"Hark! Hark! the dogs do bark / The beggars are coming to town" by Julia Jones

At the time of the incident the rather smart extractor fan on the
r.h. side had not been installed. There was only the rusty chimney.
Enough to place it instantly beyond the pale? 
Our son, Bertie, is very slowly converting a white LWB (long wheel base) Ford Transit van into a mobile home so that he can go travelling. He plans to go first to the Scottish highlands and islands and then explore further afield. It’s a very slow process because he has to earn the money for each new modification, and live meanwhile. We'd like to help but his challenge is to do it himself -- and anyway neither of us is mechanically skilled. The most helpful people are two of his former school friends. Bertie has always always got on well with these two lads, though he was shocked at the abuse and racial prejudice they encountered when they were all at school together.

That's because they're Travellers. At school (in Essex) they were usually described as pikeys. You could think this was a nice 18th century souvenir of life on the turnpike roads..trust me, in Essex it isn't meant like that. 

I can remember when my county had a stronger market gardening aspect to its agriculture and the Travelling families with their regular arrivals and locations had a recognised part to play in pulling leeks and harvesting sprouts, for instance. Tough monotonous jobs to be done most usually in hand-freezing winter weather. My impression was that although there was a massive cultural divide -- and 'pikey' was the standard descriptor -- yet there was some interdependence and respect. That type of farming is gone from here and even that most minimal tolerance appears to have vanished with it. When vans and caravans arrive in locations where they have possibly been camping for decades longer than many residents have lived in their houses, local community social media goes into panic mode . It makes me feel sad to see laybys, green lanes and little patches of common land surrounded by council-dug earthworks, concreted telegraph poles and padlocked metal gates to make parking impossible.

But I don't really want to speculate why our attitudes towards Travellers seem to have got shriller and meaner, I just want to share a recent happening from the on-going tale of Bertie and his van. 

A couple of Saturdays ago Bertie and one of his helpful friends went, in the van, to buy various DIY items, including fire cement and stove black to smarten up the rusty chimney protruding through the van roof from the woodburner they’d recently installed. Bertie used to have a battered little Nissan Micra to run around and do these jobs of daily life (shopping, getting to work, visiting friends) but when that failed its MOT he couldn’t afford to run two vehicles so the van is used for everything. 

Which isn't easy.  When I got my hero and his disabled mother stuck under a car park height bar  in their camper van at the beginning of The Salt Stained Book, I’m sorry to say that it was mainly a plot device. I needed something to stop them in their vagabond tracks and start my story but I really hadn’t any experience at all how hard it actually is (in Essex) to park if you drive a van like Bertie’s Transit. There is only one car park in our nearest town – Chelmsford -- that does not have a height restriction which excludes him and his van.  Why? you may ask…

Sensibly Bertie and his friend drove to an out of town retail park near Braintree, brought what they needed from B&Q, then stopped at a nearby garage to fill up with diesel. A police car was waiting there and watched them in. Followed them as they left. Within less than twenty metres from the garage on came the flashing blue lights and Bertie was ordered to pull over.

The woman police officer had two trainees with her. She breathalyzed and drugs-tested Bertie and his friend – despite the fact that she had no opportunity to see him driving dangerously or suspect he had been drinking. This was mid-morning on Saturday and all they had done, like hundreds of others, was visit B&Q to set themselves up for a productive day’s DIY.  

The drink and drugs tests were negative. Then she began to check through the van. Yes, it had valid tax, insurance and MOT (passed two months previously). No, Bertie explained he was not, yet, living in it but converting it, so had paid the higher rate of insurance appropriately. Again and again she asked whether he was living in it. Yes, he sleeps in the back sometimes when his twelve hour bar-work shift finishes in the early hours of the morning. He used to do the same in the Micra. Then he comes home here. On went the examination and interrogation until, triumphantly, the officer discovered a crack in the driver’s side wing mirror and an inoperative windscreen washer fluid pump. Shock! horror!

You would think that these non-serious faults could be dealt with by requiring Bertie to get them fixed and show that he had done so  (it’s called a ‘vehicle defect rectification notice’).  But no: the police officer demonstrated her authority to her trainees by issuing a Prohibition Notice. This fierce document is intended to be used when the vehicle presents an immediate danger to its occupants or other road users – really dodgy brakes or tyres about to blow, for instance. In the approx. 40 pages of guidance as to what justifies an Immediate Prohibition, a cracked (but still intact and usable wing mirror) and an empty washer mechanism do not feature

But that’s what Bertie got: Immediate Prohibition. He and his friend had to leave the van at once. It was impressed up on them that they could only move it to a garage for repair if they hired a low- loader – it was, apparently, too dangerous to allow it on the road. (How many of us might have failed to top up our screen wash or have a crack or two in a mirror...? Okay -- not you ... but I might have done, occasionally.) Even if these minor faults were repaired in situ still the van could only be driven directly to a pre-booked MOT appointment. It must have a complete compulsory re-test on everything that had passed only two months earlier. Otherwise it would be impounded and Bertie would possibly lose his license. Plus swinging fine etc etc.

I won’t bore you with the expensive and unnecessary procedures that followed [...] I’ll just cut to the end of the following week when Francis was sharing this tale of woe with a friend who lives in Braintree.
“I know exactly why that happened,” she said. “The Council had been told there was a group of Travellers in the area and the police had been set to keep them out of Braintree. That's why they were waiting there. They were looking for vans like that. ”

Hark, hark the dogs do bark! 

How refreshing to return to the late 1920s when Margery Allingham's brother Phil went on the road with his Gypsy friends. Send me a stamped addressed envelope and I'll send you a copy of Cheapjack in memory of more tolerant times, when the arrival of the travellers might even herald a bit of fun...


Griselda Heppel said…
A truly shocking story. So sorry for what your son and his friends went through. Buying a clapped out old vehicle and doing it up by hand is such an impressive - and perfectly respectable - thing for a young person to achieve, and this is his reward from the establishment. Compare that with my 87 year old mother falling asleep at the wheel and writing off her own car and a school bus... and the police being absolutely sweet to her, poor dear, just surrender your licence love and you’ll hear no more about it. Six months and much badgering from ‘the poor old dear’ later, she’d got her licence back, free to undergo 20 more collisions with hedges, bollards, other vehicles, walls and on one memorable occasion, a skip, before licence finally taken away again. It’s these ‘indomitable’ elderly drivers the police should be looking out for, not bullying the young.
Jan Needle said…
You've left me wordless.
julia jones said…
Thanks, both of you. I wanted to write a proper complaint but Bert not keen as feels his van will now be a marked vehicle anyway. I started to say poo poo but friendly man at garage - who was equally incensed - said B was probably right -- the way the MOT centre treated the van once it had a Prohibition order on it was an education and there's such a level of electronic surveillance on vehicles now.
Rosalie Warren said…
Very, very sad, both the way your son and his friends were treated and the prevailing attitude towards travelling people now.
Umberto Tosi said…
Sorry to hear of the appalling police treatment of your son and his friend. The incident was so wrong on so many levels. I'm not familiar with UK law, but it seems obvious that the police had no probable cause to justify their drug testing and illegal search of the van. Here in the states we call this racial profiling,unfortunately still widespread, though finally banned in cities like New York. Enough to make an American football player take a knee, but that's another story. We think of racism as an ugly part of American history - a retrovirus gone critical again thanks to Hair Hitler and his race-baiting enablers in the White House. It's pertinent to remember that racism and xenophobia are potentially fatal defects in human DNA, not uniquely American. Oh, don't get me started. Glad your son and you - and his friend - are okay.
Umberto Tosi said…
P.S. -Whatever else your instructive tale reveals, it demonstrates that your Bertie has his head screwed on very well and is a fine young man. You are right to be a proud parent. :D
julia jones said…
thanks Umberto for calling it what it is - our treatment of Travellers is racism, though most people would be shocked to hear that word. In Ireland Travellers have acheived recognition as an ethnic group, but not in England yet
Bill Kirton said…
Absurd that a young person with the skills, ideas, and energy to undertake such a project should not only encounter such a diehard jobsworth, but also be so blatantly targeted by misinformed 'public servants' with such unforgivably racist prejudices. Thank God some values (i.e. Bertie's) prevail somewhere.
Penny Dolan said…
A wretched, blundering story. That officer demonstrated a great lack of human kindness and understanding, even without the overlay of racism.

Maybe some of those younger officers could see that her vindictive approach was a sure way to alienate people and communities?

Hope that your young Bertie travels far and enjoys his Highlands and Islands journey.
Sandra Horn said…
Appalling!! Not only amounting to harrassment, but a totally shocking waste of police time and resources! Well done Bertie for keeping his cool in a shameful episode.
julia jones said…
Thank you Penny and Sandra -- that was certainly an aspect that made me cross but then, like you, I thought it quite likely that those trainee police officers wouldn't necessarily have taken this approach as gospel... at least I HOPED not

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