Cultural Crossroads: Damien Le Bas

2018-12-06T19:26:47+00:0020/11/2018|

Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here: https://idriesshahfoundation.org/cultural-crossroads/

Damien Le BasAbout Damian Le Bas

Damian Le Bas was born in 1985 into a large Gypsy family. He is a native speaker of the Romany language and read Theology at Oxford, where he graduated with the top First in his year. 

Damian is widely published as a poet, journalist and dramatist. His new book ‘The Stopping Places’  is about a year-long quest to find the old Gypsy ‘stopping places’ in the UK. It was published by Chatto & Windus in 2018. 

Damian won a Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction in 2016 and has been a midweek guest at the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre in Hebden Bridge.

The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain on Amazon.co.uk

More about Damian Le Bas: http://evewhite.co.uk/authors/damian-le-bas/

Photo credit: Charles Moriarty

Q1: Are humans as Bruce Chatwin claimed essentially restless and nomadic or is being a settler a more evolved form of living?

I see both tendencies everywhere I look. Often in the same person. I don’t think everyone is restless. Some people clearly aren’t. But most of us, at some point in our lives, feel the tug of new pastures. Given the history of our species that isn’t surprising: as Chatwin points out, the word nomad comes from the Greek for pasture; for grazing. Originally applied to the animals we kept – and, before that, the prey we tracked and followed – it applies to us as well. If our situation lacks nourishment, and we’re able to look elsewhere, then we probably will.

I also think our desire to oversimplify the matter obscures our vision. We want to see ‘nomadic’ and ‘settled’ as simple binaries: poles on a sort of cultural scale. In reality they’re more complex than that. They’re connected to so many phenomena. Shifting expediency; the crops and seasons; age, health and sickness; money; war and peace. Take Romany culture. It’s talked about as if it’s synonymous with nomadism, but many Roma groups haven’t been nomads for six, seven hundred years. Yet it’s rare to find a Romany who thinks being settled is a culturally superior state. It can be easier and more comfortable, but I shiver at the thought it’s more evolved.

Q2: In The Stopping Places you met with a great deal of friendliness from people interested in your work, though some prejudice from both settled folk and travellers. What is the most stubborn prejudice non-Gypsies have?

I find the world is full of friendliness, but yes, some prejudices are tenacious. Some of them are so old I wonder if much can be done about them. I think the idea that Gypsies should have similar characters is especially pernicious, because it’s quite nebulous and therefore hard to argue against. Some are straightforward racist smears. The myth about Gypsies stealing children persists, even though there hasn’t been a single documented instance of that in history. Other prejudices hang around because they’re harder to disentangle from the truth. Take the idea that Gypsies are thieves. Of course, some are, but usually for the same reasons as anyone else: poverty, or a lack of moral guidance in someone’s environment. Then there are the mistaken beliefs which aren’t prejudices, they’re just wrong. The idea Gypsies come from Romania is one of these. Romany comes from an old Indic word, ‘rom’, meaning man or husband. Romania comes from the Roman empire. That’s a simple mistake, like confusing Austria with Australia. Incidentally, the word Gypsy derives from Egyptian, so it’s a misnomer, and many Roma despise the word. I use it because in the Anglophone world it has an interesting history and we’ve often used it as a self-appelation.

Q3: Many people fantasise about the Gypsy life- what is it that draws non-Gypsies to it?

At times the Gypsy life has been straightforwardly glamourous. I challenge anyone to walk inside a gilded 19th century Reading wagon and not feel the desire to travel, or at least sleep, in it. More often I think it’s a belief that Gypsies escape certain hardships: oppressive routines, taxation, boredom. Here we’re on shakier ground. Gypsies were slaves in Romania for four hundred years, and entire populations were wiped out in the Holocaust. Even in peaceful times, most Romany people’s lives have been as hard as anyone else’s, and subject to strict routines of fieldwork and camp-craft. And it might surprise some people to discover that being a Gypsy cuts little ice with the tax authorities.

I can see why people are fascinated by the Romani language, which has survived against the odds for a long time. And a few people are drawn to a perceived gift of second sight, which often simply comes from having lived through many ups and downs.

Q4: Does a travelling life bring a person closer to experiences that might help one to grow spiritually?

I think it can. This feels obvious in beautiful places, near the people and animals who live there: it’s hard not to be changed by those. On the other hand, winter’s nights in glass-strewn lay-bys can educate you in a different way about what you do and don’t really need. Living on the road for a while made me feel more resilient. Humans are tougher than we sometimes think we are. But I also found that you can’t cure everything from within. A Spartan life on the road is hard. I ended up decorating my van with Indian embroideries and Bedouin horsecloths, which cheered me up and made life a bit more beautiful. All that Romany glamour of the ‘wagon-time’ – the carved scrollwork, gold leaf, long dresses and jewellery – it didn’t just spring from vanity. It was about happiness; about the maintenance of morale.