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Olivia Laing on Rumer Godden, Slightly Foxed Issue 16

Learning to Swaller It

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The best days of my childhood were spent in a borrowed horse-drawn wagon, ricocheting up and down the semi-sheer slopes of the Wicklow Mountains, reins firmly grasped in small hands. I loved Cinnamon, our plump and stoical horse. I loved the jangling harnesses and the neat little bow-top with its folding beds. Most of all, I loved the footloose, fly-by-night pleasures of the gypsy life.

The idyll was temporary. Back home, I daydreamed about buying a horse and solemnly set about acquiring curry combs and harnesses in preparation for my new career. But I couldn’t help noticing that one was as likely to spot a wagon pulled up on the verge as to spy an otter in the stream or a red kite wheeling above the hedge. The traditional Romany life was in decline, and thanks to the chance discovery of The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden, I realized that that almost-lost world was rather harsher than I had thought.

The story, as befits an audience of 9 and upwards (although it is, as Kingsley Amis observed, ‘the sort of book children had to fight for to get it from adults’), is simple and concerns the fortunes of Kizzy Lovell, a half-gypsy orphan living with her grandmother in a caravan on the outskirts of a Kentish village. For the first seven years of her life, Kizzy has managed to evade the attention of the authorities. To a child, the blissful implications could not be clearer. So far, Kizzy has escaped the indignities of school.

But such bucolic pleasures cannot last. Out selling flowers, Kizzy inadvertently makes the acquaintance of Mrs Cuthbert. Every village in England used to sport its own Mrs Cuthbert, ‘busy doing good to people whether they likes it or not’; these days I imagine they are more commonly to be found drafting health and safety policies at governmental level. School, Mrs Cuthbert informs Kizzy, is non-negotiable, and so the stage is set for a formidable battle of wills.

As a child, I always warmed to heroines who scowled, but K

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The best days of my childhood were spent in a borrowed horse-drawn wagon, ricocheting up and down the semi-sheer slopes of the Wicklow Mountains, reins firmly grasped in small hands. I loved Cinnamon, our plump and stoical horse. I loved the jangling harnesses and the neat little bow-top with its folding beds. Most of all, I loved the footloose, fly-by-night pleasures of the gypsy life.

The idyll was temporary. Back home, I daydreamed about buying a horse and solemnly set about acquiring curry combs and harnesses in preparation for my new career. But I couldn’t help noticing that one was as likely to spot a wagon pulled up on the verge as to spy an otter in the stream or a red kite wheeling above the hedge. The traditional Romany life was in decline, and thanks to the chance discovery of The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden, I realized that that almost-lost world was rather harsher than I had thought. The story, as befits an audience of 9 and upwards (although it is, as Kingsley Amis observed, ‘the sort of book children had to fight for to get it from adults’), is simple and concerns the fortunes of Kizzy Lovell, a half-gypsy orphan living with her grandmother in a caravan on the outskirts of a Kentish village. For the first seven years of her life, Kizzy has managed to evade the attention of the authorities. To a child, the blissful implications could not be clearer. So far, Kizzy has escaped the indignities of school. But such bucolic pleasures cannot last. Out selling flowers, Kizzy inadvertently makes the acquaintance of Mrs Cuthbert. Every village in England used to sport its own Mrs Cuthbert, ‘busy doing good to people whether they likes it or not’; these days I imagine they are more commonly to be found drafting health and safety policies at governmental level. School, Mrs Cuthbert informs Kizzy, is non-negotiable, and so the stage is set for a formidable battle of wills. As a child, I always warmed to heroines who scowled, but Kizzy Lovell does far more than that. Loathed on sight by the village girls (‘she spoils the look of the school’), she meets the prejudice and bullying that come her way with dignity where possible and small fists where not. Kizzy is not above punching or hair-pulling. Indeed, on one notable occasion in the Children’s Court in Rye, she goes so far as to spit, the eloquence of her response not missed by the officer assigned to her case. The bullying is compounded by an unfortunate coincidence. Soon after Kizzy starts at the hated school, her Gran dies. Within hours the Smiths and Does, fellow gypsies, roll up and burn the wagon as tradition demands (though not before stripping it, in a profoundly untraditional manner, of its Crown Derby china). They also threaten to sell Kizzy’s beloved horse, Joe, to the knackers’ yard and resolve to shunt ‘the diddakoi’ into care. Cold, baffled and grief-stricken, Kizzy flees to the only ally she can think of: Admiral Sir Archibald Cunningham Twiss, lord of the manor, recluse, and about the kindest man ever to set foot in a children’s book. The village are afraid of Admiral Twiss, who lives all alone, watched over by his two ‘gnomes’, Peters the housekeeper and Nat the groom. Neither Peters nor Nat holds with women, and the Admiral is ‘shy of them, shy and wary’. But between Kizzy and the Admiral there develops a profound accord. After succumbing to pneumonia, Kizzy is nursed back to health by the three men, and there she might happily have remained were it not for a second interference on the part of Mrs Cuthbert. As with all the best redemption stories, Kizzy has to undergo a good deal more misfortune before she achieves a lasting happiness. Rumer Godden was an adult novelist and playwright (Black Narcissus and The Greengage Summer are among her best-known works) who occasionally turned her hand to children’s books. Raised in India and educated in England, she spent much of her life shuttling back and forth between the two, ‘perpetually homesick for one or the other’. However cheerful one’s disposition, such an upbringing inevitably brings with it a sense of dislocation, and it is this understanding of the outsider’s lot that lends The Diddakoi its distinctive and emotive pull, allowing it to endure when the world it describes has long disappeared. The modern child reader may never have seen a gypsy wagon, but he or she couldn’t fail to be delighted by Kizzy’s stalwart refusal to change who she is. Kizzy has attitude in spades, though Godden herself would have called it spunk. I recently revisited Kizzy during a prolonged convalescence from my own pneumonia, acquired while camping with nomads in the Ethiopian desert. As a child, much as I liked the happy ending, what I had really revelled in was the sheer ecstasy of grief into which I could plunge on contemplating any one of the tragedies that Kizzy so bravely faced. Take this scene, for example, as Nat consoles her over the loss of Joe:
‘You have to swaller this. Swaller it down. Joe was a hoss and, like it or not, hosses won’t last you all your life. They come and go; dealin’ with hosses you have to learn that. Near broke my heart, I did, when Royal went at Beechers.’ Admiral Twiss said the same, ‘I lost Rainbird,’ and said it of his grandmother, Kezia. ‘She used to have an Arab mare, a white one called Silver. Silver used to come up the front steps for sugar and follow her like a dog.’ ‘What happened to Silver?’ ‘Broke a leg out hunting.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘Had to be shot.’ The Admiral said it abruptly as if he could not bear to think of it even now and Kizzy put her hands over her ears – she seemed to hear that shot – but, ‘You have to swaller it,’ said Nat.
What is appealing to a child does not always hold up to adult scrutiny. But all the pleasures of The Diddakoi have remained intact. My blood still boiled at the injustices heaped upon Kizzy due to her twin misfortune of being both a child in an adult world and a diddakoi in a gorgio one. I still revelled in the humbling of her enemies and hankered after the wagon and horse. My tears were just as hot and, for all the horrors Kizzy faces, I ended the book as ever I did: by wishing fervently that I too could be a gypsy girl. But the spell Godden weaves is not without purpose. If she makes Kizzy’s world beguiling, then it is for one reason alone: to encourage acceptance and to combat the prejudices that have always attended the gypsy life. Really, who could ask for more of a children’s book?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 16 © Olivia Laing 2007


About the contributor

Olivia Laing is a journalist living in Sussex. She has neither wagon nor horse, but she continues to live in hope.

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