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

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide