In her immaculate mobile home, greyed and worn down by years of threats and uncertainty, she looked like a left-over cobweb. The doctor had put her on anti-depressants but they weren't working. She was not, merely, depressed. She was very frightened. What she needed was a society which did not allow the bullies and the cowards, the self-righteous and the violent, their own way. What she got was pills.
"Do you really think they'll come for us?" asked her grandson, a bright-haired boy of about eleven. She looked at him, and her shoulders straightened. "No, no" she said, reassuringly.
It was almost exactly a year ago at Dale Farm, the small Irish traveller enclave huddled in the heart of Essex. I had gone to help its residents fill out legal forms: at the time, Basildon Council were determined to go ahead with a forced eviction of some eighty traveller families, despite the fact that it would cost the taxpayer up to £18 million. The council had rejected the Homes and Counties Agency's offer of alternative land, despite the fact that the families had offered to move there, and despite the fact that it would have cost a fraction of the budget. Shortly afterwards, the Dale Farm support group would produce a website which substituted the word 'traveller' or 'gypsy' for Jew. "Italy starts controversial plan to fingerprint Jews". "Sarkozy orders Jews expelled from France" were among the results.
I went to Dale Farm prepared for trouble. Police had been documenting visitors, a sympathetic photographer filming a traveller wedding had had her camera seized by the Met; internet groups supporting the travellers were being monitored. "I bet you were scared, coming here" said one of the site's few old men (male travellers are lucky if they live until fifty). He meant, I realised, after a blink, scared of the residents.
Across the way, three buxom middle-aged ladies were making tea and reminiscing about love, and the days when they could afford life on the road. Down the lane, daughters and granddaughters were cleaning the home of Dale Farm's matriarch; an upright, dignified person who could no longer travel either; her husband, who had the driving licence, was long dead. Her ancient dog was scratching around the pathways in the early autumn sun; children were playing everywhere, as you do when there are no cars around; a nun smiled at me as I walked past. Everyone seemed to be related to everyone else: the whole place had the peaceful, surreal atmosphere of a village in the 1920's, or the furthest reaches of the Donegal Gaeltacht. And then, there were the bailiffs. "I'm so worried for the baby" said a young, roundly pregnant woman in one caravan. "Do you really think they'll come?"
A year later, after a tortuous decade of false alarms, it seems that they're finally coming. This Monday, Constant & Co, a firm of bailiffs whose name is frequently preceeded by the words 'violent' and brutal', are being paid millions to get rid of around 80 Dale Farm families, whose mobile homes are on land they own themselves. They last evicted a group of seven traveller families from a small site down the road. According to current legend the eviction went off 'peacefully', but this hardly describes the terror and despair felt by the families as their homes were bulldozed without warning; nor their experience of being turned out onto the road with nowhere to go, moved on by the police throughout the night whenever they attempted to stop. A few of Dale Farm's most vulnerable residents had been offered 'alternative accomodation'; not with anyone they know, but in small, isolated brick blocks: "How could I leave my family? It would kill me" they all say.
What must Constant & Co's employees be thinking, as they ready their bulldozers for Monday? If they've been reading the Daily Mail, they're preparing to face a group of aggressive, anti-social users, many of whom have luxury homes elsewhere, together with a group of 'violent anarchists' preparing to throw rocks at them. Yeah, right, says anyone with experience of the 'violent anarchists' from Climate Camp and UK Uncut, who've gone to support Dale Farm with their vegan kitchen and welcome packs and commitment to non-violence. And "what are they on?" anyone with any knowledge of the plight of UK travellers would add. Already, thousands have nowhere legal to stop, now that councils no longer have a duty to provide sites. As a result they are doomed to an exhausting, mindless game of chase, while their children miss school and life, and their men die early of the stress.
"Bulldoze the lot" urge the comments underneath the Mail's lurid fantasies. "They have to leave to get food SOME time...Just arrest them when they do and don't let them back in... When the last one finally comes out, torch the place." Comments on the New Statesman are somewhat more illuminating. "We would all like to buy a field at a rock bottom price and build an estate for all of our friends and family and not pay tax, or utilities - would we get away with it? Of course not!"
Driving away from Dale Farm, down the long, wide road which leads out of Basildon, the traffic slowed enough for me to watch an old woman, dressed in shabby navy, advancing along the deserted pavement and towards her house. She was carrying a small plastic bag, which obviously held enough food for one person. As she arthritically pulled out her front door key, I thought of the women of Dale Farm, surrounded by their children and grandchildren, and cousins and uncles and aunts and friends. Only a third of UK adults describe themselves as 'prejudiced against' travellers and gypsies; it seems to me that in our fragmented, modern, painfully constricted society, with our bricked in families and self-imposed isolation, what they really mean is 'jealous of'. But then jealousy has always been one of the most destructive of all emotions.
DALE FARM SUPPORT SITE
BACKGROUND TO DALE FARM: