Out of Essex

London Gypsy Orchestra builds cultural bridges in wake of Dale Farm evictions.

Basildon District Council has been heavily criticised for its plans to evict Britain's largest Traveller community at Dale Farm in Crays Hill, Essex. The Council has been accused of "bowing down to local prejudice" against the Traveller community, which maintains that the decision to deny their planning consent has very little to do with preserving the "green belt" land that half the community resides upon. The fact remains that 90 per cent of planning applications from Travellers and Gypsies are refused by councils in the UK, which when compared with the 20 per cent of applications refused to all non-Traveller applicants from July to September 2010, indicates some level of discrimination.

Relations between Traveller communities and politicians have soured since the Coalition took control of government. In response to a question from a Tory MP representing constituents trying to close the Gypsy site, David Cameron stated: "I know he speaks for many people about this sense of unfairness that there is one law that applies to everybody else and, on too many occasions, another law that applies to Travellers."

Whether or not you agree with his sentiment, one thing remains certain: the future for Traveller communities looks bleak under the Coalition. Despite the difficulties faced by these communities, there exist grassroots efforts to improve relations between settled and Roma Gypsy communities. The London Gypsy Orchestra (LGO), founded in 2005, and directed by virtuoso violinist Gundula Gruen, has been running an ongoing celebration of Roma Gypsy culture in its Gypsy Exchange project in an effort to promote the richness of Roma Gypsy culture to the settled community.

The project, funded by Awards for All and facilitated by the director of the orchestra and members of the Czureja family, comprises of a series of music, dance and costume making workshops inspired by Romany culture. Participants have learned about many aspects of Gypsy life and culture directly from members of the Roma community themselves.

The 45-piece London Gypsy Orchestra performs original arrangements of traditional folk and Gypsy music from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It is, to date, the biggest ensemble of its kind in Western Europe.

The Romany Diamonds are a traditional Gypsy family band of musicians and dancers started by Ricardo Marek Czureja and his son Benjamin who came to England from Poland thirty years ago. They perform traditional Romany music, ranging from traditional songs to original compositions. The prodigious combination of Ricardo's virtuoso violin and Benjamin's Reinhardtesque guitar combine to exceed belief, and certainly makes for fantastic entertainment.

"Our project has been both very enjoyable and challenging, and has ultimately generated tools to hopefully help overcome discrimination and prejudices, mistrust and ignorance by building bridges and working together" says Gruen.

The finale of the project is open to all and will take place at Notting Hill Arts Club on Sunday 17 April 2011, from 6.30pm. It will include staged music, dance performances, interactive jam sessions, and ceilidh. An open-mic platform will be available for any member of the community to share a performance from their own culture.

Tickets are available on the door or online, £8/6

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses