Joan Aiken Birthdays and Celebrations

2021-03-11 15.40.16

March the first was a double birthday celebration for Joan Aiken, it originally belonged to her mother Jessie, and was celebrated with posies of Sussex primroses, a family favourite.  But she also gave it to her almost family fictional heroine Dido Twite, who tells it to a London street urchin with some unexpected repercussions – it turns out there is a secret Birthday League of children, and sharing their birth dates is a badge of honour.

Dido's birthday copy

 Jessie died in the spring of 1971, in fact only a couple of days before her eightieth birthday, and the last time Joan saw her she had been reading to her from the opening chapters of the new Dido novel, The Cuckoo Tree, set in the Sussex countryside, where Joan had been brought up, even educated at home by Jessie, which brings Dido back home in search of friends and family after many adventures abroad. The tree itself was a local landmark, up on the Sussex Downs above the village where they lived, and they often went  there together, taking picnics, and books to read, as Joan describes in the little Puffin  Books film made about her just a couple of years before.


1969 film

In The Cuckoo Tree the tree itself is a meeting place for friends, visible and invisible, still together, or long lost but always remembered, and the Spring particularly brings back the smells and sounds, the flowers, and the Cuckoo of course, known for his famous song, but not always to be found in a nest!

Dido at Cuckoo Tree

cuckoo crop

And for Joan, and the family, even the fictional family in her stories this will always be a meeting place, and a place to remember and celebrate friends, as Joan does herself at the end of the film, as she climbs up and sits to start writing that very book.


writing cuckoo tree


So I can’t let March the first go by without thinking of primroses, Cuckoos, birthdays and secrets, long lost  family members and invisible friends, and special reunions in favourite places, even if I have to go there in my memories, or imagination, or between the pages of favourite books.

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Joan & Jessie

    Joan and Jessie

Dido Twite – the ever hopeful heroine


It is not surprising that Dido Twite is such an enduring heroine, her very survival was a piece of luck, or perhaps was ensured by her own strongest character trait – she never gave up hope.  Joan Aiken has admitted that she had imagined Dido drowning at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, giving her own life to save her friend Simon.  But then anguished letters from readers began to pour in, and also something in Dido’s own character changed Joan Aiken’s mind; it did not seem possible that Dido would have given up, and just drifted away.

Joan Aiken often quoted an idea from Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote:

“If a child is, for some reason, unable to imagine his future optimistically, arrest of development sets in.”  

She identified strongly with this, remembering her own childhood, and how she had been spurred on by many unfulfilled hopes – to bring her divorced parents back together; to get the chemicals for experiments she read about in her brother’s science books; to grow wings…and  these powerful imaginings eventually became translated into the need to write stories, and to create in fiction the outcomes that otherwise were unobtainable.  But she also became aware of the inadequacy of the ‘happy ever after’ ending of stories she read.  For her, the characters of the books that filled her life, lived on past the ending of the story; they continued to be her companions in ongoing adventures, they didn’t just disappear, disposed of by a tidy, happy ending.

Joan Aiken realised during her twenties, and after many very un-hopeful events in her own life that would have crushed a lesser spirit, that her need to write, and to re-imagine and infuse her own life with hope was in fact the real purpose of her writing. This was why a large percentage of her stories were about people travelling hopefully, despite enormous discouragement, rather than about people arriving at their destinations.  Many of her stories have open endings, suggestions of future possibility rather than pat conclusions.  Some seem to end very sadly indeed, after more than a few unfortunate events,  but with characters who have come through their alarming and salutary experiences now able to come together or salvage pieces of their previous lives and continue; there may always be change, but there is also hope.

And the embodiment of this spirit is her heroine Dido Twite.

Joan Aiken wrote:

“I never meant her to survive, but she was much too tough for me..she took root in me like an uninvited cuckoo fledgling, and became a kind of alter ego of mine. Dido is the epitome of the hopeful traveller who is never going to arrive. How could she, indeed?  The whole point of Dido is her battle against terrific odds.  Wherever she travels, she finds things going hopelessly wrong, and as fast as she puts right one set of injustices, she comes up against another; she would need to have tidied up the whole world, sorted out the whole of the Human Condition, before she could settle down.  Which is why all the books about her have open endings: as the story, or at least the book, closes, she is about to embark on a ship, or re-embark on it, or she is hunting for the third, the invisible member of a set of triplets who needs comforting, while her friend and companion, Simon, Duke of Battersea is hopefully hunting for her… but will he ever find her?  I’m not at all sure that he will.  And if he did, it would only be the signal for the pair of them to set off on some new quest.”

An avid Dido enthusiast will guess that these words might have been written between the adventures of The Cuckoo Treeif anywhere, a suitable resting place for Joan Aiken’s fledgling heroine? – and the devastation to be wrought in Dido & Pa where Simon does briefly catch up with her, but sadly so does her fiendishly treacherous father, making more than one attempt to capitalise on his ‘Delicate Sprite’ – even at the expense of her life.  By the end of this story Dido is the ultimate orphan,  and knows that she will be travelling on.  There will no happy ever after for Dido, as Joan Aiken realised even at this early stage.

But this, she wrote,  is “the whole raison d’etre of Dido.  She can’t settle down; for if she had no more urgent problems to tackle then the future would be empty and featureless; there would, in fact, be nothing to hope for.”

Nevertheless there were a few more injustices to put right before Joan Aiken at least, could let Dido go.

It is absolutely in character, and vital for Joan Aiken writing her last adventure, that Dido’s closing words, in the author’s last book The Witch of Clatteringshaws, should be happy and hopeful, finally making sense of some of the most bitter episodes of her past.  She reconciles herself to the dark and unloving side of her old Pa, by celebrating what was miraculous about him, the spirit that lives on beyond the story – his music.   And at the same time Joan Aiken allows herself to re-write the original desperately sad ending of Black Hearts in Battersea. Dido was saved to find a future for herself after all, living to encourage us with her invincible courage, showing us that one day there will be a more hopeful moon shining down:

Pa's songs

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Find all the Wolves Chronicles here

   Re-posted from a few years ago, now perhaps we need this more than ever.


The listener – and the true companion


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.


JB crop 2

 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.


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