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University of Hertfordshire
Nomads Under the Westway
Irish Travellers, Gypsies and other traders in West London
Edition: 1st
Format: Paperback
Author: Christopher Griffin
ISBN: 978 1902806549
Publishers: University of Hertfordshire
Price: £14.99
Publication Date: 2008
 
Publisher's Title Information

 
As warden of the Westway site, social anthropologist Dr Christopher Griffin had a rare opportunity to immerse himself in Traveller culture. A proponent of humane, experiential ethnography, he observed and listened to the Gypsies at the site as he carried out his duties as caretaker. Lasting friendships were established which deepened his knowledge of Gypsy society.
This scholarly yet personal account combines social anthropology with the direct experience as site warden of the Gypsy encampment under London's Westway. Reflexive and partly autobiographical, Nomads under the Westway is a history of West London's Gypsies and Travellers set in a broader context of immigration and race relations.
 
Themes include the idea of London's "foreignness" to the author as the child of Irish parents, and again when he returns from many years abroad; also the Irish in England more generally; and how the "wheeler-dealer" culture forms an integral part of the metropolitan economy.
Ambitious in scope, the book undertakes both a long historical view (going as far back as 1800) and a detailed survey of cultural practice amongst Travellers and Gypsies today.


The Author
 
Christopher Griffin is a Lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia. Born in London to Irish parents, he gained his doctorate in Social Anthropology at Sussex University and spent seven years in Fiji at the University of the South Pacific. Between 1984 and 1987 he was warden of the Westway permanent caravan site for Gypsies and Travellers in West London.
 

Taken from the Preface
 
I first became involved with Irish Travellers and Gypsies over twenty years ago, when I began work as warden of the Westway Travellers Site, in Notting Dale, west London, close to Shepherds Bush. At the time there was nothing like the volume of literature, conferences or activism surrounding Gypsies and Travellers that exists now, which is by no means to suggest that there was none. Nevertheless, the dearth of reliable writing on Irish Travellers, particularly in Britain, was one reason why I took the job and put in two years' work there.
 
A full explanation of why I chose to work on the Westway, both as warden and anthropologist, is provided in Chapter 1. Suffice it to say, here, that the reasons were as much personal (in the sense of psychological) as they were professional (in the sense of career-orientated). That is to say, they were as much tied to questions of my identity as one of the second-generation, post-war 'Irish', and linked with the 'kind of chronic rootlessness' that Lévi-Strauss (1976, 67) once commonly associated with anthropologists, as they were to any academic, professional, pragmatic or ideological issue. The reader is warned, therefore, that this book is more autobiographical than most other ethnographic studies. It eschews the notion of clinical detachment, but at the same time does not recoil from the idea of objectivity. Instead, it adopts the kind of framework that Professor David Pocock (1977) called 'personal anthropology', a modus operandi akin to what has since been dubbed 'auto-ethnography'.
 
Chapters 1 draws shamelessly on what it meant to me on a personal level to grow up 'hybrid', as one of the 'English-Irish' or second-generation 'London Irish', for whom stigma was part of ethnic identity. At the same time I step outside that subjectivity to see west London, and two districts of it in particular, with as much anthropological detachment or objectivity as possible. One, North Kensington and north Hammersmith, is where the Westway Traveller Site is located, and is the subject of Chapters 3 and 4. The other district, Barnes and Mortlake (here abbreviated to 'Mortlake', in accordance with ancient tradition) is where I lived while working at the site and where I grew up before I had even heard of 'anthropology' (see Chapter 5). Chapters 8, 9, and 10 deal as objectively as possible, and in detail, with the site itself.
 
Because ethnography is essentially a detailed description of a socio-cultural situation or setting, the analysis contained is usually firmly embedded within it. Furthermore, because I seek as wide an audience as possible, and not just an academic one, what theory I have used to select, shape, and interpret all that I have seen and heard is unobtrusive; at least, as unobtrusive, I hope, as a tourist's travel guide. In other words, having borrowed other people's ideas about what and how to see when 'travelling' sociologically, or how to interpret things afterwards, and found them useful, I pass them on to you without undue insistence.
 
One reason for going into the details of two districts, one north of the Thames, the other south, where Travellers, Gypsies and other people interact, is to deepen our understanding of the social fabric of suburbs; those residential areas situated betwixt countryside and city-centre whose wealth and statuses vary greatly with location and with time. With a view to seeing Irish Travellers and Gypsies in historical and geo-spatial contexts I have therefore incorporated the work of historians, including little-known local historians, and leant on novelists and biographers whose neo-realism has opened my eyes to the wonder of the western suburbs, which I was only half-aware of (and felt more than a little dejected about) when as a young man I decided to escape by getting into social anthropology, only to return there eventually.

Review

Dr Christopher Griffin was warden of the Westway Site - a permanent caravan site for Gypsies and Travellers between 1984 and 1987 - and this book arises from that experience. The author has Irish links, and also spent time in Fiji after completing his doctorate in anthropology. On returning to London, he worked on the Westway Site for three years in West London, before going to Australia to work at Perth University. The author describes the route that brought him to the site in 1984 in the opening chapter.

In the next chapter we chart the history of the Irish settlement in Britain, as far back as the Irish raids on Wales and the West Country in Roman and pre-Roman times, and the settlement of Irish monks in northern and south-western England in the sixth century. In the eighteenth century, Ireland's population was among the fastest growing in Europe, growing 172% between 1779 and 1814, but in 1845 “potato blight triggered the greatest natural catastrophe in Europe since the Black Death.” The population decreased by at least 25%, and tens of thousands streamed to Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and London. The blight recurred in 1848, 1852 and 1879. Between 1852 and 1910 five million emigrated , a fifth of these coming to Britain.

Gypsies and Travellers continued to come to Britain throughout the twentieth century, and some served in the army in both World Wars, and more came to work on the motorways in the 1970's and 1980's. By 1984 Hammersmith and Fulham was London's second largest Irish borough.

A history of North Kensington between 1800 and 1900 is outlined in Chapter 3, including the arrival of Romanies in the area in the last years of the nineteenth century, and this is continued in the next chapter, which covers 1900 to 1987 and incorporates Hammersmith and the Westway Site, and the author's own journey in 1984.

Next, the author catalogues the history of Mortlake and Travellers in that area of London - it's here that the inspiration and locations for Steptoe and Son were to be found. He then examines his own motives for working at Westway - his personal experience of growing up in post-war London and the meaning of Irish identity for immigrants; the ambivalence of that identity; and being an outsider himself in the matter of Irish and English identities. He was employed by the Housing Department, and resolved to examine the history of the site; to be clear from the beginning with the Travellers and Gypsies about his work as an anthropologist; and to treat every one as an individual without prejudgement. The site continued after the author left in 1987, and he returned twice in the 1990's and in 2004.

The latter part of the book examines the question “why is it that a people as committed to family values and the free-market - Irish Travellers - are the subject of so much vitriol from conservative liberals who extol the same principles ?” Chapter 7 tackles this from the view-point of ecology, economy and habitat, and concludes that Travellers take opportunities for marginal returns, and uphold virtues and values that hostile society claims to hold dear.

The following chapter explores the networks that exist in the wider context of the Irish in Britain, and the patterns of work that the author discovered. Traveller society is patriarchal, and the concept of 'respectable' is a key virtue in all that is done. The nuclear family is the core unit, followed by the extended family and wider kindred, and a great value is placed on marriage and children, because they hold families together, and prolong their existence to the next generation. The author also identifies a whole system of 'inside' and 'outside' in Traveller society, which frowns on marriages out of the network, and arranged marriages often took place. Formal education is another area explored by the author, and how it colours wider society's views of Travellers. Parents only saw the need for basic numeracy and literacy, and boys usually left school at 13 or 14, although he acknowledges that these patterns may have changed since his time at Westway.

T M Nowell 24.1.2009

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