20 Apr 2010
It has taken 7 months to come this close. To gain the confidence of Glesga’s Gitans you can’t go in shutters blazing - you’ve got to take the long view.
My insider was Zooro: an ebullient Roma Gypsy from Transylvania. He agreed to help unmask the reclusive world of Glasgow's Roma community.
The setting, an apartment above a beauty parlor on Glasgows Southside, was nothing out of the ordinary - no campfire in the living room, just the regular two-bar. As Zooro unraveled the gypsy counter-culture his son took cover from the midday sun and snored blissfully on the cream three-piece. He and his family travelled Europe selling The Big Issue before arriving in Glasgow. Now they want to settle down and give their three sons the opportunity of an education.
Zooro’s home is like any other flat found on the infamous ‘Vicky Road.’ This vibrant location is home to a significant concentration of Glasgow’s Asian and Eastern European population. Victoria Road is known colloquially by the dissonant natives as ‘Beirut’ and directions are clarified with ‘I’m no a racist BUT.’ The accustomed hospitality of the Celts has been replaced by resentment and suspicion in face of the Gypsy influx.
While Zooro explained Roma morals and ethics I couldn’t help but be distracted by the tops of his two-tones peeping from beneath the tablecloth. His ostentatious brogues were making a clear status statement.
touch - passport to the Roma...
Roma culture is shrouded in a wall of secrecy upheld by all sides. Romani (Roma language) is largely preserved by word of mouth and neglected by academia - the race is on to map its rapidly disappearing dialects. Words from Romani such as: dad, pal, chav, gadge, mush, kushtie and scran have become a familiar part of our everyday vocabulary. The migrant Roma are right to be guarded, their nomadic culture endures a daily diatribe of abuse and ingrained discrimination. The Gypsy diaspora battle to keep alive a rich culture that has been ostracised since its inception – it pays to keep schtum.
At the Big Issue Luciene was performing his remorseful Wisdom routine - Norman Wisdom is a legend in Romania. A supermarket manager at his Livingston pitch (a 40 mile round-trip) sensed that his customers couldn’t cope any longer with Luciene’s larger than life personality and requested he vacate the premises tout de suite. Luciene shrugged his shoulders and grinned - happy with his relocation just a half-hour ride away.
Luciene was another Roma making a shoe statement - his Athena moleskins are the Pininfarina of gypsy street-wear.
Our cultures differ fundamentally, we live in parallel but seldom cross the road. We attach moral sentiment to begging - the last resort. The gypsies subsist in our 'last resort,' behind the margins of our settled society. What are the alternatives for a transient population? No fixed abode is the address of the disenfranchised.
The Big Issue prevents them slipping from view. They're not looking for state benefits; they may not be here long enough to qualify. By selling The Big Issue they are trying to change perceptions. They're putting a hand out.
19 Apr 2009
Today our presence is graced by Karen (Lamond). Back in 1990 she winged it with me on an assignment to Romania. She had me under false pretenses, she said she was going to be my assistant. Karen brought her unique qualities to the role. Duties that jeopardised feminine poise, such as pushing and lifting, were the privilege of the photographer. I'd been commission by LIFT to travel to Romania by invitation of their Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs. The assignment was to photograph 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' by the ironically titled 'Comedy Theatre of Bucharest'. The artists were now free of censorship and the prescriptive humour they were forced to perform under the dictatorship.
By the time we got there the population had been served Nicolae and Elena Caecescu for Christmas. Whilst their son Nicu was banged away we had the run of his pad and the sheets were still warm. This was the caotically assembled headquarters of the newly formed Ministry of Culture and we were their first guests. Nicu had led the playboy life-style and his vulgar pretensions spewed over everything. The bedroom was circular, the bed was round too. When the door was shut it disappeared in a vacuum into the gold flock wallpaper. Above the bed a chandelier of crystal stalactites threatened to impale it's occupants at the flick of a switch. On arrival we were met by the night-porter, a gnarled curmudgeon coming to terms with the seismic upheaval to his life. With a chalk finger he drew our attention to the lampshade. He could swear it quivered. 'Bucharest has a terrible history of earthquakes'.
Before we could give our hosts the gifts we bore from Scotland, it dawned on us that these perishables were to become our stable rations. At the International Hotel, the only place to eat, the vegetation had been wrestled from a mollusk- gastropod gastronomy. Karen was going through her pescetarian phase. The dishes on offer were a smorgasbord of grey, meat-based gelatinous knackerbrod. Anything would be better than this. So, Karen attempted to barter a tin of caviar from a waiter- Klass. These were the unique qualities she brought to the role of assistant. At night the city lights were extinguished to conserve power. The demonised gypsy population flooded the streets, besieging Bucharest until day-break. Curfew in Bucharest with Karen was a diet of smoked salmon, Drambuie and laughter. The things we brought fi hame.
The shoot was grueling but an invaluable education in the healing properties of laughter. On our last night I had a kilogram of banknotes and no possible way of spending it. I offered the cash to the theatre but they refused it, preferring to democratically blow the lot on a party- fair do's. Two of the staff were elected to get the drinks: one to carry, the other to make sure he didn't take off with the money. They returned peering over stacks of crates. The party took place in the committee room at the rear of the theatre. A beige cell lit by a bank of migraine inducing fluorescent tubes segregated by a monolithic table. At one end of the room an exhausted upright piano slumped against the wall. Karen asked for a change of lighting- good call. Moments later the lights were killed and a chicane of gold candelabras lined the length of the table. Her next request- some music. They happily obliged with a pair of guitars and the full Beatles back catalogue. An official with an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler frisked the piano and played "Boowgee Woowgie". "Does madam require anything more?" they gleefully pressed. "Two Pink Elephants" she replied, hurling the gauntlet squarely back at their feet. They came pirouetting back from the props department, trussed in pink hobby (horse) elephants. What a party!
In the intervening years she has become a successful and sought after beauty director and photographer. Karen learnt an important lesson; she'd need to change out of her Manolo's if she was going to travel down my path.