My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is back on Channel 4 at 9pm on Tuesday nights. For the uninitiated, the Cutting Edge documentary series follows members of the Gypsy and Irish Traveller communities and their elaborate wedding ceremonies. It gives a fascinating insight into their lifestyle, as compared to that led by the settled community (or Gorjas – i.e. non-Gypsies).

A key cultural difference, for example, is that Irish Traveller girls may dress provocatively but it’s a case of look but don’t touch: they are brought up not to have sex before marriage. They are generally married young - 16 is commonplace - and look after the home, while the man provides for the family. Although some Romany Gypsy girls are now favouring education and career over this model, the Traveller community does not appear to be characterised by the same level of broken relationships as the settled community. It also operates with an honour code and a respect for family values and tradition.

The Gypsy and Traveller model may be different to what we experience in settled society but that doesn’t mean we should cast aspersions on what, perhaps, we don’t understand. I’d watched half of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding last Tuesday when I glanced at my Facebook feed and spotted derogatory comments about the participants. The discussion went like this:

Person 1: “It's hilarious... What a state they all look. do they not have any mirrors in their trailers?”

Person 2: “I think they must use those wonky mirrors from the Hoppings [large annual fairground in Newcastle upon Tyne].”

Person 3: “Can't believe that all those girls want to do is get married at 16, do housework and have kids!”

Person 4: “Careful, they'll be round trying to tarmac your gob shut.”

Err. Why would the Gypsy and Traveller girls leave their entire family and culture just to live the Gorja way of life, which some may see as being chaotic and immoral, if not downright difficult for someone who has been brought up in a different society with different values?

It strikes me that people deem it okay to deride Gypsies and Travellers in a public forum but they would consider it unacceptable, un-PC or even racist to speak of other ethnic or cultural groups in a similar way. Gypsies and Travellers are covered by the Equality Act 2010, which replaced the Race Relations Act 1976. However, despite the legal position, derogatory words such as “pikey” and “gyppo” appear to be rife. These are pretty much the equivalent of “Paki” or “nigger”: words that educated people would widely avoid using. Imagine if the Facebook chatterers had made similar comments about a community of persons of Asian, African, Indian, Jamaican, Chinese or Jewish descent, or many of the other groups that exist in a diverse society. It would be considered reprehensible.

Just as a person can be born Caucasian, French, Italian, etc., they can be born a Gypsy or Irish Traveller. So why be so hateful towards them, based on assumptions of what they are like? How can we make sweeping generalisations about a whole group anyway? It’s like saying that all Scousers are devious scallies or all Geordies are Sid the Sexists. Or that we don’t like people with ginger hair.

A frequent complaint about Gypsies and Travellers concerns their camping on locations such as laybys, common ground, parks, etc. It is clear that the Gypsy and Traveller community needs somewhere to live, and there are insufficient legal UK sites to accommodate the estimated 16,500 caravans, leaving many with little option but to occupy the “unauthorised encampments” that are so unpopular with local residents.

Brighton and Hove Council explains: “Nomadic groups have existed in this country for hundreds of years, but as urban areas have expanded, the traditional stopping places for Travellers and Gypsies have diminished. This has pushed them closer to the settled community and into higher profile areas. In addition, their traditional employment (scrap metal work) is in decline.

“Brighton and Hove is mainly visited by Irish Travellers, English Gypsies and New Travellers. Nomadic life is not illegal, and Travellers have a basic right to this way of life. The council recognises that this has to be balanced with the rights of the general public to enjoy private and public land.”

The council opened the Horsdean Travellers Site in August 1999 and is now proposing a new site in Brighton and Hove, which has been the topic of much controversy.

The spokesperson adds: “Gypsies and Travellers, as a group, suffer from a high level of inequality, particularly around health and education issues, and also suffer from discrimination and racial hatred.” In fact, a Gypsy or Traveller’s life expectancy can be up to 25 years shorter than for persons in the settled community, and the rate of pre-natal and infant mortality is significantly higher.

Sally Woodbury, a member of the Romany community, works with Friends Family and Travellers (FFT), a network set up in 1994 to support all nomadic people. She concurs that: “Perceptions about Travellers remain the biggest issue for travelling people in this country.”

She says: “There are a lot of New Travellers in Brighton and Hove: people from the settled community who choose that way of life. They are probably picked on because people think they’re Gypsies, while Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are born into that group. People lump them all together.

“The main problem is that there aren’t enough pitches. Some of the council sites are full of people who are not Gypsies or Travellers but who have live-in vehicles and may be on the housing list.”

She adds: “There’s a small minority of Travellers that litter but you can’t tar everyone with same brush. Some people in the Traveller community litter because there’s no facility for proper waste clearance and collection, and the tips won’t accept their waste. With unauthorised encampments, when the Travellers move on, people from the settled community sometimes tip there as they believe that the recently-departed Gypsies may take the blame.”

Personally speaking, I’ve known vehicle-dwellers who may be classed as New Travellers (i.e. those originating from the settled community). They were colourful and diverse characters and many of them banded together to stage creative events. As in any community, there were good elements and those who were not quite so charming. And some respected their surroundings more than others.

And it seems that, after moaning about “not in my back garden”, we embrace traveller culture when it suits us. Lost Vagueness, which proved so popular at Glastonbury Festival, was borne of the travelling fraternity. I wager that any invective towards travelling people et al was left behind at the door of the casino, which thousands of revellers and many celebrities such as Kate Moss, enjoyed until the early hours of the morning. They certainly weren’t muttering about pikeys and tarmac your gob shut, or that any burlesque-inspired or skimpy costumes looked ridiculous.

This topic is so big that I’ve only touched on part of it and it is coming from a layperson’s point of view. However, here’s a parting thought about tolerance and making assumptions, regardless of which party is concerned:

“Our thoughts are unseen hands shaping the people we meet. Whatever we truly think them to be, that's what they'll become for us” – Richard Cowper.

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