A night of broken glass

A night of broken glass


By Damian Le Bas

Last Saturday, three Roma families were evacuated from a house in the Irish city of Waterford.

The house wasn’t burning. There wasn’t a flood, or a gas leak. The social services hadn’t feared for the children’s safety following the discovery of potentially dangerous asbestos particles in the air.

The reason officers of the Gardaí (Irish police) had to come and get the families out was because following protests on Facebook, over 200 people had gathered outside, smashed all the ground floor windows of the house, and kicked in the front door.

Last Saturday.

I just spent a month with my family on an old green in the English city of York. We lived with our caravan 100 yards or so from Clifford’s Tower. The tower is a famous ancient monument, built from heavy stone in the 13th century. It didn’t always look like this. There used to be a wooden castle on the mound, until it was burned, on Saturday the 16th March, 1190. Around 150 local Jews had taken shelter inside, after an angry mob had chased them from their homes. What happened before the fire is uncertain from the records of the time, but there is evidence that most of the Jews inside the tower realized they would not be spared and, in an echo of the siege of Masada, chose suicide before the possibility of a more gruesome end. A different day, another Saturday, eight centuries- and a little bit more- ago.

 Le Bas family camped near Clifford's Tower, York, site of 1190 pogrom. © Damian Le Bas

Le Bas family camped near Clifford’s Tower, York, site of 1190 pogrom.
© Damian Le Bas

Many, perhaps most, Romani people would not have camped where we did: being so close to the site of this massacre, and in the grounds of the old castle, the place is seen by some as a mullerdi puv, a burial ground. In truth, York is an ancient city and its soil is probably full of two thousand years’ worth of skeletons. Wherever you happen to be standing, you can’t get away from the history.

Is it becoming a journalistic cliché to talk about the ‘sleeping beast’ of Europe’s anti-Semitism? I don’t know. I don’t care. Labelling something like this a ‘cliché’ is a facile means of running away from it. It’s only justifiable if you think novelty is a more important virtue than truth, and the truth is that anti-Gypsyism, or anti-Ziganism, or anti-Romism, or whatever you choose to call it, is historically tied to anti-Semitism; that both have flared up periodically since the Middle Ages, typically during times of social and economic tumult. These are old forms of racism, forged in dark times, when women were burned as witches if they didn’t drown in water. The poet Julia Davis, herself of Jewish heritage, recently described it to me as “the kraken asleep under Europe”.

Waterford. Wikipedia Commons

Waterford. Wikipedia Commons


The politics of migration, borders and race looks set to be the defining issue for many European electorates in the coming years. Given the extent of popular concern, it might not be surprising that liberal newspapers are now running front page articles with titles like “Britain’s immigration system in chaos”. Is this responsible reporting, or not? Is it simply feeding the populist right, or are these just the cold hard facts of today’s realpolitik? Are all these things inextricable? Are we making a category mistake when we treat public moral panics, and the feedback effect of media “reporting”, as separate things?

I am a member of the public, and I also work in the media. So in my own person, the media narratives and personal narratives flow closely together. As more of us spend an increased amount of our time with our minds plugged into the internet like the characters of The Matrix, is it not possible that the confluences of “personal” opinion and “media narratives” are actually getting simpler, rather than more complex? That we become more likely to regurgitate, rather than create? Vast amounts of time spent consuming images, text, views generated by others, with no corresponding time for reflection on this material. If I were Joseph Goebbels, I would be loving this.

English Romani Caravan. Wikipedia Commons

English Romani Caravan.
Wikipedia Commons

“My wife comes from Gravesend, a town on the estuary of the River Thames which in the last decade has become home to a large community of Roma people.” These are my words, but I’m putting them in quotation marks to help you- and me- to read them with greater caution. What does a sentence like this mean? I have no idea how many Roma people actually live in this town. I have no idea whether it makes sense to describe these people as a “community”. In fact, I only know two things: that Gravesend has a long-established English Romani population, and that it now has an immigrant Roma population (I know the latter because I got into a conversation with some Roma kids one night about a limousine that was parked outside their house: they skidded up on their BMXs and we spoke in Romanes). Dates, statistics, education data: I will leave those to the statisticians. So what do I actually know? Not very much at all.

Let me tell you what has changed. Until a few years ago, the only time anyone from this town had described its Roma residents to me- and even then, it was not in terms of them being Roma- was in a jewellery shop in Gravesend. I asked about some of the gold in the window, and where it had come from. “Oh, it’s the Slovakians, they like 14 carat [gold], it’s what they have in their country. So we’ve got quite a lot of it in.” I was interested- 14 carat gold is not usual in the UK. A few minutes later, a young couple came in, discussing buying some gold in the Romani language. It sticks in my memory because every time I hear our language spoken in the UK, it cheers me up. I wish it did the same for ex-government ministers.

Three years ago, a BBC programme titled “Britain’s child beggars” went out on Panorama, a documentary slot often devoted to edgy, serious current affairs issues which haven’t quite made it into open public discourse. As the programme tiptoed around the fact that some of these women in headscarves might not be Muslim, and how they’d traced the family of a girl to Romania, I remember wishing they’d just put their cards on the table and say “Aha! They’re Gypsies!” Eventually they did. The cat was getting out of the bag: it was only a matter of time before the general public realized that all of Britain’s- the international market’s, the world’s, the universe’s- problems, they were really down to the Roma.

Still from BBC Panorama Gypsy Child Beggars.

Still from BBC Panorama Gypsy Child Beggars.

Ministers and journalists were starting to cash in, but when it comes to ethno-social change, you can always bet on violent racists being way ahead of the curve. Back in 2009, in the Northern Irish capital of Belfast- 200 miles to the north of Waterford- the following text message from Loyalist members of the far-right group Combat 18 was broadcast across the country by text and email:

“Romanian gypsies beware beware

“Loyalist C18 are coming to beat you like a baiting bear

“Stay out of South Belfast and stay out of sight

“And then youse will be alright

“Get the boat and don’t come back

“There is no black in the Union Jack

“Loyalist C18 ‘whatever it takes’.”

Roma people were chased out from their homes; 110 spent time under armed police guard for fear of racist violence. A church that had sheltered some Roma families had its windows and doors smashed. Another day, another night of broken glass.

As we say in Britain, “I’ve gone off on one.” Sorry about that: it’s dangerous to give a comment slot to a Gypsy. But let me end by saying that when I started writing this, I’d only wanted to say the following: that last Saturday, three Roma families were evacuated from a house in the Irish city of Waterford. Following protests on Facebook, 200 people had gathered outside, smashed all the ground floor windows of the house, and kicked in the front door.