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

Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Joan Aiken may have imagined that many years after she wrote them, these books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today. She put all her knowledge of history, human nature, and her hope for the future into this series of twelve books, written until the last days of her life, and possibly hoped to leave us a message, or indeed a warning…

Our lives may have been turned upside down recently, but she was ahead of us in her imagination, particularly in her best  known series The Wolves Chronicles whose predictions seem 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 and entire families, who left a last gift – a final book  for fans who had followed this series set in her own alternate world, for over fifty years, those who had grown up with the books and who could not be left without a farewell.  Sadly this last book was posthumously published, like Terry Pratchett’s final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown  and Amanda Craig in her review 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 is certainly a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – the second heroine along with the much loved Dido Twite – of this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – is 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, offering their own hopes and dreams for the future?

The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and literary jokes for the well-read follower – they are both also 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, perhaps free at last to unleash their prophecies and 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 written in old age, but one 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 from the mock Victorian century begun in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to parallel Saxon times in the last two books of the series – 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 kind of virus, but in her world Joan Aiken offers 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 perhaps, and then by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like the waves of lost immigrants we see today; her hopeless army of Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, after cheerfully 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 the ‘Wolves Chronicles’ 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 a previous book, Dido and Pa, we had met the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who nevertheless created their own circle of trust with their 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 since they have experienced isolation from school friends, being kept at home by a virus, most have come to value even depend on online communication, but have also learned its dangers. In Joan Aiken’s world, lost and abandoned children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, so 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; then Facebook was unheard of, and in fact only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death in 2004 when the last of this series was published, but she had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as recently, by a wave of devastating illness, could find a way that they would be able to communicate through the ether.

But she saw every kind of joining together as important. 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 some reviewers have 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 everything she has gained from her endless journeys and 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

This year Puffin Books will celebrate the 60th Birthday of the first of these fantastic Books

with a special New Edition of

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Wilful Obscurity and other Aiken Fun!

Wild Animalsrotate

    By creating her own period of alternate history Joan Aiken gave herself the freedom to exercise her wild imagination, and also the opportunity to use a  vast array of stored knowledge from her wide reading and her life-long fascination with history, mythology, music, the natural sciences, and stories of travel to far away lands.  All of these elements,  combined with a riotous ear for dialogue and a facility for creating eccentric characters meant she could fill her invented worlds with a wonderful variety of bizarre detail, which, in her fast moving and free wheeling plots could be employed pretty much to her heart’s content.

But sometimes she did go rather over the top…!

Her general ebullience and the enjoyment of her own creative powers perhaps reached its peak in The Whispering Mountain, a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles series of books, set in Wales, and making use of a good deal of Welsh language and colloquial expression.  The story also contains characters as varied as The Seljuk of Rum – a foreign potentate who speaks in a language (tongue, talk, dialect, parlance!) of his own taken straight from Roget’s Thesaurus – and a Prince of Wales with a list of Christian names that covers almost all periods of the English Monarchy, but who speaks broad Scots.  On top of this there are a pair of dastardly villains who speak in their own Victorian underground language – known as Thieves Cant – a pair of peevy coves who mizzle at the first sign of trouble.

Grappling with all these characters is the sympathetic young hero – a learned, lonely small boy called Owen, who is mercilessly bullied by the other boys in his village, because as an avid reader he has too many fancy ideas and an overwhelming desire to share them… Owen is armed with a small book that has taught him all he needs to know, very like one that Joan herself had treasured from her childhood, which goes by the marvellous title:

“Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany &c; Thefe Pleafing Sciences made familiar to the Capacities of Youth”

Book of Knowledge

     This and Owen’s own natural intelligence finally allow him to win round the bullies, treating  one boy’s wounds from a wolf bite with a cobweb bandage,  or making a rope from strands of “Clematis Vitalba or Virginiana” which, as he can’t resist explaining, perhaps to the bewilderment of the other boys: “is a beautiful plant covered with white bloffoms or furry fruit clufters”…   As we discover, the typeface in his little book of knowledge is so antiquated that it has ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s just to add to the general confusion and charm.

Using, among other skills learned from his precious book, this plant knowledge and his mathematical capabilities, he saves the gang of boys from a flood by building a rope swing from the Clematis vine to get them all across a gorge:

     “To find the strength of a rope,”‘ he informs his companions, ‘”you should square the circumference in inches and divide by three, for the breaking strain in tons.”  I am joining these two pieces together with a rolling hitch, as they are of slightly different sizes;  I shall secure one end to the tree by means of a timber hitch, thus -“

Winding a spare strand of creeper round his waist, and slinging the crossbow on his back, he shinned up the tree with great agility and tied the end of his rope to a suitable branch; then he laid hold of the rope and slid down it to within four feet of the lower end.

“Letth cut the rope now, eh, Hwfa?” whispered Soth, but Hwfa, watching Owen’s actions with the utmost interest, took no notice of his henchman.

“What’ll he do now, he can never drop from there? – Ah, I see – he is going to swing!”‘

(Oh yes, and poor Soth has a lisp…!)

Joan not only gleaned her information from antiquated instruction manuals, but also from the Victorian or Edwardian children’s books her Canadian mother had brought over to England, and introduced to the family.  Particular favourites were Ernest Seton Thompson’s Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known – written from the author’s own experience of being a lonely little boy in a strange country.  He was in a fact a Scot growing up in Canada, and to escape from his bullying father, he spent much time on his own,  studying nature and Indian lore out in the wild. Joan Aiken experienced the same kind of pleasure  as a rather isolated child growing up in the freedom of the Sussex countryside, imagining herself in a far wilder landscape, surviving with these books as her guides and companions.

As an adult she created opportunities, as here in The Whispering Mountain, to share the mysterious magic of all this language, knowledge and spirit of adventure.  The exotic and obscure vocabulary that her reading offered her as a small child, was probably just as bewildering to the children of her own home village, but fired their curiosity  and so encouraged her desire to tell wild and wonderful stories. When she became a writer she was determined never to underestimate the ingenuity of her readers by talking down to them.  She was convinced that putting old and new ideas and imaginative language into an exciting context would help to bring her fantasy worlds to life, and communicate the ideas and customs of other times and countries to her readers.

But even she admitted that sometimes she got a bit too carried away, and possibly, in this particular story – as the Seljuk of Rum might say – became:

‘Fantastical, Rhapsodic, Whimsical, Absurd, or even Obscure….’

*****

TheWhisperingMountain_COVER REV2

The Whispering Mountain, which can be read as a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles

is  published as a Puffin Book, so that the whole series is now in print together for the first time.

See all the books at Joan Aiken.com

Random House/Red Fox/Penguin Children’s Books Joan Aiken page

Wolves Chronicles

To see a film of Joan talking about The Wolves Chronicles, and reading from her own copy of the little Book of Knowledge visit the website here.

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Joan Aiken ~ Telling the Bees

      Simon, the quiet hero of The Wolves Chronicles, and long lost friend of Dido Twite turns out to have a secret skill which can save the Kingdom. Joan Aiken knew her folk mythology, and the power gained from working with Nature, and Simon her cave dwelling Goose boy hero finally comes into his own at the end of the last book in the series – the bees lead him to an important prophecy, and at the end of the story when he returns their help, the secret is revealed…

   “As they reached the far side of the bridge, a swarm of bees, disturbed or attracted by all the unusual human activity, came drifting, like a solid black-and-gold cloud over the heathery hillside. The soldiers yelled in alarm and flung themselves flat on the ground.

‘Holy mackerel!’ said Dido. ‘Bees! Where do they come from? What do they want?’

‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay,’ suggested Wiggonholt.

‘They want a hive,’ said Simon. ‘Like the Wends. Somewhere  to spend the night.’

‘What can we do about that?’

 

‘Oh, that’s easy,’ said Simon. ‘I had lessons from a bee man at one time. You need kind hands.’

He walked towards the black booming cloud with his arms and hands held wide, fingers spread out.

‘Guess he knows what he’s about,’ muttered Dido. ‘I jist hope the bees get the message too.’

‘Bees! Kind hands!’ said Malise. ‘Now I remember – in the street in Clarion Wells – when I ran out –’

‘How do the bees know that Simon is their friend?’ said the Woodlouse anxiously.

‘They just know.’

 

It seemed that they did know. The black-and-gold cloud narrowed into a funnel shape and poured  itself  like molasses between Simon’s wrists, down his arms, and over his head and shoulders. Moving slowly and steadily he walked across the coach park, stepping over a number of prone troopers on his way, and approached the little stone building.

Proceeding with equal caution, Dido made her way there at the same time, arrived just before him, and opened the door.

The bees peeled themselves off Simon and poured into the hut, where they hung from the ceiling like a huge stalactite. Simon gently opened the window and closed the door.

‘Malise had better put up a sign bees in residence,’ he said.

‘Simon! Ain’t you stung at all?’

‘Not a sting!’ he said. ‘But I do feel rather sticky.’ His head and arms were glazed with a thin film of honey.

Simon!’ said Malise. ‘Did you once take a swarm of bees out of a house in Clarion Wells?’

‘Why yes,’ he said. ‘A long time ago. When I was quite small, travelling with a tinker, I was in that town. And a monk came up to me in the street and said I looked as if I had kind hands and could I help with a swarm which had entered the infirmary. It was a theological college. There was a dying man and they didn’t want him disturbed –’

‘And you took the bees away – ?’

‘I took the bees into the college garden where there was a hive waiting for them –’

‘But the dying man – did he say anything while you were in the room?’

‘Yes, he did! But I didn’t understand what he said. The bees were buzzing … and the man was singing – well, chanting – he had put words to a street ballad tune that a man was playing outside the window –’  “

And what was the prophecy?  You will have to read on to find out!

 

Joan’s respect for bees appears in several of her stories, find more in

The Gift Giving, illustrated by Peter Bailey

Find all of Joan Aiken’s stories at https://www.joanaiken.com/books/