13th October, 2018
Durham Town Hall, Burlison Gallery
Review by Rhiannon Morris
Damian Le Bas’s new book The Stopping Places is a fascinating and refreshing exploration of the culture, traditions and geography of the traveller community in Britain. Hailing from a family of Romany heritage, but living a more settled and domestic life, Le Bas talked about his own sense of isolation from his family, as well as expressing a deep pride for Romany history and culture.
He discussed the conflict of living between worlds, learning as a child about the ancient and tight-knit community he belonged to. Many people will identify with this feeling of being an outsider where they were born, and where they go in life.
It is an even more important discussion for the traveller community, who have been persecuted and outcast for generations, and who continue to face prejudice today. This is my first encounter with a perspective on Gypsy culture which has been so carefully educational, honest, and tender. Le Bas, who studied theology at Oxford, is far from the stereotype of a traveller. The path of education (as he made clear he had felt with acute difficulty) is a hard one to justify to traditional travellers. Yet he spoke of the difficulties and joys with equanimity, and considered each question put to him. He was not officious in his sense of identity, nor did he demonstrate overt anger at the degrading manner with which the traveller community are often treated. His account was intensely personal and focused on an erudite perspective of the history of the Romany people which most people would be quick to dismiss.
For example, he spoke about his interest in etymology and explained the development of the term Gypsy, as well as reading vivid accounts of attending Gypsy fairs and trading wares in markets. His descriptive detail reads like an immersive novel, and the nomadic lifestyle was presented beautifully. Place was given the personality and significance of a character in a novel. For the first time I felt I had an insight into Gypsy culture devoid of prejudicial rumour.
I am so glad Le Bas took the time to provide a careful and informed account of a minority group who do not often have their voice heard. It comes at a time when tolerance is scarce, and prejudice used as a political tool. It has never been more necessary. I would encourage all to pick up a copy so that they may have their mind opened, and learn a side of British society and geography that is rarely explored.
Part biography, part travel book, with elements of literary prose, The Stopping Places is a wonderful narrative experience of an old and existing world, and one individual’s search to unite both worlds: origin and place, heritage and self.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.