‘How do you fancy writing some books for us?’
I was talking to Jenny Ertle, Managing Director of the educational publisher Ransom, best known for producing ‘high/low’ stories – exciting and fast paced but with text which is easily accessible to reluctant readers.
Not easy and I told her I wasn’t sure I could do it.
‘But you write exciting fiction for young adults. You are exactly the sort of author we want.’
‘Have you a subject in mind?’ I asked.
‘Travellers,’ said Jenny. ‘There are a lot of travelling children in schools who aren’t natural readers. Schools are desperate for stories which will interest them - stories about their way of life now and in the past.’
And suddenly I could see how it might work. Integrating the lives of gypsy and non gypsy children, exploring discrimination and misconceptions from both viewpoints.
‘I’d need to do a lot of research.’
‘Go on. You’ll enjoy it!’
The Romany Museum in Spalding, Lincolnshire, seemed a good place to start and the owner, Gordon Boswell, spent a long time telling me about his own background.
But I also wanted to talk to families and get a feel for how they live now. I’m based near Cambridge and I knew there were traveller sites around the city and up in the fens, but I couldn’t just front up and start asking questions, so I approached the head of Traveller Education at the Council and asked her to help me.
I was lucky. She and her colleagues embraced the project from the outset, immediately seeing the value of having such books in schools, and they went with me to traveller sites and took me to see settled travellers in their houses.
Without exception, everyone I interviewed (young and old) was welcoming and forthcoming. Older travellers spoke of the lives they’d led when they were young, when they could still travel freely and park on verges or on farmers’ fields and about the freedom, the fun and the hardships of travelling round the country following agricultural work. They spoke of customs surrounding birth, marriage and death and of the importance, above everything else, of family. They told me how things have changed, how the agricultural work has virtually dried up and how the vast majority of gypsies now live either on council sites or on their own land. And the younger ones spoke about the difficulties they faced in school.
I found out that there are distinct differences between the Roma gypsies who came to this country around 500 years ago and the Irish gypsies who arrived much later. How ‘showmen’ gypsies have the highest social status and how the travelling community earn their living now – mostly working for family in the scrap metal business, garden maintenance, paving, tarmacking - and horse trading.
As horses were going to play a large part in my stories, I went to a gypsy horse fair to watch the men and boys showing off their horses’ paces, trotting and bareback riding up and down the streets.
All the travellers I met were friendly and immensely proud of their rich heritage. However, it is still a largely male-dominated society and there is still illiteracy, even among the younger generation - and travellers are still discriminated against both in schools and in the wider community.
What I hope is that my stories will play a small part in breaking down this discrimination and fostering understanding between gypsy and non-gypsy ‘gorger’ children.
Rosemary Hayes was brought up and educated in the UK but has also lived in France, America and Australia. She has a background in publishing, with Cambridge University Press and later running her own company, Anglia Young Books.
Rosemary has written over forty books for children. Her first novel, Race Against Time, was runner-up for the Kathleen Fidler Award and since then many of her books have won, or been shortlisted for, other awards.
As well as writing for children, for many years Rosemary was a reader for a well known Author’s Advisory Service; she now runs creative writing courses for adults and workshops for both adults and children.