The listener – and the true companion

lEARNING TO FLY

A story can be the best companion, if you are a listener.  If from childhood you had the good luck, the time, the solitude and the books to take you away, to transport you to a place that felt more real than the one you lived in, you had a gift, a means of escape.  The temptation was the yearning to stay there, with that voice, that true companion who seemed to share your world, almost to be you, while the everyday, the workaday world was the one that became unreal.

Unless you become a writer yourself,  the singer of songs, someone who can take others away with you,

you will always be listening for that voice.

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 For John Brown, a true companion,  learning to fly.

July 14 1949 – January 18 2012

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Joan’s poem is from The Skin Spinners

Her only published collection of poetry, although she wrote them every day

Lost words…

                      Joan Aiken: September 4th 1924 – January 4th 2004

Joan Aiken left over a hundred books, many more stories, and many, many more poems that still fall out from between the leaves of those books and stories. There is always more to discover, and always the hope of finding a lost message.

This is from a story called The Feather and The Page, about a boy waiting to hear, or find some lost words after his mother’s death. His sister is trying to remember a poem she had been writing at the time.

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The boy hears his mother’s voice, reciting the poem and passes it on,

and he hears his own message too:

 And always the hope of hearing the words again.

January is a doubly haunted month for me, as it also marks the death of my brother, fellow listener to many of those stories, who died ten years ago.

This poem from one of our mother’s stories might have been written for him,

a songwriter who often provided music for her words.

John Sebastian Brown 14 July 1949 – 18 January 2012

Wimbledon J & L

Utopian publisher seeks humane thrillers…from Joan Aiken of course!

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New paperback edition of hilarious Joan Aiken thriller

When it first came out in 1965 her publisher called this a thriller with humanity – a rare commodity nowadays perhaps – let alone one so charmingly praised by her utopian publisher?  This letter from Victor Gollancz to Joan Aiken written over 50 years ago shows the degree of warmth and encouragement she received from him in the early years of her career, and exemplifies the kind of devoted following she was to gather from her readers throughout her long writing life.

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(And no, she didn’t live in The White House, it was an old pub called The White Hart, but in later years she got letters addressed to White Hot House, the White Hut, and more…enough to give a budding writer plenty of useful ideas!)

Her first thriller – The Silence of Herondale – had earned glowing reviews for the writer and publisher, and only a couple of months beforehand Victor Gollancz had written to her saying:

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Of course she did have another one up her sleeve – in fact her imagination was so fertile that from then on, she went on to produce as many as three books a year for both adults and children in every possible genre.

This second highly entertaining thriller makes gleeful use of her experience a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair, to whom she dedicates the book with a rueful comment:

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Aiken’s imaginary agency Salmon & Bucknell are filming a TV commercial on location in Cornwall for a new client, the eccentric owner of a chemicals company, which has invented a new and almost irresistible perfume; heroine Martha is in charge of shooting the romantic ads – unfortunately starring the client’s difficult daughter-in-law. In a witty parody of the classic Gothic style popular in the 1960’s, Martha soon becomes embroiled in a conspiracy over the missing perfume formula and other increasingly astonishing plot strands – including an amorous sheik, a series of exploding soup cans, mysterious black robed monks in a cliff top monastery, and a kidnapped baby ‘who steps into a key role in a headlong series of chases…’ as one reviewer wrote, adding: ‘This is a superior stylish thriller…with the characterisation of bizarre cast bang on target…’   all of which mounts of course to a hair raising climax..

Trouble with Product X  is an absolute romp of a read – funny and terrifying and also a hilarious parody of her experience in the Mayfair advertising agency – think Madmen re-set in rural England, with Mary Quant being chased over the Cornish moors by Patrick McGoohan from The Prisoner –  carrying , as another reviewer put it  ‘one of the nicest babies in literature.’

(I am happy to confess that the baby was based on myself, and is given my own family nickname!)

Readers who grew up on Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles may not be aware that she wrote equally exciting novels for adults, and some are just discovering these wonderful Gothics for grown ups, as here:

“It was only THIS WEEK that I realised she’d written books for adults as well. Naturally, I’m hooked once again. “Trouble with Product X” is beautifully written – Aiken could describe a person or landscape completely in just a few words – and crammed with twists in true murder mystery style. It may have been written in days of yore but it packs as much of a punch as anything produced today. Awesome.”

Period covers give a wonderful flavour:

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Also published in the USA with the tantalising title Beware of the Bouquet

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No surprise then that Orion, the modern incarnation of Joan Aiken’s first publisher has brought out

a set of her early novels as EBooks

Also available as paperbacks and new Audio recordings by the author’s daughter Lizza Aiken

Read more about Joan Aiken and the fashion for 1960’s Gothics

Girls Running from Houses

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And on the Joan Aiken Website

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Joan Aiken’s farewell – The Witch of Clatteringshaws

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Is this Joan Aiken’s self portrait?

The cover illustration of the U.S. edition of Joan Aiken’s last book shows the Witch of Clatteringshaws (who is also the incumbent district visitor, rail inspector and general dogsbody caring for her thankless small Scottish community) brandishing her golf club – not as the alternative broomstick that she rides, but as a pen. The artist, Jimmy Pickering has caught a nice double metaphor, because, just as there is a good deal of the young Joan Aiken in her fictitious alter ego, Dido Twite, whose energy and curiosity had driven so many of the earlier Wolves Chronicles stories, so there is quite a bit of her philosophical, older, writer self in Malise, the title character of The Witch of Clatteringshaws. 

Malise is unwittingly responsible for an unfinished story; she is in fact being punished for failing to bring it to a conclusion – just like Joan Aiken as the author of the Chronicles, she has set a mystery in motion but is still far from finding the solution. Exiled to a small town in far away Scotland, she works as a lowly District Witch, having failed in her special task to hear the last words of a dying Saint…she was supposed to record and pass on his prophecy for the future good of the the Kingdom, and now it is in trouble. Joan Aiken, like Malise and her cousin, Father Sam in his Grotto, was also living alone and wrestling with her own penance in her house aptly named The Hermitage.

Last words were very much on Joan Aiken’s mind; knowing that she didn’t have the strength to go on writing much longer, she was determined nevertheless to bring a conclusion to her own alternative history of England, and to the story of its enduring heroine, Dido Twite and her friend, now ‘King’ Simon.

The harrowing ending of Midwinter Nightingale, the previous and penultimate story in the series, had been written at a time of personal darkness, the ailing elderly King was deeply informed by her own dying husband and his haunting ghostly dreams; care for him took much of her time, but her dark mood had its effect on the book, and  by ending it so tragically she had broken many of her own rules for her fellow children’s writers:

Tragedy Endings Way to Write

The heartbreak of Dido could not be left as the end of the series into which she had poured so much of her own heart over the last fifty years, nor could she abandon her own world, leaving it in a state of division and disharmony, when she alone was responsible for the characters she had created, and the restoration of justice for the people in her world.

Joan Aiken spoke often about being haunted by the responsibility she felt to free Simon from the burden of Kingship, and therefore able pursue his friendship with Dido, and run away with her to new adventures. The obvious way would be to invent a new branch of the Royal Family Tree, create a long lost heir, someone with a better claim to the throne of England who would free Simon and therefore Dido, to return to their own lives…  This was like finding the last piece of a very complicated jigsaw puzzle of her own making over the last fifty years.  Her last task,  like that of Malise was to come up with the right words…

Her solution was to turn The Witch of Clatteringshaws into a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, as in Shakespeare’s Royal plays, who gives forthright but veiled advice to his master the King, and a talking parrot whose riddles everyone ignores throughout at their cost. Her alternate historical Kingdom of England now seems to be travelling backwards in time – there are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, but also forwards, with the introduction of A Roads and public conveniences. As readers have remarked, the book is perhaps short on description, but never on invention, with new characters like the marvellous Finnish Princess Jocandra, an eight foot troll who luckily finds England too provincial with its lack of reindeer, and so spares Simon from a disastrous Royal marriage. The Wendish invading armies are more like immigrants who become the backbone of a now emerging nation, and although Simon does struggle to rise to his Henry V moment with a mock Agincourt speech to his humble troops, he finds he can win his battles with a hilarious game where no one need die. The long suffering Dido Twite, continues indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and even the elderly residents of a hellish care home, (another Aiken prophecy reflected in our desperate Covid ridden society?) and now in the person of Malise we meet another, painstaking, unassuming heroine who has the wit, but struggles, sympathetically, to find the words to save the world.

 So by hook and by crook, everything is finally brought to its happy conclusion, found, if not entirely fleshed out, and made buoyant by its humour and courage; villains are despatched, unfortunate victims are saved, and even the magical prehistoric creatures are dealt with or found new homes. Old friends are visited, or old villains reprieved, and those who know the Wolves Chronicles will feel they have had one last journey to the world of Joan Aiken.

Her English publishers, however, felt that this last book, written against the clock due to illness and exhaustion, did not perhaps tie up all the loose ends, or clear up all the conundrums set up over the years in The  Wolves Chronicles, and so she was persuaded to add a postscript, a letter to her readers, a last word of her own, a kind of Apologia which sadly was not included in the American edition.

So here, for all of you who hadn’t heard it before, is Joan’s farewell to you, and to Dido.

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Joan Aiken died in January 2004

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With the recent publication by Open Road  of the missing three novels in

The Wolves Chronicles Series

readers in the USA can now collect the complete set!

  Find them all on the Joan Aiken Website

P.S.

I was interested to see similarities between Joan Aiken’s last book, and that of Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown, which he wrote ten years later.  Both have Witch heroines devotedly caring for their societies and shouldering enormous responsibility – perhaps speaking for their authors who felt they owed their readers one last story…?

Read about it here – https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/joan-aiken-stories-without-a-tell-by-date/

For fellow writers seeking Joan Aiken’s sympathetic and cheering advice there is the invaluable

The Way to Write for Children

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