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Terry Fletcher Meets a man who enjoyed a privileged glimpse into the lives of Yorkshire's Gypsies.
Barrie Law looks at the rows of boxes filled with photographs and says, "I only ever meant to take one film, you know". But however limited his early plans, Barrie has now almost 10,000 pictures, many of which he hs taken himself, all devoted to a single subject - the life of Britains Gypsies.
It began innocuously enough 13 years ago when Barrie, a kean amateur photographer, read of a new law banning Gypsies from camping at the roadside and decided to photograph a family of Romanies who camped regularly in the lanes around his home near York before they disappeared for ever.
"I had always had a sort of interest in Gypsies, ever since I was at school. they always looked like interesting charactors and there was something about the way they dressed and the freedom of the life they seemed to have, just sitting around the fire talking. But I kept my distance. There was something a bit spooky about them, probably because parents always warned children that the Gypsies would pinch them. It was just a saying but at that age you are not sure about it."
His first encounter was with the Smith family, presided over the self styled Sir Montague, better known as Cocker, and Elly. He was not warmly received by the Smith's, who shared most Gypsies' innate distrust of outsiders, born of years of harrassment.
"At first they were not very talkative and Elly got a cup from the kettle. I thought she was pouring herself some tea then she threw it over me and said 'clear off."
Some of those first pictures appeared in Dalesman in 1987 and was seen by a libraian from Toronto who ordered copies to create a display in the city's central library. It was the start of a major new interest.
Barrie persevered with Cocker and his family and slowly won a grudging trust which allowed him to take more photographs and slowly build up a protfolio of their unusual life travelling the country lans of Yorkshire. Bit by bit his name spread through the other Gypsy families of the north and he was able to photograph them as well.
He always makes sure he gets prints of the pictures for the people he has photographed, not that they are always appreciated: "They like the pictures but they don't hang onto them the way most people would or put them in albums. They make them a few days but then is they are short of something to light the fire that will be the end of the photograph."
"Even then it wasn't always smooth going. It never is with travellers. Sometimes things would be fine and then for no reason they would have had enough and they would throw something at me and tell me to clear off and never come back. All you can do then is to go and hope it will be all forgotten next time you see them. I can get a picture of two of the people as well. Some of the older generation are very superstitious about having their photographs taken," Said Barrie.
But as his knowledge of the Gypsies grew he began to appreciate the intricacies of their way of life and the bitter inter-family fueding that often lies beneath the surface. He also learned of the different kinds of travellers. Some, like Cocker's family stayed in their caravans all year, clinging to the old way of life, relying on their horses and their wits.
Others have given up the life on the road nd moved into houses but they still keep their bow topped wagons for special occasions like Appleby Fair. Often these were brightly coloured and ornate, some of them worth £30,000 or more.
"They still consider themselves true travelling people even though they have houses. Their wagons are very elaborately decorated but you can't keep a wagon like that if you are living outside all year. Only about 6% of them now live in wagons all year. In the sunshine in the summer with a campfire burning it looks a very nice way of life, but in the winter it can be grim. I like to see the camps along country lanes even if they are not always very tidy. Even though the Gypsies haven't taken much notice of the laws about not camping one day it will be gone forever."
"Sometimes it can be a stressful life too. I have been there when people have come to move them on. I have been with them when the police have come and told them to pack up. Then it's the police who don't want me to take pictures."
Over the years his relationship with the travellers has settled down. They are among the best buyers of his books of photographs which he and his wife, Lynda sell at fairs up and down the country, and some have even asked him to photograph the weddings of their children.
"That's a real nightmare. I'm not a wedding photographer and it does not interest me at all. To make matters worse you just can not organise Gypsies for anything, certainly not for wedding groups. That's why Appleby is as chaotic as it is."
More spectacular are the Gypsy funerals when the dead person's wagon is burned, sometimes with the body inside it. Such ceremonies are increasingly rare but were once part of the Gypsy way.
The tiny bow top wagons may differ in their decoration but the basic pattern remains the same. At the back of the parents' bed is fitted across the wagon and beneath that, closed off by cupboard doors is the children's sleeping area. The stove is always on the left hand side so that its chimney is on the off-side when the wagon is moving and so furthest away from any overhanging branches that could dislodge it.
Ironically, as the number of Gypsy families dwindles as they move into houses or lorry/hauled caravans, Barrie's photographs are being used in the travellers' schools to teach children about the lives their parents and grandparents once lived.
Barrie says: "When I started I could never have foreseen that but I am glad it all happened. It has been very interesting and I've made a lot of good friends among the travellers and I've enjoyed everything I have done."The Dalesman 1999
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