Donkeys were still hitched to lamp-posts in County Limerick in the ’80s and our village was the sort of place where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Yet, despite the lashings of craic (in addition to the seven public houses on the High Street, the ironmonger’s was a spit and sawdust boozer after hours), the village’s small town small-mindedness was enough to rub most of the shine from this emerald idyll. Mrs Dwyer would come and cry in the kitchen and, even at the age of seven, I worked out that her caravan, camped at the edge of town, was unwelcome in Stepford, just as her two scruffy sons were unwelcome at school, picked on by students and staff alike. Later, I discovered that things were much the same in Dorset schools, where pejorative terms for ‘gypsy’ ranked as the most punishing forms of verbal abuse.
It’s inconceivable that documentaries like Firecracker Films‘ My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Thelma’s Gypsy Girls would have been commissioned about any other ethnic group. Techniques like unnecessary subtitles function as the bars of animal cages, cynically putting as much distance between subject and audience as possible and the second series and spin-offs show that our appetite for this stuff is insatiable: the mentality’s not a million miles away from watching lions eating Christians. Could another social and ethnic group be treated as badly in Britain?
In this context, David Morley’s The Invisible Kings is an important collection of poetry. In the standout poem, Kings, the speaker opens by saying: ‘I beg of you believe in the Kings, the blacksmiths’ tribe, the Boorgoodjìdes / made up of the tamar, true twisters of sàstra, sras or srastrakàni // who jam the jagged srast in the jaws, the chamàhoolya, / of their kerpèdy, and ply it, plume it’. On an initial reading, Morley’s request not to rely too heavily on the glossary and to read at a canter seems a tall order but you soon realise that the Romani words he includes are the echoes of his English. It becomes possible to read with the speaker as your guide. Alliteration also serves to link Romani and English, whilst lending the poem the mythic qualities of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Morley’s decision weaves Romani culture deep into the fabric of the English language. Despite its initial strangeness, this is a poetry of unity and not of leering mockery (Morley is part Romani).
In his translation of verses from the Song of Solomon, Song of Songs, Morley’s alliterative technique evokes his Hebrew source. ‘I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the katòoni of Kedar, as the perdès of Solomon’. For anyone doubting the astonishing richness of Romani culture, history and language, the word perdès (curtain) points to its Hindu origin somewhere around 250 BC (look at the presentation of Purdah, the segregation of women, in Forster’s A Passage to India). There’s a playfulness here too: ‘gypsy’ in English points to the erroneous belief that they came here from Egypt (some gypsies refer to themselves as Pharaoh’s people) and the Song of Solomon dates from the period following the Jews’ bondage in Egypt.
Morley could have focussed exclusively upon the criminally marginalised Romani but, in Ludus Coventriae, his decision to dramatise Coventry’s staging of the Mystery Plays and blitz on the 14th November, 1941, serves to illustrate that, throughout history, the lives of common men amount to very little. Morley, working with the financial records for the plays, adds ordinary life and breath: ‘• Item payd to the Mother of Death / • Item payd ffor a peyre of gloves ffor God / • Payd up also for the gybbyt of Jeiȝe / • Item payd to Mr Fawston for hangyng Judas / • Item paid to Mr Fawston for his Coc-crowyng’. In his biography of London, Peter Ackroyd wonders whether places, roads, streets have a persistent character throughout history and, on the night of the blitz, two invisible radio beams transmitted from mainland Europe formed a cross in the sky above the city. Morley writes that ‘Out of desert, from the hard stone / three air raid wardens run, three kings / late up with pick, spade, lantern, / tracing the star of each explosion and making there’.
I bought The Invisible Kings on its publication in 2007 and, at the time, I was just interested to read a few words of Romani. However, the flavour of the past five years makes this collection feel far more important. At worst, the mess surrounding the Dale Farm eviction characterises gypsies as trouble: a focus for a militant insurgency of professional demonstrators. At best, the Gypsy Wedding phenomenon presents them as women hating, bare-knuckled thugs, redeemed only by the televisual qualities of their kitsch bridal fashions. The Invisible Kings is an essential antidote to television’s cruel parody of a culture with a language older than our own.