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The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – they are both sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they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

Wolves ~ “A Glorious Christmas Show”!

Tunney play

A long time JOAN Aiken admirer, theatre director Russ Tunney has adapted (and premiered) a gloriously funny and faithful stage version of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s book  The Wolves of Willoughby Chase . 

The adaptation has been published by Nick Hern Books in a practical edition with performance notes and background information, and lends itself usefully to casts of anything from five upwards – especially if they are incredibly active quick change artists – even, currently, in a distanced production at The Greenwich Theatre, where the cast form a chorus of children, and all the fiendish villains and even the wolves from the original story, while  providing music and songs and plenty of laughs.

Using all the tongue in cheek humour of the original story with its Gothic thrills and adventures, Russ Tunney, and current director James Haddrell have also added some ‘more than Aiken‘ touches of their own – including a hilarious scene in the dreadful Blastburn School run by beastly Mrs Brisket, where the deliciously ridiculous ‘Cheese Alphabet‘  is recited by the hapless starving orphans, including, by now, our two wretched heroines, Bonnie and Sylvia.

When the school inspector comes to call they are dragged to their feet to recite:

MRS BRISKET: Show the nice man from from Ofsted our

advanced literacy: The Cheese Alphabet!

 CHILDREN: A is for Applewood Smoked, B is for Brie, C is

for Cheshire, D is for Davidstow, E is for Edam, F is for Feta

(or Fromage), G is for Gruyère, H is for Halloumi, I is for

Ibérico, J is for Jarlsberg, K is for Klosterkäse, L is for

Leicester (red), M is for Mascarpone, Manchego or

Monterey Jack, N is for Neufchâtel, O is for Orkney Extra

Mature, P is for Parmesan, Q is for Queso Jalapeño, R is for

Raclette, S is for Stilton, T is for Tasmania Highland Chevre

Log, U is for Ubriaco, V is for Vacherin Fribourgeois, W is

for Wensleydale, X is for Xynotyro, Y is for Yorkshire Blue,

and Z is for Zanetti Grana Padano.

 INSPECTOR: Incredible! They really know their cheeses!

 MRS BRISKET: Thank you, Inspector. We do, here at the

Brisket Blastburn Academy for Girls, concentrate on the

three R’s. Reading, Writing and Really tasty snacks.

                  An absolute delight! – the Stage review of the première says it all:

  “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has never been adapted for the stage before…and I can’t think why not.
Joan Aiken’s children’s classic about two young girls and a goose-boy fighting for survival against howling wolves and grim governesses in a bleak snowy landscape is a gift for any company as family entertainment.
Russ Tunney’s script … blends melodrama, comedy, adventure and a little spookiness interwoven with songs and dances…with actors nipping in and out of costume and character at high speed… glorious snuggle down and enjoy Christmas present of a production that will charm children and adults alike.
        Wonderful stuff – worth wrapping up warm and turning out on a freezing night for.”

(from Lesley Bates, The Stage)

Except now, thanks to lockdown you can enjoy it by the comfort of your own fireside!

STREAMING now at The Greenwich Theatre – BOOK HERE

Greenwich Miss Slighcarp

Guess who… Miss Slighcarp in rehearsal!

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More Mortimer… Joan Aiken’s hilarious hero is back for Christmas!

M&A Xmas.png

Perfect for Christmas, and for (N)evermore?

 First seen on Jackanory read by the wonderful Bernard Cribbins, these stories have not lost any of their hilarity over the years… Joan Aiken couldn’t resist giving the Jones Family some of the 70’s craziest gadgets  for Mortimer to wreak havoc with in their house in Rumbury town London NW3-and-a-half…

If you aren’t able to see your family this year, maybe these stories will remind you of some of the (un-missed!) joys of Christmases past…

Arabel’s cousin Annie comes to stay, bringing alarming gifts – radio-controlled tiddlywinks, a solar powered skateboard and a computer guitar that makes up its own music – Joan Aiken’s powers of invention were ahead of her time, but not by very much…

Terrifying Toys!

computer toys

Mort & the toys

Struggling with Christmas baking?

While Mrs Jones is in the kitchen frantically trying to make an enormous number of prawn fancies and iced macaroons, she is disturbed by a mouse!!! And not just any mouse, but the Advance guard and A.A. Scout for an army of starving mice from Cantilever Green who are seeking pastures new, and who has been lured into the Jones kitchen by the delightful smell of all those macaroons:

4 custard tart5 Mrs J

Unwanted visitors?

7 Mrs Catchpenny

Ever helpful, Arabel goes to Mrs Catchpenny’s shop to borrow Archibald the cat, known locally as a former cracksman’s mog, and of course Mortimer goes along for the ride. The combination in Mrs Jones’s kitchen of Archibald, Scout F stroke B7, a fantastic amount of ill-fated ‘cordon-blue’ cookery (made with the help of all the Jones household’s trouble saving electrical equipment) and Mortimer, makes for a great tale…

When Mortimer confronts Archibald – who is happily well fed having opened the larder door and found the prawns, and then slept on the trays of warm macaroons in the airing cupboard and is now covered in crushed macaroon, clotted cream and feathers –  Mortimer is of course entranced!

Fun & Games

The game M & Arch

Did we know Mortimer had a mother?

Nevermore!

This is a mere taster of the delights on offer in these wonderful long lost collections, which also includes Mortimer’s Cross and the fantastic Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass, where Mortimer meets an ancient ancestor in Ireland. These stories still make me laugh  out loud, but just now, something we absolutely need is a bit of real craziness….

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Puffin editions also have added Extras –  Like Do You Remember…?

EXTRA - 70's Inventions

and Much more!

Find the Bernard Cribbins Jackanory Episodes on the Joan Aiken You Tube page

Jackanory Portrait

>   >   >   *   <   <   <

Find  Both the Puffin collections here

M&amp;A Xmas mini holly

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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