“The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” – Joan Aiken’s timely warning.

This haunting picture by Goya and its resonant title quoted above, was often taken as the Spanish painter’s manifesto, and was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy novel The Cockatrice Boys.   Her magpie mind was ever alert to the news of the day, about scientific discoveries or impending disasters, and she followed the work of other artists and writers, past and present, who shared her concern about our ever changing world, and our inability to keep up with it.

Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist,  surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.  Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth,  twenty-five years ago. 

In her fantasy novel, it is the dereliction of human awareness that creates this threat to life on our planet and leads to an invasion of monsters – the Cockatrices of her story – who are descending on the earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.

These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing will to imagine, and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies who are carelessly, or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children.   Joan Aiken, like Goya, and a current trend of fantasy writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, could save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.

But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces,  in reality, as much as in our imagination – falling into Goya’s ‘Sleep of Reason’ could be equally harmful.

Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, is sent on the train with The Cockatrice Boys a raggle taggle army of survivors, to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities. Here, she asks her fellow traveller, the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:

Cockatrice Sleep of Reason

It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –

not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness

  all we have to do is stay awake….

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Joan Aiken’s own manifesto, The Way to Write for Children is a guide to the importance of children’s writing, in which she emphasises the need for every child to have access to books, stories and myths to stimulate their imagination. She writes:

“A myth or fairy tale interprets and resolves the contradictions which the child sees all around him, and gives him confidence in his power to deal with reality. We don’t have angels and devils any more, but we are still stuck with good and evil.”

Now out as an EBook, click to find this gripping Y.A.Fantasy novel

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Joan Aiken’s Desert Island Stories

Winterthing Island

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas. She was once so moved by a news story and a powerfully melancholy piece of music, written to save a Scottish island, that this story, and the story told by the music itself, inspired her to write her own mythical supernatural tale, The Scream about an endangered and lost island. It was linked in her mind, to the famous Munch painting of this name, and an an extraordinary present she had been given –  a screaming pillow, which also comes into the story…

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Farewell to Stromness when the  future of the Orkney Islands where he lived, was threatened by a proposal to mine there for uranium, known locally as Yellow Cake. His music formed part of a protest performance on Orkney called The Yellow Cake Revue, which helped put paid to the horrific project. His hypnotic piano piece, only five minutes long has become a poignant part of many people’s lives,  bringing peace, comfort and hope.

But it is not an entirely soothing composition, more of a dangerous journey;  the way has to be followed round crags, up mountains, over high bridges, through mists and fog – we are in danger – until at last the light appears through the mist, first dimly then welcoming and then blazing, and finally home is seen again. The opening rhythm returns, this time more like the rocking of a boat, and quietens, takes us in its arms into the rocking of a lullabye. Finally it softens, and fades, gently into history.  The danger has been surmounted, but the experience remains.

Inspired by this powerful musical expression of struggle and resolution,  Joan Aiken wrote her haunting story called The Scream,  which also references the famous Munch painting of that name, of a terrified figure seeing an appalling vision on a bridge. In Joan Aiken’s story the inhabitants are forced from their homes on a Scottish island because it is due to be poisoned for a scientific experiment. Brought up on their own myths, these people had always believed local dangers would be wrought by Kelpies – water demons, very hostile to humans – not by alarming technological developments…

“Before the time of electricity, radio, motors, long-range missiles, aircraft,

 people thought seriously about such things.”

But while the exiled islanders have to adapt their way of life to the ugly new towns and tower blocks where they now live, they have brought with them a powerful magic which is stirring, endangering their new lives and calling them to return, and which finally it breaks out in a great Scream, with the force of a tidal wave, and with the unleashing of this ancient power the island is reclaimed.

As the daughter of Joan Aiken, I was brought up on stories which although haunting, also saw me through dangers and rocked me to sleep. We shared music too, and this piece which recalled the Scottish folk tunes her mother used to sing, spoke to us both of our roots, and a love of islands, many of which we had visited together. The last one we visited before she died was the Channel Island of Herm, her house was called The Hermitage, and we joked about the journey being our Herm from Herm. Sitting on a shore of sea shells, she told me how she had always longed to be on Desert Island Discs, and had often thought about her music choices while waiting to fall asleep at night. One of her choices would have been Farewell to Stromness, and so we had it played at her funeral, to see her safely home.

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Hear Farewell to Stromness played by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

The haunting Y.A. novel The Scream has just come out as an EBook 

Find it here

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The illustration at the top is by Arvis Stuart from the cover of a children’s play by Joan Aiken called Winterthing – another mythical island which disappears each winter

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/plays_01.html

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. The one with the mermaid was called A Jar of Cobblestones, you can find it in The Gift Giving

Wychwood

     At the age of five when her parents separated, 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.

The new edition of The Shadow Guests   has added material about Joan’s school days and more!

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

In 1953 a very important and memorable 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 due to all kinds of troubles wasn’t to be published until nearly ten years later.

This year, 2022 the book is celebrating its own birthday – 60 Years in print, and still acclaimed as ‘A Genuine Small Masterpiece’ in editions in many languages around the world, and here in a new Birthday Edition from Puffin, celebrating the story behind the story – how it came to be published after a very extraordinary history of its own…

   September 4th 1976 was another special birthday.  Two days before, Joan had 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

But perhaps Joan’s most amazing birthday, which would have been her 91st, came in 2015 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

For Joan’s Birthday this week we have reprints and returns of two old favourites , demonstrating the wide range of her writing talents – Nightfall – a Young Adult thriller which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the USA (which in turn inspired her series of stories about a troublesome Raven called Mortimer…) and one of her memorable ‘Austen Entertainments’ an imaginative completion of Jane Austen’s unfinished fragment – The Watsons – called Emma Watson

Happy Birthday Joan Aiken, and Happy all of us

thanks to the many books she left for us to enjoy!

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

Conrad Aiken and his legacy…including a family of writers!

Aiken cartoon

There have been quite a few famous literary families, where parents or siblings have encouraged each other to carry on the family profession – the Brontes, for example whose relative isolation in their Yorkshire vicarage had a powerful effect on their mutual output. But the Aikens take the cake for the sheer number of family members who have written and published their own books, or at least worked in the industry in various different ways. At the latest count I can number at least ten, ranging from novelists, biographers, translators, editors, philosophers and even (most anonymous of all!) a ghost writer… who have all supported each other in the family trade despite living all over the world.

The Father, or Grandfather of all these literary offsprings was the Pulitzer prize winning American poet, Conrad Aiken, who right up until his death in 1973, produced an enormous quantity of work – over two dozen collections of poetry and five novels, together with  volumes of short stories and literary criticism – but who due to his surprisingly retiring nature is perhaps less well known than he deserves to be.

An attempt has been made to remedy this recently with the reissue of some of his major work at Open Road, and an online magazine just issued by The Scofield with excerpts from, and tributes to his work from many admirers – and even a couple of family members!

Conrad Aiken certainly had various claims to fame – apparently Freud was such an admirer of one of his novels, The Great Circle, that he kept a copy in his waiting room, and it is reported that James Joyce, another fan and contemporary, was reading Conrad’s poetry on his deathbed.

Aiken’s semi-autobiographical ‘Essay’ Ushant is also a fascinating read for students of literature of the twentieth century, as it refers to his friendships (and quarrels!) with many of the leading figures of the artistic and literary world of the time, both in England and America, as Aiken lived, worked and travelled between the two countries.

But perhaps a good way to introduce you to this prolific, and in this particular case, cheerily self-demeaning poet, is to quote some passages from his own:

  “Obituary in Bitcherel”

 In eighteen hundred and eighty nine

Conrad Aiken crossed the line

in nineteen hundred and question-mark

Aiken’s windowpane was dark.

But in between o in between

the things he did the things he’d seen!

Born in beautiful Savannah

to which he lifelong sang hosanna

yet not of southern blood was he

he was in fact a damned Yan-kee:

two Mayflower buds

were in his bloods

and one of them was not so blue —

Allerton, the crook of the crew.

The family has ancestors going back to two of the Pilgrim ships which arrived from Europe to New England, the Mayflower in 1620, and The Fortune in 1621, some of whom were not as upstanding as they could have been, but Conrad’s maternal grandfather, William James Potter, was a well known Unitarian minister in the Quaker whaling town of New Bedford, and a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, initiator of the New England Transcendental movement.

Aiken skips blithely over the early family tragedy in 1901 – his father’s suicide following the murder of his mother, when Conrad was twelve, and the subsequent separation of his siblings and himself, when he was sent off to family in New England:

His pa a doctor, painter, writer,

his ma a beauty, but which the brighter?

And the morning quarrel, and shots, and then

four orphaned children taken north again.

To uncles, and cousins, great-aunts and aunts:

this, I suppose, was his second chance.

Onwards he goes through school, and college at Harvard, then through three marriages and the birth of three children, meanwhile constantly taking ship to and fro like his ancestors across the Atlantic, he continues:

Meanwhile he’d been sinking and rising and drinking

and THINKING, and writing, well, ad infinitum:

there were critics to bite and he had to bite ’em

novels to write and he had to write ’em

short stories too and he had to indite ’em.

…and is finally honoured by the place of his birth, and returns to the town of Savannah…

And now waits for death by heart or by head,

or dying piecemeal and daily instead,

of whom at his grave it can truly be said

he cyant do no harm now for now he is dead.

Separate we come, separate go.

And this be it known is all that we know.

Not so separate perhaps, because he has definitely left his mark on many, and will be remembered for some of his more profound and deeply influential writing, and for that of his children ( including Joan Aiken!) and possibly grandchildren too…?

conrad-joan-jpg

Conrad Aiken with daughter Joan at the time of the publication in the USA of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and his own Selected Poems, and  when the cartoon above also appeared in the New York Times.

Born 5th August 1889

More about Joan Aiken (and her Pa) on her website

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See also Joan Aiken’s American Roots, and the Mayflower 400th Anniversary

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