Giving a voice to women – Joan Aiken’s folk tales for the next generation.

Furious Tree 2

Old ladies, browbeaten wives, silent mothers, unhappy daughters – all are given a chance to speak their thoughts, and even practise a little magic in Joan Aiken’s modern folk tales,  particularly in a late collection called Mooncake. 

Dark and modern these tales may be, dealing with the evils of our own current society,  but they call up the voices of the past in order to pass on their wisdom.

With her usual prescience, and wry understanding of the ways of the world, Joan Aiken imagined a now rather familiar sounding bully –  a golf playing millionaire property developer as the villain of one of her stories:

Sir Groby's Golf course

But the aptly named Mrs Quill has her resources; after the destruction of her orchard, her house and her livelihood, she moves into the world next door, from where she haunts Sir Groby until he repents of his greed and the despoiling of his own world, and realises he must try to put back what was lost. You will notice that Mrs Quill has inherited her wisdom, and her orchard from her mother and her grandmother and so is trebly unwilling to break the chain.

However, what is interesting in these socially resonant folk tales with their mysterious women bringing messages to the world, is that in almost all cases, the recipient of this wisdom is a boy – a son, or grandson, a protester who goes to live in the woods, a young man who appears and is prepared to tune in to the wisdom of his elders, and specifically to women. The boy who arrives to pass a message from Mrs Quill to Sir Groby from the apple orchard in the other world, is called Pip.

In another story, Wheelbarrow Castle, Colum has to believe in and understand his Aunt’s magic  powers to save his medieval island castle suddenly threatened by invaders:

The witch's magic

In Hot Water Paul inherits some ‘speaking’ presents from his grandmother (one of them is a parrot!) and learns what they mean in true folk tradition, by making his own mistakes – even literally getting into hot water…

The Furious Tree in the illustration above is of course  an angry wise woman who must bide her time in disguise until Johnnie, the great-great-grandson of the earlier villain comes to live in the tree in order to stop it being cut down.

The voice of the tree

“The only way to deal with guilt or grief is to share it” the tree tells him. ” Let the wind carry it away.”    

    And that is what these stories do, pass on the wisdom, or the grievances,  the speaking experience, of the older generations, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn, use that experience and move on.

In one story that particularly touches me, a grieving boy called Tim who was sent out of the room, and so  missed his mother’s last words when she died, visits her grave and enacts a charm so he can hear her speak; at last he hears her voice. telling him what to do:

Last words

And in my case, lots of books, and things are always falling out of them…

In one poem she wrote:

‘Listen for my voice if for no other, when you are all alone.’

With all these voices to listen for, we are never alone.

Mrs Quill

Illustrations from Joan Aiken’s Mooncake by Wayne Anderson

Read more about the book here

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The listener – and the true companion

lEARNING TO FLY

A story can be the best companion, if you are a listener.  If from childhood you had the good luck, the time, the solitude and the books to take you away, to transport you to a place that felt more real than the one you lived in, you had a gift, a means of escape.  The temptation was the yearning to stay there, with that voice, that true companion who seemed to share your world, almost to be you, while the everyday, the workaday world was the one that became unreal.

Unless you become a writer yourself,  the singer of songs, someone who can take others away with you,

you will always be listening for that voice.

johns-song-1

JB crop 2

 For John Brown, a true companion,  learning to fly.

July 14 1949 – January 18 2012

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Joan’s poem is from The Skin Spinners

Her only published collection of poetry, although she wrote them every day

Lost words…

                      Joan Aiken: September 4th 1924 – January 4th 2004

Joan Aiken left over a hundred books, many more stories, and many, many more poems that still fall out from between the leaves of those books and stories. There is always more to discover, and always the hope of finding a lost message.

This is from a story called The Feather and The Page, about a boy waiting to hear, or find some lost words after his mother’s death. His sister is trying to remember a poem she had been writing at the time.

poem1

The boy hears his mother’s voice, reciting the poem and passes it on,

and he hears his own message too:

 And always the hope of hearing the words again.

January is a doubly haunted month for me, as it also marks the death of my brother, fellow listener to many of those stories, who died ten years ago.

This poem from one of our mother’s stories might have been written for him,

a songwriter who often provided music for her words.

John Sebastian Brown 14 July 1949 – 18 January 2012

Wimbledon J &amp; L

Utopian publisher seeks humane thrillers…from Joan Aiken of course!

Product X strapline

New paperback edition of hilarious Joan Aiken thriller

When it first came out in 1965 her publisher called this a thriller with humanity – a rare commodity nowadays perhaps – let alone one so charmingly praised by her utopian publisher?  This letter from Victor Gollancz to Joan Aiken written over 50 years ago shows the degree of warmth and encouragement she received from him in the early years of her career, and exemplifies the kind of devoted following she was to gather from her readers throughout her long writing life.

Gollancz

(And no, she didn’t live in The White House, it was an old pub called The White Hart, but in later years she got letters addressed to White Hot House, the White Hut, and more…enough to give a budding writer plenty of useful ideas!)

Her first thriller – The Silence of Herondale – had earned glowing reviews for the writer and publisher, and only a couple of months beforehand Victor Gollancz had written to her saying:

Gollancz 2

Of course she did have another one up her sleeve – in fact her imagination was so fertile that from then on, she went on to produce as many as three books a year for both adults and children in every possible genre.

This second highly entertaining thriller makes gleeful use of her experience a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair, to whom she dedicates the book with a rueful comment:

JWT dedication Product X

Aiken’s imaginary agency Salmon & Bucknell are filming a TV commercial on location in Cornwall for a new client, the eccentric owner of a chemicals company, which has invented a new and almost irresistible perfume; heroine Martha is in charge of shooting the romantic ads – unfortunately starring the client’s difficult daughter-in-law. In a witty parody of the classic Gothic style popular in the 1960’s, Martha soon becomes embroiled in a conspiracy over the missing perfume formula and other increasingly astonishing plot strands – including an amorous sheik, a series of exploding soup cans, mysterious black robed monks in a cliff top monastery, and a kidnapped baby ‘who steps into a key role in a headlong series of chases…’ as one reviewer wrote, adding: ‘This is a superior stylish thriller…with the characterisation of bizarre cast bang on target…’   all of which mounts of course to a hair raising climax..

Trouble with Product X  is an absolute romp of a read – funny and terrifying and also a hilarious parody of her experience in the Mayfair advertising agency – think Madmen re-set in rural England, with Mary Quant being chased over the Cornish moors by Patrick McGoohan from The Prisoner –  carrying , as another reviewer put it  ‘one of the nicest babies in literature.’

(I am happy to confess that the baby was based on myself, and is given my own family nickname!)

Readers who grew up on Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles may not be aware that she wrote equally exciting novels for adults, and some are just discovering these wonderful Gothics for grown ups, as here:

“It was only THIS WEEK that I realised she’d written books for adults as well. Naturally, I’m hooked once again. “Trouble with Product X” is beautifully written – Aiken could describe a person or landscape completely in just a few words – and crammed with twists in true murder mystery style. It may have been written in days of yore but it packs as much of a punch as anything produced today. Awesome.”

Period covers give a wonderful flavour:

Product X cover

Also published in the USA with the tantalising title Beware of the Bouquet

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No surprise then that Orion, the modern incarnation of Joan Aiken’s first publisher has brought out

a set of her early novels as EBooks

Also available as paperbacks and new Audio recordings by the author’s daughter Lizza Aiken

Read more about Joan Aiken and the fashion for 1960’s Gothics

Girls Running from Houses

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And on the Joan Aiken Website

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X