The perfect story for a hot May day, this is one which even suits the strange state of lockdown in which we are currently living. Joan Aiken said that favourite stories are like places you can re-visit, going back to somewhere you have known since childhood, and this one has a special magic, because it also turns into a wonderful dream of escape, and carries its heroine, and us, out of our own constricting four walls and away to the most beautiful garden imaginable.
This was the title story of only the second book she published, written, as she says in a time of great uncertainty, but in a tremendous burst of creativity. In a letter to a fan of her father Conrad Aiken’s stories she talks about their mutual creative process:
The story starts in a dusty city, the London which she knew well, in the area around Bloomsbury and the British Museum, (near the offices of her new publisher in Bedford Square!) where a mother and daughter (with whom I always identified!) lived, as in the best fairy tales, poor but not unhappy with their lot.
It has all the perfect ingredients, lovely details of place and appreciation of the small joys of life – cats, music, a fig tree, and that lovely cool blue bowl of radishes. We know that something good will come to Ermine and her mother, because they treasure the good things in their life. When misfortune strikes, they are rescued because of their care for others, and because they are open in their imaginations to the particular magic of the everyday.
In a publisher’s brief Joan wrote:
Joan Aiken’s own particular magic is in showing how, if you get off at a different bus stop, go round the wrong corner by mistake, quite unexpected things can happen, and you have to be on the look out for them and recognise your own good fortune.
I’m not going to tell you how the story goes on, or how it ends, it has such charm I think everyone should discover it for themselves, and I hope it takes you all away to a special magical place of your own.
A review in the Times Literary Supplement when the book first came out said:
From my hot, dusty, London May day, to wherever you may be,
Here is a lovely cooling dream.
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The story can be found in The Gift Giving from Virago Modern Classics
along with many more favourite stories
also available as an EBook so you needn’t wait too long!
Cover illustration at the top from the US edition by long time friend and collaborator
When the writer Joan Aiken heard a powerfully melancholy piece of music that was written to save an island, this story, and the story told by the music itself, inspired her to write her own book about a lost island.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Farewell to Stromness when the future of the Orkney Islands where he lived, was threatened by a proposal to mine there for uranium, known locally as Yellow Cake. His music formed part of a protest performance on Orkney called The Yellow Cake Revue, which helped put paid to the horrific project. His hypnotic piano piece, only five minutes long has become a poignant part of many people’s lives, played at weddings and funerals, bringing peace, comfort and hope.
But it is not an entirely friendly piece; it begins with a gentle walking rhythm, that suggests tradition, familiarity, the pace of daily life, with difficulties maybe, moments of deeper feeling, but nothing too unexpected. Then the music begins to change at the early midpoint of its five minute length, when a strange new, more threatening tune appears; it begins to climb steeply, not strolling any more, there are difficulties, turns, threats and challenges and the way has to be followed round crags, up mountains, over high bridges, through mists and fog – we are in danger – until at last the light appears through the mist, first dimly then welcoming and then blazing, and home is seen again. The earlier rhythm returns, this time more like the rocking of a boat, and quietens, takes us in its arms into the rocking of a lullabye. Finally it softens, and fades, gently into history. The danger has been surmounted, but the experience remains.
Inspired by this powerful musical expression of resistance, Joan Aiken wrote a story called The Scream, which also references the famous Munch painting of that name. Here the original inhabitants are forced from their homes on a Scottish island which is due to be poisoned for a scientific experiment. Brought up on their own myths, they had believed local dangers to be wrought by Kelpies – water demons, very hostile to humans – “Before the time of electricity, radio, motors, long-range missiles, aircraft, people thought seriously about such things.” Now the islanders have to adapt their way of life to towns and tower blocks, but underneath they have brought with them a powerful magic which is stirring and seeking to return, and finally it breaks out in a great Scream, with the force of a tidal wave, and with this power the island is reclaimed.
As the daughter of the writer Joan Aiken, I was brought up on stories that saw me through dangers and rocked me to sleep. We shared music too, and this piece which recalled the Scottish folk tunes her mother sang, spoke to us both of our roots, and a love of islands, many of which we had visited together. The last one we visited before she died was the Channel Island of Herm, and we joked about it being our Herm from Herm. Sitting on a shore of sea shells, she told me how she had always longed to be on Desert Island Discs, and had often thought about her music choices when waiting to fall asleep at night. One of her choices would have been Farewell to Stromness, and so we had it played at her funeral, to see her safely home.
I would love to hear it played for her on Desert Island Discs, and for all of us in this new time of danger, to remind us that stories, and music help us to find a way back to safety.
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Hear Farewell to Stromness played by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
More about The Scream here:
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The illustration at the top is by Arvis Stuart from the cover of a children’s play by Joan Aiken called Winterthing – another mythical island which disappears each winter
At least these unexpected visitors can’t come into the house!
Joan Aiken’s imaginary family began in her stories about them as a tongue in cheek parody of her own childhood, but turned into lifelong companions, a family who always dealt with the vicissitudes of life with charm and good humour, and just a little magic…
Even when the parents are turned into ladybirds, in Armitage, Armitage Fly Away Home, or the family cat becomes a wolf, or when they are sharing their bathroom with a ghost, or their garden with unicorns, nothing seems to disturb them for long, but in these days of lockdown, or sheltering at home – how would they fare?
In one story, The Apple of Trouble, Mark and Harriet are left at home in the care of their tetchy and very old-fashioned Great Uncle Gavin while their parents are away, and he proceeds to take them firmly in hand.
“Little gels should be seen and not heard,” he boomed at
Harriet, whenever she opened her mouth. To get her out from
underfoot, he insisted on her enrolling in a domestic
science course run by a Professor Grimalkin, who had
recently come to live in the village.
As for Mark, he had hardly a minute’s peace.
“Bless my soul, boy”—nearly all Great-uncle Gavin’s
remarks began with this request—“Bless my soul, what are you
doing now? Reading? Bless my soul, do you want to grow up a
“A muff, Great-uncle? What is a muff, exactly?” And Mark
pulled out the notebook in which he was keeping a glossary of
“A muff, why, a muff is a—a funk, sir, a duffer, a frowst, a
tug, a swot, a miserable little sneaking milksop!”
Mark was so busy writing down all these words that he
forgot to be annoyed.
“You ought to be out of doors, sir, ought to be out playin’
“But you need twenty-two people for that,” Mark pointed
out, “and there’s only Harriet and me. Besides it’s summer. And
Harriet’s a bit of a duffer at French cricket.”
“Don’t be impident, boy! Gad, when I was your age, I’d have
been out collectin’ birds’ eggs.”
“Birds’ eggs,” said Mark, scandalized. “But I’m a subscribing
member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.”
“Butterflies, then,” growled his great-uncle.
Mark is presented with a bicycle on which he is ordered to take his daily exercise, even in the pouring rain, but by a stroke of luck just when he is at the end of his tether, he meets a man who offers to exchange the bike for a golden apple.
“Nice, eh?” the little man said, giving the apple to Mark,
who nearly dropped it on the floor. It must have weighed at least
“Is it real gold all through?” he asked. “Must be quite valuable.”
“Valuable?” the man said impressively. “Such apple is
beyond price. You, of course, well-educated, familiar with Old
Testament tale of Adam and Eve?”
“W-why, yes,” Mark said, stammering a little. “But you—you
don’t mean to say that apple—?”
“Self same one,” the little man said, nodding his head.
“Original bite marks of Adam and Eve before apple carried out
of Eden. Then—see stain? Blood of Abel. Cain killed him for
apple. Stain will never wash off.”
“Goodness,” Mark said.
But his Uncle is not impressed when Mark relates what the little man has told him about the Golden Apple’s long and powerful history:
Great-uncle Gavin nearly burst a blood vessel when he learned
that Mark had exchanged his new bicycle for an apple, albeit a
“Did what—merciful providence—an apple?—Hesperides?
Eden? Asgard? Never heard such a pack of moonshine in all me
born—let’s see it, then. Where is it?”
Mark produced the apple and a curious gleam lit up Uncle
“Mind,” he said, “don’t believe a word of the feller’s tale,
but plain that’s val’ble; far too val’ble an article to be in your
hands, boy. Better give it here at once…
Mark felt curiously relieved to be rid of the apple, as if a load
had been lifted from his mind as well as his pocket.
He ran upstairs, whistling. Harriet, as usual, was in her room
mixing things in retorts and crucibles. When Uncle Gavin, as in
duty bound, asked each evening what she had been learning that
day in her domestic science course, she always replied briefly,
“Spelling.” “Spellin’, gel? Rum notion of housekeepin’ the johnny
seems to have. Still, daresay it keeps you out of mischief.” In
fact, as Harriet had confided to Mark, Professor Grimalkin was
a retired alchemist who, having failed to find the Philosopher’s
Stone, was obliged to take in pupils to make ends meet.
However the Apple of Discord is soon discovered by its true owners (calling themselves The Kindly Ones, but looking most alarming with bats’ wings and snakes for hair) who arrive on the doorstep and refuse to leave without avenging their loss:
“And what did you wish to see Sir Gavin about?” Mark knew
his great-uncle hated to be disturbed once he was settled in the
evening with a glass of port and The Times.
“We attend him who holds the apple.”
“There is blood on it—a brother’s blood, shed by a
“It cries for vengeance.”
“Oh, I see!” said Mark, beginning to take in the situation.
Now he understood why the little man had been so anxious for a
Then the three wolfish ladies disconcertingly burst into a
sort of hymn, shaking tambourines and beating on them with
brass-studded rods which they pulled out from among their
“We are the daughters
Of darkness and time
We follow the guilty
We punish the crime
Nothing but bloodshed
Will settle old scores
So blood has to flow and
That blood must be yours!”
Harriet puts her home ‘Spelling’ lessons to good use to create a friendship philtre to attempt to make the ‘Kindly Ones’ see reason, while Mark makes a bow and arrows of horn to discourage the visitors – but things don’t go entirely to plan…
By the time the Armitage parents are due to return home and Great Uncle Gavin is despatched back to his life abroad, the house is more or less returned to normal, except that the three ladies seem to have enjoyed their visit and sometimes return to sleep in the coal cellar.
And Mark and Harriet and their friendly ghost
have their home to themselves at last.
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Story from Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden, the complete Armitage Family stories
Illustrations by Andi Watson in the US and Peter Bailey in the UK
Tales from different times… Joan Aiken’s hero Felix Brooke, and Jane Austen’s ‘Susan’ – or should that be Catherine Morland..?
Joan Aiken’s passion for history often led her to wonder what if things had turned out differently? What if, for instance, Jane Austen’s early novel, originally entitled ‘Susan’ when she sold it to a publisher in 1803, and which then languished unpublished until she furiously bought it back for £10 thirteen years later, had in fact come out, maybe without the knowledge of its author, and had been a treasured possession, carried in the pocket of a young English nobleman when he ran away to join the Peninsular wars in Spain at the beginning of the 19th century.
The young man falls in love, and marries an aristocratic Spanish girl who dies having his baby, and he watches over the boy, disguised as a groom until his own death. He leaves a letter, and his treasured book, to the boy, Felix Brooke, with a message telling him to seek out his long lost family in the city of Bath in England, where the action of Austen’s novel had taken place. For Joan Aiken imagined that the book was actually Jane Austen’s early novel, ‘Northanger Abbey’ written in the full enthusiasm and confidence of youth, and a delightful parody of all the Gothic romances so popular at the time.
Austen’s novel is a description of an innocent abroad (although in her case it is a first visit to a big city) a heroine with a head full of fantasy from reading too many novels, who finds herself alone in a dangerous society, struggling to make sense of the behaviour of unscrupulous villains – or apparently solicitous friends – with nothing but the world of fiction to guide her. This is much the same situation in which Joan Aiken’s Spanish orphan, young Felix Brooke finds himself, but in a truly wild and Gothic landscape with terrifying brigands and murderers, mountain tribesmen looking for a human sacrifice, or even pirates who specialise in the kidnap of children…and he only has the assistance of Austen’s novel to sustain and comfort him.
In Joan Aiken’s Go Saddle the Sea Felix tells us about it as he is recounting his story:
“The book, Susan, was an odd tale about a young lady and her quest for a husband; to tell truth, I wondered what my father had seen in it, that he had even carried it with him into battle; I found it rather dull, but since it had been my father’s I kept it carefully (his bloodstains were on the cover).”
Later in his adventures, having escaped various perils by the skin of his teeth and the use of his not inconsiderable wits, Felix has time to look into the book again, and reconsiders:
“I had opened it at the place where Miss Susan, going to stay with her great friends in their abbey-residence, is terrified at night by a fearful storm and the discovery of a paper,hid in a closet in her bedroom, which she takes to be the confession of some wicked deed of blood – only to find, next day, that the mysterious paper is naught but a washing bill! For the first time, this struck me as very comical; yet, reading it through again, I could see that the writer had represented the poor young lady’s terrors very skilfully; just such a nightmarish terror had I felt myself among those unchancy people in that heathen village – and yet for all I knew, my fears were equally foolish and unfounded! I began to see that this was not such a simple tale as I had hitherto supposed, but must be attended to carefully; and I gave my father credit for better judgement than I had at first…wondering what kind of man my father had been..and hoping that some person in England would be able to tell me more about him.”
In an article for the Jane Austen Society, Joan Aiken describes with relish the content of Mrs. Radcliffe’s bestseller, The Mysteries of Udolpho, which Austen had gleefully satirised:
“If we take a look at the works of Mrs. Radcliffe, we can easily see what tempted the youthful Jane Austen to poke fun at them…[they were] enormous historical canvases splashed over with forests and beetling fortresses and dark crags in the Appennines. Mrs. Radcliffe went in for immense casts of characters on a positively Shakespearian scale (she was in fact much influenced by Shakespeare for whom she had great admiration); she had stabbings and shootings, suicides and assassinations, immensely complicated family relationships, long-lost relatives in every possible connection, suggestions of incest, mysterious resemblances, and, besides all this, a large number of startling, apparently supernatural occurrences..”
From this we can see that these earlier writers had an equally powerful influence on Joan Aiken’s own work, and by setting her novel, Go Saddle the Sea in a rip roaring Gothic world of her own imagination in 19th century Spain, and with a nod to Austen’s own parody, she could have the best of all worlds!
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Go Saddle the Sea is the first of the three ‘Felix’ Novels in EBook editions in the UK
For more details visit the Joan Aiken page at Random House
or visit the Felix pages at The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken
Joan Aiken’s Gothic imagination is wonderfully matched in this trilogy
by the illustrations of Pat Marriott