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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Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles 

Could Joan Aiken have imagined that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today? Our lives may be turned upside down, but she was ahead of us; her stories, particularly this series known as The Wolves Chronicles, seem meant to become part of the fabric of our history, and this may be the ideal time to discover them.

Even after her death there continue to be reprints, translations and new digital editions of these wonderful books, as new generations of parents pass on their childhood favourites – and new generations of writers acknowledge the influence of her memorable writing skills on their own work, and on our ability to face ever more extraordinary adventures of our own.

 Terry Pratchett was another writer for all generations, who like Joan Aiken left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published – for fans who had followed his series set in his own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of his final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”  Were they leaving us a message?

Can it be a coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – the short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles which she had been writing throughout her life, was also,  many years before Pratchett’s,  a down-to-earth social worker witch who visiting her flock on a flying golf club,  has been charged with the task of saving her kingdom… The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – and they are both sharing their real world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books, with an urgent message, they are moved to do so much more explicitly.

Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’ This was a story she was determined to complete.

Aiken had an extraordinary prescience – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted to Saxon times, almost to the pre-historic age with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm.  But despite its connecting rail-roads, which like Pratchett’s iron rails, criss-cross the country, the disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions now with railway border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit, and now by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like waves of lost immigrants – the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, decide, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops,  that this would be an ideal country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making  inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose Scandinavian culture then becomes part of our Island’s history. It turns out that we do better together…

The solutions to dangerous situations in all  the ‘Wolves’ stories always involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS.

In the previous book, Dido and Pa, we had seen the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. Now in the following story they are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland –  since the book was written homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood –  but when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts through the airwaves they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom…

This in itself is extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of and only began a month after her death, but  Joan Aiken had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as now by a wave of devastating illness, could communicate through the Ether.

At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:

jAikencircle poem2

    Towards the conclusion of the series, her dangerous and fractured country was still changing, and although some reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer in the final book a last crazy Shakespearean jig of a tale to sustain her readers despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before.  Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, ever willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends the last book on her own note of joyful forgiveness, celebrating what she has gained from her adventures, and even from her murderous Pa, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.

Dark this kingdom of her creation may have been, but it is no darker than the real England of today; what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy, they were able to show through their storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it can illustrate the patterns of history in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.

As she said:

“Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “

People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself,  stories don’t have a tell by date…

 

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Witch page

Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series

Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!

Tributes to Joan Aiken in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times

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Illustration above by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

(Post originally published pre-Brexit  in 2015 – updated in 2020 – where next?)

Joan Aiken’s memories of Jessie…

Lamp Glass Granny

Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, seen at the age of about one in this picture, was born in Montreal in 1889, to a couple whose families had both emigrated from Scotland in the middle of the nineteenth century; she had a brisk practical manner, and spoke with a warm Scots Canadian accent, although she spent the last half of her life in Sussex, England, where her daughter Joan was born.

The studio portrait of her above, shows a good deal of her determined quality, and how pretty she was going to become.  Many years later her younger sister Grace wrote:

‘Jessie led her class at graduation from McGill and won a scholarship to Radcliffe, the women’s part of Harvard. She did very well the first year and got her H.A. She was told she ought to continue and work for her PhD. However, during this year she met a young man called Conrad Aiken and fell in love with him. They were married the following summer, in 1912, at Cap à l’Aigle, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.’

In the 1920’s the Aikens moved to England with their first two children, John and Jane, and Joan was born there, the only English member of the family.

JA birth page

Grace writes that not long afterwards:

‘Conrad went off to America and became involved with a woman in Boston. In that year he wrote to Jessie and suggested that he bring this new love to England and set up an establishment “A trois “. Jessie would have none of this so she decided to divorce him. It was courageous of her as most of her money had been spent. While the divorce was in progress Mother sent Marian (another sister) over to live with Jessie and the children to prevent any scandal arising. The divorce went through and not long after, Jessie married Martin Armstrong. She told me afterwards that she asked Martin (an old friend of Conrad’s) to marry her, and he agreed, most willingly. They went to live in a dear little house called “Farrs” in Sutton. Martin was in every way a good husband. He taught Jessie many good things about how to live in England, and how to manage the household “helps” that they had, who came in daily from the village.’

It was here that Joan grew up, home-schooled by Jessie for the first twelve years of her life, as Jessie knew that the little village school would not provide much of an education. During the day Joan would also help out in the house, alongside one of these ‘helps’ , a girl called Winnie, as she remembered:

Two small lamp glasses

I thought of this impersonal and unjudgemental comment recently, when, remembering Jessie’s birthday on March 1st, I went to look at the small copy of her photograph on my mantelpiece,  and noticed that the little oil lamp that stood in front of it, next to a shell box of Joan’s labelled ‘A Gift from Rye’ and a china musical box she had given me near the end of her life which played ‘I’ll be loving you, always’, was gently leaking, and the oil had seeped up into the picture.  Shocked, I reached to save it, and with my sleeve caught the glass of the lamp which broke.

I wished I that could also write “small lamp chimney” on a shopping list, together with so many other wishes, and that everything that was lost could be so easily restored.

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The links above will fill in other parts of this remarkable shared history,  which is imbued for me with an ongoing serendipity, in the line down from mother to daughter and grand daughter, in a way which still surprises and cheers me.

Some readers who know Dido Twite, and have read Dido and Pa will know that Joan Aiken decided to have her favourite heroine share Jessie’s Birthday of March 1st.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Aiken’s Best Advice for World Book Day? Read aloud to your child!

Reading Aloud

Arabel loves reading aloud to Mortimer in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories, as illustrated here by Quentin Blake.  (Actually Mortimer is busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find a good use for some of the information she shares with him from the Children’s Encyclopaedia later on in their adventure…!)

Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:

Reading Aloud quote

But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud in her mother Jessie, and wrote:

“She started from the moment one was able to understand any words at all, and if one was ill she was prepared to go on reading almost all day – having diphtheria at the age of three was a highwater mark of literary experience for me.”

Sadly in those days, after an infectious illness all the books later had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan tries to analyse why those first books read aloud to her had such potency, and decides that it is the element of mystery, of only partly being able to understand the language, ( and possibly being slightly delirious!) that made them so special for her. One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising, especially for a two year old,  but she said her favourite scene was when the fox and the cat dressed as assassins jump out on the poor puppet in the forest.

The illustrations were also pretty scary, but I loved them too, and we treasured that book.

5 - Pinocchio

As she wrote about another later memory, a particular highlight was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth – even here you will notice that she is still barely four:

Corpse painting

(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, to myself and my brother – we loved this of course, but I can see my tastes – and my nerves – were not quite as steely as hers…)

Corpse painting 2

Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family.  All those shared stories and even the unforgettable and hair raising experiences become markers of family history; the quotations especially become landmarks in their own right, and will live on in other settings.

It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when it is the same story you have to read over and over again…

Reading Aloud 2

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Best Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares?

A Necklace of Raindrops or Past Eight 0’Clock

Or of course Arabel and Mortimer, now out in TWO wonderful NEW Puffin Compendiums

Two New Mortimers

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