August 13, 2008

For fans of multiculturalism and unrestricted immigration, Gypsies are a hard test case. They are exceptionally antisocial, and cultivate high levels of skill in the small-criminal arts “€” pickpocketing, burglary, fast confidence tricks, and so on. They seem also to be striving to keep alive their ancient reputation for baby-snatching. Italy is having particular problems with Gypsies right now, as indicated in the baby-snatching story, and by the Daily Telegraph here:

[Gypsies] are often blamed in Italy for the rising crime rate across the country and in recent weeks camps in Naples and Rome have been targeted in arson attacks. Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, has tapped into a vein of nationalist sentiment by toughening his government’s stance on immigration.

I have mixed feelings towards Gypsies. They were a regular sight in the East Midlands of England when I was growing up there in the 1950s, disliked by everybody for their thieving, and for the prodigious quantities of rubbish they left behind at their camp sites when they moved on. In our local dialect they were called “Didecoys.” Encountered in person they were invariably hostile, suspicious, and sensationally dirty. They spoke English in a peculiar dialect of their own that was sometimes hard to understand, and that had a quality, to a child’s ear, of making them sound mentally retarded. A Gypsy might reasonably point out that while they were the thieves and we Gorgios [non-Gypsies] their marks, the question of who was smarter might be argued both ways. They also had a language of their own which they spoke among themselves, from which English has borrowed a few words (e.g. “pal,” and the modern-British “chav”).

On the other hand I read the gypsy novels of George Borrow at an early age. They were part of the young-reader’s canon, though I don’t know why, as they are not well written. From Borrow I picked up some of the romantic gloss Borrow put on Gypsy life. It helped that one very occasionally saw, in the country lanes near my home, one of the old-style picturesque wooden Gypsy wagons, brightly decorated and drawn by a horse who always looked much better cared for than the Gypsies themselves. Most Gypsies, though, had by that point moved on to beaten-up trailers and mobile homes.

The authorities of our town mainly just left the Gypsies alone, with occasional attempts to get the Gypsy kids to attend school. There was a Gypsy child at my elementary school once, I recall “€” a great sensation among us Gorgios. He only lasted a day or two, and then he was gone. “They just don’t like the settled life,” was the explanation we got from adults.

The sheer unrestrained liberty of the Gypsy life inspired some envy in us, not entirely muted by their relentless thieving and the trails of garbage they left behind them. It was that liberty that caught George Borrow’s imagination; though looking through his books now, after all these years, I think he was a bit of a fraud.

Lots of luck to anyone trying to assimilate Gypsies into bourgeois civilization. In the meantime, a wise nation with good control of its ports and borders would keep Gypsies out as far as possible.


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