We lived in a bus…! Joan Aiken and Family at home.

Bus 52

Taken 70 years ago, this is one of very few complete family photos that shows Joan Aiken, husband Ron Brown, son and daughter, John and Elizabeth, and cat – in this case Taffy – all together in 1951, and necessarily rather cosy too – as we were living in a bus!  Housing was hard to find after World War II for impecunious young couples, so Joan came up with this practical idea, and managed to sell the story to Housewife magazine, who sent a photographer and thereby preserved these pictures for posterity!

Bus text1

Having a garden was just as important as a roof over their heads, as food was still rationed, so Joan spent a good deal of time growing vegetables, and writing, while Ron still travelled up to ‘Town’ by train, working for the Reuters New Agency.

Bus collage

Even in this tiny space, Joan’s creativity found full expression; endlessly inventive, she used her painting, sewing and practical  skills of every kind to make this little home entirely her own; many of her hand painted furnishings lasted for decades.

Bus text2

The bus was immortalised in many of Joan’s stories in later years, not least in “A Necklace of Raindrops” where even the cat turns out to have magical properties when he sits on the mat. 

Meanwhile she put it into a Christmas card for her mother and step-father, (in 1950 before the birth of the last arrival!) with a thank-you poem for a delivery of warm winter wear, made by her equally practical mother:

BusXmas

Joan was also working on a collection of  magical short stories which would form her very first collection, to be published in 1953, and  rather suitably entitled:

“All You’ve Ever Wanted”

Many of these and other favourite Joan Aiken Stories can now be found in

The Gift Giving from Virago Books

The Gift Giving copy

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Read more about Joan’s early life and first book on the

Picture Timeline on the Website

The ever mysterious Joan Aiken…

HGazebo crop

Who was the real Joan Aiken, and how far did she go in writing about her own life?

“This story is just too hard to swallow!” was the editor’s note on an early story she submitted. Remembering this years later, she said:  “He was talking about the only story I ever wrote, flat, from real life, and it taught me a useful lesson about the risks of using unvarnished experience.”

Most writers have learned the wisdom of a little concealment in their work – no one wants to be sued, (and in her early writing days she had a few warnings about this possibility – see below) or to be at the mercy of endless angry letters about the misrepresentation of a reader’s well loved home town or village, or heaven forbid, incur outrage even closer to home with dangerous disclosures familiar to their own relations…

Libel letter 1950's

(signature illegible I hope!)

So does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious possibly autobiographical 1980’s novel, Foul Matter, tread a fine line?

It was for instance accepted literary practice in Milton’s day to give all your characters names from Greek mythology, not necessarily to conceal their identities, but to set them in a more idyllic or ‘pastoral’ landscape. A clue to Joan Aiken’s intentions in this possibly autobiographical novel lies in the chapter headings she has chosen to take from Milton’s famous Pastoral Elegy, Lycidas and whose muses she invokes at the opening of her book: ‘the sisters of the sacred well.’  Milton’s poem was written as a song of mourning for his friend and fellow student who had drowned when his ship sank off the English coast – as does Dan, the heroine’s husband in this novel. Joan’s first husband Ron took her out to sea when they were moving house from Kent to Sussex and sank the boat and all their possessions just off Whitstable, but happily that time nobody drowned – in fact the family  were rescued by some passing sea scouts, but who would believe that?

Clytie, or Aulis or Tuesday, the heroine of Foul Matter,  has many different names, and does speak in the first person, but is this her author’s voice? She has such an astonishing amount of unfortunate history and such numbers of lovers that reviewers of the novel said it had to be a lurid Gothic fantasy – surely even in the 1980’s people didn’t live like this? When Tuesday first appeared in an earlier Aiken thriller (The Ribs of Deathanother quotation from Milton) she was introduced as the author of a spoof (and sexy!) shocker while still in in her teens:

“You wrote that novel, didn’t you—Mayhem in Miniature? Aren’t you Aulis Jones?”

Certainly this can’t have been autobiographical, as when no publisher will touch Tuesday’s second literary attempt, she is forced to become a caterer instead, and although Joan Aiken was an excellent and inventive cook, and descriptions of recipes in Foul Matter give plenty of evidence for that, in real life she is better known as the author of over a hundred works of fiction.

Conrad Aiken, Joan’s father, wrote a fictionalised autobiography in which the characters all had other names, even his wives and children, although in the tradition of the Roman  à Clef an index of real names was provided in later editions. He also wrote an elegy, a poem called Another Lycidas, for an old friend who died. This tradition of using different literary forms and references was in the reading and writing blood of the family, so Joan Aiken had plenty of background both real and fictional to draw on; and her own family history, like that described in this novel, was full of extraordinary deaths.

So how to consider it? We are given another clue in the novel’s title, Foul Matter and in the heroine’s conversation with her publisher about a completed, and nicely ironically titled recipe book:

‘“By the way,” he said, “do you want the foul matter from Unconsidered Trifles?”
Foul matter is a publishers’ term for corrected copy that has been dealt with and is no longer in use: worked-over typescript and proofs.

“Throw out the old copy,” I told George. “I don’t want it.”

Foul matter. Who needs it? You might as well keep all your old appointment books, mail order catalogues, nail clippings, laddered tights, broken eggshells, bits of lemon peel. Some people do, of course, and just as well, or history would never get put together. But I’m not one of those. History will have to get along without my help. Life, memory, is enough foul matter for me.’

True or false? When I came to clear out her attic (‘Don’t call it the attic, it’s my study!’) I was astonished to see how much she had kept – school reports, ration books, letters, letters, letters… all grist to the mill of her imagination, or background for other, fictional characters?  How much of Joan Aiken’s life did get filed away in her writing? There are plenty of descriptions of houses and towns she knew and loved, but which ones are they really, were any of them her own?  Is Foul Matter  set in Rye or Lewes, where she did live, or perhaps both? It has the castle mound of one and the salt marsh of the other:

‘Dear little ancient house. Watch Cottage. I always turn to look back at it with love. White, compact, weatherboarded, tiny, it stands in dignity below the brambly Castle Mound, at the head of a short, steep, cobbled cul-de-sac, Watch Hill, which leads down into Bastion Street… On down the steep hill; the town of Affton Wells displayed below my feet like a backdrop in flint, brick, and tiled gables. Tudor at the core, seventeenth and eighteenth century on the perimeter. Grey saltmarsh beyond, receding to the English Channel.’

In her father Conrad’s version, Rye, his adopted English home town where Joan was born, became Saltinge,  a picturesque little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up, and which he yearned for constantly when back in America.

Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, junk the lingering Foul Matter,  move on to a new era, or to pay tribute to friends loved and lost; to store their memory forever in a fictional world where she could go back and visit whenever she wanted. Who is to say what is truth and what is fiction?

All I know is that whenever I want to spend some time with her, this is the Joan Aiken novel I turn to.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

P.S. Looking back through some of those letters I found mention of an invitation to a private film-showing where she met: “a splendid British film tycoon called Sir J. A. who was just off to his château on the Loire, and very frosty at first, but finally thawed enough to buy me a whisky…”  The model for Foul Matter’s Sir Bert Wilder perhaps?

Foul Matter is now available as a new paperback

 Foul Matter PB.

All Joan Aiken’s modern novels now available as EBooks

 Find new editions of  Orion early thrillers here

and  Modern novels from Bello Macmillan here

Suspense Group 1

Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

Mouse 3

What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice; she seems to be speaking directly to us, saying these stories are written for you. By reading them, and so, taking part in them, just like the  beleaguered protagonists she so often portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers, or lonely unhappy children whose lives she transforms in fiction – she shows that we too can learn to take charge of our 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 our imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy we 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, she believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma – a very unusual ghost story.

Joan Aiken 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 take part in something hitherto unimaginable… learning how to live, from a ghost?

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. Her heroine is trapped in a haunted house, in what we foresee will be frightening and unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her imagination, a wonderful release. By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – the ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, and finally the real desire to learn to communicate – Joan Aiken leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”

Watkyn2

We are magically drawn in – given an example of how a story works its charm – an invitation to join in this process of creative sharing, which makes us ask with the heroine:

“Could I do this?”

And hearing the answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

>  >  >  > * <  <  <  <

This story can be found in The People in The Castle

out now from Small Beer Press

People paperback

It also includes an introduction with more from Joan Aiken

on The Magical Power of Storytelling 

You can read some excerpts  here

“The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” – Joan Aiken’s timely warning.

The Sleep of Reason

     Goya’s haunting picture and its resonant title quoted above, was often taken as the Spanish painter’s manifesto, and was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy novel The Cockatrice Boys.   Her magpie mind was ever alert to the news of the day, about scientific discoveries or impending disasters, and she followed the work of other artists and writers, past and present, who shared her concern about our ever changing world, and our inability to keep up with it.

Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist, unaware that he is surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.  Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth,  twenty-five years ago. 

In her fantasy novel, it is the dereliction of human awareness that creates this threat to life on our planet and leads to an invasion of monsters – the Cockatrices of her story – who are descending on the earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.

These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing will to imagine, and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies who are carelessly, or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children.   Joan Aiken, like Goya, and the current breed of fantasy writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, could save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.

But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces,  in reality, as much as in our imagination – falling into Goya’s ‘Sleep of Reason’ could be equally harmful.

Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, is sent on the train with the Cockatrice Boys, a raggle taggle army of survivors, to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities. Here, she asks her fellow traveller, the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:

Cockatrice Sleep of Reason

It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –

not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness

  all we have to do is stay awake….

*****

Joan Aiken’s own manifesto, The Way to Write for Children is a guide to the importance of children’s writing, in which she emphasises the need for every child to have access to books, stories and myths to stimulate their imagination. She writes:

“A myth or fairy tale interprets and resolves the contradictions which the child sees all around him, and gives him confidence in his power to deal with reality. We don’t have angels and devils any more, but we are still stuck with good and evil.”

Re.posted from 2013 for Earth Day 2021

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