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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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