Sunday 17 September 2017

Ancient Nomads, Modern Travellers

Siberian Scythians' Self-Portrait, c. 400 BCE
It has been Week of the Nomad. The new British Museum Scythians exhibition is revelatory. It reminded me of Tom Gunn’s immortal poem ‘Hedonism’:

   After the Scythians, how advance
      In the pursuit of happiness?
   They went around in leather pants,
    And every night smoked cannabis.

At the same time, Travellers have been encamped in two fields beside our home in Cambridgeshire. They have been polite and friendly. They are unobtrusive but have a laugh with me when our dog plays with theirs.

The prejudiced coverage in the local press has been shocking. So have the expressions of terror and outrage amongst my non-nomadic fellow villagers. Travellers have always faced harassment, and difficulty finding places to park caravans, but the drastic decrease in available Common Land over the last decades has made their situation much tougher. The pernicious Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 eroded the duties of local councils to furnish adequate sites for them and expanded police powers of summary eviction.

Spencer: Divisive and Unhelpful Remarks
Members of one Traveller family received sentences this week at Nottingham Crown Court for running a slavery racket in Lincolnshire. Their behaviour to the workers they abused  was appalling, and so was their defence claim that they were ‘only’ doing what other Travellers did all over the country.  But I could not believe the irresponsibility of Timothy Spencer QC when he said, on no evidence whatsoever, that he feared they were correct ‘that all Travellers had workers operating under similar conditions.’

There are at least 300,000 Travellers in Britain. As Bill Forrester of the National Association of Gypsy and Traveller Officers said in response to Spencer’s outburst, ‘the vast majority of them ‘are just as outraged by modern-day slavery as the vast majority of the non-Traveller communities.’ There are plenty of modern-day slaves exploited in Britain by people living in houses.

So why do Travellers of all origins—Roma, Irish, Eastern European—arouse such hostility? Ignorance of their way of life is one factor, but I believe another is unacknowledged envy. I suffer from no romantic illusions about Traveller lifestyles. Yet I do not think I am alone in feeling that the 60,000 years during which every Homo Sapiens wandered the planet in pursuit of food, eventually with portable tents and in company with herds of livestock and cooperative dogs, were in many ways preferable to the sedentary life of the modern city-dweller.

My Idea of a Good Time
The ancient Greeks saw nomadic peoples of Scythia, Libya and Ethiopia as utopian—more egalitarian, more virtuous and more just—than the agriculturalists and bricklayers of the great ‘civilisations’ of Sumer, Egypt and Iran. I know that I often long in the morning to emerge from my tent to watch the sun rise over a different valley from yesterday. I get depressed if I have no travel lined up in my diary for a month or two. We all need to acknowledge our Inner Hunter-Gatherer-Itinerant-Pastoralist and stop fanning the flames of prejudice like Judge Spencer did this week.

1 comment:

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