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

 

 

In the spirit of Joan Aiken…

WLV_S_03

‘Once upon a time that never was…in an England that never existed…’ Joan Aiken wrote a story that was to become her signature work, a story that would live in the memories of readers and haunt them ever afterwards, just like the wolves of the now famous title.

One of the people who responded enthusiastically was an American schoolboy called William Akers in Tennessee, whose teacher read the story aloud to his class.  He decided that one day he would write a screenplay of the book and get it filmed, and years later he did, having shared his plan with Joan Aiken, and sold his dream to British production company Zenith.

Although they assembled a fantastic cast including Mel Smith, Richard O’Brien and Stephanie Beacham they also ran amok with the Gothic action – having villainess Miss Slighcarp terrorise the two small heroines with a steam powered sledge and a devastating array of kitchen knives so the dream became more of a nightmare…Steam sleighAnother young reader who never forgot the story was Russ Tunney, and his adaptation first produced in 2010 in a collaboration between the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton where he was artistic director, and touring company Forest Forge Theatre directed by Kirstie Davis, has since been published by Nick Hern Books, and presented by amateur and professional companies.

The latest hugely successful sell-out production has been at the tiny Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, South London, where the company, like Tunney, have brought out the poetry of the book, and shown the seasons and landscape described by Joan Aiken as an ever-changing background to the adventures of the two heroines and their struggle to defeat the human ‘wolves’ of the title. This dramatic story moves from the misty snowy woods and rivers of the great house of Willoughby Chase, to the blossoming Yorkshire Dales of their journey south to find friends.

This script also uses folk songs – Wild Mountain Thyme and Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair – as well as scenes of skating and travelling to give a visual sense of the journey of discovery made by the characters, and their developing relationships, and this production has some lovely sequences of movement and dance, not just with the wolves, but with the snowy and then greening trees on their way.

Slighcarp

Tunney’s script is also pure pantomime, in the best sense of storytelling, and allows for some wild comedy in the performances.  The actors are often visibly seen changing from one role to another, and collude with the audience, moving in and out of their characters in the story just as a parent does when reading aloud.  This allows a dramatic suspension of disbelief and scenes of riotous humour at the expense of what might otherwise be terrifying villains like Miss Slighcarp, the evil governess – here in The Jack production appropriately dressed in wolf skins! Just as Joan Aiken’s original story appealed to adults and children alike, with excitement and comedy blended with poetic atmosphere, this is the best kind of family entertainment.

It seems like the perfect day,  January 4th,  on the anniversary of Joan’s death in the middle of the bleak midwinter, to celebrate another honouring of her most famous story with its evergreen depiction of hope and friendship, and the fact that it still, after fifty years in print, keeps springing up in new versions and wonderful re-incarnations and finding new audiences.

I have to say the oddly perfect moment (now luckily with its own happy ending!) was when the actress playing Bonnie Green confronted her evil governess and in attempting to knock a giant cane out of her hands, was herself injured but carried on bravely to the end of the show. Simon her dear friend and protector, who in the story helps her escape in his donkey cart full of geese on the way to market, was also on hand after the performance to convey her to A & E in Lewisham and make sure no bones were broken!

Thanks to all these passionate followers, the spirit of Joan Aiken lives on.

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Tunney play

Script published by Nick Hern Books

Read more about Tunney’s adaptation here

Thanks to all at The Jack Studio for a fantastic evening!

Illustration from the Folio edition by Bill Bragg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolves on Stage!

The Wolves Progress - Poster

  This was the first opportunity to see Russ Tunney’s brilliant adaptation of  Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase live on stage since it was published as a Nick Hern playscript.

Originally performed by a cast of five unbelievably quick change artists for a very successful tour around Southern England by Forest Forge Theatre company, this lively, funny, scary and above all faithfully Aiken adaptation was performed at The Progress Theatre Reading,  where tickets sold like hot cakes… and then at The Brockley Jack Theatre in London where it was nominated for several Off West End Awards

It is now available as a published script, and can be adapted for small or large casts of amateurs or professionals – permissions and information from Aiken agents A.M.Heath

Russ Nick Hern Web Page

Crammed into this incredibly fast moving show we see Dickensian scenes of London, the terrifying pursuit over the snowy wastes by Wolves of our two hapless heroines, villainy and skulduggery galore with a brace of beastly villains,and among the many delicious and ridiculous treats on offer is the unbelievable

Cheese Alphabet!

Using all the tongue in cheek humour of the original story with its gothic thrills and adventures, Russ has also added some ‘more than Aiken’ touches of his own – including this deliciously ridiculous alphabet recited by the starving orphans in the dreadful Blastburn School run by beastly Mrs Brisket. 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.

 

  “Wonderful stuff!”  – the Stage review says it all –

  “A gift for any company as family entertainment… a glorious snuggle down and enjoy Christmas present of a production that will charm children and adults alike.”

*****

Wolves Play Russ Tunney

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Find a copy here!