Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

Did Joan Aiken imagine 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 have been turned upside down, but she was ahead of us in her stories, particularly her best  known series The Wolves Chronicles, whose predictions seemed destined to become part of the fabric of our own history – if you haven’t come across them already, this may be the ideal time to discover them, for as she said, it is better to imagine things before they actually happen, then you are prepared.

Joan Aiken was a writer for all generations, who left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published, for fans who had followed her series set in her own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of Terry Pratchett’s 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.”

It’s a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – who we meet in this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – was also, many years before Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, a down-to-earth social worker witch,  who visits her flock on a flying golf club, and is charged with the task of saving her kingdom… Were these fictional alter egos bringing a last message from their creators?

The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – they are both sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they are moved to speak more explicitly to prepare us for what may be coming..

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 always had an extraordinary prescience, an ability to imagine changes in the world before they happened. This time she saw the world going backwards – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted form a mock Victorian century 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.  The Hobyahs, completely unseen but violently destructive of all in their path, might just as well be a virus, but here there is a cure – the power of song, from a united, happy, singing marching army:

  “A tempest of sound swept across the valley. And the hordes of Hobyahs who had come out after sunset, eager to surge up the hill and demolish the happy, careless warriors, began to dwindle and shrink and crumple. Their faulty little prehistoric nerve systems could not stand up to the strong regular beat of the music; they whimpered and shivered and began to dissolve like butter melting on a griddle.”

Joan Aiken’s disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions, the north and the west connected only by railways with 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, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide 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 Story. It turns out that we can do better together than in conflict.

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 nevertheless created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. But in the following story of  IS these orphans are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – incredibly, since the book was first written, homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood; now they are isolated at home by a virus.  It is only when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, that they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom together.

This in itself was extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of, and only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death, but she 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:

Aikencircle poem 3

Although reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books of the Wolves Chronicles, 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, always 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 endless 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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Song illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

Post originally published pre-Brexit, and pandemic in 2015 –

last updated in 2021- where next?

Remembering Joan Aiken – and her Haunted House.

hermitage

The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s last home

Joan Aiken died in the month of January, in fact her favourite month because she said it was the most hopeful time of all with the new year lying ahead. Like her own mother, she had firm opinions and often voiced them, although when I am listening for that familiar voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries. It being January I was listening out, and in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem I had never seen before, and found in an old notebook, and although it had clearly written many years earlier when she was young, it seems to describe the last house she came to live in..The Hermitage.

This little portrait of Joan’s last house was painted by the architect friend who helped her bring it back to life, when she and her painter husband discovered it lying ruined and abandoned on the edge of the little town of Petworth in Sussex where they lived.  The house then went on to play a fairly haunting part in several of her historical novels about the Paget family, set in and around Petworth. It had plenty of history, lying between two churchyards, it was also supposed to have a secret tunnel leading from its garden gazebo up to Petworth House.

It was commonly believed to be haunted; Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog on the path below the house, reported seeing a ghostly monk, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…diving back into earlier stories.

The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with this over familiar apparition  too unsettling when she was left alone after the death of her husband, and so in order to live with it, she herself became something of a local legend:

hermitagenews-clip

 Joan Aiken was sad never to have seen the ghost herself, although she had bought the house partly because of its strange history – indeed it could almost have been one of her own.  She  was completely unafraid of mystery, and let her imagination have full play. A friend recalled Joan saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide future story material –  as readers of her ghost stories will know she certainly did have a rich and wicked imagination…

I like to think that something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this found poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written many years earlier:

  “Swan among trees, the yew in its dark plumage

Raises its points against the glittering sky

Dropping a pool of shadow across the house

Shuttered and soulless since you are away.

Perhaps behind your shuttered features also

There lives a friend? This front gives rise to doubt

No inmate waves a hand at the blank windows

No footprints tell of passage in or out.”

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas.  Often, she would say, they came simply from the twists and turns of life, or from newspaper articles, which she clipped out and kept in a notebook, because, as she said, you never knew when they would find a home in a story; or when a story would make its home in a house.

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here

Read more about Joan Aiken’s three Paget Family novels,

set in her own house and the town of Petworth

The Smile of the Stranger, The Girl from Paris, and The Weeping Ash

(also known as The Young Lady from Paris and The Lightning Tree)

All now out as EBooks

All Paget novels

Painting of The Hermitage by Vernon Gibberd

Keeping up with Joan Aiken

mushrooms

One of Joan Aiken’s pastel drawings – mushrooms for supper

“Just because I’m sweeping leaves doesn’t mean I’m not thinking,” she would say – or she might be drawing a picture of mushrooms, or staking runner beans, or making Rowan jelly or sewing hessian curtains…. the activities were endless.  But whether she was gardening, homemaking, feeding visitors delicious dinners, and inventing new recipes, reading to children or taking them for walks on the Sussex Downs…all the while she was making up stories, and telling them, brooding on plots, working out how to rescue a heroine, or kill off a villain…

Joan Aiken was born from two strong outgoing family strains, with  a Scots Canadian mother, and an American father descended from a long line of puritan pilgrims.  Both families had braved alarming sea voyages to reach new countries, and struggled to work the land and build a future, and Joan had inherited strong genes and a determined outlook on life that kept her going through many vicissitudes.  Anything that needed making, building, growing or sewing she would tackle, any journey or adventure that she could pursue she would take up with alacrity, and any new experience however alarming or exhausting could be put to use in a plot, and usually was.  As her daughter I sometimes found this bewildering  as whole chunks of her, or my own experience could appear, lightly disguised, in a murder mystery or a children’s comic serial; unhappy love affairs, confrontations with brutal bosses, tales of travels gone scarily aglay, all was an inspiration or a useful piece of background that might turn up in an unfamiliar context as I was innocently reading through her latest manuscript.

At the time I might have been furious, felt my life was being snatched away, my experiences only material for her imagination; now when I read, and re-read her books I find they are full of gifts from her which only I can really appreciate – I remember the flat in Paris that inspired that nightmare, the garden in York where those apple trees were planted, the theatre production with the egg box masks, the terrified old lady who kept ‘the wealth’ safety-pinned into her liberty bodice.

The house and the garden were sold, the mushroom chicken pies, the Rowan jelly and the walks over the chalk downs are only memories now, but when I want to relive those memories,  go on those journeys with her and visit those places again, I have them all in her books, and as I marvel at her energy and resourcefulness, I realise that I am still keeping up with Joan.

For the last dozen years I have been putting together an online resource which links all these blog pieces and what someone delightfully called a ‘deep’ website, a virtual Joan Aiken museum which has become a wonderful world of its own, a place to travel and explore and meet Joan and read about her life and writing.

It has just had a refurbishment and moved to a new secure site, where I hope it will be preserved for many years to come, so you can all come and wander at will.

A great way to keep up with Joan Aiken…

Drawing crop

Do come and visit

The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken

 ‘a day in the life’ from the 1990’s

TELEGRAPH TEXT.

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A Thanksgiving Poem – Conrad Aiken & William Blackstone

In his poem The Kid  Joan Aiken’s American father Conrad Aiken celebrated the optimistic and peaceful spirit of the early Americans, some of whom were the family’s own Pilgrim Ancestors. In particular he admired an early solitary English scholar, William Blackstone, whose story Aiken imagined, and whose life of reading, philosophising and growing fruit trees he emulated in a Massachusetts farmhouse of his own some centuries later.

From The Kid:

 

Morning and evening, Lord, I beseech Thee,

suffer my cry from this woode to reach Thee,

these are Thy presents, Thy heart I find

in the dark forest in sleet and winde.

As on the sea Thou sailedst before,

a cloud, that our shippe might see this shore,

so now Thou walkest, these trees Thy feet,

and in this brooke Thy heart doth beat.

Lorde, I am fearless, Thy mercy shown,

for where Thou art there is nought unknowns

what are these seemings save Thine own?

Audubon free site small

 

He moved to the north: by the harbor found

a sweet spring bubbling in open ground:

on a clear hill, by an oystred river,

and here, he thought, I shall dwell forever.

A plat of roses, a plot of trees,

apples, pears, and a skep of bees,

friends in the village, true Indian friends,

here Lord in joye my journey ends.

What should I want but bookes on shelf—

these few I have—and that dark selfe

that poures within me, a chartless sea,

where every landfall is named for Thee?

What other voyage could solace me?

Thou being pilot, Lord, I find

untrodden kingdoms in the minde:

freedom is all my coin: and these

humilities and simplicities,

Thy humblest creatures, birds and flowers,

instruct and ornament my hours.

ground squirrel small

 

The full poem can be found in Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems

from Oxford University Press