Identity is at the heart of The Diddakoi. Is there an intrinsic aspect of all of our personalities, forged by a combination of background, upbringing and cultural heritage, that is essentially non-negotiable? A core part of our beings so immutable, even from a tender age, that no degree of outside influence can alter it – and neither should it try? The plight of six-year-old Kizzy Lovell, a troubled gypsy girl marooned in a snooty, resolutely middle-class English village, suggests so.
And the touching irony at the centre of Kizzy’s plight is that the Romany heritage so integral to her identity is not enough to win the full acceptance of her own community. As a “Diddakoi”, she’s actually a half-gypsy, the daughter of a traveller father and an Irish mother; and as such finds herself an outcast from both her own extended family and from the population of the village that she is reluctantly forced to call home. Living in a traditional gypsy wagon, and spending the winter in the orchard belonging to kindly local toff Admiral Sir Archibald Cunningham-Twiss, she is effectively marooned in this rural bolthole when her guardian, actually her 100-year-old great-great grandmother, suddenly dies. In accordance with gypsy tradition, the wagon is burned to the ground by a small legion of unfeeling cousins that arrive to oversee the matter, and Kizzy’s only other companion – her beloved elderly horse, Joe – is decreed ready for the knacker’s yard, where “they’ll sell him for the hounds… he’ll be torn up.”
Understandably terrified, Kizzy takes Joe and attempts to escape, making it as far as Admiral Twiss’ ancestral home, Amberhurst House. Struck down with pneumonia after a freezing, sobbing night on the doorstep, she is slowly and touchingly nursed back to health by the Admiral himself, assisted by his old Navy batman Peters, and Nat, the “bow-legged groom” who runs the Amberhurst stables. The latter gleefully providing Joe with a loving and secure home, too. For a time, being cared for by three unlikely adopted guardians who never attempt to question or compromise her gypsy heritage, Kizzy finds blissful happiness. But once her recovery is complete, she finds the weight of village opinion – fuelled by racism, bureaucracy and occasional outbreaks of sheer brutality – to be heartbreakingly overwhelming.
And the book is brutal. When Kizzy is forced to attend the village primary school, typically cruel childhood teasings – instigated by Prudence, the stuck-up daughter of vile local busybody Mrs Cuthbert – escalate into a truly shocking scene in which she is ambushed by fourteen of her classmates and beaten to unconsciousness in a deserted alleyway. This is after a local magistrates court, with Mrs Cuthbert sniping from the sidelines, has decreed that Admiral Twiss, Peters and Nat (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) are unsuitable candidates to look after a small girl, and that an alternate foster family – or, indeed a children’s home – must be found.
Luckily for Kizzy, she finds herself living with one of the more tolerant villagers, Oliva Brooke: a vaguely bohemian singleton with a possibly romanticized view of the traveller lifestyle, but nevertheless a woman with boundless reserves of the patience and understanding required to look after a child who is understandably traumatised by grief, culture shock and her appalling treatment by the village at large. And she’s more understanding than most of Kizzy’s offbeat behaviour – as she pragmatically points out to the court hearing, “You can’t expect to have table manners when you haven’t a table.”
For as long as children’s literature has existed, what so few books have successfully captured is the sheer anger of being a child. Even those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed stable home lives have experienced it: the frustrating powerlessness of childhood – fuelled by the rigid boundaries of both family and school life – can easily spill over into blind, incoherent fury. Rumer Godden captures brilliantly those heart-thumping, head-swimming moments when the red mist descends, while tempering them touchingly with every child’s longing for the comfortably familiar. In Kizzy’s case, the waft of woodsmoke, the feel of her old clothes and – most moving of all – the touch and smell of her beloved horse, Joe. This noble, elderly beast is effectively her comfort blanket, and is the subject of a scene that unexpectedly reduced me to tears. It’s always the animals that get me right there.
I’m utterly unqualified to comment on the depiction of 1970s traveller communities in the book, but it felt – to this outsider – like it walked a commendable line between respecting the culture while steadfastly refusing to sentimentalize. But the depiction of Kizzy – her pride, her longing to be independent, and indeed her loyalty to that non-negotiable Romany identity, all that she has left of the life she once loved – is universal, and brilliant. And while the book’s conclusion is perhaps a little too pat and perfect, it would be hard to deprive such a vividly-drawn character of the happiness she deserves.
Point of Order: 33 years before writing The Diddakoi, Rumer Godden penned Black Narcissus, the inspiration behind Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s controversial 1947 film of the same title. And, in early 1976, The Diddakoi was adapted by the BBC into a six-part children’s serial, retitled as Kizzy. It’s a fine and faithful dramatisation, with a young Miriam Margolyes as a member of Kizzy’s extended family:
Mustiness Report: 8/10. Perfect. My copy has ripe, yellowed pages that smell reassuringly of woodsmoke and horses.