Chic Britons Have a New Cause Célèbre: Gypsies

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My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding - Joan and Patrick get married at St Thomas Of Canterbury Presbytery, Salford. (Photo: Victor de Jesus / Channel 4)

For centuries Romany gypsies and a nomadic group traditionally called the Irish Travelers have roamed the British Isles, branded by demagogues as thieves, child snatchers and thugs. Their numbers have dwindled as U.K. authorities have blocked their roaming ways. Forced into trailer parks, or to the nomads’ horror, permanent homes, the remaining tribes have clung more fiercely to their dying culture.

Enter the Channel 4 TV network and a hugely popular series in the U.K. called My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding that pulls back the veil on the secret society through their lavish, over-the-top weddings. The program is so popular that model Kate Moss said it was what inspired her recent nuptials to Jamie Hince; and Simon Cowell has said he’s looking for a way to bring it to the States. Now entering its fourth season, the controversial series — many Travelers and gypsies complain it does not present a complete picture of their lives — has also shown Britons an entire culture they once dismissed, still living in their back yards. It has also highlighted their plight.

Amidst the gentle rolling hills of Essex only 30 minutes from London where thatched-roofed properties have names like Rose Hill and Fairview, there sits a Traveler camp named Dale Farm, home to some of the series’ biggest stars. The gypsies bought this former junkyard near the idyllic town of Billericay (pronounced Billa-Ricky), once home to the Mayflower pilgrims, three decades ago. The camp, which has doubled in population in the last decade, is now home to 1,000 gypsies. It is the largest Traveler sit in the U.K. Half live in an area zoned for trailer use. The other half is not so lucky. As the camp grew, Basildon City council refused to grant expanded zoning. A decade of clashes between the gypsies and the council is coming to a head Thursday, when the council says it will start evicting those gypsies on land not appropriately zoned and demolishing their homes. “We have no other choice in the matter. The government says, ‘You can’t travel.’ They move us on every day or two. And then they say, ‘You can’t stay,’” says Kathleen McCarthy, 48, who has been living at Dale Farm for a decade. “We can’t stay. We can’t go. So where in this society do travelers have right? Animals have more rights.”

Over McCarthy’s head a banner reading “We won’t go,” has been twisted in the rain so the “We” is hidden. McCarthy estimates that 500 are at risk of eviction. Children and dogs play in the muddy “lanes” between trailer lots as their mothers do the washing. Tina McCarthy’s pipes broke last winter, but she can’t get a plumber to fix them since the council has effectively condemned the property. So several times day she wheels a cistern to a public tap and fills it up with water for her washing and to bathe and feed herself and her two children. What will they do come Thursday? “We’ll travel up and down the M-25 all the trailers in a caravan,” she predicts, “blocking the traffic.”

More than 50 children have been born on this property, and the 51st is due on Thursday. The children all attend local school. For some families, this is the first formal education they’ve ever received. “I was brought up on the road. I never had an opportunity to go to school. I learned my trade from my father,” says a man who would only give his first name, John, 38, an antiques dealer. John, like much of the older generation at Dale Farm, is illiterate. To them it’s a point of pride about how apart they have kept themselves, cloistered and untarnished from the rest of the world – though tell them you’re American and they’re quick to praise Beyoncé. John relies on his 14-year-old nephew to surf the web for him and relay prices of antiques for sale in online auctions. “It’s important for them to stay,” John says, motioning to his young nephew, “they need to know how to use the lap top.” John and his family tried traveling this spring but the police moved them on everywhere they went and they ended up back at Dale farm after three months. What will they do? “Fight,” says John. “They think they’re going to come in here and we’re going to lay down all peaceful-like. They’re going to get their heads knocked.”

What does John think about the TV show? “It’s not right,” he scowls. “It’s not like real life. A wedding is only one day.” That said, he appreciates the attention it has brought his people. Behind him, dozens of human rights activists from across Europe are pitching tents in one of the recently-vacated lots — many families have already fled in anticipation of the destruction. In all nearly 150 activists are trying to form a human shield to protect the gypsies from Basildon’s bulldozers. The groups label what the government is doing in such strong terms as “ethnic cleansing” and, even, “genocide.” The council may find itself in the awkward position of having to mow down, or at least arrest, Oscar-award winning actress Vanessa Redgrave, 74, who arrived Sunday to lend her support. “I am certain that the eviction of the Dale Farm Traveler families is illegal under international, mandatory, human rights conventions,” says Redgrave, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. “I am appalled that such an eviction can be upheld by our Government.”