PETER FROST visits the great Appleby Horse Fair to find out why a particularly pernicious form of racism remains acceptable to many who should know better.
This week the little town of Appleby-in-Westmoreland, Cumbria, will come alive for the biggest and most colourful Gypsy horse fair anywhere in Europe.
Thousands of travellers are here to take part in the fair established by King James II royal charter in 1685.
Gypsies and other travelling folk from all over the world come to the fair to meet old friends and family, to enjoy traditional music and folklore, to buy and sell horses and to do a bit of match-making for daughters and sons.
It isn’t hard either to find someone willing to read your palm or consult the tea leaves or look into a crystal ball as many at Appleby claim to be skilled in the ancient Gypsy art of dukkery — the telling of fortunes.
There is a huge encampment on Fair Hill outside the town with many elaborately carved horse-drawn living vans, or vardos, rubbing shoulders with expensive luxury touring caravans from the biggest luxury German manufacturers.
There are market stalls where you can find a Royal Doulton dinner service for thousands of pounds or buy all the wheels, shafts and tack you need to repair your barrel-topped horsedrawn caravan or even build a new one.
A mobile farrier, with his hearth and bellows is busy fitting horses with red-hot horseshoes in the time-honoured fashion. The sight and smell of this ancient country craft hasn’t changed in centuries.
Simple horse-drawn hooped caravans and flat carts move slowly along the hilly roads as you approach Appleby before and after the fair.
There will be a sulky race or two — a sulky is the lightweight single horse vehicle used for racing.
Some races are official on the local track, some in and out of the traffic on the public highway — no wonder they call it the mad mile. Betting is always heavy.
Much of the horse trading, traditionally sealed with just a spit and a slap of the hand, happens in the early morning as the horses are washed and shown off in the waters of the River Eden that runs through the town.
Thousands of horses, many brought over from Ireland, find temporary grazing in the hills and farms around the town.
The young bare-chested men who exercise the horses in the river seem just as interested in finding a partner as in the horse flesh.
So do the young women who get soaked plunging the horses into the waist-deep water. Many a Gypsy marriage is arranged among the horses on the banks of the Eden.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 travellers and at least another 30,000 spectators arrive in the small town for the fair so it isn’t surprising that there is always some friction, alcohol-fuelled disputes that sometime turn violent.
After the fair the litter, the public toilets and the ground conditions were much as we see at huge festivals like Glastonbury but here at Appleby it can always be blamed on “dirty Gypsies.”
Because it is a Gypsy fair there is a lot of racism in the criticism of the event. Indeed in 1965 Westmoreland Borough Council attempted to ban the event, but a huge outcry forced it to back down.
Sadly, even today, racism against Gypsies is acceptable among some people who would never think of making the same remarks about any other ethnic group.
Some try to mitigate their racism by phrases like: “I have no problem with real Romany Gypsies, it’s the Irish Travellers, tinkers or diddycoys, I don’t like.”
A favourite term is pikey although those that use it would choke on the word Nigger or Paki — all made worse by the recent tolerance of the “name” by Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC.
In March the BBC Trust cleared Clarkson of racism and its editorial standards committee concluded the word had been used to mean “cheap,” rather than as a term of racist or ethnic abuse.
A spokesman for the Traveller movement begged to differ, saying they were horrified by the BBC’s green-lighting of the use of the clearly racist term.
Events at Dale Farm Traveller site in Essex where the local council spent £15 million on evicting 300 Gypsies from their own land didn’t help.
Sadly, Travellers are marginalised and reviled in today’s society just as they have been for centuries. It is sure to get worse with a Tory government and Ukip councillors.
Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy documentaries haven’t helped. We can all have a good laugh at this exaggerated exotic image of their lives played up for the cameras.
Yes it’s true that some Gypsies leave rubbish by the side of the road. So do unscrupulous fly-tipping non-Gypsy haulage contractors.
Yes it’s true that not all Gypsies are 100 per cent honest. I believe you can say exactly the same about British bankers.
Racism happens when you extrapolate the behaviour of some to a characteristic of an entire ethnic group.
The truth is, of course, that Gypsies are a distinct group. They don’t always conform to the ways others do things and that is exactly the reason that events like the Appleby Fair are such an exciting and interesting part of the rich melting pot of a country in which we live.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 5 June 2015.