Fringe Box



Dragon Interview: Hilda Brazil – Gypsy & Traveller Representative

Published on: 7 Jul, 2017
Updated on: 13 Jul, 2017

When was the last time you spoke to a Gypsy or a Traveller (there is a difference, read on…)?

Often we only become aware of  Gypsies and Travellers when they pitch somewhere not designated for them but they are always a part of our community, even if they seem invisible or we choose not to engage with them.

Chris Dick, who writes the Effingham Eye column, decided to find out more by interviewing a Gypsy representative who lives in the village.

In 2011 Hilda Brazil had become the first Gypsy to be a parish councillor in Surrey. But Hilda, herself a Romani (or Roma) Gypsy, has been a GRT (Gypsy/ Roma/ Traveller) liaison officer within Surrey County Council’s (SCC) Family Support Service for 17 years. Her role there is to reduce re-offending by young Gypsies and Travellers which requires working closely with the Probation Service.

Before those roles, Hilda had taken an active role in the Surrey Gypsy Traveller Forum of which she is a current co-chairman.

Some of the experiences recounted are sensitive, recounting offensive attitudes, particularly those relating to schools. It is not intended to reflect the current attitudes that exist at these schools, or elsewhere, but they are Hilda’s recollections of that time.

How long have you lived in Effingham and what do you like most about living here?

I was born in Epsom and have lived in Effingham over 50 years. Most of all I like living on Home Farm as it is out of the village in a beauty spot with the woods behind. It’s a bit like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. My dad passed the property on to our family. He used to own most of the land nearby when they were orchards.

A Mr Ball, who had a small grocery shop in Calvert Road on Home Farm, which the council tried to close down, owned our plot. My mother agreed to sign the council petition to close him down but instead, she tore it up into a million pieces. At the time Mr Ball was very elderly man and because my mother was, in his view, a “straightforward person” he offered the land to my father at a much reduced cost … about £300, which was still a lot of money 50 years ago.

You were a Effingham parish councillor for many years why did you decide to give that up?

I was a parish councillor for four years. I gave it up because in principle it had been a good idea but in practice it did not bring our communities any closer. I invited councillors up to my home and took them around Home Farm. But if there was ever anything that needed to be delivered it was always me that walked the leaflets round. The councillors weren’t talking to anyone else. So we don’t often see councillors up on Home Farm apart from James Nicholls obviously as he works there. Actually it was James, a parish councillor himself, who introduced me to the parish council.

Tell us a bit about your role as a guest speaker for Surrey Police Training courses.

The police run diversity training courses based on our GRT training packages put together by *Jake Bowers a Gypsy who’s also a journalist. These courses are now available to different public bodies. I train many councillors and mixed agencies – including the police. It’s part of the forum work now. We go anywhere these type of courses are needed.

What do you aim to achieve in these courses and what sort of feedback have you received?

To help promote the best police force we can have. I pay for this service and want to be treated accordingly. I don’t want to be in a position where I have to be arrested to talk to a police officer. I once heard a little Gypsy girl aged five say, “Have we any police for ourselves?” She didn’t believe that the police were there for her because she only ever saw them at an eviction.

So whatever anyone’s views are about a Gypsy eviction it is the saddest statement that a little kid felt that those officers were not for her but that is so wrong because they should be. If she was in danger in the future or needed them she needs to be reassured that she can go to them. So I just want to promote the best service for me just as if it was the National Health or I was going into hospital. If I go to the police I want the best service. I want to be able to walk around Effingham, London or anywhere and know that those police officers are there for that little girl and me.

What are the reactions from the police to these courses?

I remember when I first did my job 17 years ago I went into one nameless police station and it was the days when there were station sergeants on the desk. I recall going in with a police officer and the sergeant said to him, “Why have you brought that pikey in here?” But the police officer I was with at the time wouldn’t stand for it. He went back at the sergeant. But as disappointing as that was there has always been a bit of a love-hate relationship between the GRT communities and police.

Anyway after getting over the initial shock of that, and because I am an optimist, I reported the incident to the head of the SCC Youth Offending Team and he asked what I wanted to achieve from the incident. I thought the sergeant owed me an apology, which I got.

Anyway the sergeant and I then started chatting and I asked him why he thought that about me. Well he started talking to me as a normal human being and it opened up an opportunity because I knew deep down inside that he was only saying something I already felt. We do have that love-hate relationship but then we were able to start talking and the training courses literally came about as a result.

What is the Gypsy Traveller Forum?

The Gypsy Traveller Forum was formed in 1997 by Linda Goodman. She was a local school teacher and met some Gypsy ladies who had two disabled children. Linda noticed that they were not getting any help with their education. She tried to help them but found all the red tape very frustrating. So then Linda encouraged us to get together and be more active.

We invited local bodies; midwives, other schools teachers, the mayor as well as the good-and-the-great. Princess Anne opened the event at the Bridge Hotel in Reigate – the forum evolved from that first meeting. We now have management meetings and subgroup meetings. There are four meetings a year when Gypsies and Travellers can come together to discuss the problems they may or may not be having.

From the beginning we always have it so that there are two joint chairmen; one Gypsy/ Traveller and one non-Gypsy/ Traveller. It would be pointless to have just Gypsies moaning as we need to go forward and bring out solutions. We take matters to our MPs and get invited up to the Houses of Parliament for various meetings. It’s not that we are anything special but things do seem to get quietly resolved.

What did you find is the most challenging aspect of working with the non-Gypsy Traveller community?

This falls into two parts. Firstly the most challenging thing is the stuff I learn about myself. You become hardened to what people think about you and I can handle that but in reality, I have or at least had as many prejudices against non-Gypsy/ Travellers as they had against me.

Secondly it is a challenge to keep the continuity going for the next generation of young Gypsy children – to try and get them interested in the forum. It has got to be a passion.

What is the difference between Gypsies and Travellers?

You can’t become a Gypsy… and who would want to become one anyway with all the prejudice against them. You have to be born a Gypsy. They originated from northern India back in the 15th century. Why they left India nobody knows; perhaps they travelled with the armies as metalsmiths. We know that they are a separate race from linguistics research.

So you cannot marry a Gypsy and by doing so become a Gypsy. It’s just like a white woman cannot marry a black man and become a black woman. On the other hand, a Traveller is just that, anyone can be a Traveller.

The Irish Travellers have only just got recognised as Travellers in England and gained the same rights in law as Gypsies. But we do not see each other as equals. We are not the same and, as I said, you have to be born a Gypsy. The pure Gypsy is the Roma Gypsy from India that has come up through Eastern Europe. That said they have been diluted somewhat by marriage outside the Gypsy community.

Usually a non-Gypsy woman will follow the life of her Gypsy husband and their kids will be mixed, just like any other mixed relationships. Unfortunately, it does cause divisions within our community. Whilst we should celebrate our differences many families are embarrassed by being associated with Gypsies through marriage. It’s a bit like the fifties when there were mixed marriages.

You once mentioned that a senior politician thought Gypsies could stop being Gypsies by staying in one place. What do you say to comments like that?

Because of the lack of [Gypsy/ Traveller] site provisions politicians passed a law to do with planning. In effect it meant that Gypsies would not be classed as Gypsies if they did not regularly travel. The new law had to be enforced by local authorities. It was very upsetting.

You can’t tell a black man he is not a black man any more than you can tell a Christian he is not a Christian because he doesn’t go to church. You can’t say you’re not a Muslim because you don’t go to a mosque. You can’t tell a Chinese man you’re not Chinese because you don’t live in China. It was just ridiculous but it was only ever to do with planning and provision of sites.

You have mentioned that pubs and private taxi companies do not always treat the GRT fairly?  How might this be improved?

People need to understand their community. I can’t say that because one man is a pig that all men are pigs. I can’t say every woman is a loose woman because one woman is a loose woman.

What we have to do is put this into perspective. If someone is rude or does not pay for something then that is down to that individual. We have a process in work for dealing with that. It’s not about judging a whole community. You can’t say no Indian can come into the pub or village store. You cannot pick out whole communities and bar them. They [pub landlords] are not a law to themselves. Nor is there a different law for Gypsies or anyone else, if the law is used properly it will work.

So if, there was a repeat of a local incident where a Traveller was barred by a pub, even though he had nothing to with a previous fracas, is there an appetite to take this matter to the police, as a case of racial discrimination?

What happened was illegal. But we must remember that even in my times there used to be signs up that said: “No Blacks, No Irish and No Gypsies”. So we have become more aware of this and I think it is time that the local police took action.

No pub can run without the cooperation of the police endorsing their licence. So I think there needs to be an opportunity for some pub landlords to come along to some of our diversity training courses and for the police to say to them that this [barring] was illegal.

Those signs were illegal but of course they [the pub landlords] can bar individuals as if it’s their God given right. These are public places where other people’s health and safety must be incorporated. Just because you have an uncle or a brother that has caused trouble that is not you as well, it is not your whole community.

Can you tell us a little about your experiences at school?

My experiences at St Lawrence School in Effingham were great. The lessons were fine and the lunches were great. Then we went to The Dawnay School, in Bookham, as our middle school. Nowadays you would go directly to Howard of Effingham.

We did get a lot of prejudice at The Dawnay. St Lawrence had been a little village school where everyone knew everybody. But when we got to Bookham it got very racist and my father had to take us out of school.

There was a very good headmaster at the time and he just wasn’t having it. He dealt with it in assembly. All the pupils had to write to my sister and say sorry with a little picture. We received so many letters so we went back to school. It was ok but perhaps it was a bit of a love-hate relationship but we carried on. All the children were awful then but I was becoming a teenager and so I was awful too.

Then we went to the Howard of Effingham school and straightaway all six Gypsy children were put in a remedial class. My cousin and I were made to sit facing the window whilst the others faced the blackboard.  Then we went to various classes and sometimes we were not given any books, unlike the other kids. We were able to write stuff down but then a lot of the time it was binned. I left at the age of 14. Nobody appeared to notice, nobody visited, nor did they try to find us or ask any questions.

It was a shame as there had been Gypsies that had been before me like Ann Wilson [a Romani Gypsy and secretary to the Surrey Gypsy Traveller Communities Forum who was awarded an MBE for services to the gypsy community] who came out with nine O-levels.

I was never in trouble or up before the headmaster but I wasn’t much of an achiever. No learning difficulties were ever identified. Nowadays they would probably have realised that I was dyslexic.

If Ann went through her schooling without suffering from prejudice why do you think you had such a different experience?

Ann had been six or seven years before me so there had been a change of teachers and perhaps a change in attitudes towards the GRT community at that time. The school had grown by then. It seemed as though there were millions of children and the school was so vast. You never had the continuity of one teacher. You went to different parts of the school for every lesson. You were never settled. And remedial children, or children that were considered to need remedial teaching, were not given much help.

I probably needed remedial support as I saw letters back to front and nobody ever questioned that. To be fair to the education system did not know much about dyslexia themselves in those days. So if you didn’t get it first time you clearly weren’t going to learn.

It’s interesting as Ann’s daughter went to the Howard and hated it. Ann went to the headmaster and he said that the reason why her daughter was not progressing was because she was a “low intelligence Gypsy”. We wouldn’t accept that and so we took the matter further and got her “Statemented” [as requiring special needs].

After that Linda Goodman, who was a real teacher and an educational pioneer, took Annie and three other Gypsy children in a separate class once a week in the Lodge at Leatherhead. Later on they went to a special school and achieved better results and completed the full syllabus.

What would you like to say at the close of this interview?

We should celebrate that we are all part of the same human race, all men and women and families. We must all get over ourselves in order to make this world a different place if not better.

*Jake Bowers is one of Britain’s very few Romani journalists. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, The Independent, BBC Radio and Television, the Big Issue, Travellers Times and the Ecologist on environmental and minority rights issues. He trained as a staff journalist with one of Britain’s biggest regional publishers Johnson Publishing.


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Responses to Dragon Interview: Hilda Brazil – Gypsy & Traveller Representative

  1. D Bath Reply

    March 28, 2018 at 1:55 pm

    Poor interview and clearly edited to be politically correct.

    • Liz Hogger Reply

      March 28, 2018 at 7:09 pm

      D Bath has provided a perfect example of the prejudice our Gypsy community faces, as is well illustrated by this interview.

      I have a huge respect for Hilda Brazil’s work on behalf of the Gypsy and Traveller community both locally at Home Farm in Effingham and nationally. I can personally vouch for the accuracy of this interview, having been privileged to know Ms Brazil for many years.

      Liz Hogger is the Lib Dem borough councillor for Effingham

    • John Perkins Reply

      March 29, 2018 at 12:29 am

      Nonsense. It’s not “politically correct” just because the viewpoint is that of a minority group.

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