Conrad Aiken, Poet, and daughter Joan…gifted and enchanting!
Conrad Aiken, Joan’s Pulitzer prize winning father didn’t hand out compliments lightly, so it was wonderful to discover a letter he wrote introducing her to Charles Schlessiger, his agent at Brandt & Hochman who was to become her life-long friend and supporter, in which he sings her praises to the moon. A genuine case for Thanksgiving, and a celebration of her remarkable, funny, twentieth century fairy tales – two new editions of which have been published this year.
Two new collections of Joan Aiken’s unforgettable stories came out this year
Celebrated as a book of the year in The Washington Post
and from Virago Modern Classics, just in time for Christmas
‘For the young of all ages’
Joan Aiken’s take on War & Peace, elections, immigration etc. in a nutshell…
Those of us still reeling from the events of 2016 have maybe looked for comfort or understanding from history or literature. When Joan Aiken had to wrap up the history and sort out the future of the world she had herself created in one last short sweet episode of The Wolves Chronicles, she came up with a narrative that speaks volumes to our current situation, although written over ten years ago. The Witch of Clatteringshaws shows a dark world, with an unwilling and slightly inept leader, King Simon, challenged on all sides by antiquated systems of government and ageing traditions, in a country about to be invaded by a wave of marauders from overseas. How does he sort it out? With his own version of Henry V’s Agincourt speech and a game called Hnefatefl…
THE TROOP TRAIN had backed away from Clatteringshaws station, and was now out of sight. The men of the English Ninth Army were squatting on the heathery ground in a circle round Simon, waiting for him to address them.
‘Men of the Ninth Army,’ he began. ‘By the way, what happened to the other eight?’
‘It was back in Owd King Jamie’s time,’ someone told him. ‘When we was fighting against the Frogs in the year thirteen. All got wiped out.’
‘Oh. I see. Well, listen. Men of England. What you have to do now is walk a distance of about fifty miles to where the Wends have landed in Tentsmuir Forest. Does anybody here know the way, by any chance?’
Dead silence was his answer to this.
‘Oh. Well, it’s about due east of where we are now, so the rising sun will be a help presently. I hope you are all good walkers.’
‘Now. We don’t want our country inhabited by a lot of Wends, do we?’
‘Dunno,’ somebody said.
Ignoring this, Simon went on: ‘We don’t know how many Wends there are, but there are not very many of us, so we all have to be extra brave and tough. I’m not particularly brave myself, but I like to think that all of you are with me, backing me up, and that perhaps, in a hundred years’ time, this day will be remembered by our grandchildren as the day when a not very large force of English beat off an attacking army of Wends who wanted to turn this island into a place where everybody spoke Wendish. Don’t you agree?’
‘What’s Wendish like, then?’ one of the men enquired. Rodney Firebrace spoke up. ‘Wendish is an awful language. It’s highly inflected – there are nine declensions of nouns—’ ‘What’s inflected?’ somebody shouted.
‘When words have different endings to express different grammatical relations. And Wendish has thirty different kinds of verbs. You have to decline them as well as conjugate them.’
‘I hit. You run.’
‘Who says we run? We ain’t a-going to run!’
‘Hooray for English verbs!’
‘We don’t want no foreign verbs!’
‘Are you all with me, then?’ called Simon.
‘Sure we are!’
‘We’ll show those Wends the way back to Wendland!’
‘Let ’em wend their way!’
The men jumped up and started bustling about, picking up their arbalests and re-packing their hard-boiled eggs. In ten minutes the whole mass of them had drifted off down an eastward-facing valley (Rodney Firebrace had prudently brought a compass) and were out of sight of the station. Simon and Rodney walked alongside the lengthy, straggling column, talking to the men, telling them jokes and stories to keep their spirits up, and encouraging them to sing marching songs.
‘We need Dido here,’ Simon said. ‘She knows all the tunes her father made up – “Grosvenor Gallop” and “Penny a Ride to Pimlico” and “Light-hearted Lily of Piccadilly”—’
‘Well, I expect a lot of the men know those anyway.’
So it proved, and the men of the Ninth Army marched eastwards in a gale of song.
As dawn began to break, Simon decreed a rest for the Ninth Army. He reckoned they might have marched about half of the distance they had to cover. The men sat down and dug their way into the sacks of hard-boiled eggs donated to the army by kind ladies when the train stopped at Northallerton station.
Simon overheard a few grumbles: ‘Thirsty work, hard-boiled eggs is, on their own. Wouldn’t mind a nibble of cheese or a sup of beer!’
‘All right, you lot!’ Simon shouted after ten minutes. ‘Let’s be on our way!’
The track they were on clung to the side of a valley. Ahead, it curved round a hill. A grey parrot came flying from behind them, and alighted on Rodney’s shoulder. Simon, ahead of the others, rounded the bend on the road, then came to a startled stop. Ahead of them, on the other side of the valley, was the force they had come to fight. The track ran down, crossed a bridge, then rose again to where the foreign army was stationed, glittering red and gold, with the new-risen sun fetching flashes from muskets and shields, spearheads and musket barrels. They had horses. And small cannons mounted on wheels. And they out-numbered the English force by at least two to one. The cannons, which looked very impressive, were drawn by wide-horned oxen. Like the English army, the Wends had apparently paused to eat breakfast and water their beasts, which were being led in groups down to the river which ran along the valley bottom.
‘Humph,’ said Rodney Firebrace, who had walked up beside Simon. ‘I reckon this is where you need to negotiate.’
‘Negotiate what? They could beat us hollow. Look at them. There are twice as many of them. And their guns—’
‘True. But we are on higher ground. Ah, look – they want to talk . . .’
The foreign force had now caught sight of the advance part of Simon’s army on the opposite slope. They could not see it all, because of the fold in the hillside. They could not see that they had the numerical advantage. A group of leaders, down by the bridge, were shaking their heads, obviously discussing the situation.
‘Look, here’s someone who wants to parley,’ said Firebrace.
‘Aaarkh,’ said the bird on his shoulder. ‘A castle that parleys is half taken.’
‘I’ll go down to the bridge and see what they have to say,’ said Rodney. ‘That fellow is waving a yellow flag.’
‘I’m coming too,’ said Simon.
‘This is where you have to remember King Canute and Edmund Ironside.’
‘Why? I never met either of those guys . . .’
Several of the group at the bridge fell back, leaving a tall rangy fellow in a steel helmet with wings, and a fat, compact little dark-bearded man in royal-looking clothes.
‘Ah, good morning,’ he said in fluent, though heavily accented English. ‘I am Albert the Bear, Count of Ballenstedt, founder of the Ascanian line, Margrave of Brandenburg and heir of Pribislav.’
‘Good morning,’ said Simon. ‘I am Simon Battersea, King of England. Er – can I enquire about your intentions – what you mean by arriving here in this warlike manner?’
That should have been better put, he thought. I’m no good at this kind of thing.
‘You like to fight?’ said King Albert the Bear. ‘Ve Vends enjoy fighting. But this is not a good spot to fight.’
‘Why did you stop here?’
‘Vell, ve have to. Because the sign say so.’ Albert pointed to a triangular road sign. It said:
TOADS CROSS HERE
Behind Simon, Firebrace muttered, ‘This is definitely a case for Canute and Ironside.’ Simon suddenly remembered about them. Father Sam had told him.
‘I’ll tell you what, Your Majesty,’ he said. ‘Instead of involving our troops in a battle in this narrow, muddy spot, why don’t you and I have a personal combat? Like King Canute, son of Sweyn the Dane, and Edmund Ironside? Don’t you think that would be more – more sporting and economical?’
‘Quarter-staff or small-sword?’ said King Albert alertly.
‘Whichever Your Majesty prefers.’ And heaven help me, thought Simon, for I know as little of one as of the other. ‘Can you find my small-sword?’ he said to Firebrace. ‘I think I left it somewhere in the baggage train.’
‘Certainly, Your Majesty. And I’ll cut a quarter-staff out of that holly bush.’
‘Vun moment,’ said King Albert, who meanwhile had been conferring with his adviser. ‘Vilf Thundergripper reminds me that I have been suffering from severe cramp in my left leg. Not good, not good for personal combat!’
‘Oh, that is a pity,’ said Simon. ‘Then what about—?’
‘Vilf Thundergripper suggest that instead of combat ve play a game of Hnefatefl.’
‘Oh, certainly,’ said Firebrace. ‘My King will be delighted to take Your Majesty on at Hnefatefl.’ A Wendish gentleman-in-waiting was sent off at the double to the supply cart at the rear of the Wendish armed column.
‘For heaven’s sake!’ whispered Simon urgently to Firebrace. ‘What is Hnefatefl and how do you play it?’
‘Oh, it’s a Saxon board game. You’ll very soon get the hang of it. There is a board with eighteen squares . . .’
The board – a very handsome gold and leather one – was quickly brought and set out with its pieces on a handy tree-stump.
The pieces were set out on the board. They were made of bone, and the king-piece, the hnefi, had a gold crown round his stomach. Two stools were brought from the Wendish camp for Simon and King Albert. They tossed a Wendish pfennig for colour, and King Albert won and chose white.
(Afterwards Simon discovered that the Wendish pfennigs had heads on both sides.)
‘Ve play best of nine games, yes?’ said King Albert.
‘As you wish, Your Majesty.’
‘You vin, I take my army back to Vendland. I vin, you find us Vends nize home in beautiful English countryside – yes so? Not too far from my cousin Bloodarrow of Bernicia.’
‘Very well,’ said Simon. I wish Dido were here, he thought. I bet she’d be good at this game.
‘Don’t play with a straw before an old cat,’ said the parrot.
King Albert the Bear was evidently an old hand at the Hnefatefl game and won three rounds in quick succession. But by this time Simon was beginning to get the hang of it, and now he started to win. When he had won four games running, King Albert suddenly said: ‘I now getting again this bad bad cramp pain in my leg. Ve must stop playing! At vunce!’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry about that, Your Majesty. Shall we fight a duel, then? Or would you rather have a battle?’
‘I tell you vot,’ said King Albert. ‘Vot you say, I get my men to vote. Vuns that vant to stay in Engel-land, you let them stay. I think I go home. Men that vish to go home, they go home vith me. Vot you say?’
‘Sounds all right,’ said Simon cautiously. ‘If we can find a place that’s big enough for the ones that want to stay. What do you think, Firebrace?’
‘It might be arranged,’ said Firebrace with equal caution. ‘When the train stopped at Northallerton, I remember hearing talk of an unoccupied valley in Yorkshire. That might do for some of your men, Your Majesty. What do you think?’
‘Goot enough. Let them vote. Bring two baskets.’
Massive Wendish baskets were used to carry arrows and bullets. Their contents were all tipped out onto the heather.
‘Men who vish to go back to Vendland put cheese in basket. Those who vish to stay in Engel-land put egg in basket. Understand?’
While the two leaders had been playing Hnefatefl, a good deal of fraternization had been taking place among the troops. Simon’s army, who had been supplied with more hard-boiled eggs than they could use, had been happy to exchange these for the Wendish soldiers’ ration of little hard round blue-veined cheeses the size of golf balls, which were found to be very tasty by the English troops.
‘Made by adding the cream of one day to the entire milk of the next,’ the Wendish quartermaster told them. ‘Makes cheese extra rich.’
When the vote was counted, it was found that three hundred men wished to remain in England. The rest preferred to go home.
‘Good! Some go, some stay. I go home now, to Vendland. You come, Simon, you visit me some time, we play more Hnefatefl. You play not bad, not bad at all,’ said King Albert.
So the arrows and bullets were bundled back into the baskets, the eggs and cheeses distributed to those who wanted them, and the two armies prepared to go their ways.
‘If I could borrow a horse,’ said Firebrace, ‘I could ride down directly into Yorkshire and make arrangements about that valley. There may be a bit of rent to pay.’
‘Vell, vell,’ said King Albert. ‘Ven you vant some rent, you let me know. No vorry! Goodbye. Ve go now. To the again-see!’
And he mounted his horse and rode eastward with the main part of his army. Simon, with his men and the rest of the Wendish army, turned back westwards, singing Abednego Twite’s song ‘Raining, Raining All the Day’, which had a very catchy chorus:
‘I reign, you reign, he reigns, they reign when the skies are grey.’
A large number of toads, who had been hesitating at the side of the road, now decided that it would be safe to cross.
In Joan Aiken’s universe humour, pragmatism and even an understanding of grammar save the day – the Men of the Ninth do adapt their language to understand the newcomers with new words ‘Wending’ their way into the language, and new foods – presumably Wendsleydale? – happily absorbed into their diet. The cheerful lack of front, or side, in the two leaders allows everyone to get what they need, and all faces to be saved. Now all Simon needs is to find someone willing to take over the crown so he can retire into happy obscurity again with his dear friend Dido… To find out the rest of the story you’ll have to read on…
*Thanks to Walt Kelly and Pogo for a great title
Excerpts from The Witch of Clatteringshaws (The Wolves Chronicles series)
Joan Aiken writes about her favourite stories, and the magic of storytelling…in a new collection out now!
“Stories are mysterious things; they have a life of their own. Animals don’t tell each other stories — so far as we know! Man is the only creature that has thought of telling stories, and, once a story has been written or told, it becomes independent of its creator and goes wandering off by itself. Think of Cinderella, or Beauty and the Beast —we don’t know where they came from, but they are known by people all over the world.
A story is very powerful. If I start to tell you a story, you are almost sure to stop and listen to it. It’s like hypnotism — or a small piece of magic. Indeed, stories often have been used for magic, by priests or medicine men. There used to be special stories kept secret and only used on rare special occasions: stories that would heal sickness, or give victory in battle. Storytellers, in primitive times, were treated with great respect, probably given extra large rations of mastodon steak, when the cavemen were all sitting round the tribal fire. In those days, before anything was written down, stories were the means by which important facts were stored and remembered. In a way it is still so. Think how much easier it is to remember that Alfred was the king who burned the cakes than what his dates were; I bet if I stopped anybody in the street and asked them what they knew about King Alfred, those cakes are what they would remember, not which year it happened!
People sometimes ask me: How do you write a story? How do you set about it? How do you get your ideas? And I always say, first you have to have ingredients. You couldn’t go into an empty kitchen and expect to be able to cook a dinner. A writer, like a good cook, is always on the lookout for ingredients that might come in handy. Sometimes they are the things you read in the newspaper — the woman who buys a raffle ticket with her last pound and wins a million, the violinist who leaves his Stradivarius in a taxi, the man who trains his dog to bark at Salvation Army bands. Sometimes they come from dreams. I keep a little notebook and write down all these things in it.
I don’t really believe there is such a thing as ‘a born storyteller’, especially when it is applied to me! Storytellers aren’t born, they have to learn. It is a craft; like oil painting or ballet dancing, you don’t just come to it naturally. A story needs to be carefully built up —like a house of cards — one thing balancing on top of another. And then the end, when you get to it, ought to be a little bit surprising, but satisfying, too, to make the reader think, ‘Yes, of course, that’s it! Why didn’t I think of that?’ I can remember exactly the moment when I realized the importance of that surprise, while telling my brother a story on a walk, and I rushed home, and wrote the story down. It was a story about a princess who turned into a parrot. That was when I was about sixteen, and I’ve never forgotten it. Stories are fun to write! They are, or should be, like a sleigh-ride, and once you get on course, then some terrific power, like the power of gravity, takes command and whizzes you off to an unknown destination.
A very important element in a story is the setting —where it all takes place. Some of the stories I’ve written have their settings and surroundings so firmly in my mind that I can call them back whenever I want to. ‘The Boy with a Wolf’s Foot’ was written when I travelled back and forth to London every day, along a railway line whose stations all seemed to begin with W. ‘The Rain Child’ came when I had a job picking apples in a huge series of orchards. ‘Moonshine in the Mustard Pot’ is a mixture of Paris and the beautiful city of York. My daughter lived for a time in both these cities and I visited her there, and the grandmother in the story is a mix of my daughter and myself. ‘A Harp of Fishbones’ is purely invention, but I know that mountainside and that ruined city as well as if I had lived there all my life. The stories that have the strongest settings are my favourites. I like to revisit them from time to time, and that is like going back to stay in a house, or piece of country, that one has known since childhood; it is a happy, refreshing thing to do.
Reading is and always will be one of my greatest pleasures, and I love to re-read books and stories that have been favourites for years, and I particularly like to re-visit some of my own short stories, as they too have now taken on that mysterious life of their own. Favourite stories, like unexpected presents, are things that you can keep and cherish all your life, carry with you in memory, in your mind’s ear, and bring out at any time, when you are feeling lonely or need cheering up, or, like friends, just because you are fond of them. That is the way I feel about some of these stories.
One of the nicest letters that I ever had from a reader said: ‘Your stories are such a gift, they make me feel as though I dimly remember them. I seem to know the characters and places from long ago, like a forgotten dream …’
Maybe they will feel like that for you too, and become some of your own favourites — after all, where do our stories really come from?
This is Joan Aiken’s introduction to The Gift Giving, Favourite Stories
which includes these stories and others from many of her collections
Published by Virago Modern Classics
With Illustrations by Peter Bailey
Readers gave five star reviews to The Weeping Ash, but it’s impossible to spoil the plot! There is so much action in this eighteenth century episode of the Paget Saga, set in Joan Aiken’s own home town – and house – but which also travels through Afghanistan and Persia and across the seas back to the little town of Petworth, where she introduces us to some of the inhabitants of the much grander Petworth House, seat of the Wyndham family, and frequented by the Prince of Wales…that you couldn’t possibly give it all away.
“Mystery, murder, mayhem, menace…set in the English countryside…oh, except for the chapters that are set in India, Afghanistan, Persia and surrounding areas (yes, all in the same book…but it’s almost like two books in one, since the chapters alternate between two sets of characters…until they finally meet near the end). What more do you need? Plenty, if you’re Joan Aiken, who is never satisfied with the simple where the complicated will do just as well, or better.
Let’s start with young Fanny, aged sixteen, who’s just married a man three times her age. Which might not be so bad, if he hadn’t turned out to be a despicable brute (and that’s putting it mildly). Talk about a series of unfortunate events…Lemony Snicket had nothing on Joan Aiken. Fanny’s life with her horrible husband is getting worse by the minute…and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they always do. (Three surly stepdaughters, two of them slightly older than Fanny, aren’t helping matters any either.) Obviously, Fanny would benefit greatly from some cheerful company, which is on its way, in the form of…
Scylla and Cal, seventeen-year-old twins, children of a cousin of Fanny’s husband. They were living happily enough near the palace of a maharajah — Cal gambling with the maharajah’s eldest son, Scylla instructing two of the maharajah’s younger sons — until suddenly — the maharajah met with a fatal “accident” — most of his children were murdered — no one was safe — and Cal and Scylla were forced to flee for their lives (Cal, the poet, taking his precious manuscripts with him, of course). Where do they flee to? Logically enough, to their Cousin Juliana’s house in England — only now it’s being occupied by their middle-aged cousin Thomas Paget, his very young wife Fanny, and his three not-so-pleasant daughters. (Sound familiar?) What will happen when these two branches of the family collide? Wait and see!
If you know a little about Joan Aiken herself, not just her writing, bits of this book may start to seem slightly autobiographical…for instance, the bits about what it’s really like to be closely related to a poet (Joan knew this from experience…her father was one, and a good one…he was the poet Conrad Aiken…and he probably wasn’t always easy to live with!). And if she seems to know the house in the book quite well…there’s a reason for that…it’s her house. Yes, her actual house, or at least, inspired by it. The real house known as The Hermitage, Petworth (same as the one in the book) was where Joan Aiken lived in her later years. One hopes that her actual life there was far more peaceful than the lives of the people in this book. Perhaps that was exactly the trouble, though…it was TOO peaceful and she got a bit bored. And started concocting this tale of mystery, murder, mayhem…you know the rest. (Watch out if you are a writer and you go to live in a large old house in the English countryside…you never know what strange ideas the house might decide to put into your head. They’ve got minds of their own, these old houses…)
If you already know and love some of Joan Aiken’s works, this book will probably make more sense to you. (Then again…who said books had to make sense?) With or without prior knowledge of the author’s works, laughter and tears will accompany you through this wild romp (through various parts of the world) until the adventure comes to its own peculiar but oddly satisfying close at the house of…The Weeping Ash.”
And in case we have missed anything here are a few final words from another reader:
“Joan Aiken used her own house in Sussex as the main setting for the book, historical melodrama, set in the late 18th century, and the two contrasting stories are a rather grim and frightening reminder of how harsh conditions often were in those times- and how cheap life was. You only have to look at old gravestones to see how many children people had- and how many died young. She also paints a nasty picture of the press-gangs which were operating then. Novelists of the time tended to see less of the whole picture, but Aiken, through hindsight, is able to show how great the contrasts were between rich and poor, and the injustice of the social system.
That said, this is still cracking entertainment, with a vengeful ghost, a haunted tree and lots of romance and thrills…”
Thanks to Kit and Mrs H.Aver for these splendid reviews: read more here
More of Joan Aiken’s Romantic Sagas now coming from Sourcebooks