The Stopping Places manages a near-perfect balance of the personal and politicalby Morgan Meaker / July 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
When Damian Le Bas is asked to dance by an older gypsy woman, he reads it as a test: she’s asking him to prove his authentic Gypsy credentials. Throughout his life, people have doubted Le Bas’s Romany heritage. At the beginning of his memoir The Stopping Places, he describes his own pale skin and blue eyes as if they were a betrayal of his roots.
This, his first book, is a delicate description of a life split between two identities. As a child, he toured southern England, selling flowers in Petersfield, listening to stories of horses and bar brawls. As he gets older, he wins a scholarship to a boarding school, then on to Oxford. The tension this creates between him and his wider family comes to life in a painful exchange with a cousin who mimics his new, clipped accent.
The book follows Le Bas as he tries to understand his Romany identity by tracing the old stopping places where gypsies and travellers would stay. There are subtle parallels between his own nostalgia for “the old road” and his community’s “grip on their culture,” when integration and hostile attitudes have forced change on their traditions.
He introduces Nan—who has been “settled” for 70 years—yet her gypsy identity is still strong enough to draw the lines between them and us, to recognise a “true traveller.”
The writing meanders through the British and French countryside, following Le Bas’s journey in a transit van, through Morrisons’ car parks and Cornish lay-bys; enduring cold nights and a hostile farmer. Le Bas has a cinematic writing style that shifts between images, memory and history.
He deftly traces the origins of his people, the language and persecutions as well as modern British hypocrisies. Le Bas quotes one friend: “There are 80,000 members of the caravan club, but I’m not allowed to travel?”
This is a thoroughly enjoyable read that manages a near-perfect balance of the personal and political.
The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain by Damian Le Bas (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)