"gradations of the dark"
Growing up in London, gypsies were a romantic idea culled from books. There were nasty stories, like the one in The Mill on the Floss, that showed gypsies in a bad light, but I didn't like The Mill on the Floss. I tried reading George Borrow but didn't get very far. If I thought of gypsies at all, I was thrilled by the idea of life on the open road, ideally in a painted, horse-drawn caravan, far away from the imprisonment of childhood.
Later I became aware of more complicated views of gypsies or, as they are correctly known, the Roma and Sinti people. Moving briefly to the country, I found people who feared and hated them but also a farmer who respected their knowledge of the land and cultural history - he always invited them to camp on his farm. I was an outsider and the conflict didn't seem quite real to me, even when I saw an encampment beside Honeybourne Station, where I used, occasionally, to catch a train. I don't see how the camp could have troubled anyone. The station was a long way from the two villages - Church Honeybourne and Cow Honeybourne - from which it took its name. And the camp didn't seem to be near farmland. From the outside it seemed a slightly depressed camp - but then, my imagination, schooled in childhood, probably expected brightly-coloured clothes and wild dances to the sound of guitars. Instead I saw a few people living quietly and troubling no-one.
One day I took the train and the camp was gone. There were a few broken things left and these included a couple of children's toys. It looked as though the people had been moved on, violently, though I couldn't know for sure. I worried about the children who had been torn from their toys. I was beginning to understand what prejudice and hatred could do and had little hope that anything could be done. The law doesn't usually support travelling people. I mentioned what I'd seen to a teacher I knew - an outstanding teacher who worked hard against routine racism in an inner-city comprehensive. He looked embarrassed. "I have to admit I don't like gypsies. I'll do anything I can to keep one out of my class - or out of the school."
I don't know how to counter such deeply-held prejudice. Roma and Sinti people - including children - face daily hatred. I saw this again when travellers moved, briefly, into the field round the corner a couple of years ago. My nice, kind, helpful neighbours were haranguing and abusing parents while small children - local children and travellers' children - watched and learnt what hatred looks like. Local children were warned to stay out of the field and keep away from the travellers because they were dirty thieves and dangerous. That is how prejudice is taught.
Totalitarian regimes have targeted Roma and Sinti people. There's been relatively little fuss about the gypsy concentration camps in World War II. Few people know the name of Lety u Pisku in which Czech Roma families were imprisoned and many died.
Those who lived long enough were deported to Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dr Josef Mengele found the children very useful for his experiments but in 1944 orders were given for the extermination of gypsies.
The groundwork was laid before the Nazis came to power. Bavarian gypsies were subject to compulsory registration from 1926 and could be jailed for two years for the "crime" of being unemployed.
It's not surprising that the Italian government's proposal to fingerprint all Romani - including the children - has caused widespread anxiety. The poet David Morley drew attention to this in his blog, which has assembled a number of important articles. He recalls the recent death of two Roma children in the sea off an Italian beach. Someone covered their bodies with a towel but the life of the beach continued around their corpses. Games of football took place and sunbathers continued to enjoy the day. Apparently to many people dead children - dead Roma children - are so insignificant as to be invisible.
The problem doesn't just exist in Italy. I was shocked again by the number of people who took the trouble to post comments supporting the sunbathers and the Italian government in response to a Daily Mail article on the deaths of the children. The sickness in Italy also rages here.
There's a petition against the persecution of the Roma people in Italy. Euro MPs Arlene McCarthy and Michael Cashman have drawn attention to it at the European parliament. More signatures and more support would help. If you haven't already done so, you can sign HERE.
It's easy to sign a petition, especially on line. But I don't know what can be done to unpick the centuries of hatred. How can we encourage our friends and neighbours to look at gypsies and see their fellow humans?