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

 

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

 

 

At home with the Armitage Family …

7 Page 175At least these unexpected visitors can’t come into the house!

Joan Aiken’s imaginary family began in her stories about them as a tongue in cheek parody of her own childhood, but turned into lifelong companions, 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.

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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’s Musical Inspiration in dark times

Japanese Touch of Chill

    “Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats wrote, “but those unheard are sweeter.” For Joan Aiken this idea provided the inspiration for stories full of  music, in times when it was especially needed, which the reader can hear only in his imagination.

She created some wonderful magical music, like a tune which when whistled or sung brings a cardboard cut-out garden to life in her unforgettable story of The Serial Garden, or a record which quietly turns itself over while sending the listener into a mythical garden of her own, in More than you Bargained For; or a kingdom so dedicated to music that when the people forget to honour their goddess, they are stricken with a burning, freezing curse until she can be summoned back by notes from a harp that comes from deep water, a harp that no man has ever played,  A Harp of Fishbones.  In many of her stories, music is understood to be a powerful and healing force, which is almost better when you have to imagine the tune.

Brought up in a household with only a piano to provide music, where her mother regularly gathered the family to sing, and before anyone had a record player or even a radio, as there was no electricity in their village, Joan Aiken became musically literate enough to make use of ‘heard melodies’ that stirred the imagination of her readers too.

One of her earliest stories, The Mysterious Barricades, is inspired by a piece of  François Couperin  harpsichord music which for years she played on a 78 record. (I vividly remember her small but colourful record collection in an old tin box, which included Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith and Beethoven’s Rage at a Lost Penny, some saucy songs by Jean Sablon, and the Red Flag among its treasures.) The Mysterious Barricades inspired a fantasy she set in a Transylvanian territory that might have come from  Mary Shelley, except that it was also a wry comment on the kind of Government Department where she had worked in the 1940’s, helping to keep the wheels of Britain turning during World War Two.

The gloom of the restrictive red tape and deadening bureaucracy of those times could only be lightened by one of her typical flights of fantastic imagination.  In Joan Aiken’s story of their musical quest to escape from it all armed only with a cup of tea and a biscuit, two civil servants and a canary finally arrive together on a mountain top and play a piece of music ‘of more than mortal beauty’ which causes those Mysterious Barricades to open and let them through.

Mysterious Barricades

Illustrations here and below by Pat Marriott

Music was a great support to her at that time – going to concerts and singing in London churches provided solace in those dark days, but she wasn’t afraid to parody the over seriousness of the musical establishment of the time either. In the 1950’s Joan Aiken worked at the short story magazine Argosy first editing, then writing, or finding,  copy to fill odd corners and producing a monthly ‘log book’ full of imaginary news items.

   It is perhaps not surprising that the first story of hers that was accepted for publication by Argosy in 1955 also had a musical inspiration; called Some Music for The Wicked Countess,  it has as its hero a serious young composer who finds himself in the wilds of Ireland earning his living as a music teacher in a village school, but who is utterly unaware that the surrounding forest is not only ‘stiff with enchantment’ but also contains a magical castle inhabited by a scheming Countess determined to lure him up to her bower for a musical soiree…

He fails to fall for a whole series of her magical entrapments, and in the end the enraged Countess is forced to appear to him in person while he is out in the forest collecting moths. Slightly bewildered he follows her up ‘half-a-hundred stairs’ to her tower,while she sends a couple of leprechauns to fetch his piano, and having unwittingly avoided drinking another magic potion he sits down to perform:

Wicked Countess

Countess   The  cover illustration at the top is from the Japanese edition of another collection of Joan Aiken stories, A Touch of Chill. The story called A Rented Swan was also originally published in Argosy  and tells of a composer who finds an apartment with a grand piano, but discovers too late that it also includes a swan. “It’s in the lease, Sir, didn’t you read it? Furniture, fittings, appurtenances, and one swan; care of aforesaid swan to be undertaken by the hereinaftermentioned Henry Wadsworth Oglethorpe.”

(and of course it isn’t an ordinary swan, but an unfortunate piece of enchantment, and the story was originally, fiendishly, entitled Lease of a Gold Banded Pen…)

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Read here about a collection of these early stories  The Monkey’s Wedding  with an introduction about Joan’s Argosy days

Monkey's Wedding

And find these and more mysterious stories in the new Joan Aiken collection from

Small Beer Press

The People in the Castle

Now out in Paperback

People paperback

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