Britain gets first professor in Romany studies

Author: Mark Rowe

Professor Thomas Acton believes the timing of his appointment at Greenwich University is crucial, because it comes at a time of growing concern that anti-gypsy feeling, particularly in eastern Europe, is on the rise.

He said: “At the moment gypsies are taking on something of the role of the scapegoat of Jews in World War Two. There is a relentless racism, to the point where some experts think we have a pre-genocidal situation in Europe. Poor gypsies are seen as an underclass while rich ones are assumed to have made their money through crookedness.”

Prof Acton has previously run seminars and courses in Romany culture – he uses what he says is the correct spelling, “Romani” – at Greenwich, often as parts of sociology degrees, focusing on sociological issues and the history and politics of the culture and language. This year, three ethnic gypsies have completed courses in their own culture at the university.

“Educated gypsies are not alone any more,” he said. “Romany culture is becoming public because it is becoming literate, which is tremendously exciting.”

Prof Acton is keen to nail what he describes as the myths and racism that continue to plague gypsies. “They are not lazy. All the studies on crime show that gypsies commit a lower proportion than the rest of the population of Britain.”

It was anti-gypsy racism that encouraged Prof Acton to become involved in Romany issues, following his experience in anti-apartheid groups at Oxford University. He ran the first Gypsy Council caravan school at an old airfield in east London in 1967, where he was confronted with schools refusing to place gypsy children in their classes.

He says there are 110,000 gypsies in the British Isles, about half of whom are nomadic. They are broken down into four groups: Romanichals (English Gypsies), Kale (Welsh), Nachins (Scottish) and Minceir (Irish).

Their language, Romany, of which there are some 100 dialects, is spoken by five million people around the world. Prof Acton’s answerphone has a message in the most commonly spoken dialect – Kalderash – which was spoken by Romanian slave coppersmiths.

He says the language has strong links to Punjabi and the word “Romany” comes from the Sanskrit for “the people”. Many gypsies in England speak “pogardi-jib”, a mixture of English and Romany. They call non-gypsies “gorjer”.

Romanies originated from northern India, beginning a nomadic and forced migration around AD1000, setting up as traders in Iran and eastern Turkey. They reached Britain around 1500, but soon faced persecution as the concept of the nation state developed, marginalising commercial nomads who were further isolated for not belonging to the Anglican Church. Henry VIII made it a capital offence just to be a gypsy and many were hanged.

Prof Action said: “The history of the nation state is written in gypsy blood as it is written in Jewish blood. The genocide of gypsies at the time led to the ‘classic’ gypsy way of life. Living on the margins of society, running away from persecution, doing work where you can.”

Today, working gypsies in Britain are mainly employed in metalwork, a legacy from their nomadic days as blacksmiths, according to the professor. “Many rural garages and mechanics are on the sites of blacksmiths,” he said.

However, many gypsies feel forced to conform to the stereotypes society has created. “They can have a tendency to play ‘Uncle Tom’ in the way black people have,” Prof Acton said. “It’s easy to condemn, but they have families to feed. They will say to customers that they are not like typical gypsies. The trouble is the stereotypes are almost institutionalised so that gypsies come to believe it themselves.

“The racism that gypsies face today is as a result of 16th-century racism carrying on,” he continued. “It will only change when challenged. It is a rich heritage and a new nation is emerging. It’s really important.

“But there is a long way to go because there are millions of poor, illiterate Romanies out there who don’t have jobs.”

Fighting back against prejudice

CLASSROOM assistant Kay Newman said that participating in Professor Acton’s courses had taught her a great deal about her own culture, writes Mark Rowe.

“I was really surprised at the amount I learned about how widespread we are throughout Europe, the problems we encounter and the amount of prejudice we still face,” she said.

She hopes that courses such as those at Greenwich will help sweep away “the disgusting rubbish” that was said when Czech gypsies arrived at Dover. “There are undertones of prejudice, it’s not overt. But it’s great to know there are people who understand our culture,” she said.

Ms Newman, 39, has two children. “They are doing very well at grammar school, I really pushed them.” It is an experience rare for gypsy children. Ms Newman works at three schools in Greenwich serving travelling children from the Thistlebrook Travellers’ site.

She said: “Once the gypsy boys get to 13 they are considered men and should be working and the girls should be staying at home and doing housework. Gypsies are also worried their children will stay out late and go to discos.

“But it’s important for gypsies to go on to higher education because a lot of our traditional work, such as seasonal farm labour, is dying out. We have some gypsy children going into secondary school and some even doing exams, which is terrific.”

She believes gypsies should be proud of their heritage. “When I was a kid my father hid the fact we were gypsies. He had been taunted at school for being a gypsy.

“I’m English and I’m gypsy but I’m very proud of my background and I’ll tell my children all about it.”

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