The artistic director of this year’s A Town Explores a Book (ATEAB) festival, Gail Borrow, shares the insights of two of the key artists involved.

The artist known simply as Arran has lived in the town for over four years and identifies as a New Traveller. He is passionate about the problems facing the travelling community.

“My installation in Stella Dore Gallery for ATEAB 22 responds to the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, set to be made law at the end of April, in England. It will criminalise my family and my community’s choice to travel our so-called ‘free’ land.” 

Arran’s family’s lives have become increasingly stressful over the last nine months as potentially life-changing legislation has been progressing through parliamentary processes to become law in England. If the bill passes into law in its current form, it will leave his community liable to arrest in their present lifestyle. They fear their homes being confiscated and the possible nightmare of their children being taken from them.

This year’s book is Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi. It was written fifty years ago but is still very relevant. It is about a young mixed-race central character of Romany heritage forced into an unwanted lifestyle change. While acknowledging that aspects of heritage literature can be problematic – due to shifts in social values and attitudes and a changing publishing industry – this year’s book choice reflects contemporary exper-ience, provoking a focus on Hastings and St Leonards-on-Sea’s marginalised transient communities.

There are no legal sites for travellers in Hastings. East Sussex County Council manage four sites for permanent residents of the Gypsy, Romany and Traveller communities, at Polegate, Hailsham, Maresfield and Robertsbridge and a transit site, Bridies Tan, at Lewes. But, Hastings has nothing. And there are long waiting lists for pitches in the sites that do exist in East Sussex.

Arran does not want to leave Hastings, as his young daughter attends a nursery, his teenage children are in education and his work is based in the town. He reflects that just contributing to this article, “brought me into sobs of tears to see in actual writing, in my own words, the facts, the situation this law is bringing to us.” Arran’s work has been funded by Arts Council England (ACE) and now, through the ATEAB 22 festival, he is able to articulate something of the crisis facing a people with nowhere left to go. He puts it sharply and succinctly: “what can we do – fly?” His work can be seen from Monday 4 April to Thursday 7 April in Stella Dore Gallery, Norman Road.

Jake Bowers, a Hastings-based writer, journalist and Romany blacksmith, is also ACE funded. This has enabled him to explore public sculpture within the festival. Adding to contemporary conversations about subjects in English public sculpture, Jake has worked with Hastings Academy students and members of the Gypsy, Romany and Traveller communities to create a new public sculpture for Gensing Gardens. It is thought to be the first public sculpture in England of a mixed-race child of Romany heritage.

Jake reflects, “We have lived in Britain for over 500 years and there are no statues of us in public places, so it’s only fitting that we have immortalised Kizzy Lovell, the first Romany central protagonist in English literature, in heavy metal. Iron is a material that has accompanied the Gypsy nation on its long journey from India and it’s woven deeply into our culture. When you wish someone good health in Romani you say ‘Te Aves Sastipe’, which translates as ‘may you be like iron!’ As Britain debates who should be immortalised in public places and what that says about us as a diverse nation, it’s been a pleasure to add Kizzy Lovell’s presence to the debate.” 

The Kizzy sculpture will be unveiled on Friday 1 April at 4 pm in Gensing Gardens; the day that the ATEAB 22 festival begins. It will then be removed, after the festival, to be galvanised, thanks to Heritage Lottery Funding. Pending planning permission from Hastings Borough Council, it will be installed permanently, to mark Gensing Gardens’ 150th anniversary. 

The whole festival should give us much to think about. 

The festival runs from 1-18 April. For more details of all events in the ATEAB 22 festival go to atownexploresabook.com

For more details of the book itself here


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