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What's the Craic Now, Dale Farm?

We went back to see how Essex's gypsies are coping with life after the eviction.
June 21, 2012, 8:00am

Eight months ago some of the Irish travellers who lived at the Dale Farm site in Essex were booted out of their homes because they had been built illegally on green belt land. To some it was a simple enforcement of government planning laws. But others pointed out that most times travellers apply for planning permission, they get rejected by NIMBY councils, scared of bands of roving gypsies squawking at each other as they tarmac everything in sight. In the debate, the fact that people's lives were being changed forever seemed to get a little lost. That’s why photographer Joel Plaja and I decided to go and see how things are going for the travellers who still live there. That, and we wanted to get ahead of a potential media scrum as most of Fleet Street opens up its planning diary four months hence and looks at the box marked “Dale Farm – one year on.” Getting to the site was a pain because the local taxi firm refused to drive me to there. When I asked why, the cabbie said, “Because there’s Gypsies.” “Oh, is it dangerous there?” I asked. “No, just… there’s Gypsies,” he replied. Is it fair to point out that said cabbie had just fulfilled the “all taxi-drivers are racist” stereotype, thereby tarring a group with a broad and possibly unfair brush in an article that is largely about how prejudice is stupid and ruins peoples’ lives? IDK.  
In the end he agreed to drop me at a reasonably nearby pub. We cursed our luck. As we were visiting on a Saturday we would be unable to take advantage of The Belvedere’s no doubt mouth-watering Sunday carvery. Resolving to return at a later date for some tepid beef, watery gravy and rock hard Yorkshire pudding, we walked the ten-minute walk to the farm. The taxi drivers’ reluctance to go anywhere near the farm meant that we were bricking it as we neared the site. I steeled myself, despite my better instincts half expecting to be mauled to death by dogs or challenged to a bout of bare-knuckle boxing. So we were relieved to find that the travellers were very friendly, as soon as it had been established that we weren’t from the Basildon Echo – the local paper that they feel smeared and whipped up prejudice during the eviction in order to shift more copies.

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We walked up the road which led up to the destroyed travellers’ site, which is now flanked by two lines of caravans in which the remaining evicted travellers now live without plumbing or mains electricity.

 
We were soon greeted by a group of traveller boys who must have been about nine years old. They were very friendly and interested to know what we were up to. They also insisted on being allowed to have a look at my phone. I handed it over, they wanted to know what music was on it. “Do you have any Dale Farm music?” asked one. “Er… I don’t know. What does 'Dale Farm music' sound like?” “We won’t go! We won’t go!”, he said. I lol'd.  
His random mashing of the key pad ended up selecting some Gogol Bordello (no joke). Gypsy-punk about the oppression of itinerant peoples seemed pretty appropriate, if incredibly annoying (why did I still have it on there?) as we set off to survey the desolate remains of what used to be homes but are pretty much now just holes in the ground filled with assorted charred furniture.

Every so often, we would pass a plot and one of the boys would point out that it used to be his family’s home.

 
I was about to get really emo about the plight of the humble traveller when this cheeky one-armed scamp reverted to stereotype by nabbing Joel’s phone and running off into the distance. If this was the Mail I would use this to make a story about: "FERAL GANGS OF ORGANISED GYPSY CRIMINAL CHILDREN”, but instead, I’ll use the fact that all his mates helped us track him down – and then he gave the phone back with just the vaguest threat of calling the police – as evidence that they’re no more or less mischievous than any other kids their age. With Joel’s phone retrieved, we went to find some more mature company. Unfortunately, most of the travellers refused to talk to us.

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None more than this guy, who resolutely stonewalled us no matter how nicely we asked him. They made it pretty clear pretty fast that they’re sick to death of the media. “We used to have faith in reporters but they blew it,” said one woman. “If we say ‘white’ it’ll come out that we said ‘blue’.” In particular, the men didn’t want to be seen by potential employers as travellers in the media because, they said, “People don’t want to hire a pikey to paint their house.” One mother got as far as: “It’s shit. We’re living in our own filth. Fuck Tony Ball [Basildon council leader]. They want us to disappear but we have nowhere to go. It’s like what Hitler said to the Jews,” before once again complaining that there’s no point engaging with the media and that all journalists are bastards.

We were beginning to fear that the travellers’ not quite Trappist media silence would make our journey fruitless, when an elderly woman poked her head out of her caravan and said, “You look hungry, would you like a sandwich?”

And you know what? I bloody well was hungry, The Belvedere’s Sunday roast was still fresh in my mind.  
The elderly woman was Nora Sheridan, a widow, and she let us sit in her little caravan with her son Daniel.
  This is a picture of Nora’s husband’s tomb. “Big gravestone,” commented Joel. “He was a big man,” said Nora. As she chain smoked and made us cheese and ham sandwiches and cups of tea, she described how her post-eviction life is a real pain in the arse compared to before.
  Nora’s daughter Having no mains electricity would be bad enough for most people, but Nora has (deep breath) asthma, diabetes, arthritis and fluid buildup in her legs, meaning that on bad days she is unable to walk. She could kinda use a reliable power supply. “I have to wear a machine when I sleep because I lose all oxygen to my brain. So I need electricity and I haven’t got it. When my generator runs out I have to sit up all night and can’t go to sleep. If the generator runs out at two at night, that’s me sitting up until the following morning. Some nights I’m not able to go to the generator with petrol because my hands are shaking with arthritis, and it’s dangerous.”

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Nora’s son Daniel complained about the difficulty of having no plumbing. “I had to pay £50 a month to book into a gym just to be able to use the showers. I don’t even work out.” But it seemed to be a sense of powerlessness that hurt more than the impracticalities of living beside a road without basic amenities. It must really suck living in a tiny caravan just down the road from where you once lived in a much larger static home which is now a pile of rubble.

“How would you feel if the council took you away and put you on the side of the street and said 'Hey, you live like a dog.’ It’s not nice, is it? We’re angry but we can’t do anything about it. You feel hurt inside,” said Daniel. Earlier in the week we caught up with the travellers’ all-time favourite politician, leader of Basildon council, Tony Ball, to see what he thought of the situation. He said: “There were victims on that site but they weren’t victims of the council's making. They are victims, in my view, of the people who developed the land in the first place. It has got to be remembered that the land was bought for £125,000. Six acres of greenbelt land, it was then divided up into 50 plots and sold at £25,000 a plot, so someone has made a million pounds here.” What would you say to that, Nora? "I’d call him an asshole because he wants to blame anyone. This eviction cost £22 million. If you were getting blamed for spending £22 million, what would you say? You would blame anyone you could, wouldn’t ya?" Overall it seems that the eviction didn’t solve a whole lot. The "green belt" land, which was previously a scrap yard, has as yet not been returned to idyllic rolling hills. In any case, the government seems happy to build on green belt land when it suits them. And if you’re a lil’ bit racist, well, the travellers are still there, albeit leading a more squalid, miserable existence than before.

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Previously from Dale Farm:

Goodbye, Dale Farm

Sleepover at Dale Farm

Gypsy Paradise Lost