The 2022 A Town Explores A Book festival centres around Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi on the 50th anniversary of its publication. Festival director, Gail Borrow outlines what’s in store. 

A Town Explores A Book originated in 2017 when ExploreTheArch Theatre Company joined creative businesses and community organisations in St Leonards-on-Sea to develop a festival led by readers which provided a platform for voices not usually heard in similar events.

The festival is not so much a literary event as a complete community arts festival covering 18 days in the school spring holiday and celebrating a wide variety of creative responses to various themes in the chosen writing. Previous years have focused on heritage works including Edward Lear’s poetry and H G Well’s The Time Machine. This year we are exploring Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi on its 50th anniversary of publication in 1972. The Diddakoi is the powerful story of an orphan of Romany heritage called Kizzy, who faces persecution, grief and loss of lifestyle in a hostile, close-knit village community. A key event this year will be when we mark – for the first time in the town – International Romany Day on Friday 8 April at Electro Studios Studio Space. 

Young adult author Patrice Lawrence cites The Diddakoi as the book that articulated how she felt as a child of colour growing up in Sussex. Patrice is judging the festival’s creative writing competition for 7-14 year olds themed around kindness. She’s joined by fellow young adult writer, Catherine Johnson, and a panel including coordinator Hannah Collisson, festival mentee Lily Bowers, Hastings Museum and Art Gallery’s learning officer Foteini Athanasiadou and this year’s festival ambassador, Jean Lancaster.

A 1976 children’s television series, Kizzy was based on the award-winning children’s novel. One viewer, Nicolette Howard, remembers it well. “I didn’t come across the book, but that series was my defining childhood television experience. It made such an impact on me.” In the narrative, Admiral Twiss is criticised by the village
for hosting mixed race child of Romany heritage, Kizzy, and her great- great grandmother in his orchard. Admiral Twiss respectfully refers to Kizzy’s carer as Mrs Lovell unlike the majority of villagers.

An exhibition by various community artists at the Southwater Area Community Centre will respond to Rumer Godden’s protagonist Kizzy who is placed in foster care after Mrs Lovell’s death. The exhibition is titled DisPLACED and Nick Hill the coordinator, has steered its focus on the experiences of people being displaced in the community. The art exhibition marks the Southwater Area Community Centre’s twentieth year. Other festival events at this venue include manager Cath Tajima Powell’s free breakfast book readings for families from Monday 4-Friday 8 April, 9-10am with breakfast.

Here are some of the other highlights of the festival:

Unveiling in Gensing Gardens

Kizzy – Jake Bowers’ sculpture in progress

Dan Allum and Jake Bowers from the Gypsy, Romany and Traveller communities are opening the festival on Friday 1 April in a series of events across the town. Jake’s sculpture of Kizzy will be unveiled in Gensing Gardens at 4pm along with outdoor art installations generated by an extensive schools festival workshop programme that artists have delivered over the last month, engaging 2000 children. This is funded by the festival’s Crowd Funder, Hastings Museum and Art Gallery funding, Chalk Cliff Trust, East Sussex Community Foundation, Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Funding for the marking of #GensingGardens150 throughout the year.

The private view of Southwater’s community art exhibition follows on from the park event at 5-7pm.

Opening Night Bavard Bar

In the key ticketed event on Friday 1 April, Tim B’vard hosts speakers from the Gypsy, Romany and Traveller communities, Dan Allum, Jess Bailey and Jake Bowers at Kino Teatr.. It is a slightly different format to the usual Bavard evening, a unique opportunity to experience previously unheard stories. Matt Armstrong, musician of Romany heritage, with Jude Cowan Montague will weave music through this evening, platforming voices in a community fundamentally impacted by the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill set to become law at the end of April 2022.

Neighbourhood Art Trail

Hastings and Bexhill Mencap’s Active Arts team is leading a neighbourhood art trail along with the Seaview and Arts on Prescription communities plus individuals working with Mark Daniels and Erica Smith at Hattons Yard. This project is called Model Makers, inspired by Godden’s unconventional character, Admiral Twiss, a war veteran with a passion for making models. Conjuring the 1970s cereal packet and glue creativity that pervaded 70s TV children’s programmes, the models will comprise a neighbourhood art trail throughout St Leonards on Sea.

Chapter Readings

I’ll be chairing the festival’s free Let’s talk About This Book event on Saturday 2 April 5-7pm also at Southwater Centre. It features Rumer Godden’s nephew, Simon Foster, and the two writers and journalists of Romany Heritage, Dan Allum and Jake Bowers. Dan Allum, from Cambridgeshire, who has previously abridged The Diddakoi for Radio 4 extra, will also be reading excepts from the book in Teddy Tinker’s free chapter reading events on Saturday 2 and Sunday 3 April at 3pm.

Themed menus

Through the festival’s eighteen days, 1-18 April, St Leonards on Sea’s eateries and creative businesses will be offering themed menus, art in cafes and the window displays that have become of the best loved aspects of the festival. The Zoom Artists collective are exhibiting in Oscar’s on the Square and Teddy Tinker’s window display celebrates a specific transient community that birthed with advent of canals in England– the team are designing their shop window display around ‘bargeware’ to recognise those who have lived and travelled on barges and live in houseboats today.

Easter events.

New for the 2022 Festival is a Kings Road Street party and Peddler’s Parade on Easter Saturday 16 April.

Also running over the final Easter weekend, Thursday 14 – Monday 18 April, performers Yasmin Aishah and Hannah Collisson present a new exper-iential theatre performance at ExploreTheArch’s venue, Archer Lodge. This is a promenade outdoor performance to the performers’ created garden hideouts based on their childhood experience. Like Godden’s protagonist, Kizzy, they seek magical personal spaces to reflect on the known and unknown of relatives, residences and ritual from their mixed race heritage. 

Further information

• Go to for details of events or visit the main website

• Opening Night Kino – tickets £12

• Entries for the creative writing competition will be accepted up to 31 March. Short list and prize winners announced on Easter Sunday 17 April on the website where young writers can submit their entries.

• Festival programmes available from creative businesses and the Station Ticket Office in St Leonards on Sea.

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