My parents were travellers, ‘hippies’ or even ‘crusties’ if you prefer, and in August 1964 they were part of a small convoy heading back to England from a brief spell in an encampment near Newton Stewart on the Solway Firth. My mother was pregnant with myself, although I was not expected for another two weeks, by which time my mother was urging my father to be within reach of a hospital in Carlisle. I was to be her third child and her youngest son, her eldest child had been born four years earlier, near Colchester in Essex, and her second in hospital in Liverpool during the winter of 1964. However, still some thirty miles short of the English border, and characteristically not wanting to be like my brothers, I began showing a desire to be Scottish, and I let my mother know this in no uncertain terms.
It was the early hours of the morning, and my father decided to continue for Carlisle, to where the convoy was heading to find a stie to encamp before the birth. Blissfully unaware of the situation I was putting my parents in, I did not care to wait for Carlisle, and continued to press for my debut appearance. Fearing he could not reach Carlisle in time, my father, in a pointless but proud gesture of patriotism, crossed the border into England, dashing my nationalistic hopes, and pulled off the road at the first opportunity. Believing we had engine trouble, or other worries, the rest of the convoy pulled in beside my parents’ van, and with the assistance from fellow travellers, I came kicking and screaming into this life – two weeks early, and English-born by barely a mile.
I was born on the road and continued travelling with my family and the convoy, without break, for the next ten years. We visited very corner of England and Scotland, and even made the occasional raid into Wales, a country my father avoided like a plague. My early years were dominated by travelling, and by the pungent smells and sounds of the road. From a very early age, I was able to recognise an individual animal, or even a person of the convoy, simply their unique odour and sounds. An aunt used to joke to me as a child that if I couldn’t recognise a person by smell alone, then they were not of the convoy and not to be trusted. As a small child, I took this advice very seriously, and I often blindfolded myself and ventured to make my way around the encampments by smell and hearing alone, scurrying on all fours with my snout to the ground like a hungry pig in search of food. The grown-ups loved this, and used to laugh hysterically at the sight of little podgy me banging into objects and coming upon something foul and messy, and I was urged on by their enjoyment of my playful exploits, although I did lose the occasional tooth on my sight-free adventures.
Travelling in the 60s and 70s was fun, at least for me, and I had no worries or cares in the world, short of when it was time to eat, or when it was time to fetch the freshly-laid eggs or feed the goat or any of the various other animals we had at different times during my childhood. The young children traditionally were given the responsibility of looking after the animals. Between my elder brothers, myself, and later my younger sister, the many nosiy and smelly animals were well cared for.
For much of my early life it seemed that this idyllic and peaceful lifestyle was the normal way for everyone to live. I was never aware of the hostility that many non-travellers had for us. I was sheltered by my parents and surrogate parents on the convoy from any outside interference. I was ten before I realised that children of my age went to school. School to me had been the occasional sitting in one of the vans, always when raining it seemed, being taught how to read and write. I was happy being taught in this way, by many interesting and fun people. Most of them were relatives, and if not relatives then friends, and it seemed natural and right to be taught in this way.
It came as a great and traumatic shock when I was told by my mother that I would have to go to school with children outside the convoy. On the morning I was to start school, I bawled and protested, kicked and screamed, but all to no avail. I was prepared for school, given a farewell kiss and a small box of delights for my lunch by my tearful mother, and driven off by my father. I had been told I would come home after school, but still I feared that my father would leave me at school, and convoy would pack up and move on without me. In a way it did, for my first day at school, in September 1974, was also the last day of my joyful childhood ignorance of the outside world. Nothing was the same again, no longer were the animals MY animals, no longer did I play with blissful disregard for tomorrow, and no longer did I feel such an integral and important part of the convoy.
By the time I moved onto high school, the convoy had broken up and my parents had been forced from its protective wings into the uncompromising and cold towns, never to return to life on the road. The convoy my parents had joined as a young couple in 1959 broke up under pressure to conform, its members being spread around England and led into a new way of life from which many would not be able to break away ever again.
Myself – I went back on the road after high school, until I too was forced off the road, not by the need to send children through school, but by the unmitigating prejudice and hostility from the authorities, the police and the public in general. The smells and sounds of the road were one night replaced by those of the inside of a police cell, where I had been confined for simply wishing to cross a county border. The natural odours of the convoy, its vehicles, people and animals had been overturned by the smell of stale urine and sweat. The familiar sounds of the country were replaced by the noise of frustrated and angry prisoners, with the sounds of keys clanging and unseen cars and people passing by. In that cell, that night, I decided enough was enough – that it just wasn’t worth the hassle resisting any more, and I too conformed and left the road for good.