“The Apple of Trouble” an Armitage Family story

Read a taster of an aptly named story from ‘The Serial Garden’

by Joan Aiken at Virago

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….Mark is persuaded to make an exchange with the little man who makes off at top speed on the brand new bicycle – unfortunately this was a present from Great-Uncle Gavin who has come to look after Mark and his sister Harriet while Mr and Mrs Armitage take a much needed holiday…

Uncle Gavin nearly bursts a blood vessel when he hears… “Did what? Merciful providence – an apple?…Where is it?”

SerialApple3SerialApple4SerialApple5How are Mark and Harriet going to get rid of these Un-Friendly ladies before they avenge themselves on Great-uncle Gavin? Just one of the many adventures that befall Joan Aiken’s Armitage Family, usually on a Monday, but sometimes on other days too.. wonderfully illustrated by Peter Bailey

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Wonder how they do?

This and all the stories about the extraordinary Armitage family are in

The Serial Garden

Now published by Virago Modern Classics

Click to visit the website and see this and the US edition

read a complete story, plus Lizza’s introduction telling how Joan came to write these delightfully crazy  stories

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Joan Aiken’s Haunting Garden…

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Do you remember, as a child, coming home to find that your room has been spring cleaned and much loved if dusty treasures tossed in the bin, only to hear:

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

This was clearly  a memory from Joan Aiken’s own childhood, and she turned it into one of the most haunting stories she ever wrote – ‘The Serial Garden’.

In this memorable story, one of the many she wrote about her imaginary Armitage Family,  Mark discovers 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. He then learns that the garden comes from an old book of pictures belonging to the Princesss of Saxe Hoffen-Poffen und Hamster, and that she herself is imprisoned in the garden – thanks to a bit of parlour magic – still waiting to be rescued by her long lost love,  the Court Kapellmeister and music teacher who her father forbade 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 PicOriginal illustration by Pat Marriott

But the maid who was supposed to give the book to her beloved Kapellmeister never delivered it.  Only when the pictures were reproduced on the back of a Brekkfast Brikks packet many years later,  could the garden be re-created, and the tune which had unwittingly been passed on to Mark by his own music teacher is the very one to bring it to life – is there finally a 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 character of Mrs Armitage was based on Joan’s own mother,  Jessie Armstrong, married after her divorce from poet Conrad Aiken, to Joan’s second writer father, Martin Armstrong.  When Joan was young Armstrong was famous for his own children’s stories about a rather suburban 1940’s family in thrall to their various talking pets, but her  own Armitage stories which began as a tongue in cheek parody of his, became a lifelong passion.

This particular story, originally published in Jessie’s lifetime, in a collection of fantasy stories called A Small Pinch of Weather 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 received many letters 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, she could perhaps give Mark and poor Mr Johansen another chance to find the vanished garden and the lost princess.

Just before she  died Joan  was preparing 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, that it might finally be on the way.

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

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Visit the Joan Aiken Website to read  about the writing of  The Serial Garden

Follow the link to the introduction by Lizza Aiken to the American edition telling more about Joan’s childhood in the village that forms the magical background to the Armitage Family stories

Find NEW UK Edition here with cover and delightful illustrations by Peter Bailey

 published by Virago Children’s Classics

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All Best Wishes…

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 Wishes have always been at at the heart of fairy tales and story telling…they can be the seed that creates a whole new world or, more often, the first creak of discontent that brings on a landslide of disaster!

In her own stories Joan Aiken played with all the classic ideas – the dangerous wishes without forethought, the sometimes ludicrous results of gaily tossed off wishes, the indigestible effects of wishes that can’t be stopped, the wishes that come true in ways you would never have expected…

One of her most long lasting wish-gifts – given to Mrs Armitage, mother of Joan Aiken’s imaginary Armitage Family – was  that she and her family, while living out their traditional ‘Happy Ever After’ in her stories would ‘never, never be bored’.

This wish was to be prophetic also for Joan Aiken who was to go on writing their extraordinary stories throughout her life, with obvious enjoyment and relish.  One of her own last wishes was to have all the Armitage family stories collected together from the many different story books where they had appeared over the years, and which was first published in the US, as The Serial Garden This  is the title of one especially memorable story, and also a very Aiken pun describing a garden that grows week by week, which is made from cut-outs found on a packet of breakfast cereal. This last story collection was intended for those readers who had written to her saying that the story was one that would possibly haunt them forever…  The outcome of the original ‘Serial Garden’ story couldn’t be undone, but perhaps because of Joan Aiken’s original promise of a Happy Ever After, there would be a way to change it for the better?

Joan Aiken first started writing about the Armitage Family almost as a joke, a parody of her stepfather Martin Armstrong’s successful Children’s Hour series “Said the Cat to the Dog” which was being broadcast on BBC children’s hour in the 1940’s when she was in her teens.  But to her surprise this imaginary family took her over, and even came to supply a sustaining, alternative world which she returned to over and over again. During one of the bleakest periods of her life when her own future was deeply uncertain, she said that something extraordinary happened to help her through:

“I think my own most creative burst was during a week in April 1954 when I wrote a short story every day, children’s fantasies, some of which I think are among my best work.”

Luckily it was a gift that lasted all her life.

Here is part of the Prelude Joan wrote to go with the Armitage collection, explaining perhaps to herself, or maybe to Mrs Armitage, why the family should be blessed with such good fortune – could it be because, in best Fairy Tale tradition,  they knew when to stop wishing?

Serial Prologue

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Read a Serial Garden story excerpt: The Apple of Trouble

Complete Stories now published in the UK by Virago Children’s Classics

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Best Wishes also to Joan Aiken’s life-long literary agent Charles Schlessiger,

 For a Very Happy 82nd Birthday!

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The Village… Joan Aiken’s Childhood Inspiration

10. Sutton Village May Day paradeThis Sussex village where Joan Aiken lived from the age of five was to inspire the Armitage Family stories that she returned to over and over again throughout her life, and which are now published in a collection called The Serial Garden.

She wrote:

 ‘Childhood almost entirely shapes one’s later outlook – I’m sure it is true that we never escape from our early conditioning.  Chagall, to his ninety-seventh year, painted the village where he grew up, and I have total sympathy with his cows and cottages – I know them too.  When I start to lay out a setting for a story – unless it is unmistakeably located in Battersea, or Nantucket, or the Pyrenees – I too inevitably begin by thinking of a village – a village of forty houses.  When I think about my life, the adult years are just like anyone else’s, whereas my childhood was the village…’

When Joan Aiken was five, her parents divorced and her Canadian mother married  English writer Martin Armstrong, and took the family to live in his beautiful ancient cottage in a small village under the grassy Sussex Downs. The village was remote,and in the 1920’s few people had cars of their own, so Joan’s brother and sister, seven and twelve years older, were sent away to school, and Joan was taught at home by her mother, a graduate from Radcliffe college in Boston.

‘My mother had quite correctly estimated that I would learn a great deal more from her, than by attending the village school, without considering how much this would cut me off from the communal life of the village children.  They used to shout “Gin-ger” after me in the street, and I was scared and shy of them.’

But she had the freedom of the countryside, climbing the slopes of the Downs, filling the landscape with characters from the books she read like Mowgli, or Puck, or the Greek heroes; discovering the local stories, for instance about ‘The Cuckoo Tree’ – where the cuckoo built its nest, or learning to run past  the ghost of a game-keeper who sat on a leaning tree on the deep-banked road that ran past her house…

These were just some of the memories that formed the background to The Armitage Family Stories that she would go on to write throughout her life – stories that re-imagined for example the many elderly widows in the village, whose husbands had died in World War I,  as mysterious ‘Old Fairy Ladies’ to be treated with respect… In her recreation of those early years,  she transformed many of the village customs she remembered into her own myths, creating her own magical village.

‘The best event of the year for me was May Day. This had been revived by the Rector, who was a morris-dance enthusiast, and opened with a grand procession.  First came the young males of the village, prancing, white-trousered, straw hatted, cross gartered, accompanied by bells, fiddle, and accordion, and by the scoffing comments of their relatives lined along the grassy banks of the village street.  Then came the crowning of the May Queen with a wreath of primroses and pink campion, and while she sat enthroned the schoolchildren did elaborate dances with ribbons round the white maypole.’

In her stories, the Armitage children, Mark and Harriet may also have regarded some of these customs with scorn, and taken them with a pinch of salt, but for Joan Aiken as a small girl they were an inspiration.  On the left of the photograph above is a figure in a long coat, standing on the bank watching the procession go by. Many years later at a sale of old photographs from the archives of George Garland, photographer to all the local newspapers from the 1920’s onwards, Joan Aiken came across this picture, and recognised herself as the small red-headed girl who so longed to be part of it all.

‘From that age I knew I was going to be a writer. Of course my personal ambition was to be the May Queen myself, but even then I knew this was out of the question. But that hope translated itself to the stories of my imagination. The whole ceremony, the music of the dances, the intricate turnings and spider-web patterns made by the ribbons filled me with supreme ecstasy.’

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Joan Aiken’s collection of Armitage Family Stories The Serial Garden will be published this summer by Virago Modern Classics