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THE DROUTH

AUTUMN 2012 ISSUE 43

AUTUMN 2012 ISSUE 43

THE DROUTH

Emma Lennox

JUDY. Your heart huh? Are you quite sure about that? I’m not sharing that heart o yours with anyone else am I… howz about Billie Holliday, or maybe Bessie Smith! DEREK. Naw… well… a wee bit but your ma favourite honest! JUDY. Swear… c’mon, swear! DEREK. … A swear oan ma Maw n Faithur’s li… JUDY. Aw don’t go that far… it almost kills me all over again when any of my legion of fan, start swearing on the doubler deaths of parents… well now you’re here kid, make yourself useful and get me those pills… yes pills that’s what I need pills. Way at the back o that dressing table drawer… DEREK. Should ye Judy, ye seem a bit nervous.. JUDY. Nervous… why sure I’m nervous… I’m always nervous… it’s the price I pay for being a great, lonely singing star… besides... They’re waiting n I’m alittle hoarse… n I just get so goddam scared! DEREK. But you’ll be fantastic Judy, you’re always fantastic! JUDY. Sure, even when I’m lousy! DEREK. You saved ma life Judy! JUDY. Did I… did I really… did I really do that… well you know… I guess my life wasn’t such a waste after all… you know kid you suddenly made me feel a whole lot better… I’m just gonna go out there n sing em all n stay all night! Now how about you have you been working… those gestures…those inflections… well come on show me …I gotta go… I’m on in a minute… remember… this Goddam world will always make you blue… but you gotta just grab it like it’s a microphone or a bag o glue I guess n just. Sing the suckin life out of it! Go on kid take it, take it… (DEREK grabs Glue bag, becomes Judy, recites the following to audience) Well, you know… sometimes I go to parties, n I’m asked to sing, and some people like it, would you like it, Do you like a Foggy Day… I like it… but I’m not gonna sing it, I’m gonna sing… The man that Got away (DEREK sings until he reaches a dramatic crescendo then) n then am jist masel, some gentle Mowie lassies ur leadin bleedin Stevie Hawker away doon thye Milly hill… Gigzy’s laughuin et me n pointing… av got a big, warm. Wet bloodstain aw doon ma T shurt, its ma big Brer’s a sneaked it oot eez drawer, e’ll fuckin kill me, n dyeknow whit, av got an interview the morra morning, trainee assistant librarian. Fuck.

WATCHING TELLY WITH THE ORIENTALISTS: How My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding turned travellers into Arabs.

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“We are all toadies to the fashionable metaphors of the hour. Great is he who imposes the metaphor.” Robert Frost

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Not only does Said argue that cultural ideas are always political, but ‘imperial countries’ such as the UK and USA are so powerful that, even as individuals, we are products of our home nations.

“racial essence, of social degeneration, of cultural authenticity and inauthenticity” which seeks to “romanticise the industrial working classes, the Jews, the gypsies, etc.” This is confirmed by those specialists who have made a study of the latter; page one of Okely’s The Traveller-Gypsies (1983) states,

“For a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality: that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second”. Responding in 1982 Bernard Lewis published a furious retort in The New York Review of Books which aimed to undermine Said and his sympathisers’ academic competencies;

Drouth readers will be unaware that, between sporadic articles for this publication, I have been developing a career in script writing with mild moments of recognition that my mum can be proud of. Over the past few months my mentors have asked me to devise an original series for television called Charivari. Set in 1912, Scotland, Charivari combines some of my oldest, most fanciful childhood obsessions; running away with the fair, and the existence of magic. To (very) briefly outline the premise of this family drama: 15 year old Mhari sets out to find her sister, who is disappeared during a magic act, and discovers a new exciting life with the fair. But over the research period it began to dawn on me that I was writing this story for the wrong reasons. Where were my references for this exciting, exotic and magical fair coming from? Depictions of circuses and fairgrounds are prevalent and often nostalgic in film and television, but I was seeing a clash with a valuable inside source (to give full disclosure), husband-to-be, Drouth editor and Travelling Showperson, Mitch Miller (whose knowledge of showman’s tricks have no doubt placed this copy of the Drouth in your hand now.) And I’m painfully aware that the ‘fashionable metaphor of the hour’ in British TV is exploiting all forms of travellers, in particular Gypsies, for so called documentaries. Can I balance my small fiction between entertainment and accuracy? How have other metaphor-makers reflected cultures that aren’t their own? It is a burden no writer, or scholar it seems, should take on lightly.

Edward Said’s Orientalism established methods to examine the West’s tendency to, in the words of Said scholars Bayoumi and Rubin, “deny, supress and distort” cultures and histories of colonised and oppressed peoples. The treatment of Gypsy/ Traveller communities offer a microcosmic example of this sort of orientalist powerplay, and there are important parallels, not to mention theoretical links with the sort of intellectual context I was starting to look at. For Gypsy culture the work of sociologist, Judith Okely, an outsider (and a woman at that) who lived alongside English communities for long periods proved to be an invaluable ‘field guide’. Being an outsider the work of observers such as Okely and Said was crucial in establishing which ideologies are at play when travelling cultures are depicted on television. Pointing out the existence of such ideologies is rarely a good way to win friends and influence people. When Orientalism was first published in 1978, critics claimed Said had “polluted” the word ‘orientalism’. Said had drawn upon Antonio Gramsci‘s identification of the power systems of cultural ideas in ‘civil’ society, including universities, of the West. It is Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’ that explains how one form of knowledge gains strength over another, as Said states “it is very easy to argue that knowledge about Shakespeare and Wordsworth is not political whereas knowledge about contemporary China or the Soviet Union is.”

“The accusers complain of stereotypes and facile generalizations. Stereotyped prejudices certainly exist – not only of other cultures, in the Orient or elsewhere, but of other nations, races, churches, classes, professions, generations, and almost any other group one cares to mention within our own society. The Orientalists are not immune to these dangers; nor are their accusers. The former at least have the advantage of some concern for intellectual precision and discipline.” Whereas Lewis is happy to accept mistakes of orientalists of the past, he is not willing to allow Said and the ‘accusers’ the same sympathy, even as they set out to correct these mistakes. Talal Asad had already countered on behalf of Said in a 1980 edition of the English Historical Review; “The sense of indignation which has been provoked in various academic quarters…is perhaps itself an indication of the orientalist attitudes [Said] has attempted to describe.” Asad goes on to explain that the point of this overview of Oriental study isn’t to throw away centuries of work, or even list its inaccuracies but to challenge the system which has supported it. “…the authority of orientalist discourse- that which enables this discourse to reproduce itself essentially unchallenged – must be seen as a problem, and understood as such within the context of the institutional, political and socio-economic conditions in which orientalism has flourished.” Therefore we cannot separate scholarly study from dominant ideologies or systems of power. Said’s publication caused controversy because it was attacking the foundations of scholarly research. And if it rankled against the methodologies of academic study, think how pertinent is it to the unruly world of media representation. Orientalism certainly affected a broad spectrum of subjects and discourses. As Asad points out, within Europe there are groups which have been subject to theories of

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“The history of Gypsies is marked by attempts to exoticise, disperse, control, assimilate or destroy them. “ Indeed several stereotypes from Orientalism’s text can be attributed to a Gorgio (Gypsy word for outsider) point of view of Gypsy. This is where the Orient and the fairground merge; “it has been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” For clarity, I don’t intend to use Said’s theory to remark on academic social research on travellers. My interest in his reading of orientalism is with regards to media output in the UK depicting traveller culture. It is evident that in this era of multichannel, 24 hour television, producers of TV are part of that ‘civil society’ with the power to broadcast cultural ideas and impose metaphors, who create Robert Frost’s ‘toadies to fashionable metaphors of the hour’. Today’s TV makes Said’s questioning of power even more relevant as communications expand and responsibilities for ‘entertainment’ diminishes; “One aspect of the electronic, postmodern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed. Television, the films, and all the media’s resources have forced information into more and more standardised moulds. So far as the Orient is concerned, standardisation and cultural stereotyping have intensified the hold of the nineteenth-century academic and imaginative demonology of ‘the mysterious Orient.’” I would argue that depictions of Gypsy culture that now hold television audiences captive could predate even the 19th century attitudes, and fall along the same line as the ‘mysterious, exotic and dangerous other’. Which brings us to the making and marketing of Channel 4’s Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (2011–present). Spokespersons from the London Travellers Unit claimed in a 2012 Daily Telegraph interview that the show stereotyped gypsies as “menacing” young men and “alluring young girls”. They found the programme “insulting and degrading” and turned them into “something we are not”. Official complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Agency about the billboard


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campaign for the 2012 series with the slogan ‘bigger, fatter, gypsier” (shown below, with added graffiti). In a response worthy of Bernard Lewis, Channel 4 stated that the word ‘gypsier’ “refers to the fact that this series offers greater access and insight to the communities featured and the terms ‘gypsy’ or ‘gypsier’ are not being used in a negative context.” Crucially, the context for Channel 4 is the mainstream media and the majority audience, and not gypsy communities, who clearly find it offensive (as do many travelling showpeople, concerned at negative assumptions made about their own way of life). The ASA did not uphold the complaint stating; “we note that both the images and the text reflected the tone and content of the programme they promoted… we did not consider the ads were likely to cause serious or widespread offence or be seen as irresponsible or harmful.” Again the ‘widespread’ context allows a majority held view, no matter how mistaken, to overpower the minority group which it directly affects. Great indeed, are they who impose the metaphor.

“Because it is made into a general object, the whole Orient can be made to serve as an illustration of a particular form of eccentricity. Although the individual Oriental cannot shake or disturb the general categories that make sense of his oddness, his oddness can nevertheless be enjoyed for its own sake.”

Perhaps more damning for Channel 4 is that the adverts’ offence does reflect the content of the programme. Channel 4 claims that Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is a “revealing documentary series that offers a window into the secretive, extravagant and surprising world of gypsies and travellers in Britain today.” Yet the series does not attempt to include all the varieties of Gypsy and traveller communities, nor does it stray past the borders of England. Its ‘fly on the wall’ style suggests that this is a factual view of a gypsy community, but the filmmakers are being dishonest. Interviews sequences often edit out interviewer’s questions making it impossible to know whether opinions offered are considered responses or knee-jerk reactions. The tone of the narration also betrays a power imbalance between the makers and the subject. Barbara Flynn, known for roles including the titular character in The Queen: The Enemy Within (2009) gives a stately narration of events on screen. The script states ‘facts’ with no concern of gross generalisations or context, such as “in traveller culture, marrying non travellers, or Gorgios, has long been taboo but despite grievances from both communities intermarriage is on the increase.” These vague notions are presented to the audience as unquestionable truths. Another tactic is to take one event as a typical example of all in the Gypsy community e.g. “a pram is next on the shopping list, but as a Gypsy man, this is not Pat’s domain.” The programme constantly identifies their subjects as Gypsies first, individuals second. As Said warns;

Under such controlled manipulation the Gypsy people are left no freedom of expression in terms of their own depiction. Irony, self-deprecating humour, or teasing banter is often taken at face value keeping the ‘laughs’ firmly on the filmmakers’ side. A major problem for the community in its media portrayal is the lack of counter argument available in the media – the majority of people in settled communities don’t have the knowledge to contradict the mainstream stereotypes and the gypsy community have no power to advance one. But those who come from or have spent time with the minority group are aware of the complexities of depicting Gypsy life. Okely agrees with Said, when she states most portrayals reflect the dominant culture. “Since a travelling people are seen to defy the state’s demand for a ‘fixed abode’, they are seen as both lawless and fascinating. In turn it may suit the Gypsies to be fascinating, while concealing their own way of ordering their lives. Thus stereotypes of Gypsies and accounts from them, whether ‘lies’ or ‘truths’, may be inversions or mystifications rather than reflections of ‘reality’. Images of and information transmitted by Gypsies to Gorgios may speak more of Gorgios than of Gypsies. “ The documentary’s abuse of ‘reality’ is problematic, but at least it has some restrictions that even editors can’t avoid. Drama, on the other hand, is constructed through the creative imaginations of a handful of people. Because they have no claim to represent reality, only to entertain, they can perpetuate the detrimental myths further. A particularly damming example of where faulty research and lazy stereotyping exists is “Law”, a 2006 episode of Taggart written by Mike Cullen (though likely meddled with by several producers, directors and script editors also). It focuses on the world of Travelling Showpeople in Glasgow, whose community and history I plan to base my drama on, so I was keen to see how a Scottish drama dealt with a marginal part of its own society. The cultural inaccuracies are immediately obvious. The police are led to the Buckland family, ‘showfolk’ (a term made up by the media and ethnologists, possibly as a slightly more Scottish-sounding version of the preferred ‘showpeople’), who they suspect

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of being involved in the murder of a teenage girl. The Bucklands are cast and played as English despite Glasgow being home to over 50 caravan sites, or yards, for Scottish Showpeople. I suspect, although this is only conjecture, that this may be attributed to the popular fairground calls eg. “Scream if you wanna go faster!” in which even Scottish Showpeople affect an English accent as part of their ‘showman performance’. At best this is sloppy research, but at worst it is an attempt by the popular Scottish show to represent travellers as ‘others’ by anglicising them. There are other minor slurs against Showpeople such as when the teenage son, Samuel Buckland, announces he’s going to leave the fairground life “to get a proper job”. This unlikely phrase would stick in the throat of any showperson whose family business could be traced back several generations. But the biggest crime of “Law” is the fabrication of an arranged marriage and honour killing custom within the Showpeople community. In the episode this leads to forbidden love between Samuel and non-traveller Sarah Donnelly and causes three murders. It is a classic case of mystifying a group of people by giving the impression they are a violent and irrational culture. In Said’s discursion on Arabs as featured in TV and news footage he says “the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures.” But whereas this stems from Western prejudice’s fear that the East will attack the West, the depictions of Showpeople and Gyspies show the fear that they are already among us. And they refuse to follow our rules. The Showmen’s Guild made formal complaints to both Ofcom and to STV in Glasgow, but the complaints were not upheld. Keith Miller, general secretary of the guild stated “we are taking this action, to seek to redress the balance, reinstate our good name and regain the confidence of the general public, who are our customers.” In Vanessa Toulmin’s (herself a Travelling Showperson) Pleasurelands she states; “Showpeople are often regarded as a romantic but shadowy group, operating on the fringes of society. The very act of the fair appearing as if by magic on an old recreation ground or park for a few days and then moving on to the next location, adds to this image.”

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These are recent examples, but they are old tricks. For writers there is an odd paradox to be aware of when considering describing other cultures and races. As Said reminds us, we are not individual, but have been fashioned by the ideologies of our culture. In contrast we must remember that a character we create is an individual, and doesn’t represent a nation or any group as a whole. So will I be able to guide my Charivari through a minefield of misrepresentation and offense? Am I already doomed by the ideologies that bind me? What of the old adage that they like to teach in writing classes; the writer is always an outsider? I have two tricks up my sleeve which I hope will go some way to helping the script; the first is the classic writer’s manoeuvre – my main character, Mhari, is an outsider. Her perspective should alter, change over the course, but ultimately it remains her point of view. The second is simple; listen to Showpeople, and their stories. I am in a priviledged position to use first hand interviews and archive collected by Mitch in which Showpeople tell their own stories about their families. I have set my drama in the early 20th century because this is a period in their history that Showpeople consider a ‘golden era’ and enjoy discussing openly – there is a pleasure for them in revisiting and enjoying it, as much as for the audience. I have also widened the scope from the traditions of fairground performance to its close kin (and lest we forget, forerunner of the entertainment industry that spawned STV and Channel 4) the music hall. I feel performance is very much a part of the ‘art’ of the showman/woman and it will be through the joy of their folklore, tales, memories and exaggerations that we glimpse something of the community character. As Mhari is not a traveller she will experience two sides to their culture for the first time- the ‘front’ or performance aspect, and the behind the scenes reality. The performance part of showpeople’s lifestyle reveals a great deal about the power relations between performer and audience as detailed in works such as Richard Poirier’s The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life, which in turn tells us a great deal about what we can expect when we finally get behind the scenes. It also ties in with the work of Erving Goffman, who writes of the impossibility of truly ‘knowing’ a group outside of yourself. Without the relevant data on each individual and their relationships in the group a person tends to employ substitutes;

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AUTUMN 2012 ISSUE 43

“…cues, tests, hints, expressive gestures, status symbols, etc. – as predictive devices. In short since the reality that the individual is concerned with is unperceivable at the moment, appearances must be relied upon in its stead. And, paradoxically, the more the individual is concerned with the reality that is not available to perception, the more must he concentrate his attention on appearance. “ As well as being a warning on how a person perceives what is strange to them, Goffman’s description is an insight into how to craft a reality to project outwards; a talent that showpeople have mastered for centuries. Something of the sophistication of performance and image is evident in an anecdote from show woman Charlotte Miller (published in The Drouth issue 38), detailing how one family made a public event of all ten children attending church in whichever town they’d arrived in wearing their best clothes so that the townspeople could appreciate that; … they was respectable, that they went to Church just like everybody else. And when they saw us they know’d daddy and them’d come back since last year” Even the simple act of going to church could be turned into an advert for the shows, whilst simultaneously reflecting the moral codes of the settled community. The ability to tell stories is what is denied by the narration of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and the absurd storylines of Taggart, because to allow expression and creativity is to offer these communities power. Richard Poirier states that the very act of performance is an “exercise of power, a very anxious one... so eager for publicity, love, and historical dimensions. Out of an accumulation of secretive acts emerges at last a form that presumes to compete with reality itself for control of the mind exposed to it.” In his article for a previous edition of The Drouth, Miller describes how identity and performance are related for showpeople community; “Shared experience of the fairgrounds that spanned generations gives them a common ‘mythical’ origin – or rather, a series of origins that overlap and are mutually recognised between family groups… Travelling Showpeople in Scotland forged a robust group identity based on the idea of an ‘entertainer’ pedigree that persisted after parading shows and sideshows died out.”

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The communities of Gypsies and Show people have been telling their stories for a long time if only we were willing to hear them, instead of forcing them to conform to our own prejudices of them. My task is to endeavour to listen whilst researching my series, and will take advice from Showpeople I am in contact with, to ensure I don’t add to the ever growing canon of anti-traveller media. The plight of showpeople in struggling to actually tell their own story is probably most clearly defined in this popular song from 1909; “We tell you these life stories to prove you, that life as it’s lived in a van, hath pathos and power to move you, as only true life stories can.” Thomas Horne, the Ballads of Showland.


Watching telly with the orientalists  

Looking at UK TV culture through Edward Said's theory on orientalism. In the spotlight: Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and Taggart. By Emma Lennox

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