Wilful Obscurity and other Aiken Fun!

Wild Animalsrotate

    By creating her own period of alternate history Joan Aiken gave herself the freedom to exercise her wild imagination, and also the opportunity to use a  vast array of stored knowledge from her wide reading and her life-long fascination with history, mythology, music, the natural sciences, and stories of travel to far away lands.  All of these elements,  combined with a riotous ear for dialogue and a facility for creating eccentric characters meant she could fill her invented worlds with a wonderful variety of bizarre detail, which, in her fast moving and free wheeling plots could be employed pretty much to her heart’s content.

But sometimes she did go rather over the top…!

Her general ebullience and the enjoyment of her own creative powers perhaps reached its peak in The Whispering Mountain, a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles series of books, set in Wales, and making use of a good deal of Welsh language and colloquial expression.  The story also contains characters as varied as The Seljuk of Rum – a foreign potentate who speaks in a language (tongue, talk, dialect, parlance!) of his own taken straight from Roget’s Thesaurus – and a Prince of Wales with a list of Christian names that covers almost all periods of the English Monarchy, but who speaks broad Scots.  On top of this there are a pair of dastardly villains who speak in their own Victorian underground language – known as Thieves Cant – a pair of peevy coves who mizzle at the first sign of trouble.

Grappling with all these characters is the sympathetic young hero – a learned, lonely small boy called Owen, who is mercilessly bullied by the other boys in his village, because as an avid reader he has too many fancy ideas and an overwhelming desire to share them… Owen is armed with a small book that has taught him all he needs to know, very like one that Joan herself had treasured from her childhood, which goes by the marvellous title:

“Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany &c; Thefe Pleafing Sciences made familiar to the Capacities of Youth”

Book of Knowledge

     This and Owen’s own natural intelligence finally allow him to win round the bullies, treating  one boy’s wounds from a wolf bite with a cobweb bandage,  or making a rope from strands of “Clematis Vitalba or Virginiana” which, as he can’t resist explaining, perhaps to the bewilderment of the other boys: “is a beautiful plant covered with white bloffoms or furry fruit clufters”…   As we discover, the typeface in his little book of knowledge is so antiquated that it has ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s just to add to the general confusion and charm.

Using, among other skills learned from his precious book, this plant knowledge and his mathematical capabilities, he saves the gang of boys from a flood by building a rope swing from the Clematis vine to get them all across a gorge:

     “To find the strength of a rope,”‘ he informs his companions, ‘”you should square the circumference in inches and divide by three, for the breaking strain in tons.”  I am joining these two pieces together with a rolling hitch, as they are of slightly different sizes;  I shall secure one end to the tree by means of a timber hitch, thus -“

Winding a spare strand of creeper round his waist, and slinging the crossbow on his back, he shinned up the tree with great agility and tied the end of his rope to a suitable branch; then he laid hold of the rope and slid down it to within four feet of the lower end.

“Letth cut the rope now, eh, Hwfa?” whispered Soth, but Hwfa, watching Owen’s actions with the utmost interest, took no notice of his henchman.

“What’ll he do now, he can never drop from there? – Ah, I see – he is going to swing!”‘

(Oh yes, and poor Soth has a lisp…!)

Joan not only gleaned her information from antiquated instruction manuals, but also from the Victorian or Edwardian children’s books her Canadian mother had brought over to England, and introduced to the family.  Particular favourites were Ernest Seton Thompson’s Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known – written from the author’s own experience of being a lonely little boy in a strange country.  He was in a fact a Scot growing up in Canada, and to escape from his bullying father, he spent much time on his own,  studying nature and Indian lore out in the wild. Joan Aiken experienced the same kind of pleasure  as a rather isolated child growing up in the freedom of the Sussex countryside, imagining herself in a far wilder landscape, surviving with these books as her guides and companions.

As an adult she created opportunities, as here in The Whispering Mountain, to share the mysterious magic of all this language, knowledge and spirit of adventure.  The exotic and obscure vocabulary that her reading offered her as a small child, was probably just as bewildering to the children of her own home village, but fired their curiosity  and so encouraged her desire to tell wild and wonderful stories. When she became a writer she was determined never to underestimate the ingenuity of her readers by talking down to them.  She was convinced that putting old and new ideas and imaginative language into an exciting context would help to bring her fantasy worlds to life, and communicate the ideas and customs of other times and countries to her readers.

But even she admitted that sometimes she got a bit too carried away, and possibly, in this particular story – as the Seljuk of Rum might say – became:

‘Fantastical, Rhapsodic, Whimsical, Absurd, or even Obscure….’

*****

TheWhisperingMountain_COVER REV2

The Whispering Mountain, which can be read as a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles

is  published as a Puffin Book, so that the whole series is now in print together for the first time.

See all the books at Joan Aiken.com

Random House/Red Fox/Penguin Children’s Books Joan Aiken page

Wolves Chronicles

To see a film of Joan talking about The Wolves Chronicles, and reading from her own copy of the little Book of Knowledge visit the website here.

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Joan Aiken’s Haunting Garden…

Fruhstuckgarten

   A haunting moment from Joan Aiken’s own childhood was turned into one of the most memorable stories she ever wrote – ‘The Serial Garden’, but this sad story went on to haunt her too.

Do you remember, as a child, coming home to find that your room has been completely turned out, and some of your much loved, if dusty treasures tossed in the bin, only to have your mother say in reply to your outrage and anguish:

“Oh you didn’t want that did you? I thought you’d finished with it.”

And this (spoiler alert!) was the terrible memory that inspired one of the saddest stories Joan Aiken ever wrote.

In this tragic story, one of the many she wrote during her lifetime about the eccentric Armitage Family,  Joan Aiken has the son, Mark discover that a cut out garden from the back of a series of cereal packets comes to life when he whistles or sings a certain tune. When he goes into the magic garden he meets the Princess of Saxe Hoffen-Poffen und Hamster, and learns that the garden comes from an old book of pictures and that she herself is imprisoned in the book, in the garden (thanks to a bit of parlour magic!)  and still waiting to be rescued by her long lost love,  the Court Kapellmeister and music teacher who her father had forbidden her to marry.

As the haughty princess explains:

“All princesses were taught a little magic, not so much as to be vulgar, just enough to get out of social difficulties.”

– which was just what she used it for, concealing herself in the book, so that she could run away with her suitor.

Serial PicThe original illustration of the cut out ‘cereal’ packet garden was by Pat Marriott

   But the maid who was supposed to give the book to her beloved Kapellmeister never delivered it, and the book is lost.  Only when the pictures are reproduced on the back of a Brekkfast Brikks cereal packet many years later, as found by Mark, can the garden be re-created; the tune which has unwittingly been passed on to Mark by his music teacher, turns out to be the one which can bring it to life – is there an amazing last chance of happiness for the long estranged lovers?

But while Mark is out, urgently fetching his music teacher, Mr Johansen, his mother, Mrs Armitage has been spring cleaning….

The brisk, no nonsense character of Mrs Armitage,  was based on Joan’s own mother,  Jessie Armstrong, who re-married after her divorce from Joan’s father, the poet Conrad Aiken, to her second writer husband, Martin Armstrong.  When Joan was young, Armstrong was famous for his own series of children’s stories for the BBC radio Children’s Hour, about a rather polite 1940’s family in thrall to their various talking pets: Said the Cat to the Dog, and Said the Dog to the Cat. Joan’s own ‘Armitage’ family stories, the first of which she also sold to the BBC, had begun as a tongue in cheek parody of his, and were based very much on the family’s life in their remote Sussex village where Joan lived until she was twelve; but the Armitage family’s ongoing magical adventures went on to become her lifelong passion.

The story of ‘The Serial Garden’ was originally published in Jessie’s lifetime, in a collection of Joan Aiken’s fantasy stories called A Small Pinch of Weather ; the book was even dedicated to her mother, but in later years Joan came to be haunted by the sad ending of the story. Perhaps she felt it was  unjust to her mother’s memory; she certainly was taken aback by the many letters she got from readers protesting against its rather shocking ending.  Joan wanted a chance to make amends, and although she couldn’t undo the dreadful ending of the first story – once written she said, the story could not be undone, but she thought she could perhaps give Mark and poor Mr Johansen another chance to find the vanished garden and the lost princess.

So, just before she  died Joan  was preparing a last book –  a collection of all the Armitage Family stories she had written over the years, including four new ones  and a sequel to ‘The Serial Garden’ story, giving the chance of a hopeful solution to the estranged lovers.  She planned that the book would be published under the title of The Serial Garden to alert anyone still waiting for their long promised happy ending to the sad story, that it might finally be on the way.

If you missed it, and are one of the people still haunted by that unforgivable ending, all is not entirely lost – the complete book has come out, and perhaps hope can spring again…and you can also enjoy the entire collection of these witty and wonderful stories!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

See a Picture Timeline showing the history of this haunting story

and the family and village that inspired it

in The Guardian newspaper online

3.Farrs

Joan’s childhood village home

Read more about Joan’s childhood in the village that forms the magical background to The Armitage Family stories

Read about the Prelude to the stories

which tells how the family come to have their magical Mondays

* * * * *

Visit the Joan Aiken Website to find UK & US copies of The Serial Garden

Serial Gdns Webpage

At home with Joan Aiken’s Armitage Family …

7 Page 175

Is this the party?

    Lockdown regulations put us all into dangerously close companionship with our families, – a situation that might have been gleefully imagined by Joan Aiken in her collection The Serial Garden – a series of fantasy stories that gave a magical twist to her own childhood, and the trials of family life.

Joan Aiken’s stories about The Armitages – slyly linked to stories her stepfather Martin Armstrong was writing for the BBC Children’s Hour – began as a tongue in cheek parody but turned into lifelong companions, celebrating a family who always dealt with the vicissitudes of life with charm and good humour, and just a little magic…

Even when the parents are turned into ladybirds, in Armitage, Armitage Fly Away Home, or the family cat becomes a wolf, or when they are sharing their bathroom with a ghost, or their garden with unicorns, nothing seems to disturb them for long, but in these days of lockdown, or sheltering at home – how would they fare?

In one story, The Apple of Trouble, Mark and Harriet are left at home in the care of their tetchy and very old-fashioned Great Uncle Gavin while their parents are away, and he proceeds to take them firmly in hand.

“Little gels should be seen and not heard,” he boomed at
Harriet, whenever she opened her mouth. To get her out from
underfoot, he insisted on her enrolling in a domestic
science course run by a Professor Grimalkin, who had
recently come to live in the village.
As for Mark, he had hardly a minute’s peace.
“Bless my soul, boy”—nearly all Great-uncle Gavin’s
remarks began with this request—“Bless my soul, what are you
doing now? Reading? Bless my soul, do you want to grow up a
muff?”
“A muff, Great-uncle? What is a muff, exactly?” And Mark
pulled out the notebook in which he was keeping a glossary of
Great-uncle Gavin.
“A muff, why, a muff is a—a funk, sir, a duffer, a frowst, a
tug, a swot, a miserable little sneaking milksop!”
Mark was so busy writing down all these words that he
forgot to be annoyed.
“You ought to be out of doors, sir, ought to be out playin’
footer.”
“But you need twenty-two people for that,” Mark pointed
out, “and there’s only Harriet and me. Besides it’s summer. And
Harriet’s a bit of a duffer at French cricket.”
“Don’t be impident, boy! Gad, when I was your age, I’d have
been out collectin’ birds’ eggs.”
“Birds’ eggs,” said Mark, scandalized. “But I’m a subscribing
member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.”
“Butterflies, then,” growled his great-uncle.

Mark is presented with a bicycle on which he is ordered to take his daily exercise, even in the pouring rain, but by a stroke of luck just when he is at the end of his tether, he meets a man who offers to exchange the bike for a golden apple.

“Nice, eh?” the little man said, giving the apple to Mark,
who nearly dropped it on the floor. It must have weighed at least
four pounds.
“Is it real gold all through?” he asked. “Must be quite valuable.”
“Valuable?” the man said impressively. “Such apple is
beyond price. You, of course, well-educated, familiar with Old
Testament tale of Adam and Eve?”
“W-why, yes,” Mark said, stammering a little. “But you—you
don’t mean to say that apple—?”
“Self same one,” the little man said, nodding his head.
“Original bite marks of Adam and Eve before apple carried out
of Eden. Then—see stain? Blood of Abel. Cain killed him for
apple. Stain will never wash off.”
“Goodness,” Mark said.

Apple

But his Uncle is not impressed when Mark relates what the little man has told him about the Golden Apple’s long and powerful history:

Great-uncle Gavin nearly burst a blood vessel when he learned
that Mark had exchanged his new bicycle for an apple, albeit a
golden one.
“Did what—merciful providence—an apple?—Hesperides?
Eden? Asgard? Never heard such a pack of moonshine in all me
born—let’s see it, then. Where is it?”
Mark produced the apple and a curious gleam lit up Uncle
Gavin’s eye.
“Mind,” he said, “don’t believe a word of the feller’s tale,
but plain that’s val’ble; far too val’ble an article to be in your
hands, boy. Better give it here at once…
Mark felt curiously relieved to be rid of the apple, as if a load
had been lifted from his mind as well as his pocket.
He ran upstairs, whistling. Harriet, as usual, was in her room
mixing things in retorts and crucibles. When Uncle Gavin, as in
duty bound, asked each evening what she had been learning that
day in her domestic science course, she always replied briefly,
“Spelling.” “Spellin’, gel? Rum notion of housekeepin’ the johnny
seems to have. Still, daresay it keeps you out of mischief.” In
fact, as Harriet had confided to Mark, Professor Grimalkin was
a retired alchemist who, having failed to find the Philosopher’s
Stone, was obliged to take in pupils to make ends meet.

However the Apple of Discord is soon discovered by its true owners (calling themselves The Kindly Ones, but looking most alarming with bats’ wings and snakes for hair) who arrive on the doorstep and refuse to leave without avenging their loss:

“And what did you wish to see Sir Gavin about?” Mark knew
his great-uncle hated to be disturbed once he was settled in the
evening with a glass of port and The Times.
“We attend him who holds the apple.”
“There is blood on it—a brother’s blood, shed by a
brother.”
“It cries for vengeance.”
“Oh, I see!” said Mark, beginning to take in the situation.
Now he understood why the little man had been so anxious for a
bicycle.

Then the three wolfish ladies disconcertingly burst into a
sort of hymn, shaking tambourines and beating on them with
brass-studded rods which they pulled out from among their
draperies:
“We are the daughters
Of darkness and time
We follow the guilty
We punish the crime
Nothing but bloodshed
Will settle old scores
So blood has to flow and
That blood must be yours!”

Harriet puts her home ‘Spelling’ lessons to good use to create a friendship philtre to attempt to make the ‘Kindly Ones’ see reason, while Mark makes a bow and arrows of horn to discourage the visitors – but things don’t go entirely to plan…

By the time the Armitage parents are due to return home and Great Uncle Gavin is despatched back to his life abroad, the house is more or less returned to normal, except that the three ladies seem to have enjoyed their visit and sometimes return to sleep in the coal cellar.

M&H

And Mark and Harriet and their friendly ghost

have their home to themselves at last.

*   *   *   *   *

Story from Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden,  the complete Armitage Family stories

Illustrations by Andi Watson in the US and Peter Bailey in the UK

Joan Aiken ~ Telling the Bees

      Simon, the quiet hero of The Wolves Chronicles, and long lost friend of Dido Twite turns out to have a secret skill which can save the Kingdom. Joan Aiken knew her folk mythology, and the power gained from working with Nature, and Simon her cave dwelling Goose boy hero finally comes into his own at the end of the last book in the series – the bees lead him to an important prophecy, and at the end of the story when he returns their help, the secret is revealed…

   “As they reached the far side of the bridge, a swarm of bees, disturbed or attracted by all the unusual human activity, came drifting, like a solid black-and-gold cloud over the heathery hillside. The soldiers yelled in alarm and flung themselves flat on the ground.

‘Holy mackerel!’ said Dido. ‘Bees! Where do they come from? What do they want?’

‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay,’ suggested Wiggonholt.

‘They want a hive,’ said Simon. ‘Like the Wends. Somewhere  to spend the night.’

‘What can we do about that?’

 

‘Oh, that’s easy,’ said Simon. ‘I had lessons from a bee man at one time. You need kind hands.’

He walked towards the black booming cloud with his arms and hands held wide, fingers spread out.

‘Guess he knows what he’s about,’ muttered Dido. ‘I jist hope the bees get the message too.’

‘Bees! Kind hands!’ said Malise. ‘Now I remember – in the street in Clarion Wells – when I ran out –’

‘How do the bees know that Simon is their friend?’ said the Woodlouse anxiously.

‘They just know.’

 

It seemed that they did know. The black-and-gold cloud narrowed into a funnel shape and poured  itself  like molasses between Simon’s wrists, down his arms, and over his head and shoulders. Moving slowly and steadily he walked across the coach park, stepping over a number of prone troopers on his way, and approached the little stone building.

Proceeding with equal caution, Dido made her way there at the same time, arrived just before him, and opened the door.

The bees peeled themselves off Simon and poured into the hut, where they hung from the ceiling like a huge stalactite. Simon gently opened the window and closed the door.

‘Malise had better put up a sign bees in residence,’ he said.

‘Simon! Ain’t you stung at all?’

‘Not a sting!’ he said. ‘But I do feel rather sticky.’ His head and arms were glazed with a thin film of honey.

Simon!’ said Malise. ‘Did you once take a swarm of bees out of a house in Clarion Wells?’

‘Why yes,’ he said. ‘A long time ago. When I was quite small, travelling with a tinker, I was in that town. And a monk came up to me in the street and said I looked as if I had kind hands and could I help with a swarm which had entered the infirmary. It was a theological college. There was a dying man and they didn’t want him disturbed –’

‘And you took the bees away – ?’

‘I took the bees into the college garden where there was a hive waiting for them –’

‘But the dying man – did he say anything while you were in the room?’

‘Yes, he did! But I didn’t understand what he said. The bees were buzzing … and the man was singing – well, chanting – he had put words to a street ballad tune that a man was playing outside the window –’  “

And what was the prophecy?  You will have to read on to find out!

 

Joan’s respect for bees appears in several of her stories, find more in

The Gift Giving, illustrated by Peter Bailey

Find all of Joan Aiken’s stories at https://www.joanaiken.com/books/