Tag Archives: Stef Penney

10 February 2014: Racism (also) lurks in the Woods

This post is something of a digression in that it is not directly linked to the project. But it raises issues that sadly chime all to clearly with those raised by my study of hate, violence and ‘difference’ in the early twentieth-century.

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My dog went missing for two long days and nights in a remote and wild area of Surrey. She’s back home safely now, so there is a much wanted happy ending to this difficult episode. As the shock and adrenalin subside and I’m starting to be able to reflect on events, I’m most struck by the incredible helpfulness of friends, neighbours and many total strangers who went out of their way to try find Lily – a kindness that goes against the ueber-individualistic conception of contemporary society.

Yet I’m also trying to work through a small handful of encounters with, in this instance, men who claimed that my dog would have been taken by ‘pikeys’. As it happens, I had only recently learnt this word, a prerogative term for travellers, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is chiefly used in the south east of England. A sociologist friend of mine further suggested that usage of the word is particularly prevalent around Surrey where some locals routinely express negative attitudes towards the travellers community which has settled on several sites around the county. By coincidence, I had also just finished Stef Penney’s novel The Invisible Ones (2011), a detective novel set in a small, semi-settled gypsy community in the south of England. While the story does not mention the term ‘pikey’, it nevertheless deals with prejudice against gypsies.

So it would seem that I would have a response ready when hearing this derogatory word. Yet I  was totally unprepared for encountering a racist slur as I was frantically trailing around a barely populated woodland, approaching anyone I saw for information about my dog. Then, I only managed the most feeble replies. ‘I do not want to hear this’, I remember saying to one man who, much to my annoyance, took this to mean that I was worried about the suggested ‘dognapping’. Since then, I have been telling everyone who has come to listen to the story of how I eventually found my dog near the ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to Diana, the Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 16.39.15goddess of hunting (dogs ), about the men walking in the woods whose response to my distress was to recycle age-old racist stories about gypsies who steal ‘our’ babies (which in twenty-first century mythology have transformed into our pets).

There is no closure to this part of the story. It indicates the deep-seatedness of negative stereotyping and racism and how we are often faced with it unexpectedly. And it serves as a stark reminder of the casualness by which racist thinking and language reside in the everyday.