Posted on November 7, 2006

The Poem That Ends Careers

Alan Connor, BBC News, Nov. 7, 2006

Wiltshire town councillor Ellenor Bland’s hopes of a seat in parliament were cut short yesterday when she e-mailed colleagues a poem depicting a welfare-hungry illegal immigrant.

Mrs Bland said that the e-mail had been forwarded by her husband, and a Conservative spokeswoman has tried to distance the party from the “sentiments of the e-mail”.

In fact, no-one is claiming authorship of the poem — and that may be because it has no author.

Known as The Immigrant’s Song, or The Immigrant’s Tale, or The Illegal, the ditty is far from new. In fact, it predates the e-mail age, having been first circulated as a photocopy on workplace bulletin boards, and may have begun as a parody of Harry Belafonte’s calypso hit “The Banana Boat Song”.

In that form, the poem’s target was West Indians; in Mrs Bland’s version, it’s Pakistanis.

Looking at the different versions that have been spawned over the last couple of decades, it’s possible to trace migratory trends (or, at least, perceived patterns of immigration): the late 1990s saw the final couplet changed to “If they no like us, they can go / Plenty room in Kosovo!”.

Neither is it solely a British poem. In Australia, Canada and Ireland, the details change again. There are even strongly localised versions, such as Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s “We think Hazleton darn good place / Too darn good for white man race.”

With no author, no single version, and no formal documentation, the poem has evolved, mutated and crossed boundaries — much in the same way that folk songs adapt to their new surroundings.

After Boris Johnson found that a fan had posted another variant to his website (the classics scholar dismissed it as “an utterly dreadful poem”), and Sky’s political editor Adam Boulton removed another from his blog’s comments, media organisations began frantically checking their own message boards — and not without reason.

There’s a long roll call of public figures who have shared the poem with colleagues, followed by a series of retractions, condemnations and resignations that will be familiar to Mrs Bland.

In 1993, California assemblyman Pete Knight handed out copies of an anti-Mexican version at a Republican strategy session. When his superiors proved rankled, Knight initially defended it as “an interesting poem”, later saying “if some people find it offensive, then it must be”, and finally announcing “this was an unfortunate incident that I sincerely regret”.

The same Mexican version upset the 2002 campaign for Colorado governor Bill Owens when his treasurer received a copy from a schoolmate and passed it on to fellow Colorado black Republicans, shortly before resigning.

The US version is not always targeted at Latin Americans: during what’s called the War On Terror, the British anti-Pakistani version has become more popular in America: it was this variant that Arkansas Emergency Management director WR “Bud” Harper sent to his employees.

Like Mrs Bland’s defence of the poem as “light-hearted”, Mr Harper announced “it was just a poem that I got that I thought was funny, and you know how you exchange things with people” before deciding to resign. In the same week, the Winnebago County Republican Party distanced itself from their webmaster Troy Schulz, who had posted the poem on their site.

Mrs Bland’s denial of racism (“we actually have German in-laws, and we have friends who are Asian”) also has many precedents — notably the publishers of California magazine The Valley Citizen who printed an anti-Mexican version, then explained: “We’re not racist by any stretch of the imagination. We have an African American working for us. And a Chinese.”

Other Americans who found themselves in the news after pressing “send” include San Pablo councilman Paul Morris and Libertarian Senate candidate Rick Stanley. Closer to home, the Irish Director of Public Prosecutions recently tried to trace who was circulating the poem on the internal mail system, and a Foreign Office press officer David Arkley found himself the subject of an inquiry after sending a generic “alien” version to nine friends.

During the FCO inquiry, the Daily Mail decided to subject the poem to some close critical analysis and criticised it as “not very satisfying aesthetically or poetically”, concluding that “it doesn’t scan properly and there are too many syllables in each line.”

Doggerel it may be, but it would seem to be an unwise politician or civil servant who shares whichever version is doing the rounds at a given time.

In its initial form as a photocopy, the poem was as anonymous as they come. Copy and paste it into an e-mail, though, and you might as well be putting your name to it. One of the poem’s other titles — “British Dummy” or “American Dummy” — may come back to haunt you.