Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

This year Joan Aiken would have celebrated her 95th Birthday; how could she have known that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative kingdom, but of the one we live in today? Her stories, particularly this series known as The Wolves Chronicles, seem meant to become part of the fabric of our history.

Fifteen years after her death there continue to be reprints, translations and new digital editions of the books as a new generation of parents pass on their childhood favourites – and new generations of writers acknowledge the influence of her memorable writing skills on their own work.

One of these, perhaps less obviously, seems to have been Terry Pratchett, 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 The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work when published after their death: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”

Can it be a coincidence that the heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – of  Joan Aiken’s short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles, the series which she had produced during her entire writing life, was also, years before Pratchett’s,  a down-to-earth social worker witch who in Aiken’s book visits her flock on a flying golf club, and who 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 The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – and they are both sharing their real world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books, 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.’

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?  Invading tribes are more like waves of 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 a better 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.

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 an earlier 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. In the following story they are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – their homelessness and gambling addiction are two of today’s everyday stories of childhood –  but when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to combine their thoughts together they are able to create an astonishing force and find their 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, communicated only through the airwaves.  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 on her own note of joyful forgiveness for 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, and 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 illustrates the pattern 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

(Post originally published pre-Brexit vote in 2015 – updated in 2019 – where next?)

Illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

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Meet Mortimer – Riotous Raven of Rumbury Town…!

MortFridge

It was a dark and stormy night (of course!) when Mortimer entered the life of Arabel and the Jones family – and Rumbury Town N.W.3 and-a-half would never be the same again.  Arabel’s Raven is the first of the many tales of his adventures told by Joan Aiken and masterfully characterised by Quentin Blake’s illustrations.  The devoted pair appeared on a series of Jackanory readings, and then in books and a puppet series for the BBC which earned them a following of fans of all ages.

It was love at first sight – and forever – for the pair who Joan Aiken rather wickedly described as her version of the relationship between the ego and the id:

MortFridge1

Before too long chaos reigns in Rumbury Town, and Mortimer (through no fault of his own of course!) is in the thick of it:

MortRaid

Amazingly he does, with the evil squirrel strapped to his back, and is soon holed up in the gangsters’ hideout – while Arabel goes into a decline, wondering where he can be?  But soon everyone is on his trail…  and now strange things are happening at Rumbury Tube station, but no one can solve the mystery?ReporterReporter1Reporter2Pretty soon everyone is going round the bend, and it is up to Arabel to keep her wits about her and unravel the hilarious trail of chaos that leads her back to Mortimer…will she ever be parted from him again? 

“Nevermore!” says Mortimer.

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Read more about Arabel & Mortimer and the BBC Puppet Series

on the Joan Aiken Website

NEW EDITIONS  coming from Puffin Books

ArabelAndMortimerStories NEW

Buy Now! Bumper edition with Six Hilarious Stories!

The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken & Jan Pienkowski

End paper from Joan Aiken’s Tale of a One Way Street

The wonderful Jan Pienkowski has been honoured with a lifetime award by the BookTrust for his work in creating and illustrating over a hundred and forty children’s books – even more than one of his long time collaborators, Joan Aiken. Together they produced four outstanding collections of stories – one of which The Kingdom Under the Sea won the Kate Greenaway medal. Another book of very sinister ghostly tales, A Foot in the Grave had stories written by Joan to go with a series of haunting illustrations by Jan.

The story she wrote for this one, called Bindweed, tells of a family cursed by a miserable old Aunt and the nephew who has taunted her getting his comeuppance from a terrifying invasion of garden creeper…

Mostly though, Joan wrote the stories, and Jan embellished them with the most astonishing imagination, adding details and quirks to characters which perfectly matched her imagined worlds. In this picture from Tale of a One Way Street, the portrait of an old professor with his fuzzy slippers, dangerously trailing wires and half unplugged lamp with fraying cord create the perfect atmosphere of unworldliness.

For a collection of bedtime stories based on nursery songs, called Past Eight O’Clock Jan created simpler bolder coloured block prints with his famous silhouettes on top. Here is Hushaby Baby on his tree top, being protected by a giant crow in a marvellous sunset sky.

Text and illustrations were often beautifully aligned, here for instance as a small girl and her grandmother climb to the top of a tower block, looking for someone who turns out to live in the little house on its rooftop. You can see it on the right in the first picture up above; here we follow their journey upwards in Jan’s imaginative stairwell and lift-shaft.

Jan’s inexhaustible creativity always managed to add quirky detail to Joan’s vision, and between them they created a world that has remained in readers’ memories long after childhood, and meant that these books have been treasured and re-read over the years until they fell to pieces…

Let’s hope there will be some new editions coming out before too long to delight the next generations!

necklace

Perennial favourite A Necklace of Raindrops is happily still in print!

 

Find all the books here on the Joan Aiken Website

 

         The original Puffin editions of the four younger story collections

Pienkowski Covers

 

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Why do we need stories? Joan Aiken tells us…

Spring gift giving2

Joan Aiken writes about her favourite stories, and the magic of storytelling…in a new collection of some of the best of her own – out now from Virago!

“Stories are mysterious things; they have a life of their own. Animals don’t tell each other stories — so far as we know! Man is the only creature that has thought of telling stories, and, once a story has been written or told, it becomes independent of its creator and goes wandering off by itself. Think of Cinderella, or Beauty and the Beast —we don’t know where they came from, but they are known by people all over the world.

A story is very powerful. If I start to tell you a story, you are almost sure to stop and listen to it. It’s like hypnotism — or a small piece of magic. Indeed, stories often have been used for magic, by priests or medicine men. There used to be special stories kept secret and only used on rare special occasions: stories that would heal sickness, or give victory in battle. Storytellers, in primitive times, were treated with great respect, probably given extra large rations of mastodon steak, when the cavemen were all sitting round the tribal fire. In those days, before anything was written down, stories were the means by which important facts were stored and remembered. In a way it is still so. Think how much easier it is to remember that Alfred was the king who burned the cakes than what his dates were; I bet if I stopped anybody in the street and asked them what they knew about King Alfred, those cakes are what they would remember, not which year it happened!

People sometimes ask me: How do you write a story? How do you set about it? How do you get your ideas? And I always say, first you have to have ingredients. You couldn’t go into an empty kitchen and expect to be able to cook a dinner. A writer, like a good cook, is always on the lookout for ingredients that might come in handy. Sometimes they are the things you read in the newspaper — the woman who buys a raffle ticket with her last pound and wins a million, the violinist who leaves his Stradivarius in a taxi, the man who trains his dog to bark at Salvation Army bands. Sometimes they come from dreams. I keep a little notebook and write down all these things in it.

I don’t really believe there is such a thing as ‘a born storyteller’, especially when it is applied to me! Storytellers aren’t born, they have to learn. It is a craft; like oil painting or ballet dancing, you don’t just come to it naturally. A story needs to be carefully built up —like a house of cards — one thing balancing on top of another. And then the end, when you get to it, ought to be a little bit surprising, but satisfying, too, to make the reader think, ‘Yes, of course, that’s it! Why didn’t I think of that?’  I can remember exactly the moment when I realized the importance of that surprise, while telling my brother a story on a walk, and I rushed home, and wrote the story down. It was a story about a princess who turned into a parrot. That was when I was about sixteen, and I’ve never forgotten it. Stories are fun to write! They are, or should be, like a sleigh-ride, and once you get on course, then some terrific power, like the power of gravity, takes command and whizzes you off to an unknown destination.

A very important element in a story is the setting —where it all takes place. Some of the stories I’ve written have their settings and surroundings so firmly in my mind that I can call them back whenever I want to.  ‘The Boy with a Wolf’s Foot’ was written when I travelled back and forth to London every day, along a railway line whose stations all seemed to begin with W.  ‘The Rain Child’ came when I had a job picking apples in a huge series of orchards. ‘Moonshine in the Mustard Pot’ is a mixture of Paris and the beautiful city of York. My daughter lived for a time in both these cities and I visited her there, and the grandmother in the story is a mix of my daughter and myself.  ‘A Harp of Fishbones’ is purely invention, but I know that mountainside and that ruined city as well as if I had lived there all my life. The stories that have the strongest settings are my favourites. I like to revisit them from time to time, and that is like going back to stay in a house, or piece of country, that one has known since childhood; it is a happy, refreshing thing to do.

Reading is and always will be one of my greatest pleasures, and I love to re-read books and stories that have been favourites for years, and I particularly like to re-visit some of my own short stories, as they too have now taken on that mysterious life of their own. Favourite stories, like unexpected presents, are things that you can keep and cherish all your life, carry with you in memory, in your mind’s ear, and bring out at any time, when you are feeling lonely or need cheering up, or, like friends, just because you are fond of them. That is the way I feel about some of these stories.

One of the nicest letters that I ever had from a reader said: ‘Your stories are such a gift, they make me feel as though I dimly remember them. I seem to know the characters and places from long ago, like a forgotten dream …’

Maybe they will feel like that for you too, and become some of your own favourites — after all, where do our stories really come from?

Who knows?”

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This is Joan Aiken’s introduction to The Gift Giving, Favourite Stories

which includes favourite stories from many of her collections

Published by Virago Modern Classics

With Illustrations by Peter Bailey

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