A Joan Aiken Story – about Bob Dylan!

Chris & Guitar

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.

Sleep End of Mamba

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..

Mooncusser Full fathom Five

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.

The recording of  Bob Dylan’s Gliding Swan song can still be heard here

Bob Swans 1963

Happy 80th Birthday Bob, with all best wishes

from Joan Aiken (and family!)

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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Joan Aiken’s Desert Island Stories

Winterthing Island

When the writer Joan Aiken heard a powerfully melancholy piece of music that was written to save an island, this story, and the story told by the music itself, inspired her to write her own book about a lost island.

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, played at weddings and funerals, bringing peace, comfort and hope.

But it is not an entirely friendly piece; it begins with a gentle walking rhythm, that suggests tradition, familiarity, the pace of daily life, with difficulties maybe, moments of  deeper feeling, but nothing too unexpected.  Then the music begins to change at the early midpoint of its five minute length, when a strange new, more threatening tune appears; it begins to climb steeply, not strolling any more, there are difficulties, turns, threats and challenges and 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 home is seen again. The earlier 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 resistance,  Joan Aiken wrote a story called The Scream,  which also references the famous Munch painting of that name. Here the original inhabitants are forced from their homes on a Scottish island which is due to be poisoned for a scientific experiment. Brought up on their own myths, they had believed local dangers to be wrought by Kelpies – water demons, very hostile to humans – “Before the time of electricity, radio, motors, long-range missiles, aircraft, people thought seriously about such things.” Now the islanders have to adapt their way of life to towns and tower blocks, but underneath they have brought with them a powerful magic which is stirring and seeking to return, and finally it breaks out in a great Scream, with the force of a tidal wave, and with this power the island is reclaimed.

As the daughter of the writer Joan Aiken, I was brought up on stories that saw me through dangers and rocked me to sleep. We shared music too, and this piece which recalled the Scottish folk tunes her mother sang, 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, and we joked about it 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 when 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.

I would love to hear it played for her on Desert Island Discs, and for all of us in this new time of danger, to remind us that stories, and music help us to find a way back to safety.

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Hear Farewell to Stromness played by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

 

More about The Scream here:

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/magic_mystery_07.html

The Scream

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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

 

 

A Joan Aiken Weather forecast…

Winterthing

What if Winter came and never ended? We now know our world and our climate are changing, and the outcome may be already beyond our control.  Joan Aiken imagined a time where our actions, as in the old stories before science gave us the alarming facts, would bring the wrath of  the Gods or Nature down upon us; now the reality of our future  is not so different.

One poetic but salutary summing up of the possibilities of increasingly wild weather conditions was given in the Beaufort Scale, a weather system devised by a Royal Navy officer, later Admiral, Sir Francis Beaufort, which shows by detailed observation increasingly worsening conditions at sea, and on land. Joan Aiken was very taken by its descriptive language and desperate message of foreboding and adapted it into a song for her play about a family trapped on a tiny Winter-fast island about to disappear into the  snow and the Northern Lights…

Beaufort SongBeaufort Verses

Joan Aiken allows a bit of fun with the earlier verses and rhymes, suggesting a moderately accepting frame of mind, an observer who notes the changing conditions and takes precautions, ‘canoes return to port as…’ but Beaufort’s description for Force Twelve is simply one word – Devastation – and here we understand that everything is finally out of our hands – we may as well try and count the flakes of snow.

Kaye Webb the inspired and inspiring Editor of Puffin Books commissioned Joan Aiken to write this play in the 1970’s, and it was produced at the Young Vic Theatre. She wrote in the introduction to the Puffin edition:

“Joan Aiken’s stories are all touched with magic…so it is not surprising that she has written plays about mysterious, lonely places… and here a group of children come to the island named after the deadly ‘Winterthing’, the time when the island is so swallowed up in winter that it disappears from mortal sight.”

And of course this is not just a story, we do need to pay attention to the changes going on around us, for as Joan Aiken also wrote :

Purpose of stories

…and maybe take action before it is too late?

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More about Joan Aiken Plays can be found here

Illustration by Arvis Stewart from the Holt Rinehart Winston edition

Music by Joan’s son John Sebastian Brown