At home with Joan Aiken’s Armitage Family …

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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.

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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 on Waiting for Inspiration…

“Being a writer is not unlike being a medium; sometimes the message comes through loud and clear, sometimes it doesn’t,”   Joan Aiken said in a talk on writing ghost stories.  Perhaps this is particularly apt for those with a gift for sensing odd atmospheres or noticing the unusual in the everyday, as she certainly did.       Her love of writing short stories, above all other forms of fiction, came from being aware of this gift –  although it often seemed that some ideas for stories arrived almost fully formed, being able to harness them was a skill she had to nurture.   As she said, it took years to learn to listen for that voice, to pay attention to her dreams, and then look out for, and make a note of the odd occurrence that would add the final spark or structure to complete a story.

Monkey Intro

But what when the voice doesn’t come?  When a dream remains just that,  an inconclusive mystery, a puzzle that doesn’t seem to have an answer.   Wait and see, she says, the universe, or something out of the blue may provide an answer, and unconsciously you are looking for it..

Writer's Block W2WYour block has unblocked and you are off again!

Joan Aiken used to object to being called ‘a born story teller’ – she knew writing was hard work, a craft you had to learn like any other, but in the case of her stories she did admit to the possibility of there being some kind of added ingredient beyond her control – a magical gift that she learned to listen out for, and which if she could catch and shape it, would become a story that would haunt her readers for ever.

voice in ear

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Joan Aiken wrote nearly thirty collections of stories for adults and younger readers, many fantastic and spooky, and many unforgettable.

Find some of them here.

An Easter Egg story – Joan Aiken & Jan Pienkowski – tell the story of an egg hunt…

House Egg story

Joan Aiken’s Necklace of Raindrops stories famously illustrated by Jan Pienkowski have been bedtime reading favourites for years. In this story – A Bed for the Night – four travelling musicians with wonderfully tongue in cheek names are wandering in search of a home:

Bed for the Night

In classic fable format, the friends ask various animals and people they meet if they can offer them a bed for the night, but everyone turns them down…

Finally they meet an old lady, who has a house like Baba Yaga’s – standing on its one chicken leg – which has just laid an egg!

But this time the story ends happily, although not in the way we expect – the brothers hunt for the egg and bring it back, but by the time they do it has cracked – it’s hatching, into another one legged house, and so the old lady rather crossly gives it to them – because now she can’t boil it for her supper…

So now they have a little chicken-leg house of their own!

Bed for the Night Pic

>>>>O<<<<

Read more about this beautifully illustrated collection A Necklace of Raindrops

Or find the audio version read by Joan Aiken’s daughter

Lizza Aiken

Creating Alternate Worlds…why we need stories

Sun God's castle

Why do we need stories? In one of her most quoted remarks Joan Aiken explains:

Locus Interview Alternative worlds

Jan Pienkowski, who died this week explained that his pictures helped him transform images of horror in his mind into stories he could control. He lived through invasion and terror as a child in the 1940’s in his native Poland, but re-created and conquered the fearful situations in his storytelling and illustrations, making the uncontrollable situations manageable for a child – the hideous Baba Yaga becomes Meg the silly witch, or in the version he illustrated for Joan Aiken, in The Kingdom Under The Sea, she becomes a selfish fool, easily outwitted by her own child. The idea of the witch might be scary, but it becomes manageable when viewed through a story, and as a picture in a book read in the safety of home.

Baba Yaga Jan

    Another of the great creators of alternate worlds was Ursula Le Guin, whose recent death brought not only a celebration of her writing, but a recognition of the importance of fantasy, and speculative fiction as it has come to be known. Both Le Guin and Joan Aiken resisted the label ‘Science Fiction’ for their fantasy writing – in an interview for The Paris Review LeGuin talks about the importance of ‘trying on’ other ideas::

“I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.”

Joan Aiken acknowledged that “writing a full length fantasy novel made out of pure invention is the very hardest kind of children’s book to write successfully…Ursula Le Guin has done it in her Earthsea books…it can be done, but it is a considerable challenge.”

Through reading and writing about other worlds we can confront and deal with the faults in our own. Joan Aiken only attempted a full scale dystopian novel once, in her novel The Cockatrice Boys, addressing the ‘sleep of reason’ which has threatened our own world with climate change and devastation – through stories, Aiken wrote, you can help children deal with the unanswerable question ‘Why?’

Cockatrice The Sleep of Reason

You can read more about what she and others called The Sleep of Reason,

or the failure of the imagination, here.

Generally she preferred to base her kind of fantasy on folk tales, an age old form of storytelling which could be adapted, often humorously, to comment on our own world. The illustrations by Jan Pienkowski above come from their collection of stories based on traditional European tales which he knew as a child – re-told for him by Joan Aiken –  The Kingdom Under the Sea.

In this story three boys set out to make their fortunes, but despite the good advice of the Sun God, about caring for those who have loved and cared for them, they  become distracted by the voices of darkness and become so lost to the world around them that they have to be rescued by their wiser grandfather:

Somebody sat on the steps of the castle weeping, with his face hidden in his hands.The old man called, across the white cloud and the pink cloud.
“What is the trouble, my child?”
The weeper lifted his head, and they saw that it was Yanek.
“The sun-god won’t let me into his palace,Grandfather,” he answered, “because I did wrong to leave you.”
Tears ran down the old man’s cheeks when he heard that. He turned to Martin and Mihal and said to them, “Go back to the forest, my children, live rightly, and never let the sacred fire go out. I am going to help Yanek.”

Sun God ending

     We must teach our children that we depend utterly on our imaginations, we need to cross over into fantasy, into the unknown, and make the attempt to imagine what if…?

We ignore this opportunity at our own risk. What we fail to imagine has a dangerous habit of coming true.

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Find more about the Joan Aiken Jan Pienkowski stories here

Read another fascinating Blog on Joan Aiken and some more Alternate Worlds here

And find the incredibly useful Internet Speculative Fiction Database here