Thursday, May 11, 2006

"a quiet, pilfering, unprotected race"

posted by k

John Clare had mixed views of gypsies. He assumed they pilfered in addition to poaching. But Clare lived in an increasingly regulated and controlled world. The shared countryside and common grazing land was fenced from the poor for the gain of the rich. And Clare valued the gypsies' liberty which quietly ignored the powerful and rich. His sympathy and admiration for the travelling life challenged conventional prejudice against the unhoused.

It was more than a week ago that the gypsies (or tinkers, or travellers - I didn't think to ask) settled on the fields round the corner. The arrival of their heavy caravans, their dogs and the horses caused anxiety and I'm ashamed to say some children kicked footbals at the gypsies' vehicles. But the newcomers were clean, polite and - embarrassingly - stayed away from us, as if unwilling to offend or provoke a disturbance. I heard no reports of criminal activity or bad or worrying behaviour.

Five days later, they went, perhaps making their slow way to the horse fair at Appleby.

I missed them; they had been quiet neighbours and the prejudice and anxiety they caused seemed without foundation. Those I spoke to were wary, perhaps, but glad of a friendly word and happy to chat.

All seemed to have gone well enough. Children and grown-ups may have feared the barking dogs but they enjoyed the sight of horses grazing. Prejudices were slowly eroded.

Then the MP's message arrived: he assumed the travellers were dirty, criminal, offensive; he wrote of "all the abuse from travellers that you'd expect" and hoped for prosecution. It was shocking because the MP has an anti-racist reputation, of someone working to promote harmony.

I took issue with the MP's. He backtracked. They couldn't have been real travellers, he said, and what he had published was not inflammatory.

The MP's message will be read by more than saw the gypsies - more than read this blog.

It's easy to augment prejudice and fuel fear. The MP has just done this. I'm pre-judging New Labour MPs. I fear the hate by which they prolong their political lives.


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