One of Joan Aiken’s pastel drawings – mushrooms ready for supper
“Just because I’m sweeping leaves doesn’t mean I’m not thinking,” she would say – or perhaps she would be drawing a picture of mushrooms, or staking runner beans, or making Rowan jelly or sewing hessian curtains…. the activities were endless. She might be gardening, housekeeping, homemaking, feeding visitors delicious dinners, and inventing new recipes, reading to children or taking them for walks on the Sussex Downs… but all the while she was making up stories, and telling them, brooding on plots, working out how to rescue a heroine, or kill off a villain.
Joan Aiken was born from two strong outgoing families, with a Scots Canadian mother, and a father descended from a long line of puritan pilgrims. Both families had braved alarming sea voyages to reach new countries, and struggled to work the land and build a future, and Joan had inherited strong genes and a determined outlook on life that kept her going through many vicissitudes. Anything that needed making, building, growing or sewing she would tackle, any journey or adventure that she could pursue she would take up with alacrity, and any new experience however alarming or exhausting could be put to use in a plot, and usually was. As her daughter I sometimes found this bewildering as whole chunks of her or my own experience could appear, slightly disguised, in a murder mystery or a children’s comic serial; unhappy love affairs, confrontations with brutal bosses, tales of travels gone scarily aglay, all was an inspiration or a useful piece of background that might turn up in an unfamiliar context as I was innocently reading through her latest manuscript.
At the time I might have been furious, felt my life was being snatched away, my experiences only material for her imagination; now when I read, and re-read her books I find they are full of gifts which only I can really appreciate – I remember the flat in Paris that inspired that nightmare, the garden in York where those apple trees were planted, the theatre production with the egg box masks, the terrified old lady who kept ‘the wealth’ safety-pinned into her liberty bodice.
The house and the garden were sold, the mushroom chicken pies, the Rowan jelly and the walks over the chalk downs are only memories now, but when I want to relive those memories, go on those journeys with her and visit those places again, I have them all in her books, and as I marvel at her energy and resourcefulness, I realise that I am still keeping up with Joan.