’. Most folk singers raid the archives of field recordings gathered by other musicians, most notably those housed in Camden’s Cecil Sharp House, considered the home of English folk music. But Sam wanted to hear it from the Romani people themselves – they were not dead, just because their songs had been collected. He said that simple fact came as a surprise to some in the folk scene. ‘None of them believed there were any singers out there; they thought it was dead. They didn’t know about Gypsy culture; they thought that the precious oral tradition was dead, but actually it’s still there. I have recorded songs from fell-pack huntsman, farmers, not just Gypsies – music is alive everywhere. The folk music world just wants its safe world on Radio 2 … It likes soft, fluffy, comfortable stuff. I have brought loads of Gypsy families down to Cecil Sharp House and it’s terrifying for them. They sit down in the library and sing these ballads that they have no idea are hundreds of years old. And some people say, “Wow, it’s lovely,” but they have no idea what to do. It’s like bringing the dinosaur into the Natural History Museum and saying, “Hey, watch it dance,” and they say they only know about bones.’
He went on: ‘Mahler said, “Tradition is tending the flame, not worshipping the ashes,” and I think there is a huge amount of ash-worshipping in the folk world … Nobody is putting much effort into keeping the flame alight, and we mustn’t let it die.’
FROM: NO PLACE TO CALL HOME: http://www.amazon.co.uk/No-Place-Call-Home-Travellers/dp/1851689494/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
Also available, as a Newsweek Europe e-book about the rise of Evangelical Christianity amongst Europe’s Romanies: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Romani-Pilgrims-Europes-moral-force-ebook/dp/B00O9EZVCK/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
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is my third Single, as they are now called, to come out in the last couple of years. The first was an exploration of my search for my Iranian birth father, Blood and Water. The second was a short story, loosely fictionalised, about filming in Rwanda, after the 1994 genocide, called Aftermath. This is the second in my very loose family trilogy – this time a story about my mother’s family history (my adoptive mother), who is half Serbian, Spanish and a little bit English (less than me, as she delights in saying). This story is about her Bosnian Serb grandfather, Dean Kosta Bozic, who was rumoured to have known, and blessed Gavrilo Princip, if not his bloody enterprise, just before the fateful assassination in 1914 that became the trigger for the First World War. We do not know if this is true, but my grandmother always used to say that there was, somewhere, a photo of Kosta Bozic and Gavrilo Princip together. It is true, Tim Butcher, the brilliant author of The Trigger told me, that Princip lodged with members of the Bozic family – whether they were close relatives of Kosta is also not recorded. Kosta was also arrested, in 1916, charged and found guilty of high treason. Like Princip he contracted TB and died of it – in his case, just after leaving prison. It is also true that he is buried, and then dug up to be buried again with greater ceremony by a grateful Serb nation. It was then found that his right arm was miraculously whole – the rest of him was bones. This was probably due to the aromatic spices in the censer he swung, day in, day out, as an Orthodox priest, and which preserved the flesh, but was hailed as a kind of miracle.
Anyway, I have taken the ‘facts’, as related to me by my grandmother, researched historical facts, and fused them into this short story. I hope it works. The next and last part of the trilogy is my dad’s story (my adoptive dad), who is from Yorkshire farming and hunting stock. His family, from way back, used to be keepers of hounds for hunting folk. They were the Smith family, and I will be telling their story, with much embroidery, and bodice ripping (and some real diary entries, honest), next. My dad is quaking in his boots and keeps on trying to divert me to other stories….
I enjoyed doing my talk at the Wadham Human Rights Forum at Oxford University, on how human rights journalism is evolving in the age of the Internet – and how to fund the new human rights journalism. The Forum has had some wonderful thinkers visit – from Clive Stafford-Smith to James Harding, former editor of the Times and some great human rights scholars. I was honoured to be one of their number.
Lord Macdonald, who is now the Warden of Wadham, is also the former Director of Public Prosecutions and a really doughty defender of human rights. His work within the criminal justice system, to uphold the rights of the individual against the state, remains so important and ground-breaking. Now, at Wadham, he is encouraging young people from modest backgrounds to aspire to Oxbridge – also a radical aim – and also encouraging disabled students to reach high.
You can see it here – I’ve also suggested some links to some interesting thinkers on the future – both journalists and techies.
I was really pleased to hear that No Place to Call Home has been shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2014.
Trustee for the Bread & Roses Nik Górecki says:
“We had a record number of submissions this year, and from an ever-growing range of publishers, which has made for a very strong shortlist. I’m delighted to see the prize growing in recognition.”
This award recognises books that “celebrate excellence in the field of radical political non-fiction”.
The Shortlist ‘Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police’ by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis (Faber and Faber, 2013)
‘Soldier Box: Why I Won’t Return to the War on Terror’ by Joe Glenton (Verso, 2013)
‘Story of a Death Foretold: The Coup against Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973’ by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera (Bloomsbury, 2013)
‘Who Needs the Cuts? : Myths of the Economic Crisis’ by Barry Kushner and Saville Kushner (Hesperus Press, 2013)
‘No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers’ by Katharine Quarmby (Oneworld, 2013)
‘Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to Prosperity’ by Andrew Simms (Little, Brown, 2013)
‘Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain’ by Imogen Tyler (Zed Books, 2013)
Congratulations to all the other authors on the shortlist, particularly those whose work I have followed and admired for some time, including Imogen Tyler and Rob Evans (I’ve even collaborated with Rob in the past).
The winner will be announced on 10th May at a ceremony at the Bishopsgate Institute, during the London Radical Bookfair
Thanks to my publishers, my agent, the Society of Authors (who gave me a grant to help me finish the book) and the many Romani, Roma and Traveller families I interviewed for the book.
I wrote this blog a couple of weeks ago for the think-tank Respublica and was pleased to see how many positive comments it got on Twitter and other social media sites. It’s essentially a slice of family history – both my mother (adoptive) and I have roots both in the UK and abroad. My mum comes from a long line of international trouble-makers. Her grandfather, Kosta Bozic, a Serbian cleric, stood trial along at Banja Luka in 1916, in an infamous trial connected to the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, was sentenced to death, and eventually died of TB, a national hero. Her other grand-father was a Spanish socialist MP, Fernando Garrido, who also spent much time hopping across European borders to escape arrest (not always successfully). Such histories are one that curdle the blood of our more anti-immigration politicians, of course. They think that such people or their descendants -my mum in this case – should never be allowed to settle here. Judge for yourself.
Immigration week: Stories, statistics and stereotyping
Katharine Quarmby calls for greater perspective in the Immigration debate
In 1946 a young, half Serbian, quarter Spanish girl arrived in the UK on a Cessna plane from Belgrade. She spoke only Serbo-Croat. She had seen her Jewish friends carted off to the concentration camps and her mother’s hair had turned white with the effort of keeping her alive during the wartime years in Yugoslavia. Her mother had left her husband behind in Yugoslavia and flown, pregnant, to the UK. Mara Bozic, as she was called then, and her mother Isabel, had but a tenuous claim on British citizenship, according to the Home Office. Isabel’s mother was English by birth, but her father had been a Spanish artist (and his father before him a well-known Spanish Republic MP). The Home Office was not convinced of their claim to reside in the UK. The resident English family offered to pay a bond, and thus Mara Bozic, age 10, became a British citizen, lost a father and her first language, gained a newborn sister and became Mary Bozic. She grew up in Cambridge. Her mother, now a lone parent with a tiny baby, somehow managed to support both her girls by teaching at the Convent School and other jobs, such as, rather improbably, typing up one of Wittgenstein’s manuscripts. Later, that older daughter attended teacher-training college and, one summer, worked at Chivers jam factory in Cambridge as an 18 year old to earn much needed money. She met a young Yorkshire man, a Cambridge student also in need of money. They fell in love over an assembly line of Christmas pudding trays. Later they got married.
They had three sons, and that young Yorkshire history graduate, the first in his family to attend university, became a promising teacher. Later, the young woman became a talented teacher too. They wanted to put something back into society, and they wanted a girl, so they decided to adopt a daughter. They didn’t care what colour the baby was, they told the adoption society, so they were offered a three-month-old ‘coloured’ child, a half Persian girl who was, at that time, ‘hard to place’. (Most adoptive parents then didn’t want a child of uncertain racial heritage. Most ended up in children’s’ homes.) The birth father, an Iranian sailor who desperately wanted to keep the child and take her back to Iran, was not allowed to do so. He was forced to relinquish her and later he experienced imprisonment and torture during the Iranian Revolution. Luckily for me – that baby – those two young idealists became my parents, and those boys, my brothers – although I count myself very lucky to have met my birth family too.
So there are two generations with somewhat tenuous claims to citizenship, in our family, although it must seem very British to the casual observer. My parents are pillars of the local community – retired teachers now, who still volunteer at local schools and who have given selflessly of their time throughout their entire lives, to public service. My parents are churchgoers and bell-ringers – the very bedrock of rural society. My mum has even served on the planning committee of the parish council, striking fear into the heart of many a local builder with her forensic attention to their plans. Britain – by way of Belgrade and Barcelona.
And yet – in many ways my grandmother brought my mother here because she was, in the words of our tabloids, an ‘economic migrant’. My grandmother was desperate. She was pregnant. She had nowhere else to go. I, too, was a ‘half-caste’ child with just half a hand on British citizenship when I was born. Our right to be here was perhaps a little questionable – and yet I think we have served our country pretty well – as many who pitch up here do. And while our stories might seem a little strange, the story of why each family or individual ends up on these shores is probably equally extraordinary or even more so. To give but one more example, there’s my dear Ethiopian friend, a singer, who fled the civil war as a child of 14, when her parents were killed, and was brought here by another family – and then abandoned on a tube. On a tube. At fourteen. At night. When my fourteen-year-old daughter slopes off to bed, in a comfortable house, surrounded by those who love her, I remember that. My friend has done so much for other people since she arrived here, yet some people would – and do – write her off as a scrounger who has no right to be here. I disagree. I think all of us have served the community in which we live well. Many migrants and refugees do so – and will continue to do so, given half a chance.
Behind every phrase that belittles every migrant and every refugee is a family and a history that seeks to be told. Often, as in my case, there are links with the UK. Sometimes there are not, but there is often a wish to forge links, or to work hard to make them. When my Spanish great-grandfather first came to the UK as an artist, he painted with the Staines group of artists. We still have the letters of condolence to his wife, when he died of TB in Switzerland, from British artists who had met him here and recognized his talent. There is nothing wrong with having a generous and international view of the world, of travelling beyond the shores where one is born. Is there? I sometimes think that this insularity that is gaining ground here is a hangover from the war, and that we have never recovered from winning that conflict. One of the prizes of victory has been a most unfortunate one – a rupture with continental European culture that has been profound and that has left us unable to understand and appreciate what we gain from mixing with other cultures, and that we have become increasingly xenophobic as a result. This is not why we went to war – to fear and dislike other cultures. This is not why my mother lost her Yugoslavian uncle, the Jewish friends she used to dance ballet with, or indeed the family lands in what was Yugoslavia. This is not why millions of people were murdered or gave their lives fighting for freedom and human rights for all – to safeguard the rights of disabled people, the Roma, Jewish people and gay people to live alongside other citizens as equals in a new Europe. But it seems to be an unintended and negative consequence of that victory.
We seem to have forgotten, in our latest moral panic, that we are one of the richest nations in the world, and that the migrants who do arrive on our shores are far more likely to want to work hard for their living than draw benefits – far more, in fact, than many British citizens. Many employers bear witness to this. There is nothing wrong with wiping bottoms, laying out the dead, cleaning toilets, collecting scrap and working in the fields. But if some British workers don’t want to do it, you cannot blame British employers for looking elsewhere for an eager workforce (although you can blame them if they then exploit that workforce).
In January visa restrictions will be lifted for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to come here. Cue the rising moral panic about chaos in our schools, rocketing crime, baby-stealing and general anti-Roma rhetoric – both by journalists and politicians. The Roma and the way that they are talked about is the litmus paper for how all immigration is talked about (although it’s worth noting, by the by, that C4’s Homeland, now openly stirs up dislike of Iranians). I will be watching how politicians and the media report on the Roma very carefully over the next few months and will be doing what I can to redress the balance, as will the Romani journalists I’ve worked with over the last seven years, as I researched my latest book, No Place to Call Home. Suffice it to say that a nation of several million people can’t be lazily stereotyped, as it has been so far, here in the UK, without distorting reality. The truth about the Roma people is far more interesting, more layered – and full of rich, individual stories – than we’ve heard so far. We would do well, for a start, to remember the Roma history – which includes slavery in Eastern Europe, the gas ovens during the Holocaust, hangings, floggings and deportations here in the UK, enforced adoption here and in Scotland and enforced sterilization in Eastern Europe.
My suggestion, therefore, in the coming months, for politicians and journalists would be two-fold: use statistics wisely and not mendaciously. Thus far many statistics about immigration are hotly argued. Surely it’s possible to agree on numbers, prevalence, data, and move on from there. And, secondly, if you are going to make generalisations about people, please go and talk to them. It is the height of incivility to stereotype a whole nation, as both journalists and politicians have done about the Roma people, for instance, without actually meeting them and spending time with them. In conclusion, therefore, get both your stories and your statistics straight. Then we can have the debate we should have about immigration. At the moment we’re not having a debate; too many in this arena are indulging in dirty propaganda wars. That’s not the same thing at all. And it belittles our reputation for honesty, integrity and generosity as a nation – and our place in Europe – if we don’t mend our ways.