Writer’s Block….. no joke!

Writer's Blockpic

Joan Aiken was a skilled artist and produced some beautiful pastel drawings while brooding over her plots, some of them can be seen here, but this little doodle on the back of an envelope suggests a rather different, very un-fertile state of mind, brought about by the distractions and endless pressures of daily life (Gas in barn? applesauce?) and recalls the dreadful to-do list that accumulates unbearably when you have something you would really like to be getting on with, but can’t let the ‘shoulds’ go – or in Joan’s case, the ‘oughts’.

Here’s a selection from one of her many TO DO lists – a very personal expression of her state of mind, and by no means the whole of it, emerging furiously from her typewriter!

To Do list

And she goes on: “Somehow one’s crazy conscience always relegates the really important job – the getting on with one’s book – to the last, as if it were a piece of self-indulgence.”

Although she produced an enormous range of different work – plays, short stories, articles and introductions, poems and talks – there would always be, seething somewhere at the back of her mind, the current repository of all the hopes and dreams, the great obsession that called itself  ‘The Book.’

In her adult books you can sometimes hear Joan’s personal voice quite clearly,  she put a good deal of herself into some of her heroines, as for example the heroine of The Ribs of Death.   Aulis, or Tuesday as she is also known, who is described by one reviewer as ‘a feckless sophisticated, cheerful, courageous little tramp of a girl’ but she  is also the victim of a major case of writer’s block, having had extraordinary beginner’s luck with a risqué experimental novel she wrote at the age of seventeen and been unable to produce anything since that her publishers would even consider.  Not only is she oppressed by her publisher’s expectation that she will obligingly produce half a dozen more in the same vein, but she is also forced to deal with the snide comments of people who assume that tossing off a novel is something any fool can do in their spare time – and in this case it is the ice cold – or in Tuesday’s mind ‘cool as aspic’ – Doctor Eleanor who needles her mercilessly on one of their first meetings:

Writer's Block

This is clearly drawn from  her own experience, but despite the cold fear it expresses, Joan Aiken was also familiar enough with her craft to have learned how to avoid coming to a total standstill in her writing, by having more than one string to her bow, and as the list up above suggests, she always managed to keep several projects in hand in case one of them stalled.

Having, like her heroine. also been published at the early age of seventeen, and managed for most of her life to earn a living from her work, she had obviously learned how to strike a balance between the dreaded ‘to do’ list and the project that was really close to her heart – writing The BOOK!

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Have you heard about The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize?

Find entry details here

Are you managing to press on with your own book despite current distractions?

Perhaps it will be the saving grace that whisks you away to a world of your own…

 

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Imagination, Hope, and our children

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Joan Aiken believed that developing the imaginations of our children was the key to the survival of the human race, and the surest way to create hope for the future.

“How can we cultivate this faculty in our children?”  she wrote, and imagined that in every school there could be classes “which would teach children to use their own wits, to amuse themselves, to keep themselves hopeful, to solve apparently insoluble problems, to try and get inside other people’s personalities, to envisage other periods of time, other places, other states of being…”

…and of course her way of passing on these ideas would eventually be by writing and sharing her stories, but this was something she would have to learn in time.

Taught at home in an isolated village until the age of twelve, she found relating to the world of other people extremely difficult when she first arrived at school:

imagination-4

“Training the imagination takes time and energy. Most adults keep their imagination at low level voltage a lot of the time – we have to; otherwise life would be too grim.  We are so bombarded with news from outside; unlike our ancestors who knew only what was happening in their own cities, we know, all the time, what is happening in the whole world. Nevertheless we need to help children retain their early curiosity, their urge to explore.”

The picture of the small girl above proudly displaying her own  personal creation amongst so many others expressing themselves in the ‘placard heaven’ of recent demonstrations, seemed to be a perfect expression of the kind of encouragement we can and must show our children.

In her talk on imagination, and ways of teaching our children to be hopeful and positive in their contribution to the challenges of life, Joan Aiken concluded:

imagination-1

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Joan Aiken was often asked to speak about education and writing for children,

and many of her ideas can be found in a short book called

The Way to Write for Children

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We have met the enemy, and he is us…*

game

Joan Aiken’s take on War & Peace, elections, immigration etc. in a nutshell…

Those of us still reeling from the events of 2016 have maybe looked for comfort or understanding from history or literature.   When Joan Aiken had to wrap up the history and sort out the future of the world she had herself created in one last short sweet episode of The Wolves Chronicles,  she came up with a narrative that speaks volumes to our current situation, although written over ten years ago. The Witch of Clatteringshaws shows a dark world, with an unwilling and slightly inept leader, King Simon, challenged on all sides by antiquated systems of government and ageing traditions, in a country about to be invaded by a wave of marauders from overseas. How does he sort it out? With his own version of Henry V’s Agincourt speech and a game called Hnefatefl…

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THE TROOP TRAIN had backed away from Clatteringshaws station, and was now out of sight. The men of the English Ninth Army were squatting on the heathery ground in a circle round Simon, waiting for him to address them.

‘Men of the Ninth Army,’ he began. ‘By the way, what happened to the other eight?’

‘It was back in Owd King Jamie’s time,’ someone told him. ‘When we was fighting against the Frogs in the year thirteen. All got wiped out.’

‘Oh. I see. Well, listen. Men of England. What you have to do now is walk a distance of about fifty miles to where the Wends have landed in Tentsmuir Forest. Does anybody here know the way, by any chance?’

Dead silence was his answer to this.

‘Oh. Well, it’s about due east of where we are now, so the rising sun will be a help presently. I hope you are all good walkers.’

More silence.

‘Now. We don’t want our country inhabited by a lot of Wends, do we?’

‘Dunno,’ somebody said.

Ignoring this, Simon went on: ‘We don’t know how many Wends there are, but there are not very many of us, so we all have to be extra brave and tough. I’m not particularly brave myself, but I like to think that all of you are with me, backing me up, and that perhaps, in a hundred years’ time, this day will be remembered by our grandchildren as the day when a not very large force of English beat off an attacking army of Wends who wanted to turn this island into a place where everybody spoke Wendish. Don’t you agree?’

‘What’s Wendish like, then?’ one of the men enquired. Rodney Firebrace spoke up. ‘Wendish is an awful language. It’s highly inflected – there are nine declensions of nouns—’ ‘What’s inflected?’ somebody shouted.

‘When words have different endings to express different grammatical relations. And Wendish has thirty different kinds of verbs. You have to decline them as well as conjugate them.’

‘What’s verbs?’

‘I hit. You run.’

‘Who says we run? We ain’t a-going to run!’

‘No way!’

‘Hooray for English verbs!’

‘We don’t want no foreign verbs!’

‘Are you all with me, then?’ called Simon.

‘Sure we are!’

‘Let’s go!’

‘We’ll show those Wends the way back to Wendland!’

‘Let ’em wend their way!’

The men jumped up and started bustling about, picking up their arbalests and re-packing their hard-boiled eggs. In ten minutes the whole mass of them had drifted off down an eastward-facing valley (Rodney Firebrace had prudently brought a compass) and were out of sight of the station. Simon and Rodney walked alongside the lengthy, straggling column, talking to the men, telling them jokes and stories to keep their spirits up, and encouraging them to sing marching songs.

‘We need Dido here,’ Simon said. ‘She knows all the tunes her father made up – “Grosvenor Gallop” and “Penny a Ride to Pimlico” and “Light-hearted Lily of Piccadilly”—’

‘Well, I expect a lot of the men know those anyway.’

So it proved, and the men of the Ninth Army marched eastwards in a gale of song.

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As dawn began to break, Simon decreed a rest for the Ninth Army. He reckoned they might have marched about half of the distance they had to cover. The men sat down and dug their way into the sacks of hard-boiled eggs donated to the army by kind ladies when the train stopped at Northallerton station.

Simon overheard a few grumbles: ‘Thirsty work, hard-boiled eggs is, on their own. Wouldn’t mind a nibble of cheese or a sup of beer!’

‘All right, you lot!’ Simon shouted after ten minutes. ‘Let’s be on our way!’

The track they were on clung to the side of a valley. Ahead, it curved round a hill. A grey parrot came flying from behind them, and alighted on Rodney’s shoulder. Simon, ahead of the others, rounded the bend on the road, then came to a startled stop. Ahead of them, on the other side of the valley, was the force they had come to fight. The track ran down, crossed a bridge, then rose again to where the foreign army was stationed, glittering red and gold, with the new-risen sun fetching flashes from muskets and shields, spearheads and musket barrels. They had horses. And small cannons mounted on wheels. And they out-numbered the English force by at least two to one. The cannons, which looked very impressive, were drawn by wide-horned oxen. Like the English army, the Wends had apparently paused to eat breakfast and water their beasts, which were being led in groups down to the river which ran along the valley bottom.

‘Humph,’ said Rodney Firebrace, who had walked up beside Simon. ‘I reckon this is where you need to negotiate.’

‘Negotiate what? They could beat us hollow. Look at them. There are twice as many of them. And their guns—’

‘True. But we are on higher ground. Ah, look – they want to talk . . .’

The foreign force had now caught sight of the advance part of Simon’s army on the opposite slope. They could not see it all, because of the fold in the hillside. They could not see that they had the numerical advantage. A group of leaders, down by the bridge, were shaking their heads, obviously discussing the situation.

‘Look, here’s someone who wants to parley,’ said Firebrace.

‘Aaarkh,’ said the bird on his shoulder. ‘A castle that parleys is half taken.’

‘I’ll go down to the bridge and see what they have to say,’ said Rodney. ‘That fellow is waving a yellow flag.’

‘I’m coming too,’ said Simon.

‘This is where you have to remember King Canute and Edmund Ironside.’

‘Why? I never met either of those guys . . .’

Several of the group at the bridge fell back, leaving a tall rangy fellow in a steel helmet with wings, and a fat, compact little dark-bearded man in royal-looking clothes.

‘Ah, good morning,’ he said in fluent, though heavily accented English. ‘I am Albert the Bear, Count of Ballenstedt, founder of the Ascanian line, Margrave of Brandenburg and heir of Pribislav.’

‘Good morning,’ said Simon. ‘I am Simon Battersea, King of England. Er – can I enquire about your intentions – what you mean by arriving here in this warlike manner?’

That should have been better put, he thought. I’m no good at this kind of thing.

‘You like to fight?’ said King Albert the Bear. ‘Ve Vends enjoy fighting. But this is not a good spot to fight.’

‘Why did you stop here?’

‘Vell, ve have to. Because the sign say so.’ Albert pointed to a triangular road sign. It said:

STOP

TOADS CROSS HERE

Behind Simon, Firebrace muttered, ‘This is definitely a case for Canute and Ironside.’ Simon suddenly remembered about them. Father Sam had told him.

‘I’ll tell you what, Your Majesty,’ he said. ‘Instead of involving our troops in a battle in this narrow, muddy spot, why don’t you and I have a personal combat? Like King Canute, son of Sweyn the Dane, and Edmund Ironside? Don’t you think that would be more – more sporting and economical?’

‘Quarter-staff or small-sword?’ said King Albert alertly.

‘Whichever Your Majesty prefers.’ And heaven help me, thought Simon, for I know as little of one as of the other. ‘Can you find my small-sword?’ he said to Firebrace. ‘I think I left it somewhere in the baggage train.’

‘Certainly, Your Majesty. And I’ll cut a quarter-staff out of that holly bush.’

‘Vun moment,’ said King Albert, who meanwhile had been conferring with his adviser. ‘Vilf Thundergripper reminds me that I have been suffering from severe cramp in my left leg. Not good, not good for personal combat!’

‘Oh, that is a pity,’ said Simon. ‘Then what about—?’

‘Vilf Thundergripper suggest that instead of combat ve play a game of Hnefatefl.’

‘Oh, certainly,’ said Firebrace. ‘My King will be delighted to take Your Majesty on at Hnefatefl.’ A Wendish gentleman-in-waiting was sent off at the double to the supply cart at the rear of the Wendish armed column.

‘For heaven’s sake!’ whispered Simon urgently to Firebrace. ‘What is Hnefatefl and how do you play it?’

‘Oh, it’s a Saxon board game. You’ll very soon get the hang of it. There is a board with eighteen squares . . .’

The board – a very handsome gold and leather one – was quickly brought and set out with its pieces on a handy tree-stump.

The pieces were set out on the board. They were made of bone, and the king-piece, the hnefi, had a gold crown round his stomach. Two stools were brought from the Wendish camp for Simon and King Albert. They tossed a Wendish pfennig for colour, and King Albert won and chose white.

(Afterwards Simon discovered that the Wendish pfennigs had heads on both sides.)

‘Ve play best of nine games, yes?’ said King Albert.

‘As you wish, Your Majesty.’

‘You vin, I take my army back to Vendland. I vin, you find us Vends nize home in beautiful English countryside – yes so? Not too far from my cousin Bloodarrow of Bernicia.’

‘Very well,’ said Simon. I wish Dido were here, he thought. I bet she’d be good at this game.

‘Don’t play with a straw before an old cat,’ said the parrot.

*******

King Albert the Bear was evidently an old hand at the Hnefatefl game and won three rounds in quick succession. But by this time Simon was beginning to get the hang of it, and now he started to win. When he had won four games running, King Albert suddenly said: ‘I now getting again this bad bad cramp pain in my leg. Ve must stop playing! At vunce!’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry about that, Your Majesty. Shall we fight a duel, then? Or would you rather have a battle?’

‘I tell you vot,’ said King Albert. ‘Vot you say, I get my men to vote. Vuns that vant to stay in Engel-land, you let them stay. I think I go home. Men that vish to go home, they go home vith me. Vot you say?’

‘Sounds all right,’ said Simon cautiously. ‘If we can find a place that’s big enough for the ones that want to stay. What do you think, Firebrace?’

‘It might be arranged,’ said Firebrace with equal caution. ‘When the train stopped at Northallerton, I remember hearing talk of an unoccupied valley in Yorkshire. That might do for some of your men, Your Majesty. What do you think?’

‘Goot enough. Let them vote. Bring two baskets.’

Massive Wendish baskets were used to carry arrows and bullets. Their contents were all tipped out onto the heather.

‘Men who vish to go back to Vendland put cheese in basket. Those who vish to stay in Engel-land put egg in basket. Understand?’

While the two leaders had been playing Hnefatefl, a good deal of fraternization had been taking place among the troops. Simon’s army, who had been supplied with more hard-boiled eggs than they could use, had been happy to exchange these for the Wendish soldiers’ ration of little hard round blue-veined cheeses the size of golf balls, which were found to be very tasty by the English troops.

‘Made by adding the cream of one day to the entire milk of the next,’ the Wendish quartermaster told them. ‘Makes cheese extra rich.’

When the vote was counted, it was found that three hundred men wished to remain in England. The rest preferred to go home.

‘Good! Some go, some stay. I go home now, to Vendland. You come, Simon, you visit me some time, we play more Hnefatefl. You play not bad, not bad at all,’ said King Albert.

So the arrows and bullets were bundled back into the baskets, the eggs and cheeses distributed to those who wanted them, and the two armies prepared to go their ways.

‘If I could borrow a horse,’ said Firebrace, ‘I could ride down directly into Yorkshire and make arrangements about that valley. There may be a bit of rent to pay.’

‘Vell, vell,’ said King Albert. ‘Ven you vant some rent, you let me know. No vorry! Goodbye. Ve go now. To the again-see!’

And he mounted his horse and rode eastward with the main part of his army. Simon, with his men and the rest of the Wendish army, turned back westwards, singing Abednego Twite’s song ‘Raining, Raining All the Day’, which had a very catchy chorus:

 ‘I reign, you reign, he reigns, they reign when the skies are grey.’

A large number of toads, who had been hesitating at the side of the road, now decided that it would be safe to cross.

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In Joan Aiken’s universe humour, pragmatism and even an understanding of grammar save the day – the Men of the Ninth do adapt their language to understand the newcomers with new words ‘Wending’ their way into the language, and new foods – presumably Wendsleydale? – happily absorbed into their diet.  The cheerful lack of front, or side, in the two leaders allows everyone to get what they need, and all faces to be saved. Now all Simon needs is to find someone willing to take over the crown so he can retire into happy obscurity again with his dear friend Dido…  To find out the rest of the story you’ll have to read on…

walt-kelly

*Thanks to Walt Kelly and Pogo for a great title

Excerpts from The Witch of Clatteringshaws (The Wolves Chronicles series)

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