The Watcher on the Shore

Sometimes anniversaries spark memories, sometimes they seem to open chasms back into the past; sometimes it is the birthdays that are celebrated, sometimes the deaths are remembered… This has been a week of discoveries, and strange coincidences, weaving family history into odd new patterns.

The first of March was the birthday of Joan Aiken’s mother Jessie, a day I like to celebrate every year, as she was much loved, and is fondly remembered. It’s a day usually marked with Daffodils, for the Welsh patron saint, a cheerful flower and a bright and glowing colour that seem to suit her.

The 27th of February 1911 was the birthday of Joan’s first husband Ron, the father of her children, but since he died young, and much longer ago, his death has become more memorable than his birthday, and this year I even had to look it up to check the date; I knew it was at the end of February, but we hadn’t celebrated it often because I was only three when he died. Racking my memory, I wondered whether his birthday might have occurred in a dangerous Leap Year? Might he have missed out on his birthday celebration for years at a time, and was that why the date seemed rather elusive?

Then I remembered that Jessie had died a day or so before her birthday, when she would have been eighty-one; that year she didn’t stay for the first of March, she had resigned herself to leaving, and with her usual tact, left a few days before the anniversary, waiting only for the opportunity to see her daughter Joan again. Might that have been on the 27th? Would that have been an unfortunate coincidence? But looking through some books and papers to confirm these dates I came across another that I am sure I never knew until now.

I discovered that the 27th of February 1901 had been a day of memorable tragedy, but not for Joan, for Joan’s father, Jessie’s first husband the poet Conrad Aiken, as it was the day when his own father, suffering from a mental breakdown, shot his wife and then himself, and it was left to the eleven year old boy to go and report this to the police.

Jessie had been divorced from this poet husband for over forty years; they first met as students at Harvard in the spring of 1911 (around the time of Ron’s birth). They had been married very young, and only for about fifteen turbulent years; they parted when Joan was only three, and never met or spoke again. Joan lived with her mother in England, but gradually over the years came to know her American father again. But now, in 1970, Conrad had also been ill, and Joan had been summoned to his hospital bed in America, leaving her mother in the care of a nurse at her home in Sussex, and was booked to fly back just before Jessie’s birthday. Despite not having spoken for all those years, Conrad and Jessie were concerned for each other, both seriously unwell, and each when asked, sent a message of love to the other.

Describing her visit to Conrad on the day of her return to Jessie, Joan related a dream of her father’s where he was trying to rescue some recalcitrant birds at sea, and had to struggle and fight with them and force them on to a boat for safety. Far away on the shore he was aware of someone looking on, a familiar figure, observant but detached, and dressed all in black. ‘I wonder who she was?’ he said.

Parting from him wasn’t easy, but Joan flew back, taking his love to Jessie. Her father lived for another year or so, and Joan was glad she had returned in time to see her mother again, as this was to be the last time; Jessie died late that night.

A year or so after  both her parents had died, Joan wrote a piece about this strange week of coincidences and messages, dreams and omens of parting.

She called it The Watcher on the Shore.

 

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‘Joan Aiken changed my life…’


Today, the 4th of January 2019 is, unbelievably, fifteen years since her death, and since I have been, as she asked me: ‘looking after the books’ on her behalf. A sad reflection, of course, but also a good moment to be thankful for all that I have been given.

One of the great pleasures of being Joan Aiken’s daughter and now representative, has been answering letters, requests, enquiries, searching into mysteries, and trying to explain the inexplicable in her books, fielding rumours and random nonsense in the ever expanding farrago of the internet – and sometimes having the extraordinary pleasure of meeting the people whose lives, like mine, she has changed.

One of these, a fan not just of Joan Aiken, but of her alter ego Dido Twite, corresponded with her over a period of five years, and was one of the people I hoped to reach by creating the website, and replying to some of the letters above.

On the page I wrote:

“Joan Aiken loved to get letters from her readers, and as she was a terrific letter writer herself, some of these correspondents turned into good friends. I couldn’t write back to all of you when she died, but I wanted to let you know how much pleasure you gave her, and share some of your best letters here, and also some of the secrets behind the books that a few of you may already have found out for yourselves… “

And one of them, now a writer herself, answered with something I completely understood, and that I wish I could have said myself:

“I never quite managed to explain that her characters assuaged my own loneliness. I never quite managed to explain that I was a writer because of her…”

And then she herself came on a visit from America, and I was able to show her the letters she had written to my mother years before. She wrote:

“I try to tell Lizza what her mother’s books meant to me — mean to me — but I stumble, because even now I’m not sure of the extent of their meaning. There have been other books, of course, that have wrapped themselves around my entire existence. I cloak myself in their characters and wear them around. These books are different from each other, and I am different reading them, living them, but taking them on amounts to the same thing. Like Dido Twite, like Joan Aiken, like the rediscovery of myself on the page at Lizza Aiken’s kitchen table, these books all say the same thing. They say, “You are worthy. Be brave.”

And so, on Joan Aiken’s behalf, here I am…

Visit the website – maybe your letter is there?

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/letters.html

Read more: Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life – I’m a writer today because 15 years ago, she sent a fan on a scavenger hunt through Dickens

Joan Aiken’s Happiest Birthdays… and a couple of alarming ones!

1st Birthday

Joan Aiken was born on September 4th 1924 in a haunted house named after a mysterious astrologer, Samuel Jeake (who was supposed to have built a flying machine) in a street named after a mythical mermaid (who Mr Jeake may have rescued from an angry mob in his flying machine…) in the little town of Rye by the sea in East Sussex.

All these elements were to have a lasting place in her imagination, and that particular haunted house would appear in many of her favourite stories.

Wychwood

At the age of five Joan  moved to a small village and the house of a new step-father; it was a place she came to love, as she had a good deal of freedom and was taught at home by her mother, but in 1936 her life changed dramatically – she was sent to a small boarding school in Oxford, and spent her twelfth birthday away from home for the first time. She said it was an inconceivable shock, and that from then on she stopped growing! Years later she wrote about the experience in a novel called The Shadow Guests, where a boy deals with the difficulty of school life by retreating into a  world of ghostly imaginary friends. Writing was clearly the answer, and her first term’s report said she showed promise… she did grow to love her time there, publishing her first poems in the school magazine.

Just a few years later World War II, declared just days before Joan’s birthday in September 1939, led to the school’s bankruptcy and eventual closure.

Another very important birthday was recorded by Joan on an early manuscript:

Birthday crop

This was the beginning of  her most famous book, originally named after its heroine Bonnie Green, and now known to everyone as The Wolves of Willoughby Chasewhich she began on September 4th 1953 in this old exercise book, but which wasn’t to be published until nearly ten years later.

September 1976 was also a special birthday.  Two days before, Joan married New York painter Julius Goldstein, they were to share nearly thirty years of happiness, dividing their time between her home in Petworth, Sussex, and his apartment in Greenwich Village New York.

J&J September

Joan’s most amazing birthday, which would have been her 91st, came the year when Google decided to make the 4th September Joan Aiken Day and celebrate her wonderful career as the writer of over 100 books which have become favourites and classics all over the world.

Joan Aiken’s 91st Birthday GOOGLE

Happy Birthday Joan Aiken, and happy US thanks to all the books

she left for us to enjoy!

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Here is the new edition of The Shadow Guests now out  from Puffin Books

with added material about Joan’s school days and more!

NewShadow Guests Puffin

 

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Visit the website to see more of her life in the Joan Aiken Picture Timeline