Law doesn't sit well with British nomads

July 18, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

Kingsdon, England -- Sharon Abbot lives in a 250-year-old stone house in this quintessentially quaint English village of narrow lanes, rose-covered cottages and hollyhocks blooming behind the garden walls. She's a New Age Traveller at a rest stop.

Travellers are people who live on the road, "somebody who leads nomadic lifestyle," says Sharon. Travellers prefer to use their first names, sometimes only their first names.

Sharon's definition includes everybody from latter-day hippie descendants of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters to itinerant farm workers to full-blooded Romanies who have a tradition of centuries of gypsy life.

Conservative politicians have called them New Age Vermin. Even Prime Minister John Major has branded them "scroungers." Travellers are the target of a whole section of his government's new Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which is set to become law this month.

Sharon has stopped, but she's not resting. She's not a very retiring person. She runs a crisis line for distressed Travellers. She campaigns vigorously against the Criminal Justice bill. She's a strong, articulate defender of her way of life.

"It's a hard way to live," she says. "You've got to have it in your heart to be able to travel."

She's 31, and she's been on the road since she was 17.

"I sold my record collection," she says. "I got 300 quid, and I'd never driven, and I bought a truck and moved my stuff in."

She's been rolling ever since. She's not only learned to drive, she can replace a clutch and repair the gear box.

"It's been great for me," she says. "It's not been easy. But it's made me the person I am today. I've got a strong mind, and I'm a strong woman. And my kids are strong -- through me."

She's come off the road to allow her daughter Elouise, 13, to go to secondary school. Elouise pretty much made the decision. She wants to be a performer and go to drama college.

Sharon also has a son, Rohan, 7, whose name was inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

He's traveling with his father, Bernard, who's working a welding job inBrighton. "I gave birth to Ro in the truck in 1987 in the winter on a Gypsy transit site in Swindon," Sharon says. "It was wonderful."

Where Tory politicians see Travellers as irresponsible spongers, Sharon sees a positive life choice.

"It's just having ambition, isn't it?" she says. "Wanting to do something with your life. You can't just sit somewhere you know you're just going to be sat for the rest of your life.

"It's being me, isn't it? It's feeling really good about yourself. Being you as a person actually making the move. Being responsible for yourself, having your own home, being a real person. Getting to know yourself. It's a really, really hard step to make for somebody who's been brought up domesticated to go out onto the road."

England as theme park

Conservatives see the Criminal Justice bill as preserving the domesticated Britain John Major would like to see prevailing 50 years from now: "The country of long shadows on country grounds, warm beer, invincible garden suburbs, dog-lovers, pool-fillers and, as George Orwell once said, old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist. Britain will remain unamendable in all essentials."

Kingsdon is one of Mr. Major's theme-park-England villages.

"It's really, really right-wing here," Sharon says. "They all vote Conservative.

"Look at me," she says. "I'm not your stereotype dreadlock, shaved-head Traveller, which was what everybody envisioned."

She actually looks like a dedicated folkie from the era when Joan Baez was young. She's wearing a plain black sweater dress over tights, an outsider classic for at least 25 years. She wears no makeup, no jewelry and no shoes inside the house, a Traveller habit.

"They wouldn't have leased this house to me if I had dreadlocks, pink and blue hair. Even if I was the same person inside, I wouldn't have got it."

Travellers and their friends see the Criminal Justice bill as a direct attack on people who don't want to live in Mr. Major's idyllic landscape, who prefer their own alternative to his invincible suburbs.

Critics call the Criminal Justice bill a serious amendment to British civil rights. Among many, many other things, the bill limits the right of silence, restricts the right of assembly, increases police powers to stop and search.

Some see the bill as a systematic clampdown on British youth in its provisions targeting Travellers, ravers, squatters, soccer supporters and "hard core" juvenile offenders. In fact, the House of Lords recently forced the government to change juvenile detention clauses deemed too draconian.

Travellers believe the bill will take away virtually all their stopping sites, keep them almost constantly moving and subject the vehicles they call their homes to instant seizure if they're deemed illegal.

"It's going to criminalize about 50,000 people," Sharon says.

That's about half the Travellers in Britain.

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