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New Age Travellers: Vanloads of Uproarious Humanity

Kevin Hetherington
Cassell: London
2000
0304339776 (pb); 0304339784 (hb)
15.99 (pb)
x + 191

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New Age Travellers: vanloads of uproarious humanity is not, despite the bold and promising title, primarily a book about New Travellers - as I read it. Rather, it is a book that is seeking to locate important theoretical and conceptual debates about common sociological issues, such as identity, class, the body, consumption, space and ethnicity, in relation to somewhat dated empirical evidence from limited ethnographic work with a few groups of New Travellers in the south of England. At the conceptual level, Hetherington does make the reader think very carefully throughout the 191 pages about how such concepts might possibly 'fit' in relation to his ideas of who New Travellers might be. He talks of them as forming an 'elective identity' (p65), using 'the idea of marginality as a source of authenticity' for their 'culture' (p110). They are from the outset of the book 'blank figures' (chp 1). I find this approach problematic.

Throughout the book, Hetherington speaks of a group searching for a 'space' containing a version of 'freedom' that they may call their own; being within society but not a 'straight' part of it. This is a consistent theme: as a group they are continually presented as being in opposition to the settled majority. Hetherington spells out the sense of 'difference' and 'otherness' without acknowledging the many similarities and difficulties they share with their housed neighbours: finding work, a place to live and raising children. Likewise, perhaps out of conceptual necessity, the author often overstates the place and role of 'choice' in 'becoming' a New Traveller; you literally buy a bus and a dog, adopt a 'grotesque body' (p96) and the open road is yours for the taking. The choice is not always so free for many: evidence from a range of other studies suggests that this is a 'choice' being made from a limited range of available options (Clark, 1997; Martin, 1998; Webster and Millar, 2001). In other words, the reasons for being who and where they are in life are not as freely self-selected as Hetherington attempts to argue. Likewise, with his sociological 'gaze' fixed on Stonehenge, festivals and 'communitas' (p64), the text is blind to any noticeable discussion of issues such as on-site tensions and conflicts that occur. I was left wondering exactly why such important discussion was absent from the book: could it be that it doesn't sit comfortably beside the theory and concepts being outlined?

Much of this book, I would argue, is an exercise in playing with sociological theory and conceptual debates where New Travellers can be 'used' as suitable 'evidence'. It is essentially a rather abstract (but useful) human geography book attempting to theorise New Travellers. What it does not do, I would suggest, is tell us that much about who those people portrayed as New Travellers actually are and how they live. It says little about their circumstances, lifestyles and diverse ways of thinking and acting in a society and culture that places them below even that of the despised 'ethnic Gypsy' or the 'bogus' asylum-seeking Romani. The one exception to this is in chapter 3, 'life on the road', which does inject some degree of 'real life' into the mix. However, even here some worrying generalisations and stereotypes are offered: for example, in my decade of work I have not met any New Traveller's who talk about being part of a 'tribe' (p80) or a 'moral elect' (p64). Perhaps I just met the wrong people during my own fourteen months of fieldwork?

In the preface to this book Hetherington stresses the fact that he is not a journalist, preferring analysis over editorial comment (pviii). This is all well and good and as a sociological text this should be the case. However, by writing on this subject in an overtly esoteric fashion, and using such an abstract method of approach, the author can only hope to tell a small part of what is a very interesting and unexplored story. Hetherington's book is one small (theoretical) step towards understanding what was going on in the 1980s and 1990s - and indeed what continues to this day - in the lives of those people in Britain known as New Travellers. For the moment, the individuals interviewed by Lowe and Shaw (1993) in the early 1990s or the history as told by New Travellers themselves in the Earle et al. (1994) book are both better sources. To be sure, neither of these books is as theoretically engaging or sophisticated as Hetherington's, but at least the 'subjects' would probably recognise themselves in the text, something I'm uncertain about with New Age Travellers.

Colin Clark
University of Newcastle upon Tyne

References

CLARK. C. (1997) '"New Age" Travellers: Identity, Sedentarism and Social Security', in T. Acton (ed.) Gypsy Politics and Traveller Identity, Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

EARLE, F., DEARLING, A., WHITTLE, H., GLASSE, R. and GUBBY (1994) A Time to Travel? An introduction to Britain's Newer Travellers. Lyme Regis, Dorset: Enabler Publications.

LOWE, R. and SHAW, W. (1993) Travellers: Voices of the New Age Nomads, London: Fourth Estate.

MARTIN, G. (1998) 'Generational Differences amongst New Age Travellers', The Sociological Review, 46: 735-756.

WEBSTER, L. and Millar, J. (2001) Making a Living: Social Security, Social Exclusion and New Travellers, Bristol: The Policy Press.

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