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THE STOPPING PLACES: a journey through Gypsy Britain, Damian Le Bas
published by Chatto & Windus, ISBN 978-1-784-74103-7
Published Country Life, 2018

This is a classic quest, a young man's journey to find out where he comes from and to work out for himself if he wishes to become one with his ancestral tribe. It is a voyage that we all make, but few of us are fully aware of it and even fewer have the wit to record it and the brutal self-honesty required to make it interesting.

Damian Le Bas does all this and more. What gives his book its special poignancy is that in order to create this book (to read, research, question, record and write) he has in the process, expelled himself from his tribe. This began as a boy - when ten A-grade exam results led to keeping his scholarship, staying on at school and going to university. Damian was born into a family of Gypsy-travellers who sold flowers in the Hampshire market town of Petersfield, but his free-thinking parents allowed him to break out of this powerful background and become an educated graduate.

His intention is threefold: to burn out the prejudices that he silently endured as a gypsy-boy, to investigate British Gypsy lore and to travel along the old Gypsy trails. Damian has three wise woman to help him in his quest - his actress wife, his artist mother and his Nan, who is the last of his family to really know the road. Nan spent the first twenty years of her life, following the family wagon, in the 1940’s, the last great period of horse-drawn migration.

Damian seeks out to make use of the Atchin Tans – the traditional camp sites known to his people which connected together all their old seasonal jobs. These extend from hop picking in the Hampshire villages around Alton, berry-picking in the Perthshire lowlands of Scotland and the many woodland tasks in between - logging, mistletoe collecting and Christmas-wreath making. By the end of the 1990's these tasks were no longer the preserve of the Gypsy-travellers but the community is still bound up with the annual succession of horse fairs: Wickham at Whitsun, Appleby in June, Tarrant Hinton (outside Blandford Forum) and Horsmonden in September, Ballinasloe in Ireland and Stow in the Wold in October.

As a young man of his time, he travels in a transit truck (internally transmuted by textiles) and uses a satnav, which he sheds in favour of his own homemade mnemonics for the British roads. I was surprised to find that normal incidents from my own rural Gadje (non-Gypsy) childhood - poaching rabbits with a ferret, eating hare and deer that had been pulled down by your own lurchers - was never part of his life. But he has a full range of other typical gypsy accomplishments such as music-making with spoons, a love of fire-making, a skill with soup, oral wit, an appreciation of bling, hair-gel and an innate understanding of the complicated code of respect between male Gypsies.

I was fascinated to learn how late wagons came into British Gypsy life ( in the 18th-century they migrated by donkey and pack-mule), that there are a hundred police officers with Gypsy blood in Britain and how deeply the British Gypsies had fallen for post-war American music (and shed the guitar-based culture of their European cousins). We are also alerted to the tremendous rivalries that divide the culture, most especially between the Irish Travellers of Celtic blood and the Gypsies of England. In terms of pride in the purity of ancient language and a thoroughly enlightened provision of rural campsites, the Principality of Wales seems to lead the world.

I carried this book with me to Appleby Horse fair this summer, where I found myself overwhelmed with delight in the animation, ordered anarchy and exuberance. Damian catches it perfectly, “Riding him, and leaning back to show his full command and lack of fear, is a fit and topless suntanned teenage boy, the fair is here, and so is he, and everyone should know. His face is a satisfied half-smile of knowing he has hit the early summer of his life, and as he canters off, his heavy gold chain flits and dances off his shoulders with the lightness of a garland in the breeze.”

I am not of this tribe, but I am proud that one of the worlds most persecuted peoples still endures in these islands, and have tried to teach us over the last thousand years that dark skins can contain a pure, beautiful soul.


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