Alex Diaz-Manero asks me not to tell how much he has been living in London. “It’s confidencial — he says — only my best friend knows it and if he tells he would be violating the Data Protection Act”. He is one of the instigators of The London School of Castells, one of the some samples of this cultural fact worldwide.
With a huge increase of Catalan population due to the Spanish Crisis, it was already time that somebody engaged a Castells-related activity
So we decided to have a nice Q&A with him.
Tell me about the school of castells, how did it started? And, especially, why?
I am the administrator of a Facebook group named “Catalans a Londres” that now has near 2000 people in it. There I met Ingrid Hurtado, who comes from Micacos de Badalona. My sisters were at that Colla for some years and already met Ingrid. Anyway, it was Ingrid who asked “why don’t we create a colla castellera in London?”. That put the idea in my mind and I thought “ok let’s start looking for people, Facebook is a great tool for that purpose”. Also I commented with people also had considered to do workshops to practice the technique. At first we did the first workshops at Regent’s Park in the summer of 2013.
I hope that, being a school is there someone who already did castells?
Yes, there are already up to ten people with ample experience who reside in London or its outskirts and who have come at least once to the workshops. They can teach the novices that come along. But so far has not been possible to gather them all at the same day and time. And there are more people interested with experience but they are working long hours or weekends in London or live too far away and sadly cannot attend.
How many people are attending the school of castells, usually?
Attendance numbers in the last four workshops this year have been 14, 18, 22 and 14 people (it was to be 20 people but six of them dropped out at the last minute)
Is it a free activity or it’s a paid one?
It is free. We have access to an atrium in a hospital for free.
The attendees have to bring anything, like the sash or the helmet?
I have got a few spare “faixes” (sashes) and some regulars have already purchased one faixa. The experienced people usually bring their own “faixes”. If “canalla” were to attend a helmet would have to be obtained if the kid is to climb over “segons”. Otherwise the kids would only do “pom de dalt” at ground level.
How has been the reception from the londoners? Do they attend the school?
Do you mean “English people”? We are all Londoners! you know? So far we have had one american and one german attending. No English people has engaged yet in this activity yet. I think one or two have come as guests of Catalan participants but they just sat and watch. In any case, the focus now is to gather a “core” grup of people with similar idiosyncrasy (mainly Catalan) and with expertise. After that we could consider publicising and bringing in other nationalities. London is a “Babel tower”. You can find here people from all over the world.
Is this school of castells a previous step to establish a colla in London?
It is a step to build trust among people and to get to know each other. If we manage to get enough people committed to this activity then, why not? we could form a “colla castellera a Londres”. We shall see. It is hard work to encourage and persuade people who doesn´t know you (or knows you scarcely) to come and join an activity, even if this activity is free.
Have you got the support of any colla?
No, but there is people in London who brings experience from several different colles. People at the Facebook group “Castellers” have been very supportive so far.
London is a city plenty of catalans, why do you think there has not been a colla or even a school of castells until now?
The idea was there. But how do you reach them all and find the ones interested in this activity, or any other? How do you manage to gather a good bunch of them at the same place and time? And then you have to count with the unpredictable weather or cold windy winters… Better it be a covered place. It was clear to me very early that finding a centric covered place with high roof (and ideally free) was a key component for the workshops to get off the ground. But then you have “Health and safety laws” which are stringent in the UK. UK people are mad about security at work and in places in general. Just think that we all paid a gym membership and booked a hall with tall roof, do you think we would able to do this workshop? No, we wouldn’t ! Someone (eventually a manager) would come to us and tell us “we deem this activity too dangerous and you cannot do this activity here because of Health and safety reasons”. Can you imagine that? I am not making this up, UK idiosyncrasy is like this. Once, in the Whitechapel sport centre we hired the hall to play basketball and we wanted to take a picture of us after the game. And employee of the gym came and told us “No pictures are allowed to be taken in this hall”. The English people call it “Nanny state”: always telling what you can and cannot do. The hospital also said “No” at first (because of health and safety reasons) but the law has clauses allowing for “waivers”. So we asked the hospital “And if we all sign waivers by which if any of us gets injured while using the premises, the hospital is in no way responsible?” Then they said “Yes, if you sign waivers you can use the atrium”. I couldn´t believe my luck.
Are you planning any shows around?
Enough people have been contacted to do a pilar of 4 but we have not discussed this topic yet. First things first, first it is necessary to gather enough people committed, and build trust. And then set up a “legal framework” and hire insurance. Then you can plan shows.
What are the expectations within the next year?
“No expectations, no disappointment”. It would be nice if the workshops consolidate. But that I mean that a growing number of people attend the workshops regularly and meet and get to trust other Castellers in London. All with “bon rollo” (good atmosphere). I wouldn’t like to put a figure but progress and success is measured in numbers, it would be nice to reach over 40 people at a workshop and that a basic 3 de 5 or 4 de 5 can be erected “safely” (that’s a pinya, segons i un “pom de dalt”). In any case, it would be nice to have enough people readily available to do that (3 de 5 , 4 de 5) in a symbolic act on a meaningful date like 11th September or 9th November, if you can ascertain my meaning as a show of Catalan culture in London. This forthcoming Sunday there will be a celebration of Sant Jordi at Borough Market. Laia and I talked about it but we agreed there was not enough time and not enough commitment (and trust) among people yet to plan anything for Sunday 27 April. It would be nice though, if in 2015 if we could do a castell by then. We shall see.
If you want to know more about the London School of Castells, I highly encourage you to get in contact with Alex via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I remind you as well that on June 8th Colla Joves Xiquets de Valls will be performing in London, in front of the London Tower Bridge, as a part of Human Towers for Democracy. You can still make a pledge for this project to be possible here: catalanswanttovote.cat.
Featured photo: Castellers de Vilafranca raise a Td7 in front of London Tower Bridge on April 2013.