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Gypsies

‘Europe’s Most Hated People’ was the heading of a BBC news item about Gypsies last April. If this is true in any part of Europe it’s a serious matter—we know what happened to nearly half a million Gypsies under Hitler. I should mention here that the BBC item was reporting comments by Dr James Smith, of the UK National Holocaust Centre, that might be construed as deliberately sensational. No research was cited or figures given. Yet if there are facts to support this claim it is clearly a matter of concern.

By the same token, however, a report like this raises more general questions about modern life and modern expectations. Gypsies (or as they now often call themselves, Travellers) have been a feature of the European social landscape for 500 years, and both their persistence as a cultural group and their strong resistance to assimilation make them of unusual interest. No other ethnic community has shown such ambivalence toward the contemporary world—an ambivalence moreover shown by nomads toward settled townspeople for millennia. Supposing the BBC report to have any foundation in fact, can Gypsy unpopularity in Europe be seen as marking the outer limits of multicultural toleration?

18th century England

It is a remarkable thing that their reputation, both for better and worse, has changed very little over the centuries. About the same time that my attention was drawn to the BBC news item, I happened to be reading Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. This 18th century bird-watcher’s observations on magpies, blackbirds, and jays contained an unexpected Gypsy reference. In a letter to his fellow naturalist Thomas Pennant in October 1775 he wrote that

“We have two gangs or hordes of gypsies which infest the south and west of England, and come round in their circuit two or three times in the year.” He gives their names (Stanley and Curleople), notes that Gypsies are called in French ‘Bohemians’, and in Italian and modern Greek ‘Zingani’, and then comments on their stoicism braving “the severities of winter, and in living sub dio the whole year round.”

Last September was as wet a month as ever was known; and yet during those deluges did a young gypsy-girl lie-in in the midst of one of our hop-gardens, on the cold ground, with nothing over her but a piece of blanket extended on a few hazel-rods bent hoop-fashion, and stuck into the earth at each end, in circumstances too trying for a cow in that condition: yet within this garden there was a large hop-kiln, into the chambers of which she might have retired, had she thought shelter an object worthy her attention.

White was not to know that the girl may well have agreed with him that the hop-kiln would be a good place to go and have her baby, and may even have wanted to go there; but that strongly held Gypsy beliefs about pollution (and especially about the polluting female organs of reproduction) forced her to go outside in freezing conditions unfit for cattle.

Here we should notice something enduringly true of the Gypsy situation—namely, that the young woman’s predicament is a result of the beliefs and practices of her own culture. She is not being excluded by the wider society. She is not being persecuted. Nobody is preventing her taking shelter in cold weather. Nothing is keeping her out of the hop-kiln except the fears and taboos of her fellow-Gypsies. In 1775 Gilbert White finds the whole thing astonishing, but knows it would be foolish to intervene.

His attitudes are fairly typical—both of the 18th century when he lived and of many people today. On the one hand White is no Gypsy-lover: he says gangs of them “infest” the south and west of England, and he is disturbed that “Europe itself, it seems, cannot set bounds to the rovings of these vagabonds.” They may not be the most hated; but they are certainly unloved. On the other hand he finds something to admire in the sheer toughness of their vagabondage and their will to survive. Perhaps, too, he silently respected the Gypsy devotion to nomadism, a way of life romantics always find appealing.

The open road

The reason for the appeal of nomadism is fairly obvious. Homo sapiens is not by nature a sedentary animal. Given half a chance he leaves hearth and home to travel, to wander, sometimes to lose himself on fateful journeys without end… and if this means life on the edge, far out on the margins of society—even as a pariah caste—well, some people like to live like that. At least it’s a long way from the boredom of being stuck—whether in the mud of a traditional village or in the airless tomb of a city office tower.

Such is the romantic view of nomadic wandering, and it finds regular literary expression. Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road included material gathered in New York, and at sea, and from Mexico, Tangier, France, London, and San Francisco. Together with the movie Easy Rider it did for American bohemia in the 1960s what The Wind in The Willows had done for the children of England’s genteel middle classes fifty years before. Both Kerouac and Mr Toad share an exultant joy in “the open road—here today and gone tomorrow!”—though Mr Toad is searching for green fields, while Kerouac and his friends appear to have been more interested in grass.

We should notice something else too: both Kerouac and Mr Toad are ersatz nomads, men (so to speak) who have consciously adopted what they see as a Gypsy lifestyle in contrast to the educated world where they originated and more naturally belong. Jack Kerouac went to Horace Mann School on Manhattan, and later attended Columbia University. Mr Toad is the proud owner of an English manor house, with every appurtenance, and when he took to the roads in a horse-drawn caravan he provided a striking Edwardian example of primitivist affectation, a mental disorder that became common after 1970.  The illustrations in The Wind in the Willows usually make a big feature of the bright yellow caravan Toad sets out with—a gaily painted conveyance that defined, in a single image, the idealised pre-1914 view of Gypsy existence.

Gypsy life on the road was central to this romantic vision. Gypsy racial separatism, expressed in their strong disinclination to marry gaujos (or gajos or gajes or gorgios, i.e., all variations of a word for non-Gypsy outsiders) added another element.  Not only had they different customs, and not only were they nomadic, but they looked visibly foreign too (Gilbert White was sure they came “from Egypt and the East”), and in Western Europe this exotic appearance was an added fascination. David Mayall writes in Gypsy-travellers in nineteenth-century society (Cambridge, 1988), alluding to the works of Sir Walter Scott, George Borrow, Charles Dickens and D. H. Lawrence, that—

…foreign origin was the basis around which images were drawn of a romantic people, living an idle, natural, al fresco life, camped in secluded woods and forests. Physically they were dark, supple, agile and handsome, possessing a temperament that was wild, fierce and defiant.

“The beauty and grace of the bewitching Gypsy maiden attracted many admirers in a variety of stories. The use of the male stereotype of the lithe and handsome Gypsy was adopted less frequently, though perhaps most familiarly in D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy. Romance and adventure among an exotic people formed the main themes.

Mayall then comes to George Borrow, whose Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857) reinforced the image of “a foreign people with their own language and laws, determined to maintain their separateness from non-Gypsies…” Borrow was intermittently acquainted with Gypsies for upwards of thirty years, mastered their language, and wrote a good deal about them.

In Mayall’s words his writings showed a people in steadfast opposition to “the forces of progress and advance, resisting the crushing organization of society and the routine and restraints of civil life. They stood for freedom against the tyranny of law, for nature before civilisation, and for simplicity before complexity. This instinct for liberty was held as the symbol for the aspirations of all who challenged the repressive forces of modernisation.”

Here a kind of romantic anarchism (all law is tyrannical) overlaps with more recent anti-modern sentiment (industrial work is oppressive). In the resulting intellectual brew, Gypsies are seen to nobly reject assimilation and incorporation; they stand proudly and deliberately apart; despite pressure to accept modernity and industrial wage-labor Gypsies will have none of it. They resist and they endure. All in all this depicts Gypsy culture as worthy, admirable, and perhaps also unique.

The darker side

But then there’s the unmentioned dark side of the picture, and any reader of George Borrow will soon find plenty of reasons for regarding his companions with unease. We first meet them on page 45 of Lavengro in an idyllic rural setting. A green lane carpeted with trefoil and clover, and lined with ancient oaks, contains tents where a twist of campfire smoke is curling upward. A man is carding plaited straw; a woman sits rubbing something with white powder.

Suddenly a rider gallops up on horseback and shouts a warning, and after hurriedly giving him a bag of coins the encampment packs and scatters to avoid the police. It appears the man and woman have been forging money (the author says there was a lot of ‘bad money’ in circulation at the time). The unknown rider then

Departed at a tremendous rate, the hoofs of his horse thundering for a long time on the hard soil of the neighbouring road, till the sound finally died away in the distance. The strange people were not slow in completing their preparations, and then, flogging their animals terrifically, hurried away seemingly in the same direction.

Borrow ends the chapter gazing after the retreating company, and wondering who this “strange set of people can be”. Things get stranger and somewhat more dangerous as time goes by. At first his encounters are innocuous: he witnesses a highly profitable pea-and-thimble trick being played at a country fair… until the police arrive. Then somewhere along the way he offends a Gypsy woman named Mrs Herne.

When next they meet, Mrs Herne bakes poisoned cakes, and using a diabolically cunning 13-year-old girl as her instrument manages to get Borrow to eat one. In a violent scene this sixty-five-year-old grandmother then tries to poke out his eye while he lies drugged and semi-helpless in his tent. A dog is turned on him; a sinister “song of poison” is sung by the grandmother and the child; but largely because the tent collapses protectively around him, Borrow somehow survives, listening to the conspirators talk about their undying hatred of all gorgios meanwhile.

In his later book The Romany Rye we haven’t even reached page 50 before there is more talk of poisoning—though this time it’s about poisoning pigs. The  Gypsies would call unannounced at a farm. Out of sight of the farmer they would slip one of his pigs a fatal dose, and next day, after the animal died, offer to relieve him of the burden of the poisoned corpse. (If properly cleaned inside it was edible.) At a family dinner where pork is being served to the sound of a fiddle playing, Mrs Chikno sings “Poisoning the Porker”, of which the first verses (rendered in Romany in the main text, but translated at the foot of the page) run as follows:

Listen to me ye Roman lads, who are seated in the straw about the fire, and I will tell you how we poison the porker, how we poison the porker.

We go to a poison-monger and buy three pennies’ worth of bane, and when we return to our people we say we will poison the porker, we will poison the porker.

Then we make up the poison, and we take our way to the farmhouse, as if to beg a bit of victuals, a bit of victuals.

We see a jolly porker, and we say in Romany, “Fling the bane yonder among the dirt, where the porker will find it, the porker will find it.”

After the song has finished and the fiddler has put away his instrument the Gypsies deny to Borrow that anything like this still goes on—anyway they claim not to have been “lately engaged” in the practice. And Borrow reasonably adds that songs about villainy of one kind or another are common among many peoples: “Look at the poetry of Scotland, the heroic part, founded almost entirely on the villainous deeds of the Scotch nation; cow-stealing, for example, which is very little better than poisoning farmer’s pigs.”

It is possible that Borrow may have enjoyed presenting himself as living dangerously in association with petty criminals, romanticising them in much the same way as others in the early 19th-century, including Lord Byron, romanticised banditti. He began his writing life attending and reporting Newgate hangings. Yet it is surely revealing that in two books intended as a testimonial to the vitality and enduring value of Gypsy life, based on the direct experiences of a sympathetic observer and meant to serve the Romany cause, most of the economic activities he writes about involve lies, trickery, and fraud.

Has anything changed?

Borrow describes what he saw in the 1820s and 1830s. It would appear from what he says that the relation of the Romany to the wider society from which they make a living is twofold. On the one hand the Gypsies need the gorgios economically, and provide at least some beneficial services as tinkers, metalworkers, horse-traders, and casual laborers. On the other hand this relationship to the society around them is largely exploitative: they despise their gorgio employers and will take them for every penny, lawful or unlawful, they can get. This is socially and ethically an exclusive and hostile tribal relationship: the Romany regard all gorgios—townsmen, villagers, or farmers, young and old, rich or poor—as culturally alien, as the enemy, and with contempt.

In addition to David Mayall’s book there have been other anthropological studies of Gypsies from reputable publishers in recent years. A notable work by Sir Angus Fraser, The Gypsies (Blackwell, 1992; 2001) is valuable for their history in western Europe since arriving in the years after 1417. What is the picture these authors paint, and does it differ much from George Borrow’s report 150 years ago? The answer is—not much.

* * *

In Gypsies, Tinkers, and Other Travellers (Academic Press, 1975) there is an essay by Judith Okely, ”Gypsies Travelling in Southern England.” Gypsy identity is expressed, she says, by “the ideological contrast they made between themselves and the gorgio.” Generally speaking gorgios were viewed “with suspicion and some contempt.” This meant that marriage outside the group was strongly disapproved, and “the few gorgios married to Gypsies were treated as anomalous members of the community.”

Okely notes that in their economic dealings, “while in most cases the Gypsies provided a genuine service, they were out to get what they could in cash or goods. The ability to get the better of outsiders was admired. ‘Trickster’ stories were much embellished.” In dealings with fellow Gypsies some dishonesty was allowed, but “there were few if any rules in an exchange with a gorgio.” In short, when dealing with gorgios almost anything goes.

In the same collection of essays Anne Sutherland begins her discussion of the economic arrangements of the American Rom in California as follows: “Misleading the gaje is one and only one technique of survival.” She is talking about the unreliability of many reports of Gypsy life—social investigators may be told anything at all. But “misleading the gaje” is a good overall characterization of the central dynamic of Gypsy culture.

She goes into the technical details of “living off welfare” while drawing income from other sources—too many details to re-examine here. In the community she studied, “many families were on welfare the year round, but spent several months in the summer camping in fields and picking crops along with other migrant laborers for extra income.” One group of families alternated between Hawaii and San Francisco. In San Francisco in the summer they combined welfare cheques with farm labor. “In the autumn they would fly to Hawaii where they were able to make a good living fortune-telling. The occasional bujo helped them get their tickets back to the mainland.” (A bujo is glossed by Sutherland as “a swindle involving a large amount of money from a gullible fortune-telling customer”.)

Sutherland states the rules governing economic relations between Romany and gaje/gorgio as follows: “The first and most basic rule is that the code of economic relations among Rom must be viewed in opposition to the code of economic relations with gaje. The opposition is simply that between co-operation between Rom to Rom and exploitation Rom to gaje.”

In other words, the traditional old-time Rom regarded it as his right to deceive and fabricate, while seeing it as the reciprocal duty of the gaje to play the role of the dupe, the mark, the pigeon, the sucker, the butt, the victim, the gull. And when dealing with suckers or gulls it’s no holds barred.

Nomads versus villagers

And today? For the last forty years there have been endless arguments in the UK about where Gypsies should camp, about whose responsibility it is to provide sites and pay for their maintenance, about how many sites should be provided, and so on. Behind this is an unvoiced fear of the pigsties that result when scrap-metal gathering and used-car dealing takes place on the margins of picturesque English villages. What were once fair green fields end up as rubbish dumps. Village greens, commons, playing fields, racecourses, all are likely to be camped on and abused. Typical recent UK news reports read like this:

A group of French travellers, living on land at Cheltenham Racecourse, have left after the threat of an injuction from racecourse managers. The Gypsy families promised racecourse managers they would move from the site by Sunday. Around 90 travellers set up camp on a field next to the car park at Prestbury Park a week ago. (BBC 26.06.05)

A trail of debris left by a group of travellers at a Birmingham park will cost £20,000 to clear up, according to city councillor Mike Olley. About 20 caravans, which were set up at Pype Hayes Park in Erdington two weeks ago, left the site on Friday morning, following a county court order. Mr Olley says the park is now in such a poor state it could pose a health risk. Some of the debris left at the site includes an abandoned caravan, used gas canisters and about 20 tons of rubble. (BBC 27.05.05)

Its village green is surrounded by listed cottages and is overlooked by a 15th-century church. High Ham has views across the Somerset Levels, boasts Britain’s only thatched windmill and at first glance is the archetypal English village. However, in the past week it has fallen victim to an unwelcome rural phenomenon – an invasion of Irish travellers. Within the space of three hours, 29 mobile homes – equipped with satellite dishes and Calor gas – were moved on to a field at the edge of the village, swelling High Ham’s 300-strong population by a quarter. Since their arrival last Thursday, the new residents have been seen asking for scrap metal and trying to sell power tools. They have no running water and have attempted to obtain it from garages. They have no waste facilities and locals have complained about litter, including nappies. (Daily Telegraph 16.06.04)

Senior police officers worry too much about the human rights of gipsies whose camps make life a misery for people living nearby, ministers were told yesterday. Andrew Mackay, a former Tory frontbencher, gave details of a series of cases in which police took no action against groups of travellers who vandalised sports fields and left them covered in human waste. He detailed cases in his constituency of Bracknell, Berks, last summer when 17 caravans occupied playing fields in the town. The police refused to act despite threats and vandalism from the travellers. The town clerk had written to Sir Charles Pollard, the Thames Valley chief constable, providing details of widespread fouling by the travellers. (Daily Telegraph, 16.01.02)

A manageable relationship

This may not be enough to explain why Gypsies should be described as ‘Europe’s Most Hated People’, but it surely explains why the average citizen in a country town might regard their arrival with only moderate enthusiasm. Yet the number of anti-social Gypsies is comparatively small and there are lots of other more dangerous scam artists with far more clout. It might be argued that it would be absurd to single Gypsies out for special treatment, and that it is misusing police time to hunt Gypsies instead of bigger game. Every web-user, every day, is approached by ambitious scammers trying to get bank accounts and credit-card numbers, and with fifty different ways of robbing you blind.

Looking at the wider picture we see a people with particular gifts who have made their own historic contribution to European culture—minor, perhaps, but distinct. The musically uninformed, looking at the countless tzigane in compositions from central Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, might well imagine that Gypsy melodies were the main source of European folk music. Today, economically, I am told that in Iberia Travellers usefully bring cheap clothes and knick-knacks to rural villages at lower prices than any other source, while they also meet changing needs for casual labor at harvest time.

At a Wiltshire village recently—a village near one of England’s leading public schools—Gypsies contributed to an event known as the “mop fair”. The broad High Street was taken over for a week, carnival joyrides were set up along with numerous stalls, and everyone had a good time. One might wonder what the village common looked like afterward; but my informant couldn’t tell me about that. George Borrow saw a horseman gallop over the horizon while the Gypsy camp hastily packed and hurried after—“flogging their animals terrifically”. I think it’s unlikely that around 1820 they first buried their rubbish and thoughtfully disposed of any human wastes, and we can be pretty confident that the lane where they were camping was left in a mess.

Yet that’s what free-loading means; that’s what free-loaders do. Travellers live according to the situational ethic of the nomad—which is opportunistic, lawless, and much influenced by the fact that although they are here today they will be gone tomorrow. And as long as the more visible proportion of the Gypsy population do not feel bound by the laws of sedentary citizens, or the obligations of tax-payers and others who have to meet a variety of household expenses (ordinary citizens who must buy their electricity and water and maintain their homes), I suspect that despite their undoubted gifts and many talents Gypsies as a group will remain unloved. Especially if they resort to EU human rights law to help them defy the conventions of the settled, rate-paying, urban world.

From the point of view of many UK townspeople they are probably seen as a nuisance to be put up with. There is often tension, and sometimes worse than that. But despite the gloom of the BBC report it remains a relationship which should be manageable—with a modicum of goodwill from both sides.

Posted in Tribalism.


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