Are we not human beings?

Gypsies: True Romanies are outraged by the Home Secretary's 'racist' comments last week, reports Yvonne Ridley

AT FIRST glance it looked like a holiday caravan site, with a variety of new saloons and four-wheel drive vehicles lined up alongside some 40 neatly parked and impressive-looking mobile homes.

It was rainswept and windy but devoid of litter and signs of life but for two mildly curious Irish wolfhounds which trotted towards the entrance.

But appearances can be deceptive. Drum Lane in Chester-le-Street, County Durham is one of the first purpose-built havens for genuine Romany travellers and has been home to one of Britain's most famous gypsy families for more than 20 years.

Parked out of sight behind the "respectable" family caravans are numerous barrel shaped, horsedrawn contraptions painted in gaudy colours with equally bright interiors.

And while most holiday parks are situated in picturesque settings, Drum Lane is sandwiched between a grim northern industrial estate and acres of open fields, hidden in a little dip out of sight of a nearby middle- class estate so as not to offend the residents, many of whom share the views of the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, regarding the alleged propensity of some travellers for crime.

Mr Straw has been reported to both the Commission for Racial Equality and to the police for describing some travellers as crooks and criminals masquerading as Romany gypsies.

His views have deeply wounded Jim Lee and his family who say racial discrimination, and views similar to those expressed by Straw, have made their lives virtually intolerable.

Mr Lee, a big strong man with Heathcliff-style hair and a deep brown olive skin, said: ''I have six children and eight grandchildren and not one parking ticket between them, never mind criminal records. We are very law-abiding. Tell me, when did you last hear of a true Romany being charged with murder or rape?

''Straw owes us an apology. He is a racist and very wrong. We've had years of abuse and now he's made it worse.''

Mr Lee, is head of the family which was forced to put down roots 22 years ago because of the pressures of modern life.

''I can't read and write and neither can my wife, but you can't get around on the roads today without a car and to get one of those you need a driving licence, and to get one of those you need to read and write.

''My children have gone to school and so do their children, but although we don't travel we don't stop becoming gypsies. Being a Romany gypsy is in your blood, it's about who you are and what you are and where you came from.

''We are law-abiding, we have our own laws as well and are all Christians. Some of our moral codes are tighter than anything Straw can produce,'' said Mr Lee, 54.

His eldest daughter Angeline, who says she has inherited the gift of fortune-telling from her great, great, grandmother Gypsy Rose Lee, said: ''We have our own language, accents, our own way of life and we bother no one. Gypsy girls don't believe in sex before marriage and when I get married it will be to another Romany to preserve our culture.

''We don't have or take any drugs and the only reason we know about them is by watching television. We are born to be gypsies, it is in our blood whether we live in caravans or castles, have millions of pounds or nothing at all. We are proud but we don't want to be on top of the world, we just want to be recognised as being part of it.

''The Home Secretary has really brought up a lot of old prejudices that we thought were only held by really ignorant people.''

Nearly 300 miles away in affluent St John's Wood, a London suburb for the better-off, Angeline's views were echoed by film director, producer and fellow Romany Caleb Botton.

He, too, is outraged by Straw's insensitive comments. ''Being a gypsy is in my blood, it is a closed society with our own language."

Mr Botton, who made a thought-provoking documentary on racism against Romanies for TV 18 months ago, added: ''We appear to be the last race of people that can be racially attacked. Straw would never dare make remarks like that about Asians, Jews or other minority groups but he thinks it is OK to have a go at gypsies.''

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
News
Stephen Hawking is reportedly taking steps to trademark his name
people
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Account Manager

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineers

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineer...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineers

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineer...

Recruitment Genius: Inside Sales Executive - Software & Hardware Automation

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This market leading hardware an...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor