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.''

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