I am a social historian, based at the University of East Anglia, where I research and write on different aspects of the relationship between minorities and wider society. My interest is not only on the groups which are the focus of my research – Gypsies and Travellers, refugees, ‘problem families’, ‘the poor’, and migrants – but on how the responses of the state and society reveals as much, if not more, about the mainstream as it does about the groups concerned. Overall my work aims at joining up the history of minorities with mainstream histories: I argue that not only is it important for minority groups to have their histories researched, written and made visible, but also that the process of doing this sheds light on structures, processes and histories of majority society.
I am always interested in sharing my work beyond academic universities, and frequently write articles online looking at how history can help us understand current issues and crises with more perspective. Most recently I have suggested that looking at the reception of Vietnamese refugees in the early 1980s, and of Hungarians fleeing the Soviet invasion of 1956 might provide some answers to how to respond to today’s refugee crisis.
My most recent book, Another Darkness, Another Dawn: A history of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (Reaktion, 2014) sprang from a desire not only to write a history of these peoples, but to understand how their history was tied to and shaped by wider historical processes. Romani peoples are rarely seen as having a place in a country, either geographically or socially. Part of their marginalisation stems from the fact that they are excluded from mainstream histories. And yet at the same time they are rarely granted a separate history, but rather seen to exist in a timeless bubble, unchanged and untouched by modern life. If some Roma or Gypsies are seen as deviant, thieving and untrustworthy still others – often existing only in the realm of story books and imagination – are depicted as living a timeless life of constant nomadism; innately exotic, musical, most likely living in bow-topped caravan, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, untouched by the cares of modern life.
In fact, understanding their history means tracking the gradual migration of peoples whose descendants became Romani, from India across the Persian empire and into Europe via Byzantium, and then across the Atlantic to the Americas. Writing this history also means throwing out stereotypes and instead reflecting on the vast array of ways in which they have lived: while some groups may have been perpetually nomadic, large numbers – across history and place – often travelled for the summer and settled in the winter; still others settled permanently in particular villages or parts of towns. Writing this history was also to take in the founding and contraction of empires, wars, the expansion of law and order and of states, the Enlightenment and the increasing regulation of the world – it is as much a history of ‘ourselves’ as it is a history of ‘others’.