I've been reporting about gypsies and travellers for on and off six years ago, since I first visited the iconic Dale Farm site in Essex, just east of London, for the Economist in 2006.
At that time Dale Farm had just experienced its first real threat of eviction, as the grand matriarch of the site, Mary-Ann McCarthy told me at the time. She recalled her life as an Irish traveller, arriving in England some forty years previously - when it was still possible to travel and stop, without too much intervention by the police.
But since then Dale Farm has become an increasingly bitter fight between the local council, Basildon, and gypsies and travellers. It is often represented, indeed, as nothing less than the last stand of these beleagured peoples.
Last week I travelled there again. On almost all my previous journeys to the site I had been the only journalist there, and had spent many peaceful mornings with Mary Ann in her immaculate chalet, bedecked with her beloved crockery, her many religious artefacts (Mary Ann, like many other Irish travellers, is a devout Catholic), chatting to her and the other Dale Farm women. For Dale Farm is a tightly knit community - Big Society, if you like, in microcosm, where the women look out for each other's children, between cleaning their homes, cooking and taking their children to school.
This time, Mary Ann's chalet looked bare. I asked her where her crockery had gone. "All packed away", she said, "Just in case". The "just in case", of course, is the looming eviction - rubberstamped yesterday by the High Court, which ruled it was legal to turn some dozens of families of land they had bought legally, but for which they do not have planning permission. Cue, for the first time, this week, a massive media scrum at Dale Farm, when the actress, Vanessa Redgrave, turned up to offer her support.
They have nowhere to go. Basildon Council is honouring homelessness legislation in the strict legal sense, in that it has offered the vulnerable, the old and children emergency housing. But that doesn't satisfy gypsies and travellers, who prize their extended family structure - and without which, they say, they cannot function. Their culture is under threat, they say, and they are at their wit's end. Another mother, Michelle (who is too frightened to give her full name), is shaky and nervy. She is due to give birth to her fourth child next month, and doesn't even know where to book in for the birth. Her five year old son, who winds himself round his mother's legs, was looking forward to starting school at the excellent local primary. Now he, like the other traveller children, will be kept off school as the mothers are scared stiff they will be evicted while their children are off site and they won't be able to collect them.
Two years ago the Equality and Human Rights Commission looked at the issue of the lack of legal sites for gypsies and travellers in the UK and concluded it would take little more than one square mile of land to settle all of them legally. As it is, one fifth of all gypsies and travellers have nowhere legal to live. But the Coalition has taken a harsher line towards the groups then previously, abolishing targets for local authorities to create sites and cutting funding too.
Candy Sheridan, the inspirational vice-chair of the Gypsy Council, a representative body, has not given up the fight. She, along with Joe Joseph, the Secretary of the body, continues to drive hundreds of miles, unpaid, from her own site, to Dale Farm, many times a week, to try and plan a strategy for keeping as many people together and avoiding the eviction. But their job has been made more difficult, rather than easier, many think, by the arrival of international activists, some, but not all, anarchists, who are camping out on the site, but who do not want to help by offering to become human rights monitors if the eviction goes ahead because they do not want to give their names to police. Their strategy is less clear, but some on the site fear that they are planning more than non-violent resistance if the bailiffs arrive - which is not going to do the cause of gypsies and travellers much good.
No wonder that they are so desperate that many of the women, who have been handed three months worth of anti-depressants by local doctors who don't think they will see the women again for another check-up are telling Mary Ann McCarthy that perhaps the best option is to take the pills and save the bailiffs the trouble of evicting them. Terrible times indeed.
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