Tuesday, 6 October 2015

UKMG Extravaganza Blog Tour: Guest Post by Rosemary Hayes

‘How do you fancy writing some books about Travellers?’ said my publisher. ‘There are lots of Travelling children in schools and we want stories which will be of interest to them. Stories about their lives.’

‘Umm. Not sure.’

‘Oh, and they should be interesting to non-travelling children, too.’

‘Even harder, then.’

I don’t usually write to commission and this seemed a really tall order. But the idea wouldn’t go away and as I thought about it, I began to see how it might work if I integrated the lives of gypsy and non gypsy children and subtly explored discrimination and misconceptions from both viewpoints, exploding a few myths along the way.

‘I’d need to do a lot of research.’

‘Go on. You’ll enjoy it!’

The Romany Museum in Spalding, Lincolnshire, seemed a good place to start and although I’d phoned to say I was coming I really had no idea what to expect. I drove through the flat Lincolnshire countryside on a golden Autumn afternoon. As I got deeper into the fens I spied some gypsy camps at the end of droves - and then there was a sign to the museum. I turned off, down a rutted track and past a scrapyard and came to a huge barn.

Gordon Boswell, the museum owner, is a gypsy. He is illiterate, as many of his generation are, but he’d obviously done very well in the scrap business and was now able to indulge his passion for collecting and restoring ‘Vardos’ the old gypsy bow topped vans.

The place was an Aladdin’s Cave, full of beautifully decorated and restored vardos, milk churns, carts and other artifacts and surrounded by old photographs of gypsy folk, cooking by their camp fires, tending their horses, singing and dancing, working in the fields and so on. The vibrancy in those photos was palpable.

Gordon spent a long time talking to me, telling me about his own background – as a youngster on the road and later as a settled traveller.

The Romany Museum, Spalding, Lincolnshire

But I needed to talk to families and get a feel for how they live now. I’m based near Cambridge and I knew there were traveller sites around the city but I couldn’t just front up and start asking questions, so I approached the head of Traveller Education at the Council and asked her to help me.

I was lucky. She and her colleagues embraced the project from the outset, immediately seeing the value of such books, and they went with me to traveller sites and took me to see settled travellers in their houses.

Without exception, everyone I interviewed (young and old) was welcoming and forthcoming. Older travellers spoke of the lives they’d led when they were young, when they could still travel freely and park on verges or on farmers’ fields and about the freedom, the fun and the hardships of travelling round the country following agricultural work. They spoke of customs surrounding birth, marriage and death and of the importance, above everything else, of family. They told me how things have changed, how the agricultural work has virtually dried up and how the vast majority of gypsies now live either on council sites or on their own land.

Inside a modern caravan

And outside

A modern day travelling family

I found out that there are distinct differences between the Roma gypsies who came to this country around 500 years ago and the Irish gypsies who arrived much later.  How ‘showmen’ gypsies have the highest social status and how the travelling community earn their living now – mostly working for family in the scrap metal business, garden maintenance, paving, tarmacking - and horse trading.

As horses were going to play a large part in my stories, I went to a gypsy horse fair to watch the men and boys showing off their horses’ paces, trotting and bareback riding up and down the streets.

At the horse fair

All the travellers I met were friendly and very proud of their rich heritage. However, it is still a largely male dominated society and there is still illiteracy, even among the younger generation – and travellers are still discriminated against both in schools and in the wider community.


So, armed with all this information and having met and spoken to many travellers, I set about writing my stories. About Tess, who is pony mad and, until she’s banned from the site by her mum, secretly visits the travellers’ horses and makes friends with some of the gypsy families. About Mike, a gypsy boy who, through no fault of his own, gets into trouble with the law, about Lizzie, his sister, who is a talented artist and dreams of getting to art college but has to leave school and mind the kids on the site. And finally, of Ben, Tess’s football mad older brother and gypsy hater who gets into all sorts of trouble until help comes from Mike, the gypsy boy he’s always despised.

The lives of all these young people are interlinked and what I hope is that these stories will play a small part in helping to break down discrimination and foster understanding between gypsy and non-gypsy ‘gorger’ children.

Huge thanks to Rosemary for taking the time to write this for Middle Grade Strikes Back. As for the UKMG Extravaganza, you can find out more about this awesome sounding event (and it's sister event, the UKYA Extravaganza) over at its Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ukyax

The blog tour continues tomorrow over at Rebecca Mascull's Tumblr blog and then on through October until its final stop on the 16th. Full details below:


  1. I loved this insight into the Travellers' way of life, thanks so much for sharing your experience, Rosemary. The books look super too.

  2. Lucky you. What a great commission. The research process must have been fascinating. Good luck with the books.

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