A Joan Aiken Gift for Christmas…and for Ever After

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This is literary treasure ~ For the young of all ages

As Joan Aiken would say at the end of a story, “I know, because I was there.”

When she first told them to me,  on walks, on trains or at bedtime, from my earliest years onwards,  I had no idea how these stories were going to shape my life; I shall never forget them, and I’m delighted to pass on the gift of this new collection to you.

Author Katherine Rundell wrote: “The voice that tells these stories is wiser and braver than us…someone who knows the ways of the world and loves it anyway.” Joan Aiken knew hundreds of  stories, and could weave them together and make them her own – she filled them with all the elements that the young imagine and desire – whether it be friendship or delectable food, magic or hilarious mayhem, wild adventure and danger, or a warm and happy ending.

One of Joan Aiken’s literary heroines was E.Nesbit, who has an equally wicked way of making hay with traditional Fairy Tales. In Aiken’s tales you’ll find a brace of unfortunate Royal Christenings and some very feisty baby princesses.  When Grisel, one of Aiken’s dreadful old fairy ladies pops out of a vase on the mantelpiece and hooks the baby out of its cot:

“the baby hit her a fearful whack on the front teeth with its heavy silver rattle. There was a terrible scene. The King and Queen were far too well bred to laugh, but they looked as though they would have liked to…”

At another unfortunate christening two feuding Fairies saddle the baby princess with a list of awful prophecies that mean she spends most of her life as a pig (although an extremely elegantly brought up one!) and has to find a one legged husband who has spent all his life out of doors… Even the supposedly helpful Fairy Godmothers, or aunts in one case, turn out to be a terrible liability when their wishes won’t stop coming true. When poor Matilda is told that “all her way will be strewn with flowers” she clogs up an escalator in the tube station with ‘blooming lilies’ and has to spend a year in hiding in a greenhouse with an axe to keep the luxuriant foliage in check until the wish finally expires…

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Real family members can be just as formidable, or unforgettable. John Sculpin’s mother cannot get her hapless son to remember how to get rid of a witch, but when one of them sells him a poisoned toothbrush, and a fly drops dead after landing on it, she can tell that he hasn’t brushed his teeth! There are also the warmest and most loving mothers and Grandmothers who show their care by giving up their greatest treasures, or passing on their wisdom in unexpected ways. There are deaths too, and great sadness for those left behind, but hope and help are offered for ways to keep the love and wisdom of those we have lost. A Joan Aiken heroine may lie down and cry her heart out, but she’ll accept her loss and remember the gifts that came from the relationship – whether it is learning to speak to the bees and teaching songs to a bird, or helping make a flute that brings back a forgotten melody and restores a family tradition. Music is often the key to a mystery in one of these stories.

“As soon as Ermine put the needle down and the disc began to revolve, a strange thing happened…she found herself walking down a steep narrow lane, in between two high walls…an archway led to a small lawn in the centre of which grew a huge tree all covered with blossom..she started to cross the grass to it, but at that moment the music slowed down and came to an end.”

There are delicious meals, sometimes the simplest are the best.  On a hot day there is  “a bunch of radishes soaking in a blue bowl of water, ready for anyone who came in to take a cool peppery bite” or “an apple and the special birthday cream cheese which her mother had left for her” or “a tiny birthday cake decorated with pink candles and silver balls.”  Or a supper in front of the kitchen fire: “a cup of cocoa, piece of dripping toast, and the crusty end of the loaf spread thick with globby home-made yellow plum jam.”

There is the voice – “‘The sea promised to come and help me if ever I was in trouble. And it’s coming now.’  Sure enough, the very next minute, every single wall of the house burst in, and the roof collapsed like an eggshell when you hit it with a spoon. There was enough sea in the garden to fill the whole Atlantic and have enough left over for the Pacific too.”

  There is language for all ages – ‘The Ministry of Alarm and Despondency’, the ‘Ballet Doux’ composed of blue blooded little girls, and lovely word-play, often on misread notices like: ‘load of spinach goes begging’ or:

        LOST: FIVE MINUTES.

FINDER PLEASE RETURN TO WORMLEY MUSEUM. REWARD.

And she beautifully conveys the storyteller’s – and the listener’s – love of stories.  One of Joan Aiken’s bewitched princesses finds herself in an oasis with a dragon.  “During their simple meals of dates he often looked hopefully at the book, and sometimes pushed it towards her with the tip of his tail, as if asking for more.” An old car begs: “Oh won’t some kind soul tell me a story? I have such a terrible craving on me to hear another tale!”  At the moment when Seb pauses in his reading to the sea: “a thin white hand came out of the green water and turned over the page…”

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The voice that tells these stories is wise, and funny, and generous in the wish to pass on everything she has learned from reading and loving stories herself. 

There is treasure here, and wisdom, and a sense of what it is we sometimes only half-remember from the mysteries of childhood. These stories will take you there again.

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At the end of the story these children, and all the other inhabitants of the village,  have parted with their own dearest treasure:

“They do not speak about these things. They are used to keeping secrets. But if anything at all hopeful is to happen in the world, there may be a good chance that it will have its beginnings in the village of Wish Wintergreen.”

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My grateful thanks to Virago Modern Classics for re-publishing these stories, and to Peter Bailey for his delightful illustrations.

Read more about The Gift Giving and find a copy here 

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Mortimer and Arabel’s Christmas Spirit…!

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In a Christmas adventure Mortimer seeks out his ancestors at the Tower of London

At last you can revisit the TV adventures of Mortimer and Arabel brought to life by a talented puppet team for the BBC, based on original drawings by Sir Quentin Blake, and first shown nearly twenty years ago…some of us have been waiting very patiently indeed…!

(I had to give you a taster -blurry screenshots sadly all my own work…)

See below for the real thing!

But it’s perfect timing for a story full of festive spirit – the ghost of Elizabethan poet Sir Humphrey Burbage his having his usual nightmare before Christmas trying to pay off his debt to the Duke of Rumbury before he loses his head…can Mortimer and Arabel find his gold and get it to the Bank on time?

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Malcolm James and the design team at CBBC pulled out all the stops for this delightfully detailed series, with sets which included a snowy Tower of London, and the half-timbered streets of old Rumbury Town complete with carol singers, not to mention plum puddings, turkeys, and decorations to die for…  The script is hilarious, also full of ghostly puns and seasonal mayhem. While Granny Jones is trying to make the Jones’ Christmas dinner with one-hundred year old mincemeat, Mrs Jones is at the Bank trying to make some extra Christmas cash to pay for it all – but in terror of bumping into the Bank Ghost!

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Meanwhile Arabel and her friend Chris are trying to stop evil Uncle Perce selling the ghost to a Texas millionaire, and Mortimer as usual isn’t helping at all – although he has fun with the decorations……

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But of course everything miraculously ends happily (and ever-after at last for poor Sir Humphrey!) and a very Merry Christmas is had by all – even Granny Jones’s horrible cat Augustus gets away with a turkey leg.

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And Mortimer and Arabel get the best surprise of all…something wonderful in their stockings…but to find out what that is you’ll have to watch it for yourselves!

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 Apologies for the fuzzy pics…

The film is perfectly gorgeous, as many will remember

but those puppets don’t stay ‘still’ for a minute…

See Five Star reviews!

The Bank Ghost is one of four series now available to download from the BBC Store

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Thanksgiving – for Joan Aiken from her Pa

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Conrad Aiken, Poet, and daughter Joan…gifted and enchanting!

Conrad Aiken, Joan’s Pulitzer prize winning father didn’t hand out compliments lightly, so it was wonderful to discover a letter he wrote introducing her to Charles Schlessiger, his agent at Brandt & Hochman who was to become her life-long friend and supporter, in which he sings her praises to the moon. A genuine case for Thanksgiving, and a celebration of her remarkable, funny, twentieth century fairy tales – two new editions of which have been published this year.

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Two new collections of Joan Aiken’s unforgettable stories came out this year

from Small Beer Press

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Celebrated as a book of the year in The Washington Post

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and from Virago Modern Classics, just in time for Christmas

The Gift Giving – Favourite Stories

‘For the young of all ages’

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We have met the enemy, and he is us…*

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Joan Aiken’s take on War & Peace, elections, immigration etc. in a nutshell…

Those of us still reeling from the events of 2016 have maybe looked for comfort or understanding from history or literature.   When Joan Aiken had to wrap up the history and sort out the future of the world she had herself created in one last short sweet episode of The Wolves Chronicles,  she came up with a narrative that speaks volumes to our current situation, although written over ten years ago. The Witch of Clatteringshaws shows a dark world, with an unwilling and slightly inept leader, King Simon, challenged on all sides by antiquated systems of government and ageing traditions, in a country about to be invaded by a wave of marauders from overseas. How does he sort it out? With his own version of Henry V’s Agincourt speech and a game called Hnefatefl…

*******

THE TROOP TRAIN had backed away from Clatteringshaws station, and was now out of sight. The men of the English Ninth Army were squatting on the heathery ground in a circle round Simon, waiting for him to address them.

‘Men of the Ninth Army,’ he began. ‘By the way, what happened to the other eight?’

‘It was back in Owd King Jamie’s time,’ someone told him. ‘When we was fighting against the Frogs in the year thirteen. All got wiped out.’

‘Oh. I see. Well, listen. Men of England. What you have to do now is walk a distance of about fifty miles to where the Wends have landed in Tentsmuir Forest. Does anybody here know the way, by any chance?’

Dead silence was his answer to this.

‘Oh. Well, it’s about due east of where we are now, so the rising sun will be a help presently. I hope you are all good walkers.’

More silence.

‘Now. We don’t want our country inhabited by a lot of Wends, do we?’

‘Dunno,’ somebody said.

Ignoring this, Simon went on: ‘We don’t know how many Wends there are, but there are not very many of us, so we all have to be extra brave and tough. I’m not particularly brave myself, but I like to think that all of you are with me, backing me up, and that perhaps, in a hundred years’ time, this day will be remembered by our grandchildren as the day when a not very large force of English beat off an attacking army of Wends who wanted to turn this island into a place where everybody spoke Wendish. Don’t you agree?’

‘What’s Wendish like, then?’ one of the men enquired. Rodney Firebrace spoke up. ‘Wendish is an awful language. It’s highly inflected – there are nine declensions of nouns—’ ‘What’s inflected?’ somebody shouted.

‘When words have different endings to express different grammatical relations. And Wendish has thirty different kinds of verbs. You have to decline them as well as conjugate them.’

‘What’s verbs?’

‘I hit. You run.’

‘Who says we run? We ain’t a-going to run!’

‘No way!’

‘Hooray for English verbs!’

‘We don’t want no foreign verbs!’

‘Are you all with me, then?’ called Simon.

‘Sure we are!’

‘Let’s go!’

‘We’ll show those Wends the way back to Wendland!’

‘Let ’em wend their way!’

The men jumped up and started bustling about, picking up their arbalests and re-packing their hard-boiled eggs. In ten minutes the whole mass of them had drifted off down an eastward-facing valley (Rodney Firebrace had prudently brought a compass) and were out of sight of the station. Simon and Rodney walked alongside the lengthy, straggling column, talking to the men, telling them jokes and stories to keep their spirits up, and encouraging them to sing marching songs.

‘We need Dido here,’ Simon said. ‘She knows all the tunes her father made up – “Grosvenor Gallop” and “Penny a Ride to Pimlico” and “Light-hearted Lily of Piccadilly”—’

‘Well, I expect a lot of the men know those anyway.’

So it proved, and the men of the Ninth Army marched eastwards in a gale of song.

*******

As dawn began to break, Simon decreed a rest for the Ninth Army. He reckoned they might have marched about half of the distance they had to cover. The men sat down and dug their way into the sacks of hard-boiled eggs donated to the army by kind ladies when the train stopped at Northallerton station.

Simon overheard a few grumbles: ‘Thirsty work, hard-boiled eggs is, on their own. Wouldn’t mind a nibble of cheese or a sup of beer!’

‘All right, you lot!’ Simon shouted after ten minutes. ‘Let’s be on our way!’

The track they were on clung to the side of a valley. Ahead, it curved round a hill. A grey parrot came flying from behind them, and alighted on Rodney’s shoulder. Simon, ahead of the others, rounded the bend on the road, then came to a startled stop. Ahead of them, on the other side of the valley, was the force they had come to fight. The track ran down, crossed a bridge, then rose again to where the foreign army was stationed, glittering red and gold, with the new-risen sun fetching flashes from muskets and shields, spearheads and musket barrels. They had horses. And small cannons mounted on wheels. And they out-numbered the English force by at least two to one. The cannons, which looked very impressive, were drawn by wide-horned oxen. Like the English army, the Wends had apparently paused to eat breakfast and water their beasts, which were being led in groups down to the river which ran along the valley bottom.

‘Humph,’ said Rodney Firebrace, who had walked up beside Simon. ‘I reckon this is where you need to negotiate.’

‘Negotiate what? They could beat us hollow. Look at them. There are twice as many of them. And their guns—’

‘True. But we are on higher ground. Ah, look – they want to talk . . .’

The foreign force had now caught sight of the advance part of Simon’s army on the opposite slope. They could not see it all, because of the fold in the hillside. They could not see that they had the numerical advantage. A group of leaders, down by the bridge, were shaking their heads, obviously discussing the situation.

‘Look, here’s someone who wants to parley,’ said Firebrace.

‘Aaarkh,’ said the bird on his shoulder. ‘A castle that parleys is half taken.’

‘I’ll go down to the bridge and see what they have to say,’ said Rodney. ‘That fellow is waving a yellow flag.’

‘I’m coming too,’ said Simon.

‘This is where you have to remember King Canute and Edmund Ironside.’

‘Why? I never met either of those guys . . .’

Several of the group at the bridge fell back, leaving a tall rangy fellow in a steel helmet with wings, and a fat, compact little dark-bearded man in royal-looking clothes.

‘Ah, good morning,’ he said in fluent, though heavily accented English. ‘I am Albert the Bear, Count of Ballenstedt, founder of the Ascanian line, Margrave of Brandenburg and heir of Pribislav.’

‘Good morning,’ said Simon. ‘I am Simon Battersea, King of England. Er – can I enquire about your intentions – what you mean by arriving here in this warlike manner?’

That should have been better put, he thought. I’m no good at this kind of thing.

‘You like to fight?’ said King Albert the Bear. ‘Ve Vends enjoy fighting. But this is not a good spot to fight.’

‘Why did you stop here?’

‘Vell, ve have to. Because the sign say so.’ Albert pointed to a triangular road sign. It said:

STOP

TOADS CROSS HERE

Behind Simon, Firebrace muttered, ‘This is definitely a case for Canute and Ironside.’ Simon suddenly remembered about them. Father Sam had told him.

‘I’ll tell you what, Your Majesty,’ he said. ‘Instead of involving our troops in a battle in this narrow, muddy spot, why don’t you and I have a personal combat? Like King Canute, son of Sweyn the Dane, and Edmund Ironside? Don’t you think that would be more – more sporting and economical?’

‘Quarter-staff or small-sword?’ said King Albert alertly.

‘Whichever Your Majesty prefers.’ And heaven help me, thought Simon, for I know as little of one as of the other. ‘Can you find my small-sword?’ he said to Firebrace. ‘I think I left it somewhere in the baggage train.’

‘Certainly, Your Majesty. And I’ll cut a quarter-staff out of that holly bush.’

‘Vun moment,’ said King Albert, who meanwhile had been conferring with his adviser. ‘Vilf Thundergripper reminds me that I have been suffering from severe cramp in my left leg. Not good, not good for personal combat!’

‘Oh, that is a pity,’ said Simon. ‘Then what about—?’

‘Vilf Thundergripper suggest that instead of combat ve play a game of Hnefatefl.’

‘Oh, certainly,’ said Firebrace. ‘My King will be delighted to take Your Majesty on at Hnefatefl.’ A Wendish gentleman-in-waiting was sent off at the double to the supply cart at the rear of the Wendish armed column.

‘For heaven’s sake!’ whispered Simon urgently to Firebrace. ‘What is Hnefatefl and how do you play it?’

‘Oh, it’s a Saxon board game. You’ll very soon get the hang of it. There is a board with eighteen squares . . .’

The board – a very handsome gold and leather one – was quickly brought and set out with its pieces on a handy tree-stump.

The pieces were set out on the board. They were made of bone, and the king-piece, the hnefi, had a gold crown round his stomach. Two stools were brought from the Wendish camp for Simon and King Albert. They tossed a Wendish pfennig for colour, and King Albert won and chose white.

(Afterwards Simon discovered that the Wendish pfennigs had heads on both sides.)

‘Ve play best of nine games, yes?’ said King Albert.

‘As you wish, Your Majesty.’

‘You vin, I take my army back to Vendland. I vin, you find us Vends nize home in beautiful English countryside – yes so? Not too far from my cousin Bloodarrow of Bernicia.’

‘Very well,’ said Simon. I wish Dido were here, he thought. I bet she’d be good at this game.

‘Don’t play with a straw before an old cat,’ said the parrot.

*******

King Albert the Bear was evidently an old hand at the Hnefatefl game and won three rounds in quick succession. But by this time Simon was beginning to get the hang of it, and now he started to win. When he had won four games running, King Albert suddenly said: ‘I now getting again this bad bad cramp pain in my leg. Ve must stop playing! At vunce!’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry about that, Your Majesty. Shall we fight a duel, then? Or would you rather have a battle?’

‘I tell you vot,’ said King Albert. ‘Vot you say, I get my men to vote. Vuns that vant to stay in Engel-land, you let them stay. I think I go home. Men that vish to go home, they go home vith me. Vot you say?’

‘Sounds all right,’ said Simon cautiously. ‘If we can find a place that’s big enough for the ones that want to stay. What do you think, Firebrace?’

‘It might be arranged,’ said Firebrace with equal caution. ‘When the train stopped at Northallerton, I remember hearing talk of an unoccupied valley in Yorkshire. That might do for some of your men, Your Majesty. What do you think?’

‘Goot enough. Let them vote. Bring two baskets.’

Massive Wendish baskets were used to carry arrows and bullets. Their contents were all tipped out onto the heather.

‘Men who vish to go back to Vendland put cheese in basket. Those who vish to stay in Engel-land put egg in basket. Understand?’

While the two leaders had been playing Hnefatefl, a good deal of fraternization had been taking place among the troops. Simon’s army, who had been supplied with more hard-boiled eggs than they could use, had been happy to exchange these for the Wendish soldiers’ ration of little hard round blue-veined cheeses the size of golf balls, which were found to be very tasty by the English troops.

‘Made by adding the cream of one day to the entire milk of the next,’ the Wendish quartermaster told them. ‘Makes cheese extra rich.’

When the vote was counted, it was found that three hundred men wished to remain in England. The rest preferred to go home.

‘Good! Some go, some stay. I go home now, to Vendland. You come, Simon, you visit me some time, we play more Hnefatefl. You play not bad, not bad at all,’ said King Albert.

So the arrows and bullets were bundled back into the baskets, the eggs and cheeses distributed to those who wanted them, and the two armies prepared to go their ways.

‘If I could borrow a horse,’ said Firebrace, ‘I could ride down directly into Yorkshire and make arrangements about that valley. There may be a bit of rent to pay.’

‘Vell, vell,’ said King Albert. ‘Ven you vant some rent, you let me know. No vorry! Goodbye. Ve go now. To the again-see!’

And he mounted his horse and rode eastward with the main part of his army. Simon, with his men and the rest of the Wendish army, turned back westwards, singing Abednego Twite’s song ‘Raining, Raining All the Day’, which had a very catchy chorus:

 ‘I reign, you reign, he reigns, they reign when the skies are grey.’

A large number of toads, who had been hesitating at the side of the road, now decided that it would be safe to cross.

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In Joan Aiken’s universe humour, pragmatism and even an understanding of grammar save the day – the Men of the Ninth do adapt their language to understand the newcomers with new words ‘Wending’ their way into the language, and new foods – presumably Wendsleydale? – happily absorbed into their diet.  The cheerful lack of front, or side, in the two leaders allows everyone to get what they need, and all faces to be saved. Now all Simon needs is to find someone willing to take over the crown so he can retire into happy obscurity again with his dear friend Dido…  To find out the rest of the story you’ll have to read on…

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*Thanks to Walt Kelly and Pogo for a great title

Excerpts from The Witch of Clatteringshaws (The Wolves Chronicles series)

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