The word is not as incendiary as “kaffir”. It does not offend the ear as would “nigger” or “jewboy”. It is, in fact, a rather beautiful word. But in the United Kingdom, utter the word “gypsy” and rooms go quiet; looks are exchanged, brows furrowed and lips pursed. And arguments rage.

A gypsy is to many an Englishman or -woman what a “kaffir” was to many a white South African or a “nigger” to a Southern plantation owner: one to be marginalised, one presumed lesser than oneself, one who could not be trusted, one best not associated with.

The country that (correctly) had so much to say to South Africans about racism in the apartheid years is yet to address its own attitudes to a marginalised people on its own doorstep: Romany gypsies, more often euphemistically referred to as “travellers”. This moniker will bring an ironic smile to the lips of South Africans who remember how the Nats, in the Eighties, came up with the idiotic “plurals” and the even dafter Afrikaans equivalent, “plurales“, for black South Africans.

Every fight worth fighting needs a catalyst, and the gypsy community in the UK has been presented with the perfect trigger, on a golden platter, for highlighting its own marginalism within that country: a young Romany gypsy boxer, Billy Joe Saunders, has been selected for the British team to the Beijing Olympics. His trainer is Terry Edwards, who guided Amir Khan to his own Olympic glory earlier in the decade.

And he’s apparently a true Romany gypsy, rather than a “diddicoy“, the (offensive?) term used for people in that part of the world who live as gypsies without necessarily being true Romany gypsies.

What a name the lad has. He sounds as though he’s stepped right out of an American trailer park, or he could be the star turn at the Grand Ole Opry. In fact, a trailer park isn’t far from the truth, for many gypsies in the UK live in prefabricated homes set up, often illegally, on informal land. The old, romantic image of gypsies clad in scarves and much jewellery and living in wooden caravans in sylvan glades, treading toadstools underfoot, is only the stuff of fairy tales today.

Billy Joe Saunders now bears on his young shoulders the chance to bring pride and glory to arguably Britain’s most sidelined community, shunned by “proper” Brits as a bunch of inveterate rubbishes, criminals and worse.

When I lived in the south of England, in West Sussex, a clan of travelling gypsies set up camp on a farm near our small town. I’m not going to argue the appropriateness of them settling on land they may not own. What interested me, however, was the reactions of locals to this unwanted community on their doorstep. Their attitudes reminded me so much of racist white South Africans’ attitudes to other races.

They were “those people”, “them”, “not like us”. I remonstrated with a newspaper colleague at the time. But they’re just people, I said. I mean, if you passed a Romany gypsy in the street, you wouldn’t even know it. They aren’t even recognisable by physical characteristics. They’re just people with their own traditions and ways.

Not at all. I was given a stern lecture on why these people were not to be regarded as you would ordinary people. They were morally corrupt, useless, good-for-nothing thieves. To a man, woman and child. And as a group.

I pointed out that to classify an entire group in such terms was virtually the definition of prejudice, but was met with derision. Obviously I had no experience of the gypsy community or I wouldn’t say that, she told me.

Now imagine if you or I were to say the same things about “blacks” or “Jews”? The same people would instantly chide us and correct our racist attitudes. But many Britons simply do not see it in the same way.

Here and there while in the UK I brought up the subject of gypsies with other people, and always I was met with a similar response.

The support of many Britons for the anti-apartheid cause was a superb and hugely helpful thing, and I treasure it, but isn’t it about time that nation addressed its own prejudices towards Romany gypsies? And, for that matter, for “diddicoys“?


Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman is a journalist, budding playwright and sometime chef. He's written two plays, An Influence of Ghosts and Blue Train Coming, and back in the day wrote loads of songs. He paints a bit in watercolours...

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