Bob Dylan first appeared and sang in the UK on a BBC Sunday Night play in January 1963 which made a big impression on Joan Aiken. Called Madhouse on Castle Street, it included a strange and sinister song called The Swan on the River, which reminded her of the often grim and lurid folk ballads her Canadian mother used to sing, such as Lord Rendall, about a young nobleman who was poisoned by his lover. At the time Dylan was relatively unknown, having only brought out one album, and this was his first visit to England, but his performance, and that song were unforgettable, and she didn’t forget the singer.
That year, in 1963, Joan Aiken visited America for the first time to celebrate the publication of her now classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, where she also visited her writer father in his home country for the first time, and met Charles Schlessiger, the man who was to be her literary agent and undying supporter for the next fifty years. This publication also catapulted Joan Aiken to fame in America with a stunning review in Time magazine which began:
‘This year can boast one genuine small masterpiece, called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Written, as any children’s book should be, with obvious fond delight by Poet Conrad Aiken’s daughter Joan…it is almost a copybook lesson in those virtues that a classic children’s book must possess: charm, a style of its own, and the skill and authority to create a small world without writing down to small readers.’
Back home in Petworth, Sussex Joan Aiken’s two teenage children (and their Beatnik, guitar playing babysitter) like characters from a folk tale, or one of her own stories, had requested a particular gift to be brought back from New York – a Bob Dylan album.
She came back with two, Bob Dylan, and The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. These records made us the stars of our small town, and started a lifelong passion in the family. Joan Aiken went on to write many songs for her own plays, which were set to music by her guitar playing son, perhaps prophetically named John Sebastian, and Dylan’s words and music continued to entertain and inspire her. Sadly she died before Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I am sure she would have applauded.
But a combination of Bob Dylan and our own equally influential guitar playing Beatnik, gave birth to a character from Joan Aiken’s much loved Arabel’s Raven stories – the baby sitter Chris Cross whose singing totally entranced Arabel, as seen above in Quentin Blake’s picture, from a story that appeared a few years later – Arabel & Mortimer and the Escaped Black Mamba.
Having run out of milk (after an unfortunate accident!) while he is minding the pair one evening, Chris takes Mortimer and Arabel down to the station where there are all kinds of amazing automatic machines to get some more, and while there (after various adventures!) they make their own record of one of Chris’s songs to bring back home.
Chris Cross remained an integral part of the Jones’ family life, and Bob Dylan’s songs went on to influence Joan’s own compositions, here for instance from a Shakespearean parody called Mooncusser’s Daughter, with music by her son..
Joan Aiken went on to marry an American painter and take up residence in Greenwich Village, New York.
I like to think of them walking the same streets.