The Stopping Places

by Damian le Bas, Chatto and Windus, 320pp, £15

Where have they all gone? Well might you ask. There was a time when the Gypsies were a permanent feature of our landscape and a staple of our literature. Think of the remarkable figure of Meg Merrilies in Sir Walter Scott’s wonderful tale Guy Mannering or the Gypsies who frighten Harriet in Jane Austen’s Emma.

Or the various Gypsy folk who regularly feature in the works of 20th-century authors as different as Iris Murdoch and Enid Blyton. It is decades since I have read Blyton, or pored over her illustrations, but the pictures of those horse-drawn caravans and the look of the Gypsies she wrote about linger in the mind. But now, in modern Britain, Gypsies and Travellers are hardly visible; though, as this interesting book makes clear, they have not gone away, even if they have changed a great deal.

For the casual traveller in the Balkans, in Romania and Bulgaria, it is a shock to find the Gypsies are still very much in evidence, in large numbers, and as a visible (and sometimes unpopular) minority. They have their own language – Damian Le Bas, a British Gypsy, can make himself understood in Romania, and when he engages with the central European Roma he meets in Britain. It is this language that tells us that the Gypsies are nomads whose origins lie in northern India, and who first came to Europe at the end of the first millennium, reaching Britain some 400 years later.

The Gypsies first appear in the historical record in Scotland, in 1505, when King James IV made them a loan of £7 – one of the more surprising facts that this book reveals. They were described as “Egyptians” because of their dark skin, a feature that some British Travellers still have, and which is common in the Balkans too. Le Bas, by contrast, is fair-haired and blue-eyed, something that makes him an object of suspicion from time to time in this very close-knit, introspective community.

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