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

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game