More Than You Bargained For? My favourite Joan Aiken story.

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The perfect story for a hot dusty Summer 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; this one has a special magic for me, because it always goes back to that same special place, carrying 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. Replying to a letter from a fan she also mentions her father Conrad Aiken’s short stories, and describes the background to their mutual creative process, and how that very need for escape can be the spur to a writer’s inspiration:

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The story starts in a hot dusty city, the 1950’s 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.

Here is the first page of her original copy:

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This story has all the perfect ingredients, lovely details of place and mood, and appreciation of all 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 right things in their life. When misfortune strikes, they are rescued in best fairy tale tradition, because of their care for others, and because they are open in their imaginations to the particular magic of the everyday.

Ermine does someone a favour and in return is given a record of a piece of music by a certain Mr.Handel, which turns out to be much more than she bargained for. As in other Joan Aiken stories it is music that opens a door to another world:

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In a publisher’s brief Joan wrote that she was trying to convey ‘what happens in the everyday world if you go round the wrong corner, open an unfamiliar door, get off your bus at a different stop’ so that events sometimes do turn out to be More Than You Bargained For.

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Joan Aiken’s own magic is in imagining how quite wonderful things could happen if you are on the look out for the odd and unexpected, and as a short story writer you will certainly recognise these moments as 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 carries 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:

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– an inspired and equally cooling image, coming directly from my hot, dusty, London day, to wherever you may be. Have 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…

Gift Giving

Read more about it on the Joan Aiken website

Cover illustration at the top from the US edition by long time friend and collaborator

Pat Marriott

 

Books are your friends, everyday…

Books are your Friends

As Joan Aiken discovered as a small child, reading is one of the most wonderful ways to make friends and spend time with another person; it is like being alone with them when they are alone. It is a way of taking time off from your own life, or problems, and entering another mind, another world. Once you have experienced this, it is like having a companion, someone who you will never forget, and who you can spend time with everyday.

She wrote about her experience with her early reading:

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And the same goes for grown-ups too! As she wrote in a piece for International Children’s Book Day fifty years ago:

  “If every single person in the world had a book – just one book  – and they’d have to be able to read it of course – we’d have a lot less trouble.”

PS. Rather nice to know that for Joan it was a comfort to know that Wednesday followed Thursday…? Only in her world!

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From the Joan Aiken website –  A letter from Joan to all her fellow ‘Readers’

Joan Aiken’s Wild Read for our Times – The Wolves Chronicles

  My Wolves First Eds.

“Weirder, scarier, darker, and funnier, than anything else that I had read. Re-reading them as an adult, I also discovered that they were much more compassionate and inspiring than I remembered.”

One reader looks back, and tells us why Joan Aiken’s fantastic life’s work, her alternative History of England, is worth reading at any age.

“It’s hard to write a short review of Joan Aiken’s sprawling, anarchic children’s series The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, spanning twelve volumes, forty-three years of publishing history, and an internal chronology that will not bear close scrutiny (more on that later). They’re books in which the wildest ideas are chased down to their absurd conclusions: an abandoned infant is raised by otters, an entire lake is removed from its bed by freezing it into blocks of ice, and a pink whale dotes on the whaling captain who rescued it at birth. They are tremendously fun—and within the rollicking life filling these stories to bursting, we get a glimpse of the power of connection between ordinary people to stand up against villainy of all kinds.
With so many characters, and an organising principle that resembles free association more than anything else, the main element tying this series together is its alternate history setting. King James II was never deposed during the Glorious Revolution and now, in what seems to be the 1750s or 60s, a rather elderly James III sits on the throne.  This gives Aiken an opportunity to write a charming Scottish accent, but she also uses this historical difference not so much to delve into political and religious tensions in the eighteenth century as to signal that the world that we’re entering is topsy-turvy. The Jacobites, familiar conspirators from the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, are aligned here with the established powers, and it’s the Hanoverians who skulk around, plotting to assassinate political figures and blow up public buildings.

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Aiken takes her time settling on a main character for the series. Book One, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), in which two brave young orphans face off against a villainous governess trying to steal their inheritance, seems to connect to the other books more thematically than otherwise. However, it does introduce Simon, a secondary character who lives in the forest herding geese and fending off vicious wolves with a bow and arrows.  Even for a writer like Aiken, whose well of ideas never seemed to run dry, he was too good a character to waste, so in the next book, Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), Simon leaves his geese to study painting in London.  Here he meets his landlords’ young daughter Dido Twite, whose age in this book is given as “about eight or nine.” Dido’s parents are not only neglectful (Simon spends a lot of the book trying to make sure that she’s clothed and fed), they’re also wicked Hanoverians, and it’s up to Simon and Dido to foil their plans.

Something that struck me on this read-through was a progression in the choice of protagonist. From the wild-spirited but definitely upper-class Bonnie Green in Wolves we move to the down-to-earth Simon in Black Hearts, and no sooner is Simon revealed to be the heir of a dukedom at the end of the book than Aiken casts him aside to fix upon Dido, a genuine guttersnipe who will be the heroine of nearly all the rest of the books. To me, it feels as if Aiken started out playing around in genres that conventionally required aristocratic characters, only to discover gradually that she was less interested in the wealthy and well-born than in charcoal-burners, lavender-sellers and other ordinary folk. When we first meet Dido there seems little to distinguish her from dozens of other scrappy child characters whom Aiken excels at creating, but subsequent events make it clear that she’s the heart of the series. Returning to Black Hearts as an adult, and having read the rest of the series, I felt a deep thrill at the moment when she first sticks her head out of the window and demands a ride on Simon’s donkey.

At the beginning of the third book, Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966), Dido, believed dead by her family and friends, has just woken from a ten-month coma aboard a whaling vessel off the coast of Alaska. This useful device, aided by some arithmetic that it’s better not to examine too closely, allows Aiken to “age up” her heroine to a more independent eleven years old. No longer is she the little girl who had to beg her parents’ permission to go to a fair: during the three books and several (elastically counted) years that it will take Dido to make her way back to England, stopping in many exotic locales along the route, she doesn’t hesitate to stand up to whaling captains, South American royalty, and a seemingly endless supply of scheming Hanoverians.
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Dido may be a fantasy of autonomy for a young reader, but if the sheer guts and resourcefulness of Aiken’s child characters stretch credibility, I think that she also paradoxically captures essential aspects of childhood largely overlooked by other writers. First is the importance of play: with all her self-assurance, Dido isn’t too grown-up to enjoy a game of hopscotch, or jumping around the room from one piece of furniture to another, trying not to touch the floor. She’s still a child, and for me, at least, she remains one until we reach my favourite book in the series, Dido and Pa (1986). This isn’t the end point of the series (Aiken would write five more books before she died in 2004, including two about Dido’s younger sister Is), but it is the book in which Dido finally returns from her round-the-world voyage and faces her father again. Though her adventures have turned her into her own person, Dido has to work to reconcile memories of her abusive upbringing, the admiration that she feels for her father’s musical talent, and her realisation of the depths of his selfishness (at one point Pa lets his mistress burn to death without lifting a finger to help her). It’s the kind of complicated mix of grief, responsibility, affection and anger that has fuelled a thousand literary memoirs. Yet even in this rather grown-up book, Aiken gives a central place to the games and nursery-rhymes of the street children, which, an attentive reader will notice, provide sinister clues to the Hanoverians’ latest conspiracy.  Time and again, the books insist that children ought to be playing, no matter what heroics they are called upon to accomplish.

Secondly, while Aiken may write the most resourceful young characters in children’s literature, she never loses sight of the dependency inherent in childhood and the dangers that it poses. From the villainous governess in Wolves beating and starving her child slaves via Dido’s neglectful father to the distracted Captain Casket abandoning his daughter in Nightbirds, the legal authorities are constantly leaving children at the mercy of inadequate or evil care-takers. This shortfall is filled by faithful servants, unrelated adults, slightly older children like Simon (probably about thirteen years old in Black Hearts), and eventually Dido herself. All decent folk, Aiken suggests, will feel responsibility toward a child in need, and act.
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This kind of solidarity from the bottom up is woven through the series. I wrote in my opening sentence that these books are anarchic, and this is true in a nearly literal way: rarely do Aiken’s characters receive, or expect, any help from the institutional authorities. In this lawless, dangerous world where villains get away with murder, it hardly matters whether James III or Bonnie Prince Georgie sits on the throne. What does matter is that goose-herds, apple-sellers, and cart-wrights are all ready to lend a hand, whether with odd jobs, a decent meal, or foiling an evil plot and rescuing yet another bunch of orphans. Again, the best example comes from Dido and Pa, where Simon’s twin sister Sophie learns about the Birthday League from a young lavender seller.

“The Birthday League,” Sophie says. “What is that?”
“When’s your birthday, my lady?”
“The tenth of April.”
“Mine’s the fifth o’ Febr’ry.  Now you’re a member!”

The League, it emerges, is a loose association of homeless children who help each other to survive.  It is voluntary, inclusive, unorganised, with neither money nor power, and yet, by courage and quick thinking, it is able to rescue Dido and her friends. The moment when Dido’s father gets what he deserves at the hands of the League is an unsettling case of justice without the formality of the law, but it is typical of Aiken’s willingness to push the limits beyond what’s safe, and to allow her downtrodden characters real power, including all the consequences that go with it.

I said at the beginning that this would be a short review, so I haven’t touched on Aiken’s gorgeous, inventive language, her delightful pastiches of everything from gothic literature to Moby Dick, her critique of the Industrial Revolution, or her ruthless streak in despatching sympathetic and wicked characters alike to their grisly ends.  The critical review extract on the back of one book calls Aiken “unrestrained,” and when I look back to when I was buying these books with my first baby-sitting money, I think what engaged me was that they were always more than anything else that I had read: weirder, scarier, darker, funnier.  Re-reading them as an adult, I also discovered that they were much more compassionate and inspiring than I remembered.”

First published in Albion Magazine © Mary Thaler 2018.

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Read more about the whole series on the Joan Aiken website

Illustrations by Pat Marriott and Robin Jacques

Covers from UK First editions 1962 – 2005

 

Joan Aiken’s Desert Island Stories

Winterthing Island

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:

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/magic_mystery_07.html

The Scream

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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

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/plays_01.html