Joan Aiken’s once and future Kings…

Mediaeval King

Joan Aiken’s History of the Kings of England was more than alternative, by the time she drew near the end of her ‘Wolves Chronicles’ it was running backwards. From the steam-punk century of Wolves and Black Hearts with its railways and hot air balloons, she had sent her last monarch back to the middle ages, to a retreat in the marshes like that of Alfred the Great, a mediaeval manor house surrounded by wetlands, and a mythical end serenaded by Nightingales.

In Midwinter Nightingale, the penultimate instalment of the saga, old King Dick is in hiding, as Burgundians from the continent, or even Bernicians from Northern Caledonia in the now divided Kingdom with its internal borders and rival factions are mustering their armies ready to put a new royal line in place. From the Tudor-Stuarts, we have gone back to the Plantaganets, and even to the West Saxons and Uther Pendragon.

But unless Simon – who first appeared as the goose boy from Willoughby Chase, and is now one of the few recognised Royal heirs as a cousin of the old King – can find the ancestral crown, no coronation can take place…

The King’s Great Aunt, the elderly Lady Titania Plantaganet explains:

‘There is an old copper coronet – legend has it that it once belonged to King Alfred, and it has come to be the regular practice that when the King of England is on his deathbed, he must pass the coronet – which Alfred is supposed to have worn round his helmet when he fought the battle of Wedmore – the dying King must hand the coronet over to the Archbishop, who then puts it on the head of the heir to the throne.’

‘Oh. But is the crown not here?’

‘Most unfortunately my nephew seems to have forgotten what he last did with it. It is like the Christmas tree decorations,’ the old lady went on impatiently. ‘Used only once a year – less frequently than that in this case – ’

‘Then,’ said Simon, ‘His Majesty keeps referring to nightingales. Is that—’ He hesitated, then went on firmly, ‘Is that because his mind is – is distracted by fever? Or are there, in fact, nightingales in the woods around Darkwater, even at this time of year?’

‘Have you not read your Chaucer?’ enquired Lady Titania rather severely.

‘I beg your pardon, ma’am?’

‘Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet. His Book of the Forest, written when he was King’s Forester of the Wetlands?’

‘My lady, I’m afraid that my education was mostly lacking. A large part of my childhood was spent in a cave, you see, along with some geese.’

‘Was there no public library at hand?’ she demanded.

‘No.’

‘Oh! Well, this poet, Chaucer, wrote some lines about Darkwater in his forest poem:

“By Darkwater so stille, Oft ye may heare Midwinter Nightingale for human ears tell out her piteous tale”.

Darkwater has always been famous for its nightingales.’

‘I see. When was Chaucer?’

‘Fourteenth century.’

‘And the nightingales are still here?’

‘They do not, of course, perform their full repertoire in winter,’ acknowledged Lady Titania. ‘But even so, you may hear them sing from time to time. And there is a well-established local legend that when the King of England lies on his deathbed, all of them will sing all night.’

A thoughtful silence fell between them. Then Simon said, ‘No wonder His Majesty is so concerned. Midwinter Nightingale. That would be on St Lucy’s Day?’

‘Yes.’

‘I wonder how the story started?’

‘Oh, I started it,’ said Lady Titania. ‘I have the gift of prophecy. Sometimes I can look at a hand, or a face, and tell what is going to happen to that person in the future. Not always – but sometimes. Would you like me to look at your hand?’

Like Lady Titania, Joan Aiken seems to be able to run her history both backwards and forwards, and celebrate her freedom to do so with any number of delightfully odd anachronisms; taking her cues from many favourite authors of her childhood reading from Dickens to Dumas, or in this case from Mallory or the Mabinoggion to the tongue-in-cheek Arthurian tales of T.H White, where his wicked Queen Morgause wanders into the future for a copy of Vague magazine…

Quenell History 1

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Some of Joan’s historical images (like this one!) were probably drawn from an early exploration of the Quennells’ History of Everyday Things in England: for instance she revels in a slightly altered description of a mediaeval manor house, re-modelled by a recent owner:

“The kitchen of Edge Place was a modern installation; that is to say, it had been improved by Sir Thomas’s wife, Theodora, after their marriage fifty years earlier. The lady came from the ancient Palaeologos family and could trace her forebears clean back to the tenth century, when they were highnesses of Byzantium. She wished her food to be properly cooked and demanded a high-class Roman cuisine requiring charcoal braziers instead of an open fire in the middle of the kitchen.”

The current owner, Sir Thomas, while enjoying these modern conveniences is also being plagued at breakfast by a series of chain letters from the Knights Templar of Palestina:

“Chain of heroic love and good luck around the globe. All sanctified by His Reverence the Ninth in Succession to the Throne of the World Soul given on the fourth day of revelation at the New Olympus…”

‘What the deuce is all this drivelling balderdash, may I ask?’ –  Sir Thomas, dangerously purple, stared at it in furious perplexity.

Only Joan Aiken would know… as she runs rings around history…

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Find all the Wolves Chronicles here

Midwinter Nightingale

 

 

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Meet Joan Aiken…

JA Movie

Would you like to go for a walk with Joan Aiken, and hear how she came up with the ideas for her most famous books, the Wolves Chronicles,  or visit her in her home?

Well you can!

This short film was made by Puffin Books, and shows her on the Sussex Downs, near the village where she grew up, and in the little town of Petworth, where she bought her first home – an old pub called The White Hart.

You can also see her visit the real Rose Alley where she imagined Simon meeting Dido Twite for the first time, on the banks of the Thames, near the new Globe Theatre and opposite St.Paul’s Cathedral.

And finally see the real Cuckoo Tree that inspired one of her titles – quite famous locally, and even visited by fans from as far away as Japan… but extremely hard to find!

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Click here to watch

 Or go to the Joan Aiken Website FUN page and click on the MOVIE

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas at Willoughby Chase – a Joan Aiken Happy Ever After?

Willoughby Christmas

Could this be a festive stroll in the park for Sir Willoughby and Lady Green and Sylvia, taking gifts to Aunt Jane in the Dower House? Bonnie must be off shooting wolves with Simon in order to safeguard Lady Green’s new herd of deer (and perhaps bag her another wolf stole?) or maybe she is back home at Willoughby Chase, tyrannising Mrs Shubunkin and the kitchen staff and being adored and spoiled with sugar plums as they prepare the gigantic Christmas turkey and dozens of figgy puddings, with diamonds due to be concealed inside them instead of sixpences…

Could this ever be possible? Joan Aiken did have a go at a merry sequel, but it was too tongue in cheek, even by her wild standards to ever see the light of day:Halloween at Willoughby 1aWhen she imagined the famous first volume of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken was planning to replicate the eye-watering reading of her own early childhood, full of oubliettes and haunted castles, blunderbusses and shipwrecks, as it was these wild adventures that she had most enjoyed, not some of the more saccharine tales generally recommended for children in the 1920’s. But when she herself became a children’s writer she was always very concerned for the well-being of her readers, as she wrote in her spirited guide The Way to Write for Children:

Endings Way to WriteVery good, but happy endings? Not necessarily, besides they so rarely last for long in real life, and if you have polished off all future adventures for your characters, then where is the next story to come from…?

In this festive tale that Joan once cooked up, the puddings turn out to have been poisoned by an impostor cook called Mrs Svengali – now seen off with her fiendish highwayman friends by Bonnie and Sylvia who have been practising with crossbows.

Halloween end 1The ever resourceful Bonnie turns to the newly arrived Duchess of Battersea, Simon’s Aunt Hettie, who was to have provided the diamonds for the puddings saying:

Halloween end 3Halloween end finalEven now Joan Aiken can’t quite allow herself a happy ending – let’s hope the ever capable Mrs Shubunkin has some spirits of Rhubarb on hand for poor Aunt Hettie – like many a Happy Christmas Day, this one might end with the need for a dose of salts!

indigestion

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I hope you (and Joan Aiken!) will forgive me for this bit of festive nonsense!

Find out about the real Wolves sequels here