It seems to have been a long week since I got back from Brussels. Benjamin Franklin once famously said that, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Benjamin clearly hadn’t heard about Travelling Ahead because if he had, he’d have added that it’s also certain that Travelling Ahead will be ridiculously busy! In the last 7 days, i’ve been helping to organise a National Assembly for Wales Cross-Party Group looking at the health inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, training police officers, visiting families living in deliberatly squalid conditions (we’ll come back to that), and trying to make some progress on the transition of the Travelling Ahead project to a suitable new ‘host’.
For the last week i’ve been deliberating over a blog entry about something that bothered me when I watched the first episode of Thelma’s Gypsy Girls last Wednesday. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it is Firecracker Films’ latest attempt to cash in on their Big Fat Gypsy Weddings success. The specific annoyance was with the quote that Thelma was “giving back” to the community that “made” her. From my point of view, these programmes have certainly made Thelma but she certainly wasn’t giving any dignity or respect back to the Irish Travellers who participated in the episode that I watched. From the point that she addressed her existing staff to let them know the “bad news”: that she would be employing Travellers, her real intention was obvious. Money.
The programme showed us around Thelma’s gigantic house, complete with indoor swimming pool, and it made me think about the vast inequality between her and some of the families that Travelling Ahead works with. On Monday, I visited a site in Carmarthenshire where families are having to put up with living in terrible conditions. The entrance to the site constantly suffers from fly-tipping of fridges, sofas etc. Many of the trailers on the site have had their windows put through – the remnants of disagreements with the current site owner. Used car tyres are stacked up inside the vacant trailers, a vain attempt by families to clean up after rogue ‘tyre recycling’ firms dumped them on the site. Some of the utility blocks leak raw sewage as the landlord fails to maintain them properly. Worst of all, a pile of asbestos was dumped on site in April. Despite contacting the local Council and the landlord, the asbestos was not cleared until last week – three months later. That is despite the fact that it was only stored under a standard taurpaulin, weighed down by a spare tyre, and situated directly opposite a family with three young children. The family I spoke to on site talked about their loss of faith in the system and their loss of will – they admitted that they almost gave in to the landlord who would love to see them leave. As I mentioned earlier, this site is DELIBERATELY squalid. That’s because the landlord would like to raze the site to the ground and build a new Retirement Village, a growth industry right now.
So Thelma Madine and Firecracker Films have both recently moved to plush new premises – the latter opening a California office – whilst Gypsies and Travellers continue to suffer from a lack of new sites, or quality existing sites. As much as those like Thelma talk about “giving back” to the community that made her rich, she has made a programme that sets out to deliberately ridicule the young people taking part rather than dealing with the serious issues that stop these families really participating in society. In Wales alone, we have hundreds of families in need of sites.
Today, one mother spoke openly and honestly at the Cross-Party Group on Gypsies and Travellers about her disaffection from any kind of public engagement in future because “we’ve spoken at meetings like these, we’ve done all the talking but nothing ever gets done.” And she is right, the site she lives on has been earmarked for development for decades. Yet, we’re still no closer to helping these families to live somewhere that they can be sure will not severely impact on their child’s health. The site in question is in Cardiff, a stone’s throw from the National Assembly for Wales, yet when Save the Children took the United Nations Special Rapporteur to the site in 2009 she was absolutely shocked with the conditions. In the intervening three years conditions have only really deteriorated. Imagine waking up on a site where the children play just meteres away from an eroding estuary bank, directly next to a water treatment plant, opposite an iron works, and directly on top of landfill. Furthermore, to get off the site to any community facilities you’re faced by an extremely busy road but no pedestrian crossings, pavements, or street lighting. If that isn’t enough, the walk to the nearest school would require navigating through a busy industrial estate.
If you wonder why people like me are disappointed to see programmes like Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, it’s because they choose to ignore the human cost associated with social exclusion and instead decide to focus on sensational costumes or swearing on camera. I don’t doubt that Firecracker Films would say that they are producing what the public want to see but these communities are being exploited. As these film-makers continue to live in the lap of luxury, families up and down the country are dealing with mould-filled utility blocks, asbestos fly-tipping, and pollution. Nice to see these friends of these communities “giving something back.”
For more on the exploitation of Gypsies and Travellers by Firecracker Films, see here: