I’m working from the café on the corner, which has become my regular spot on ‘working from home’ days. Going out in the world gets me going – there are other people around being busy. All of the boxes are ticked here – the music’s not too loud, most other people are working too (all lined up with our Macs and lattes), the Wi-Fi is stable, I know where the power points are, the chairs are upright and the desks – I mean tables – are big enough. I’m writing about nomads.
Nomads – even the word sounds romantic. I see babies bundled on backs, animals and humans wandering over the land that they belong to as much as it belongs to them. I’m thinking of the seasons dictating the rhythm of their days, their lives, their generations. The rules of the road, the wisdom of the ages, the importance of well-made, hard-wearing stuff, all of which has its function, the unbroken lines of ancestry; all of this seems quite delicious, and brilliantly defiant as modern life revolves crazily around them. Essentially, they’re quiet non-conformists.
There are still people all over the world living traditional nomadic lifestyles, although they’re decreasing all the time as economic and governmental factors make it unviable. The wandering ways of life have come about for practical reasons which form three different types: hunter-gatherer nomads who move in search of wild animals and plants; pastoral nomads who move with their animals to avoid depleting any one area; and peripatetic nomads who move among a settled society, following economic demand and serving many customers in many areas.
Clearly the first two groups come from an age of few people, large areas of land and self-governance in isolation. The third lives alongside modern life, making the non-conforming much more visible and fractious. We have our own nomads; the Gypsy and Irish Traveller communities are the most openly derided ethnic group in the UK, and often by people who’d be appalled to be called racist. It suits the settled community to see Gypsies and Travellers not as an ethnic group but as stubborn troublemakers.
I used to work for a council’s Gypsy and Traveller team and the settled population’s opposition to their proximity, or even their existence, was fierce. The council’s team, well accustomed to the opposition, dismissed it as racism not worth engaging with, but you do need to take a highly relativist view to be able to comprehend: it is a very different way to live. While many of the differences are plainly obvious (no fixed address, a close and exclusive family group), the subtle differences are somewhat mind-bending: very different understandings of land, geography, community and ownership of private property. Mobility is central, for economic reasons, social reasons and their very definition of themselves – it is life lived in linear.
We have difficulty entertaining difference, especially carried out so defiantly. We see their desire not to change an ancient way of life, but then we want to hold them to a kind of pretend authenticity. I suspect that if they went back to a picturesque wooden caravan and horse, cutting pegs or calling ‘any old iron!’, people would be rather more tolerant.
The widespread lack of education and social standing within established society makes it very difficult for these nomads to speak for themselves, even if they want to, while the lack of respect on both sides leads to animosity and prejudice and a certain amount of fulfilling of prejudices. But it’s deeper than this. The desire to become pleasant to the settled community isn’t really there either; this is not just a community being bad at their own PR, it’s a deeper, active, integral resistance to integration.