On Holiday with Joan Aiken and friends…

Sea Monster

“Down, sir! Heel. Go home now, good serpent.”

What would you wish for on your holiday, apart from lazy days of  sunshine, rest and relaxation and a good book? Joan Aiken’s Armitage family have an unfortunate knack of wishing for things that come true when they least expect it; in this case Mrs Armitage is finding her honeymoon a little too peaceful, and idly slips a round white stone with a hole in it on to her finger, remembering:

“When I was little I used to call these wishing stones.”

She goes on to speculate happily about the future, imagining ‘a beautiful house, in a beautiful village… with at least one ghost…two children who never mope or sulk or get bored…and a few magic wishes…and a phoenix or something…’

“Whoa, wait a minute…you don’t really believe in that stone, do you?” Mr Armitage said anxiously.

“Only half.”

“Well how about taking it off, now and throwing it in the sea, before you wish for anything else?”

Armitage honeymoon

And of course some of those wishes will certainly come true!

To read more about the amazing adventures of the Armitage family – perfect Summer reading for all – try Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden

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UK edition from Virago illustrated as here by Peter Bailey

US edition from Small Beer Press with pictures by Andi Watson

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A Japanese Joan Aiken Picture Post

jap-whaler

A Pop up Nantucket Whaler from Japan.

Joan Aiken has inspired, and herself created, some beautiful art work, often with Japanese  and also sea-faring connections.

This exquisite cut out card came from a devoted Joan Aiken fan, Kayoko, and arrived fittingly on Valentine’s day. A new edition of the Dido Twite adventure Night Birds on Nantucket has recently been published in Japan – a labour of love for the translator who had to to convey Dido’s cockney slang, nineteenth century whaling jargon, and the little island’s old fashioned Puritan speech patterns…

Joan Aiken’s books have flourished in Japan and inspired some beautiful editions:

jap

Another translation, of Cold Shoulder Road, a later book in the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido’s younger sister Is, was stunningly illustrated by graphic artist Miki Yamamoto. Here in a dramatic sea scene she captures the moment when a Tsunami rolls into town:

yamamoto

Joan’s early memories of her father, poet Conrad Aiken included being carried on his shoulders to look at, and listen to his stories about, the many Japanese prints on the walls of their old home in Rye; a favourite was known as ‘The twenty-seven drunken poets.’ Here are twelve of them:

drunken-poets

Conrad also supplied her with some very fascinating picture books, which inspired some of her own drawings – here’s an early Christmas card –  it could almost be a Night Bird?

books-bird

Rye, an old sea port also inspired an illustrated poem she produced for her father:

rye-ships

Although the sea and sailing ships often feature in Joan Aiken’s books, one story which was particularly near to her heart, was set in the countryside close to her childhood home.

The Cuckoo Tree, another of the Wolves Chronicles, in which Dido Twite returns from her various voyages at sea, has inspired unknown numbers of Japanese followers to visit this part of the Sussex countryside and try and find the miniature tree that is the setting of the story. That was how I came to meet Kayoko, who I took there, and who later sent the beautiful whaling card. Near the village where Joan grew up, it was a favourite private haunt of her childhood, a place to sit and draw or write, and perhaps appeals to these particular fans  because Joan herself was so diminutive – there is just room for one small person:

writing cuckoo tree

Joan Aiken would probably be astonished to know what devotion, and artistic creation her writing still inspires…long may it continue!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all, and many thanks for the lovely letters:

japk

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Find out about all the Wolves Chronicles on the Joan Aiken website

Read more about visitors to the Cuckoo Tree here

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Joan Aiken’s Family Tree

writing cuckoo tree

The Cuckoo Tree – a refuge for Joan, and an inspiration

This little tree, small enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, still with a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up, has now thanks to the book she wrote about it become famous worldwide. The Cuckoo Tree in which Dido Twite finally returns to England after many adventures abroad, takes place in Sussex, Joan’s own county, and particularly in the Downs around the village of Sutton where she grew up, and whose hills and woods she had mapped as a child, until the names of these local landmarks were all utterly familiar to her, but also imbued with magic.

Cuckoo Map endpaper

Dogkennel Cottages, Tegleaze Manor, even the Fighting Cocks Inn, an old name for the house where she lived years later in Petworth, were to become just as well known to readers all over the world, especially when this book was translated into Japanese, and they have since become places of pilgrimage for some very devoted fans.

Local villagers have even taken on the task of directing Japanese visitors  or escorting them up on to Barlavington Down, and have written about it for their Parish news:

Cuckoo Page

Only a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan, and feeling a need to go back there, especially at primrose and bluebell time, and visit it myself, I agreed to meet her in Petworth and take her and her sister up the Downs. They had done an impressive amount of research, and were armed with maps, and brought with them their own copy of the book in Japanese to read to the tree – a wonderful moment which I hope Joan was present to witness.

Kayoko & Cuckoo Tree

For children, including myself,  there was always something especially magical about this tiny tree, and the idea that the Cuckoo, famous for leaving her eggs in everyone else’s nests, did in fact have a secret home of her own.

In Joan’s childhood it was a refuge, somewhere to hide and read or write, a private special place to go. In her book, The Cuckoo Tree written in the year of her beloved mother Jessie’s death, it becomes a refuge for a lost girl, like a comfort blanket or ‘transitional object’ as psychotherapists call this type of attachment, which Joan Aiken shows as taking the place of the usual mother-child bond.

Dido CuckooTree

In the US edition of the book, Susan Obrant captures the tree exactly from pictures sent by Joan, and shows Dido in her midshipman’s outfit discovering the secret hideaway of of the orphaned, kidnapped Cris, singing to her imaginary friend ‘Aswell’ who turns out in reality to be her long-lost twin.

At the end of the book, having helped everyone else to find their long-lost relatives, but having failed to find the friend she herself has been waiting to meet again for so many years, Dido returns sadly to the tree, and wonders about the forgotten ‘Aswell’.

Cuckoo last Page1

The book was written in 1970, and in fact does suggest that the two friends Dido and Simon are about to meet again, as we learn that Simon is even now walking towards her over the Downs; but faithful followers were going to have to wait over fifteen years for the next book in the sequence, Dido and Pa when Joan Aiken would at last bring them together again…

Cuckoo last Page2

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To see the tree itself, and Joan sitting in it as she is in the photo at the top of the page go to the Website and see her in the film.

Continue reading

Joan Aiken’s Haunting Garden…

Serial cover 2

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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