Law doesn't sit well with British nomads


Kingsdon, England -- Sharon Abbot lives in a 250-year-old stone house in this quintessentially quaint English village of narrow lanes, rose-covered cottages and hollyhocks blooming behind the garden walls. She's a New Age Traveller at a rest stop.

Travellers are people who live on the road, "somebody who leads nomadic lifestyle," says Sharon. Travellers prefer to use their first names, sometimes only their first names.

Sharon's definition includes everybody from latter-day hippie descendants of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters to itinerant farm workers to full-blooded Romanies who have a tradition of centuries of gypsy life.

Conservative politicians have called them New Age Vermin. Even Prime Minister John Major has branded them "scroungers." Travellers are the target of a whole section of his government's new Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which is set to become law this month.

Sharon has stopped, but she's not resting. She's not a very retiring person. She runs a crisis line for distressed Travellers. She campaigns vigorously against the Criminal Justice bill. She's a strong, articulate defender of her way of life.

"It's a hard way to live," she says. "You've got to have it in your heart to be able to travel."

She's 31, and she's been on the road since she was 17.

"I sold my record collection," she says. "I got 300 quid, and I'd never driven, and I bought a truck and moved my stuff in."

She's been rolling ever since. She's not only learned to drive, she can replace a clutch and repair the gear box.

"It's been great for me," she says. "It's not been easy. But it's made me the person I am today. I've got a strong mind, and I'm a strong woman. And my kids are strong -- through me."

She's come off the road to allow her daughter Elouise, 13, to go to secondary school. Elouise pretty much made the decision. She wants to be a performer and go to drama college.

Sharon also has a son, Rohan, 7, whose name was inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

He's traveling with his father, Bernard, who's working a welding job inBrighton. "I gave birth to Ro in the truck in 1987 in the winter on a Gypsy transit site in Swindon," Sharon says. "It was wonderful."

Where Tory politicians see Travellers as irresponsible spongers, Sharon sees a positive life choice.

"It's just having ambition, isn't it?" she says. "Wanting to do something with your life. You can't just sit somewhere you know you're just going to be sat for the rest of your life.

"It's being me, isn't it? It's feeling really good about yourself. Being you as a person actually making the move. Being responsible for yourself, having your own home, being a real person. Getting to know yourself. It's a really, really hard step to make for somebody who's been brought up domesticated to go out onto the road."

England as theme park

Conservatives see the Criminal Justice bill as preserving the domesticated Britain John Major would like to see prevailing 50 years from now: "The country of long shadows on country grounds, warm beer, invincible garden suburbs, dog-lovers, pool-fillers and, as George Orwell once said, old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist. Britain will remain unamendable in all essentials."

Kingsdon is one of Mr. Major's theme-park-England villages.

"It's really, really right-wing here," Sharon says. "They all vote Conservative.

"Look at me," she says. "I'm not your stereotype dreadlock, shaved-head Traveller, which was what everybody envisioned."

She actually looks like a dedicated folkie from the era when Joan Baez was young. She's wearing a plain black sweater dress over tights, an outsider classic for at least 25 years. She wears no makeup, no jewelry and no shoes inside the house, a Traveller habit.

"They wouldn't have leased this house to me if I had dreadlocks, pink and blue hair. Even if I was the same person inside, I wouldn't have got it."

Travellers and their friends see the Criminal Justice bill as a direct attack on people who don't want to live in Mr. Major's idyllic landscape, who prefer their own alternative to his invincible suburbs.

Critics call the Criminal Justice bill a serious amendment to British civil rights. Among many, many other things, the bill limits the right of silence, restricts the right of assembly, increases police powers to stop and search.

Some see the bill as a systematic clampdown on British youth in its provisions targeting Travellers, ravers, squatters, soccer supporters and "hard core" juvenile offenders. In fact, the House of Lords recently forced the government to change juvenile detention clauses deemed too draconian.

Travellers believe the bill will take away virtually all their stopping sites, keep them almost constantly moving and subject the vehicles they call their homes to instant seizure if they're deemed illegal.

"It's going to criminalize about 50,000 people," Sharon says.

That's about half the Travellers in Britain.

At a roadside Travellers' site across from a meadow about 15 miles from Kingsdon, Irene bobbles her baby, Pema, on her hip and says: "If that bill goes through, I'm going to lose my lifestyle."

She lives in a refurbished bus. She looks like she just drove in from 1972 hippiedom in a leather vest, scoop-necked black blouse, black jeans and lots of beads, rings and earrings. She's 30, and she's been on the road -- and sometimes on the waterways in a boat -- 12 years.

"It's the only way I can live," Irene says. "I've tried to live in a house. I can't do it. I get itchy feet. I like to go outside and get my wood and water.

"I don't like to turn on gas fires and electric lights and not take any responsibility for my own use of resources on the planet. I don't want to be any part of it."

Alternative to homelessness

Ten vehicles are parked on this site, including an old wooden Gypsy caravan. On this day, two women, four men, five children, at least two cats and a few cackling chickens live on the site.

"The other day, there were more women and less men," says Val, the other woman on the site. "It changes fast when people come and go."

She and Irene travel fair and festival circuits together doing a skit satirizing the Criminal Justice bill.

"The government is starting to push me to think they're not very nice people," Val says.

She's been on the road a dozen or so years, too. She's 30. She's lived in public housing: "It was horrible."

One day she just walked out.

"It was a bit like a Marie Celeste thing, the table still laid and the furniture still there," she says. "I regret leaving my Shakespeare books. That's about all."

She lives now in a converted bus as Irene does, but she and her partner, Dave, are fixing up a moving van as their home. Val has a daughter named Shiva, 10, who's not necessarily named after the Hindu goddess.

"You give them a name, don't you? Then you learn the meaning."

The Travellers' life is virtually the only alternative to homelessness for many people, she says.

"You can buy a truck for 200 pounds, make yourself a heater and you've got a a warm home, haven't you? Instead of living in a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere.

"The English parliament is trying to get through this rather nasty bill, which will make this lifestyle illegal, because they don't like us," Val says, in her rather dry way. "I'm personally not about to back down. I don't feel like a bad person at all.

"Compared to people I read about or hear about in the news, I think I'm quite a good person, on some days.

"And they live in houses!" she says. "They should be good!"

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