Roger Galloway-Smith: Key Worker

08 April 2019

This piece first appeared in the ASLEF Journal, February 2018

 

Roger Galloway-Smith, traveller, train driver and District 3 BEM rep, marked Human Rights Day by wearing his traveller ethnicity pin - and ASLEF lanyard - in the cab of his Class 158.

 

When Roger Galloway-Smith, a driver with Northern Rail, was elected to ASLEF's Black & Ethnic Minority Representative Committee, it raised a few eyebrows in the industry. Not in District 3, where he's well known, but elsewhere. Because, self-evidently, Roger isn't black. But Roger was elected to our BEM committee because he's a member of an ethnic minority – one that has been persecuted for many years, and not just in this country.

 

It is worth remembering that when the Nazis were rounding up men, women and children to be sent to the death camps in Eastern Europe, although most of those killed were Jewish, many were socialists, communists, trade union activists, and gypsies. Socialists, communists and union activists were deported to die because of their political beliefs and industrial muscle. Jews and Roma were killed because, the Nazis claimed, they were 'racially inferior'. A quarter of a million Romanies were exterminated on Hitler's orders.

 

That was Europe under the Nazis in the 1930s and '40s. In the British Isles we didn't have deportations and death camps, but we have had a couple of centuries of prejudice and discrimination. The words 'gypsy' and 'pikey' – from pike, which means road, or highway, hence turnpike (toll road) – are often used pejoratively.

 

Romantic Figures

 

And while travellers have, in fiction and on film, on the page and on the stage, been seen as romantic figures – Joe Boswell in DH Lawrence's novel The Virgin and the Gypsy; Carmen in Bizet’s opera; Gypsy Road by the heavy metal band Cinderella – in real life they have often been treated very badly.

 

'I define myself as a traveller,' says Roger, 49. 'To me, it means freedom. I like to get up, get out, and go. I love travelling, being able to go wherever I want. I don't like being stuck in one place, I find it claustrophobic. But I know people think of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and all that crap. Bare knuckle fighting, and "We’ll tarmac your drive", it all perpetuates the stereotype.'

 

Roger was born in 1968 in Armagh in Northern Ireland. His mum Linda was an Irish traveller while dad Geoffrey was a  Romany – two distinctly different travelling traditions – who met, when he was in Ireland buying horses, fell in love, got married, and then moved to England, because of the Troubles, in the early 1970s. They initially lived near Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire, but moved around, 'ending up in the wilds of Cumbria'.

 

'We had an Elddis Super Typhoon caravan, and Land Rover, and moved between plots of land my father owned around the country. I liked it. But schooling was difficult. You'd be in one place for a few months and then, when you'd started to make friends, you'd be moving on again. Education was a problem because I was always behind everyone else.'

 

Trigger Happy Americans

 

Some children didn't want to know him because he was a traveller but Roger learned to cope. 'You have to be self-reliant as a
traveller and you have to stand up for yourself.' He loved the life – 'Out and about all the time' – and looking after the animals. Not just horses, which his father bought and sold, but chickens, sheep (his mum used the fleece to make wool), a Jersey cow, and a pig.

 

Roger left school at 16 and joined the RAF Police as a dog handler. 'I signed on for five years and ended up doing 10.' Their job, with the RAF Regiment, is to secure the airfield. His most testing time was at Greenham Common in Berkshire. 'Based in a prefab, we were caught, literally and metaphorically, between Cruise missile protesters and trigger happy Americans'. He sustained a bad knee injury in Belize and, after six months at a military hospital in Ely, left with Dylan, his German Shepherd. 'I'd had enough. I had long hair, I wouldn't wear my uniform properly, but I was a good dog handler'.

 

He did private security work for a while, then spent six years with Sussex Police at Horsham and Crawley. 'It was a nightmare. There were constant altercations with colleagues, and I wouldn’t let remarks go.' Then he joined the prison service – 'For the money; a secure job with pay and pension' – at HMP Whitemoor, a high security dispersal prison near March in Cambridgeshire. But he felt, 'There were a lot of people who shouldn't have been there – they should have been in hospital, they were mentally ill' – so after four years, 'I went my own way and went back on the road' in another Elddis Super Typhoon
with his wife Rosie, two sons and a daughter.

 

'I did building work – I did a course in Cornwall on lime plastering and restoration – repointing old buildings in Cumbria.' But it was cold and wet and when he saw an advert for a train conductor's job with Northern, 'I thought I'd give it a go.' He worked out of Longtown, on the Anglo-Scottish border, and, after a year, 'I decided to go to the other end of the train.'

 

'A train driver's job is a really good job – hard work but a good job – and I was stressed for months because I was in  competition with all these young guys and thought, not a cat in hell's chance.' He passed out in August 2014 and works 156s, 158s, 153s, and 142s to Newcastle, Leeds, and Dumfries. 'I love it. It's a great job. Sitting at the front, fantastic views – the routes we drive, anyway – and you're left to get on with it.' He joined the union – 'I was given an application form and told to "f***ing fill it out" – but, because of my past, and the jobs I've done, and how I grew up, I know that you've got to stand shoulder to shoulder in order to achieve anything. If it's just you, on your own, you can't do anything. As a group we have a louder voice.'

 

It's a Hate Crime

 

Roger had encountered prejudice in the RAF, in the police, and in the prison service. So he was disappointed – but not surprised – to find it in the rail industry, too. 'I sat down at a table one lunchtime, back to the blokes behind me, and the man in front of me was Indian, and the blokes behind were saying, "My son can’t get a house, because of all the bloody Pakis," and I said, "You f***ing what, this bloke's having his lunch here!" In the prison service, and the police, if you'd actually said that, you'd have been out of the door with your P45. It was covert. But I was surprised by how overt it was in the rail industry.'

 

People sometimes hide behind 'freedom of speech' but this isn’t a question of freedom of speech. It's racism; xenophobia; and, now, a hate crime.

 

Roger, his wife and daughter now live in a house, not a caravan, in Cumbria. But he still loves travelling and still sees himself as a traveller. He stood for the BEM committee to dispel some of the myths about travellers – Romany gypsies and Irish  travellers were protected from discrimination as an ethnic group under the Equality Act 2010 – and 'to increase the levels of recruitment and retention of black and ethnic minorities in the rail industry.'

 

You can download and read this issue and other past issues of the ASLEF Journal here.

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