Time for another of my 20 Books of Summer and I’m feeling like I’m making some progress now I’m on Book 10!

I bought this book in July 2020 from Oxfam Books – I blogged about a lot of incomings including this here. Funny story: This was when things opened up a bit more in England, and after my friend Trudie had said she had been in a few charity shops on the high street and they were all pretty safe, with hand sanitiser and screens, and feeling bereft of my usual pastime of cruising all the many shops nearby, I decided to venture to Oxfam Books, as I know I can always find something there. I chose two other books and I wasn’t sure about this one. But wait – what should I do with it, having taken it off the shelf – having touched it?? I had heard that Waterstones had a trolley for such eventualities – no such thing here. So, readers, I bought it.

Damian Le Bas – “The Stopping Place: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain”

( 2020)

These are the stopping places, these fringes and in-between places. they are the places that nobody lives except Travellers – or nobody but those who share ancient connections with them: gamekeepers and poachers, scrap-metal men, horse-women, rangers and shepherds. They are the old nomad’s haunts of the island. Many are smashed and build over; some – magically – are more or less just as they were in centuries long past. (p. 25)

Le Bas has always felt slightly on the edge of things – a (the term is his) fully Gypsy upbringing, living on a yard with his artist parents, but with mixed heritage somewhere in living memory and being blond and blue-eyed, not looking like a classic member of his community, and often challenged for that, before and during the writing of this book. He’d taken himself off to university, too, and was in the academic sociology and Gypsy Studies community as well as his own one, a travelling man with a footwell full of books. Increasingly pulled in one direction and the other, he decided to do a tour of the “Stopping Places” – traditional points where travelling Gypsies would pull in for a night or two to a long season, some to do with fairs and celebrations, some commemorations, many just a good place to stop by the road.

Having been through long journeys in East Sussex to sell flowers at one particular pitch, he starts off with his family’s stopping places, and it’s here that he finds the most emotional connection. But as he picks up information on others, movingly from a woman at a big conference who shyly produces a list she’s written out for him, and travels from Kent to Cornwall, North Wales to Skye; he gets used to living in his Transit van, sometimes with his wife, Candis, sometimes alone, and, somewhere in the middle of his journey, moves it over from utilitarian to aesthetic, borrowing some richly decorated textiles from his mum’s collection to make it into a colourful and exciting interior.

There’s a lot of fascinating detail in the book, from an exploration of the tight and strong codes of hygiene and cleanliness (for example never using the same equipment to wash yourself and your washing up, not one known to most campers, I understand) to the similar codes of deference and hierarchy used when meeting strangers. There is also lots on the international community of Travellers / Gypsies and the differences between groups originating from different countries. Somehow, I had never grasped there were actual Travellers in the US, while I knew there were pleny of nomads as such. One thing that wasn’t really explained was what “New Travellers” are – they were mentioned a few times but not explained, and I understand who the hippies are who have eschewed permanent homes for life on the road, but not this other group.

I loved how the book was both a sociological analysis and a good piece of travel and nature writing but also the narrative of a man growing into his identity, embracing life on the move and getting used to it, getting more chilled when he’s seen as “other”. The balance was really well done. Descriptions of encounters with other people were immediate and direct and the codes needed to keep on the right side of the menace and violence that sometimes threatened were put across clearly.

In a good Book Serendipity Moment, Django Reinhardt popped up in this book and Pete Paphides’ “Broken Greek”, on the same day!

This is Book 10 in my 20 Books of Summer project.