My mother said I never should
Play with the gypsies in the wood.
If I did, she would say
`Naughty girl to run away’
The woods were dark, the grass was green
In came Sally with her tambourine,
The sea was wide, no ship to get across,
I paid 10 shillings for a blind white horse,
I was up on her back and was off in a crack,
Sally, tell my mother I shall never come back.
This rhyme’s been going through my head a lot lately as I try to puzzle out the connection between the Tory venom being poured out over the heads of Travellers and that being spewed from the same source on non-white immigrants. Among other things, it’s a rhyme about female independence – our heroine, the “naughty girl,” catches a glimpse of the world’s splendour, the darkness of its woods, its verdant grass, the unfathomable wideness of its seas. She glimpses a life that does not involve dying in the same town she was born in. And that’s it – she’s out of there so damn fast that the sparks fly up from her heels. Sally, tell my mother I shall never come back.
This isn’t the only rhyme out there about gypsies on this theme. The Three Gypsies is another. It tells of a rich woman, newly married, adorned with golden rings, silken gowns and high-heeled shoes of Spanish leather. A lovely picture of impractically-dressed docility and domesticity. And the very first chance she gets, she abandons all that to go “off with the wraggle taggle gypies.” When her new-wedded lord chases her down and asks why she left all her material comforts she replies defiantly
What care I for my new wedded lord? I’m off with the wraggle taggle gypsies-O!”
“Last night you slept on a goose-feathered bed, with the sheet turned down so bravely-O.
Tonight you sleep in a cold open field along with the wraggle taggle gypsies-O!”
“O what care I for my goose-feathered bed with the sheet turned down so bravely-O?
Tonight I’ll sleep in a cold open field along with the wraggle taggle gypsies-O!”
Choosing an uncomfortable freedom over a comfortable captivity.
These verses treat gypsies as romantic figures – I’m not interested in doing that here, or at least not only that. Well maybe a little – we’ll see. To be a female Roma (travelling or not) or a Traveller (Roma or not) is not to inhabit a feminist paradise. For that, we must evidently wait a little longer. And to romanticise the lives of Travellers is all-too-often to conveniently forget the quite extraordinary levels of social exclusion, ostracism, and flat-out-in-your-face discrimination that they routinely encounter. Much of which is aimed at making them sit down, shut up and above all else, stay put. The U.K. government provided a classic example of this last December, when it was revealed that Roma were 400 times more likely than non-Roma to be prevented from boarding planes to the U.K. from the Czech Republic, because of Home Office practices that have since been overturned as illegal discrimination.
But immigration restrictions, we are told with breathtaking, bare-faced sincerity, have nothing to do with racism.
But back to this puzzle – the connection between the venom directed at Travellers and immigrants. Yeah sure, lots of it is the racialised fear of the outsider, the interloper, the alien, the stranger who will steal “our” jobs, move into “our” neighbourhoods, take over “our” country, subvert “our” customs and seduce “our” children. Hmm. “O what care I for my goose-feather bed?”
And one thing is certain – where patriotism is planted, an abundant crop of xenophobia and racism soon becomes ripe for the picking.
Look, in a world where patriotism is virtuous, belonging stops at the borders. And people whose lives don’t align with the borders – who insist on having their feet in both camps, who have it in their hands both ways, who won’t stay put, who, for whatever reason, don’t accept geography as destiny – they are suspect. Because despite what you get told, patriotism has nothing to do with love: it’s about exclusion – and untidy people who can neither be included nor excluded throw the whole shebang into a state of ugly disarray.
But for my money, while patriotism explains a lot, it’s not the whole picture. I blame envy too. Not material envy. Most know that the immigrants and Travellers who bear the brunt of the hatred that the Tories are whipping up are, for the most part, desperately poor. Most also know in their heart of hearts that the asylum seekers they so revile have often fled for their lives from the most appalling of situations. But, nonetheless, envy is part of this – envy for knowing how to live in more than one place. Envy for a kind of knowledge that is incommensurate with unproblematic belonging.
After all, in The Three Gypsies it’s not the new-wedded lord who’s the hero, despite all of his riches and his finery. It’s the woman who abandons all of that to live under an open sky – it’s her life that we are invited to see as rich with possibility. Why? Because she will belong everywhere and nowhere. She will tell stories of distant places, and perhaps see some of the wonders of the world. Because borders will be just one more rule for breaking as she slips through the hole in the wire.