Remembering Joan Aiken

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The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s home ~

Joan Aiken died in the month of January. Listening for her voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries, in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem, never seen before and found in an old notebook.

This portrait of Joan’s last house was painted by the architect friend who helped her bring it back to life, when she and her painter husband discovered it lying ruined and abandoned on the edge of the little town where they lived.

It was supposed to be haunted, Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog reported seeing a ghostly monk on the path below the house, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…!

The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with the apparition too unsettling after the death of her husband, and so she herself became something of a local legend:

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Sadly Joan Aiken never saw the ghost, although she bought the house partly because of its strange history – indeed it could be one of her own.  A friend recalled her saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide story material; as readers of her ghost stories will know she had a rich and wicked imagination…

I like to think something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written many years earlier:

  “Swan among trees, the yew in its dark plumage

Raises its points against the glittering sky

Dropping a pool of shadow across the house

Shuttered and soulless since you are away.

Perhaps behind your shuttered features also

There lives a friend? This front gives rise to doubt

No inmate waves a hand at the blank windows

No footprints tell of passage in or out.”

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas.  Often, she would say, they came simply from life, or from newspaper articles, but it was always worth writing them down in a notebook because you never knew when they would find a home in a story. 

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here

And see a recent collection of some of her most memorable ~ The People in the Castle

Painting by Vernon Gibberd

 

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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