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Out of site; A month of events and special series of TV shows aims to change the perception of Gypsies in Wales, and there's not a wedding - big, fat or otherwise - in sight. Nathan Bevan investigates.

From the gaudy, oversized wedding dresses festooned with fairy lights, bare-knuckle boxing and pre-teen girls dirty dancing in full make-up, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding succeeded in whipping up national tabloid scandal from the minute the credits rolled on its very first episode.

And the only thing bigger than the frock horrors and culture shocks supplied by that notorious Channel 4 series was its viewing figures.

For millions, this was probably the only image they had of those "secretive, marginalised and little-understood communities" - as the broadcaster's press bumf put it - that exist on the periphery of the perceived social norm.

But it's one that's far removed from the romanticised tales of Romanis like Abram Wood, the so-called 'King of the Gypsies', who supposedly introduced the fiddle to Wales in the early 18th century and whose descendents played in the courts of European royalty.

And it's exactly this disparity which Wales' fourth annual Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month intends to address by challenging the existing stereotypes and inviting the public to indulge in the culture and share in the activities of an age-old rich cultural heritage that landed here from Europe several centuries ago.

One man bucking convention is 32-year-old Isaac Blake, director of the Romani Cultural and Arts Company, a charity which he founded to help give young travellers across Wales the opportunity to express themselves and identify with their traditions and past.

"I never really realised there was anything 'different' about my upbringing until, one day in primary school, everyone had to do a drawing of where they lived," says Blake, adding that his recollections of growing up on Cardiff's Shirenewton site - a council-run collection of 55 individual pitches which accommodates about 300 residents - couldn't have been more different from the brash, provocative images proffered by the reality TV show.

"And, while all the other children sketched houses, I drew a trailer."

Going on to challenge the stereotypes still further, he won a scholarship to attend a three-year undergraduate dance theatre course at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, the UK's top exponent of contemporary dance talent, before enrolling at the celebrated Martha Graham School in New York to enhance his skills.

Today he also works as both a movement coach at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.

"Having grown up on a site I know exactly what artistically barren places they can be, so what I really wanted to do was to take my passion for theatre and dance and give the kids there the opportunity to try things they normally wouldn't," he says.

"And it's fantastic to see youngsters coming alive creatively and also identifying themselves as being Gypsies and travellers."

However, this isn't something Blake really experienced for himself.

"I didn't identify myself as Romani for many years and when I went to university in London I just wanted to be 'normal' and not have any aggro - I just wanted the same opportunities that everyone else had.

"Back then, being verbally abused was considered acceptable and we felt that, should we try to object, no-one was going to listen to us.

"We'd be judged and, more often than not, Gypsy kids would be put in special classes at school regardless of their ability.

"But you get used to it and start to grow a thick skin, to the point where you almost expect to get grief [from people].

"I remember being in a car with someone who went, 'Oh God, I look like a right gyppo today'.

"Now, she didn't know I was a Gypsy and must have thought I was just a regular person - and I am a regular person.

"But it made me think, 'Well, how do Gypsies see themselves'?" And that's the theme of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month, which hopes to bust some of the myths that are commonly held about this section of society who've long been part of the Welsh landscape.

"A lot of people think Gypsies don't pay taxes and are dirty," says Blake.

"But we do pay taxes - all those living on local authority or privately owned sites pay Council Tax, rent, gas, electricity and other associated charges - and our caravans are very clean and tidy.

"Go into any Gypsy home and you'll see it's spotless," he says proudly.

And, in addition to films, live performances, art and various exhibitions chronicling both the past and present traveller traditions, the free event's other aim is to promote racial harmony.

International specialists, academics and activists will converge on Cardiff to discuss the challenges facing the GRT community at large.

Among those attending a symposium will be Professor Ian Hancock, who went from being an academic drop-out from an illiterate Romani family to becoming one of the world's most respected scholars on the subject.

Professor of linguistics at the University of Texas, Roma ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council and member of the International Romani Parliament, he says there are plenty of misconceptions about his culture that need to be addressed.

"People who have those stereotypes in their head are usually surprised when we meet because they expect me to have a earring and bandana and to live in a horse-drawn wagon," says London-born Hancock who, when I ask his age laughs before saying: "I don't mind telling you I'm 70; we Roma revere our elderly".

He explains: "There are 12 million Romanis throughout the world, and those with horse-drawn wagons number fewer than 2%.

"Most of us live in houses and always have. "It's silly, but it comes from the use of the word Gypsy with a small 'g' suggesting that it's simply a lifestyle choice, when really it should be used as a proper noun as we're an actual ethnic group.

"Gypsy is actually a shortened form of 'Egyptian', because that's where many outsiders thought Roma people were from, when they really originated from northern India.

"As a result it's used too loosely and even takes in Irish travellers, and they're certainly not Romani people."

Indeed, the failure to make such a distinction was one of the main things My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was criticised for.

"Did you know that show even led to lawsuits in this country?" Hancock sighs.

"Similarly, the recurring spouse abuse which featured on there would be deplored within Romani culture, not to mention be subject to punishment agreed upon by the kris (a Gypsy tribunal)."

He adds that the continuing popularity of the image of Gypsies as guitar-toting, hedgerow wanderers weaving magic spells only served to get in the way of the very real problems facing his people in the modern world.

"There are atrocious murders and neo-Nazi beatings going on right now, especially in eastern Europe.

"The tide of anti-Gypsyism is on the increase in Britain too - some of the online blogs I've seen have seen are utterly reprehensible."

With echoes of the recent developments at the Dale Farm Traveller site in Essex (where Basildon district council evicted some 300 residents from their own land at a cost of pounds 15m) to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's expulsion of Roma from France in late 2011, Hancock says it was a similar example of prejudice in the mid-'60s that spurred him into speaking up for an oppressed population with no traditional voice or representation.

"I remember reading about this Romani family who'd been pulled over to the side of the road by the police.

"The husband refused to move the trailer because his wife had gone into labour.

"In the end they brought in a bulldozer to start rocking the trailer.

"Anyway, this resulted in the woman miscarrying and a kerosene lamp falling and setting the trailer alight, killing two children.

"The story only got about an inch of space on an inside page somewhere and it left me thinking, 'This is terrible, they could've been my relatives. I have to do something about this'."

It was something he experienced first-hand growing up.

"As a boy, I wondered about relatives who were frequently evicted and treated badly by the law, and I'd get told not to tell people what I was," he says. "We'd get suspected of stealing things, asked to tell fortunes, things like that. It made me sad that I had to hide my identity and have to pretend to be something else.

"It's something we have to stop; we have to feel better about ourselves before other people can feel better about us."

However, 3,000 miles away across the Atlantic and raised speaking Welsh rather than Romani, Teleri Gray puts stock in storytelling as a means of both keeping ancient Roma traditions alive and educating the schoolchildren of today about its roots.

A seventh generation descendent of Abram Wood himself, her great-great-grandfather John Roberts, who hailed from Newtown, was known as the Harpist of Wales (or Telynor Cymru). He would often perform for visiting foreign dignitaries such as the Grand Duke of Russia and the King of Belgium. Meanwhile, her mother Eldra Jarmin (ne Roberts) was renowned as the last of the great traditional Welsh Gypsy triple harpists. "I really didn't find out about Mum's background until I was 13 and I was so glad when I did because I'd always felt I was different, a bit of a rebel," says the 67-year-old former primary school teacher from Cardiff. "I'd always had a really enquiring mind and was very creative - having said that I've never been musical at all, not like Mum's family who've always played instruments of some type. "They'd travel all around Wales, helping farmers to collect the harvests and catch rats by day; in return, they'd be allowed to sleep in their barns at night. "In the evenings they'd gather round the firesides of the nearby inns to play their fiddles and entertain the locals with their tales." Gray fell in love with these oral traditions the more she read about her kin, who probably descended from the Kale who entered Britain's southern shores between the 15th and 17th centuries from Spain, via France and Cornwall. "It's part of Welsh history that's been largely ignored. "I mean, everyone knows about the coal mines and slate quarries don't they - so why not that spirit of creativity?" Ascribing her vibrant dress sense and love of bright colours to her heritage - "My love of lots of purple and flouncy things meant my pupils used to call me Mrs Purple instead of Gray" - the GRT History Month will see her holding craft and storytelling workshops with children at the Old Library in the centre of Cardiff. "It's important to make them see that programmes like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding aren't how it really is for us," she says. "That show disgusted me, had nothing to with Romani Gypsies at all. "My family certainly never behaved like that and I think that it's great what Isaac Blake is doing, organising this to raise people's awareness, talk about our hidden history and see how we can all become more tolerant of other people's way of life." And Gray will also soon be seen storytelling to Gypsy schoolchildren in Pembrokeshire as part of Y Sipsiwn, S4C's upcoming week-long live series retracing the historical footsteps of Wales' Romani inhabitants. Coinciding with the Romani Cultural and Arts Company's festivities, the shows will see presenters Ifan Jones Evans and Shn Cothi travel from Ceredigion to Pembrokeshire in an attempt to discover what legacies the Roma left on Welsh life and history and what travails have befallen them along the way. "One of the inspirations for this was Tn ar y Comin, which I'd read as a child " says Y Sipsiwn's producer Dyfrig Davies, name-checking T Llew Jones' 1998 children's book Fire on the Common. It's about an orphaned Gypsy boy who inherits a mare and her foal upon the death of his grandfather. He later learns he's the illegitimate heir to the local squire. "I also recall an elderly lady I know telling me how, shortly before WI, her headmaster had charged her with looking after a little Gypsy girl who'd just moved onto the local green with her grandparents. "She'd walk with her to school and sit next to her in class and the life she described to me sounded so idyllic, so fantastic that I suddenly thought, 'If we don't do something > continued from page 5 now to mark that then those memories of the Romani and the impact they made on Wales and its people, during that period in particular, is going to disappear altogether'. "So I wanted to try and stop that happening by celebrating it in this way." Davies hopes Evans and Cothi's journey around the country in a vardo - a traditional horse-drawn wagon popularised in the mid-Victorian period - would help evoke long-held memories in some of those watching of the way Gypsies would travel from community to community providing an important source of labour and passing down their rich musical traditions. "They really enriched the culture of this land doing that - John Roberts, for example, formed The Cambrian Minstrels with his nine sons and they were the first truly Welsh Romani orchestra," adds Davies. "Then there's John Wood Jones, who was the great-grandson of Abram Wood. "He became resident harpist at Llanover Court, near Abergavenny. "He taught the instrument to blind and lame children and even played at Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria." Davies describes the GRT History Month as an important way of redressing the many prejudices that have always existed against Romani Gypsies. "Without wanting to name a certain television programme that did them no favours at all recently, we simply can't go around tarring everyone with same brush. "I don't dispute that some people reading this feature will go, 'Oh, Gypsies did a dodgy job of laying my driveway', but people get exploited by others from all walks of life all of the time. "Just because they don't fit our stringent social moulds we push them to one side, herding them into sites to stop them from travelling. "We need to readdress the balance and ask ourselves if we're being fair - after all, variety is the spice of life, isn't it? "I mean, it's as much a part of their identity to be free to roam as it is mine to speak Welsh." And the Welsh Government, which is supporting the month-long celebration, is leading the way in Gypsies' and travellers' rights, having recently set up a Cross Party Group to look at issues facing these communities, such as health and accommodation. Julie Morgan AM has long been one of those at the forefront of campaigning for such causes, taking after her late mother Grace Edwards. "Mum was a great pioneer on that front and it's been a subject very close to my heart for many years," she says, Edwards having set up the city's first Gypsy school in Ely, teaching many of the children there to read and write before they were forced to move to different sites around the city. And, as her only daughter, Morgan naturally took up the torch of caring for the under-privileged and, amongst other things, staunchly advocated equal tenancy for Gypsy communities. "At the end of the day, they're council tenants too, just like a lot of other people - except those other people have never had to worry about being evicted with just a week's notice. "Living with the fear of losing one's home, with the risk of children being taken into care, is a constant stress. "And even those in proper housing still need our help because that's not the way of life they wanted and some have been known to suffer from terrible depression. "And the Welsh Government, because it's still a relatively new body, has gone all-out to be all-inclusive and to be seen as understanding and championing equal opportunities for everyone across the board." Morgan adds that it is important that everyone, both young and old, should do all they can to soak up the great wealth of history these people have imbued on our country. "We all need to realise that they've been here a very long time and have given us all so much," she says. "Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is a great opportunity to strengthen that sense of cultural pride and I'm proud to welcome it. "It's great to be involved in the celebration of this diverse and vibrant community within Wales."

CAPTION(S):

Isaac Blake A colourful scene from My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. But how representative of the community was it? Traditionally Gypsies and travellers would cook outside the trailer, known as a vardo, as seen here at the Rover Way site in Cardiff in the '80s. PICTURE: Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Services
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 16, 2012
Words:2797
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