Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

Mouse 3

What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice, with the assurance that the stories are written for you. By reading them, and so taking part in them – not unlike the  beleaguered protagonists she portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers or lonely children – she shows that you too can learn to take charge of your own experience.  It is possible, she seems to say, that just around the corner is an alternative version of the day-to-day, and by choosing to release your imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy you may find – as the titles of some of her early story collections put it – More than You Bargained For and almost certainly Not What You Expected…

One of the most poignant, hopeful and uplifting stories in a recent collection – and hope, Aiken believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma.  She takes the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and encourages you, her reader, to seize something hitherto unimaginable.

In the course of this one short story our expectations are confounded by the surprising ability with which Aiken generously endows her central character – to see something we would not have expected. Our heroine is trapped in quite frightening, unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her own imagination, a wonderful release. By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – our ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, and finally our real will to learn to communicate – she leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”Watkyn2

Joan Aiken draws us in – gives an example of how a story works its magic – an invitation to join in the process of creative sharing, making us ask:

“Could I do this?”

And hearing her answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

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Read this story  In The People in The Castle

out now from Small Beer Press

People paperback

 

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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 share their wisdom.

With her usual prescience, and wry understanding of the ways of the world, Joan Aiken imagined a beastly, and these days unfortunately rather recognisable (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, 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 old, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn, use the experience and move on.

In one story that particularly touches me, a grieving boy called Tim who was sent away, 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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Take a Book Wherever you Go…

book sea

 Once upon a time, Joan Aiken was asked to write a letter to children for International Children’s Book Day. Here it is. I’m sure she’d say much the same thing today:

If you were going to sail round the world alone in a small boat, and could take only one of these things to amuse you, which would you choose?  A big iced cake, a beautiful picture, a book, a pack of cards, a paint box (and paper!) a pair of knitting needles and wool, a musical box, or a mouth organ…?

It would be a hard choice. Myself, I wouldn’t want the cake. I’d eat it too fast. Nor the cards, they might blow away. Nor the wool, it might just get wet. The mouth organ would be better than the musical box, as you could make up your own tunes. I wouldn’t take the picture – I could look at the sea. Nor the paint box, because in the end I’d use up all the paper. So the last choice would be between the mouth organ and the book. And I’m pretty sure I’d choose the book.

One book! I can hear someone say. But if you were sailing round the world, you’d have read it hundred times before the trip was over. You’d know it by heart.

And I’d answer yes, I might read it a hundred times, yes, I might know it by heart. That wouldn’t matter. You don’t refuse to see your friend, or your mother, or your brother, because you have met them before.

A book you love is like a friend. It is like home. You meet your friend a hundred times. On the hundred-and-first meeting you can still say, “Well, I never realized you knew that!’ ”

There is always something new to find in a book, however often you read it.

When you read a story you do something that only man can do – you step out of your mind into someone else’s. You are listening to the thoughts of another person and making your own mind work – the most interesting thing there is to do!

So I’d sit in my boat and read my book over and over. First I’d think about the people in the story, why they acted the way they did. Then I’d think about the words the writer used, why he chose them.  Then I’d wonder why he wrote the story and how I’d have done it, if I’d written it. Then I might carry on the story in my mind, after the end of the book. Then I’d go back and read all my favourite bits and wonder why I liked them best. Then I’d read all the other bits and look for things that I hadn’t noticed before. Then I might make a list of the things I’d learned from the book. Then I’d try to imagine what the writer was like, from the way he’d written his story…

It would be like having another person in the boat. A book you love is like a friend, something of your very own, for no two people read the same book in quite the same way.

If every single person in the world had a book – just one book  –  we’d have a lot less trouble. Just one book apiece. That shouldn’t be too hard to manage?

How shall we start?

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   Find a favourite book here – Joan Aiken wrote over one hundred!

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The Watcher on the Shore

Sometimes anniversaries spark memories, sometimes they seem to open chasms back into the past; sometimes it is the birthdays that are celebrated, sometimes the deaths are remembered… This has been a week of discoveries, and strange coincidences, weaving family history into odd new patterns.

The first of March was the birthday of Joan Aiken’s mother Jessie, a day I like to celebrate every year, as she was much loved, and is fondly remembered. It’s a day usually marked with Daffodils, for the Welsh patron saint, a cheerful flower and a bright and glowing colour that seem to suit her.

The 27th of February 1911 was the birthday of Joan’s first husband Ron, the father of her children, but since he died young, and much longer ago, his death has become more memorable than his birthday, and this year I even had to look it up to check the date; I knew it was at the end of February, but we hadn’t celebrated it often because I was only three when he died. Racking my memory, I wondered whether his birthday might have occurred in a dangerous Leap Year? Might he have missed out on his birthday celebration for years at a time, and was that why the date seemed rather elusive?

Then I remembered that Jessie had died a day or so before her birthday, when she would have been eighty-one; that year she didn’t stay for the first of March, she had resigned herself to leaving, and with her usual tact, left a few days before the anniversary, waiting only for the opportunity to see her daughter Joan again. Might that have been on the 27th? Would that have been an unfortunate coincidence? But looking through some books and papers to confirm these dates I came across another that I am sure I never knew until now.

I discovered that the 27th of February 1901 had been a day of memorable tragedy, but not for Joan, for Joan’s father, Jessie’s first husband the poet Conrad Aiken, as it was the day when his own father, suffering from a mental breakdown, shot his wife and then himself, and it was left to the eleven year old boy to go and report this to the police.

Jessie had been divorced from this poet husband for over forty years; they first met as students at Harvard in the spring of 1911 (around the time of Ron’s birth). They had been married very young, and only for about fifteen turbulent years; they parted when Joan was only three, and never met or spoke again. Joan lived with her mother in England, but gradually over the years came to know her American father again. But now, in 1970, Conrad had also been ill, and Joan had been summoned to his hospital bed in America, leaving her mother in the care of a nurse at her home in Sussex, and was booked to fly back just before Jessie’s birthday. Despite not having spoken for all those years, Conrad and Jessie were concerned for each other, both seriously unwell, and each when asked, sent a message of love to the other.

Describing her visit to Conrad on the day of her return to Jessie, Joan related a dream of her father’s where he was trying to rescue some recalcitrant birds at sea, and had to struggle and fight with them and force them on to a boat for safety. Far away on the shore he was aware of someone looking on, a familiar figure, observant but detached, and dressed all in black. ‘I wonder who she was?’ he said.

Parting from him wasn’t easy, but Joan flew back, taking his love to Jessie. Her father lived for another year or so, and Joan was glad she had returned in time to see her mother again, as this was to be the last time; Jessie died late that night.

A year or so after  both her parents had died, Joan wrote a piece about this strange week of coincidences and messages, dreams and omens of parting.

She called it The Watcher on the Shore.

 

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