I’ve always been interested in young people who don’t have it easy. Some are up against overwhelming odds (think of refugee children, for instance, often terrified and living in dreadful conditions) but there are other, less obvious, groups who don’t have it easy either, who are battling against prejudice because, for whatever reason, they are seen as being different.
Many of my stories have been about children who live unconventional lives, who are ‘on the edge’ so I was delighted when I was approached by a publisher and asked to write a series of books about the lives of travelling children – how they live now and how they used to live in the past – and to interweave their lives with those of ‘ordinary’ children.
Where to begin? I knew nothing of the travelling community so I set about finding out more. There are travellers’ sites around Cambridge, where I live, and up in the East Anglian fens, so I started visiting families in their own homes and talking to them about their lives.
Everywhere I went I was made welcome and, once I explained what I was doing, the families were eager to tell me about their lives and anxious to set the record straight about some of the myths that surround their culture. They even checked the manuscripts of my books to make sure I’d not misunderstood or misinterpreted anything they’d told me. I had, of course, but they put me right!
As we spoke, they always referred to themselves as gypsies, not travellers, so that’s what I’ve called them in my stories. None of them travel as much as they did in the past as it is so much harder to stop on verges or in fields because they are constantly being moved on, but there was a time when gypsy families went round the country following the agricultural work and meeting up with friends where there was singing and dancing and eating around an open fire and a wonderful sense of freedom. They talked to me with pride about this past life, their rich heritage, their traditions – many of which are still practised – and their family loyalty.
One of the insults thrown at gypsies is that they are dirty but every van I saw was spotlessly clean and I was shown treasured possessions (such as fine china) with a real sense of pride.
Having spent weeks talking to gypsies, I then had to come up with a way of integrating the lives of gypsy and non gypsy children into a series of up-to-date stories; this wasn’t easy, but I eventually found my link. There were horses on many of the sites I visited and I knew that going to horse fairs was an important part of gypsy life so this became a way of connecting the two groups.
I invented Tess, an ordinary school girl who is pony mad and her love of horses is what brings her into contact with a gypsy family. That was my starting point for some fast moving adventures where gypsy and non gypsy children come together and help each other out in some really tense situations and, at the same time, learn a lot about each other.
Of course, gypsy life has its downside, particularly, I felt, for the girls and women. I got the impression that gypsy men still rule the roost and it isn’t easy for a girl to break with tradition. They often marry young and many don’t go on to secondary school but are home tutored and there are still gypsy girls who are only semi literate. But school is often a difficult place for them to be; they don’t feel comfortable and are subjected to bullying and name calling so, not surprisingly, they drop out, though there are notable exceptions, when gypsy girls finish their education and go on to do interesting jobs.
I learnt so much from my time with the gypsies – about their customs, their skills, their ability to make something out of nothing, their artistry and musicianship, their love of horses, their hatred of being confined, their entrepreneurship, their humour and above all, their unwavering support for those in both their close and extended families.
I’m so grateful to those gypsy families I met. We had a lot of fun together and without their openness and support, there is no way I would have felt confident enough to undertake this project. I hope I’ve done them justice.