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Arabel Meets Mortimer – Riotous Raven of Rumbury Town…!

MortFridge

It was a dark and stormy night (of course!) when Mortimer entered the life of Arabel and the Jones family – and Rumbury Town N.W.3 and-a-half would never be the same again.  Arabel’s Raven is the first of the many tales of his adventures with the Jones Family told by Joan Aiken and masterfully characterised by Quentin Blake’s illustrations.  The devoted pair appeared on a series of Jackanory readings, and then in books and a puppet series for the BBC which earned them a following of fans of all ages.

It was love at first sight – and forever – for the pair who Joan Aiken rather wickedly described as her version of the relationship between the ego and the id – Arabel never does anything wrong, and Mortimer does what he likes:

MortFridge1

Before too long chaos reigns in Rumbury Town, and Mortimer (through no fault of his own of course!) is in the thick of it:

MortRaid

Amazingly he does, with the evil squirrel strapped to his back, and is soon holed up in the gangsters’ hideout – while Arabel goes into a decline, wondering where her friend can be?  But soon everyone is on his trail…  and now strange things are happening at Rumbury Tube station, but no one can solve the mystery?ReporterReporter1Reporter2Pretty soon everyone is going round the bend, and it is up to Arabel to keep her wits about her and unravel the hilarious trail of chaos that leads her back to Mortimer…will she ever be parted from him again? 

“Nevermore!” says Mortimer.

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Read more about Arabel & Mortimer and the BBC Puppet Series

on the Joan Aiken Website

NEW EDITIONS  now out from Puffin Books

ArabelAndMortimerStories NEW

 Bumper edition with Six Hilarious Stories!

The ever mysterious Joan Aiken…

HGazebo crop

Who was the real Joan Aiken, and how far did she go in writing about her own life?

“This story is just too hard to swallow!” was the editor’s note on an early story she submitted. Remembering this years later, she said:  “He was talking about the only story I ever wrote, flat, from real life, and it taught me a useful lesson about the risks of using unvarnished experience.”

Most writers have learned the wisdom of a little concealment in their work – no one wants to be sued, (and in her early writing days she had a few warnings about this possibility – see below) or to be at the mercy of endless angry letters about the misrepresentation of a reader’s well loved home town or village, or heaven forbid, incur outrage even closer to home with dangerous disclosures familiar to their own relations…

Libel letter 1950's

(signature illegible I hope!)

So does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious possibly autobiographical 1980’s novel, Foul Matter, tread a fine line?

It was for instance accepted literary practice in Milton’s day to give all your characters names from Greek mythology, not necessarily to conceal their identities, but to set them in a more idyllic or ‘pastoral’ landscape. A clue to Joan Aiken’s intentions in this possibly autobiographical novel lies in the chapter headings she has chosen to take from Milton’s famous Pastoral Elegy, Lycidas and whose muses she invokes at the opening of her book: ‘the sisters of the sacred well.’  Milton’s poem was written as a song of mourning for his friend and fellow student who had drowned when his ship sank off the English coast – as does Dan, the heroine’s husband in this novel. Joan’s first husband Ron took her out to sea when they were moving house from Kent to Sussex and sank the boat and all their possessions just off Whitstable, but happily that time nobody drowned – in fact the family  were rescued by some passing sea scouts, but who would believe that?

Clytie, or Aulis or Tuesday, the heroine of Foul Matter,  has many different names, and does speak in the first person, but is this her author’s voice? She has such an astonishing amount of unfortunate history and such numbers of lovers that reviewers of the novel said it had to be a lurid Gothic fantasy – surely even in the 1980’s people didn’t live like this? When Tuesday first appeared in an earlier Aiken thriller (The Ribs of Deathanother quotation from Milton) she was introduced as the author of a spoof (and sexy!) shocker while still in in her teens:

“You wrote that novel, didn’t you—Mayhem in Miniature? Aren’t you Aulis Jones?”

Certainly this can’t have been autobiographical, as when no publisher will touch Tuesday’s second literary attempt, she is forced to become a caterer instead, and although Joan Aiken was an excellent and inventive cook, and descriptions of recipes in Foul Matter give plenty of evidence for that, in real life she is better known as the author of over a hundred works of fiction.

Conrad Aiken, Joan’s father, wrote a fictionalised autobiography in which the characters all had other names, even his wives and children, although in the tradition of the Roman  à Clef an index of real names was provided in later editions. He also wrote an elegy, a poem called Another Lycidas, for an old friend who died. This tradition of using different literary forms and references was in the reading and writing blood of the family, so Joan Aiken had plenty of background both real and fictional to draw on; and her own family history, like that described in this novel, was full of extraordinary deaths.

So how to consider it? We are given another clue in the novel’s title, Foul Matter and in the heroine’s conversation with her publisher about a completed, and nicely ironically titled recipe book:

‘“By the way,” he said, “do you want the foul matter from Unconsidered Trifles?”
Foul matter is a publishers’ term for corrected copy that has been dealt with and is no longer in use: worked-over typescript and proofs.

“Throw out the old copy,” I told George. “I don’t want it.”

Foul matter. Who needs it? You might as well keep all your old appointment books, mail order catalogues, nail clippings, laddered tights, broken eggshells, bits of lemon peel. Some people do, of course, and just as well, or history would never get put together. But I’m not one of those. History will have to get along without my help. Life, memory, is enough foul matter for me.’

True or false? When I came to clear out her attic (‘Don’t call it the attic, it’s my study!’) I was astonished to see how much she had kept – school reports, ration books, letters, letters, letters… all grist to the mill of her imagination, or background for other, fictional characters?  How much of Joan Aiken’s life did get filed away in her writing? There are plenty of descriptions of houses and towns she knew and loved, but which ones are they really, were any of them her own?  Is Foul Matter  set in Rye or Lewes, where she did live, or perhaps both? It has the castle mound of one and the salt marsh of the other:

‘Dear little ancient house. Watch Cottage. I always turn to look back at it with love. White, compact, weatherboarded, tiny, it stands in dignity below the brambly Castle Mound, at the head of a short, steep, cobbled cul-de-sac, Watch Hill, which leads down into Bastion Street… On down the steep hill; the town of Affton Wells displayed below my feet like a backdrop in flint, brick, and tiled gables. Tudor at the core, seventeenth and eighteenth century on the perimeter. Grey saltmarsh beyond, receding to the English Channel.’

In her father Conrad’s version, Rye, his adopted English home town where Joan was born, became Saltinge,  a picturesque little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up, and which he yearned for constantly when back in America.

Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, junk the lingering Foul Matter,  move on to a new era, or to pay tribute to friends loved and lost; to store their memory forever in a fictional world where she could go back and visit whenever she wanted. Who is to say what is truth and what is fiction?

All I know is that whenever I want to spend some time with her, this is the Joan Aiken novel I turn to.

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P.S. Looking back through some of those letters I found mention of an invitation to a private film-showing where she met: “a splendid British film tycoon called Sir J. A. who was just off to his château on the Loire, and very frosty at first, but finally thawed enough to buy me a whisky…”  The model for Foul Matter’s Sir Bert Wilder perhaps?

Foul Matter is now available as a new paperback

 Foul Matter PB.

All Joan Aiken’s modern novels now available as EBooks

 Find new editions of  Orion early thrillers here

and  Modern novels from Bello Macmillan here

Suspense Group 1

A Joan Aiken Story – about Bob Dylan!

Chris &amp; Guitar

Bob Dylan first appeared and sang in the UK on a BBC Sunday Night play in January 1963 which made a big impression on Joan Aiken. Called Madhouse on Castle Street, it included a strange and sinister song called The Swan on the River, which reminded her of the often grim and lurid folk ballads her Canadian mother used to sing, such as Lord Rendall, about a young nobleman who was poisoned by his lover. At the time Dylan was relatively unknown, having only brought out one album, and this was his first visit to England, but his performance, and that song were unforgettable, and she didn’t forget the singer.

That year, in 1963, Joan Aiken visited America for the first time to celebrate the publication of her now classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, where she also visited  her writer father in his home country for the first time, and met Charles Schlessiger, the man who was to be her literary agent and undying supporter for the next fifty years. This publication also catapulted Joan Aiken to fame in America with a stunning review in Time magazine which began:

‘This year can boast one genuine small masterpiece, called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.  Written, as any children’s book should be, with obvious fond delight by Poet Conrad Aiken’s daughter Joan…it is almost a copybook lesson in those virtues that a classic children’s book must possess: charm, a style of its own, and the skill and authority to create a small world without writing down to small readers.’

Back home in Petworth, Sussex Joan Aiken’s two teenage children (and their Beatnik, guitar playing babysitter) like characters from a folk tale, or one of her own stories, had requested a particular gift to be brought back from New York – a Bob Dylan album.

She came back with two, Bob Dylan, and The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. These records made us the stars of our small town, and started a lifelong passion in the family. Joan Aiken went on to write many songs for her own plays, which were set to music by her guitar playing son, perhaps prophetically named John Sebastian, and Dylan’s words and music continued to entertain and inspire her. Sadly she died before Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I am sure she would have applauded.

But a combination of Bob Dylan and our own equally influential guitar playing Beatnik, gave birth to a character from Joan Aiken’s much loved Arabel’s Raven stories – the baby sitter Chris Cross whose singing totally entranced Arabel, as seen above in Quentin Blake’s picture, from a story that appeared a few years later – Arabel & Mortimer and the Escaped Black Mamba.

Having run out of milk (after an unfortunate accident!) while he is minding the pair one evening, Chris takes Mortimer and Arabel down to the station where there are all kinds of amazing automatic machines to get some more, and while there (after various adventures!) they make their own record of one of Chris’s songs to bring back home.

Sleep End of Mamba

Chris Cross remained an integral part of the Jones’ family life, and Bob Dylan’s songs went on to influence Joan’s own compositions, here for instance from a Shakespearean parody called Mooncusser’s Daughter, with music by her son..

Mooncusser Full fathom Five

Joan Aiken went on to marry an American painter and take up residence in Greenwich Village, New York.

I like to think of them walking the same streets.

The recording of  Bob Dylan’s Gliding Swan song can still be heard here

Bob Swans 1963

Happy 80th Birthday Bob, with all best wishes

from Joan Aiken (and family!)