Joan Aiken’s Musical Inspiration in dark times

Japanese Touch of Chill

    “Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats wrote, “but those unheard are sweeter.” For Joan Aiken this idea provided the inspiration for stories full of  music, in times when it was especially needed, which the reader can hear only in his imagination.

She created some wonderful magical music, like a tune which when whistled or sung brings a cardboard cut-out garden to life in her unforgettable story of The Serial Garden, or a record which quietly turns itself over while sending the listener into a mythical garden of her own, in More than you Bargained For; or a kingdom so dedicated to music that when the people forget to honour their goddess, they are stricken with a burning, freezing curse until she can be summoned back by notes from a harp that comes from deep water, a harp that no man has ever played,  A Harp of Fishbones.  In many of her stories, music is understood to be a powerful and healing force, which is almost better when you have to imagine the tune.

Brought up in a household with only a piano to provide music, where her mother regularly gathered the family to sing, and before anyone had a record player or even a radio, as there was no electricity in their village, Joan Aiken became musically literate enough to make use of ‘heard melodies’ that stirred the imagination of her readers too.

One of her earliest stories, The Mysterious Barricades, is inspired by a piece of  François Couperin  harpsichord music which for years she played on a 78 record. (I vividly remember her small but colourful record collection in an old tin box, which included Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith and Beethoven’s Rage at a Lost Penny, some saucy songs by Jean Sablon, and the Red Flag among its treasures.) The Mysterious Barricades inspired a fantasy she set in a Transylvanian territory that might have come from  Mary Shelley, except that it was also a wry comment on the kind of Government Department where she had worked in the 1940’s, helping to keep the wheels of Britain turning during World War Two.

The gloom of the restrictive red tape and deadening bureaucracy of those times could only be lightened by one of her typical flights of fantastic imagination.  In Joan Aiken’s story of their musical quest to escape from it all armed only with a cup of tea and a biscuit, two civil servants and a canary finally arrive together on a mountain top and play a piece of music ‘of more than mortal beauty’ which causes those Mysterious Barricades to open and let them through.

Mysterious Barricades

Illustrations here and below by Pat Marriott

Music was a great support to her at that time – going to concerts and singing in London churches provided solace in those dark days, but she wasn’t afraid to parody the over seriousness of the musical establishment of the time either. In the 1950’s Joan Aiken worked at the short story magazine Argosy first editing, then writing, or finding,  copy to fill odd corners and producing a monthly ‘log book’ full of imaginary news items.

   It is perhaps not surprising that the first story of hers that was accepted for publication by Argosy in 1955 also had a musical inspiration; called Some Music for The Wicked Countess,  it has as its hero a serious young composer who finds himself in the wilds of Ireland earning his living as a music teacher in a village school, but who is utterly unaware that the surrounding forest is not only ‘stiff with enchantment’ but also contains a magical castle inhabited by a scheming Countess determined to lure him up to her bower for a musical soiree…

He fails to fall for a whole series of her magical entrapments, and in the end the enraged Countess is forced to appear to him in person while he is out in the forest collecting moths. Slightly bewildered he follows her up ‘half-a-hundred stairs’ to her tower,while she sends a couple of leprechauns to fetch his piano, and having unwittingly avoided drinking another magic potion he sits down to perform:

Wicked Countess

Countess   The  cover illustration at the top is from the Japanese edition of another collection of Joan Aiken stories, A Touch of Chill. The story called A Rented Swan was also originally published in Argosy  and tells of a composer who finds an apartment with a grand piano, but discovers too late that it also includes a swan. “It’s in the lease, Sir, didn’t you read it? Furniture, fittings, appurtenances, and one swan; care of aforesaid swan to be undertaken by the hereinaftermentioned Henry Wadsworth Oglethorpe.”

(and of course it isn’t an ordinary swan, but an unfortunate piece of enchantment, and the story was originally, fiendishly, entitled Lease of a Gold Banded Pen…)

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Read here about a collection of these early stories  The Monkey’s Wedding  with an introduction about Joan’s Argosy days

Monkey's Wedding

And find these and more mysterious stories in the new Joan Aiken collection from

Small Beer Press

The People in the Castle

Now out in Paperback

People paperback

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Joan Aiken’s Uses for Verses… feat. The New Yorker ( aka. Owen Ketherry!)

JA Argosy jingle

Practical poetry was always an Aiken staple – charms and rhymes, jingles and odes flew from her pen, as here when she was office dogsbody for Argosy magazine and used her skills (under the nom de plume John Silver!) with cartoonist Graham to sell their copies…

Another recently discovered treasure was a letter of complaint to The New Yorker about a gadget purchased from their pages which promised to rid her garden of moles. Sadly the amazingly named ‘GopherIt’ failed to fulfil its promises, and after a few weeks of frustration the only possible riposte was a burst of doggerel…

JA Moles poem

The response from their perfectly prepared personnel (apparently under another nom de plume to protect the personality of the poet?) came from ‘Owen Ketherry’ who handled many of the more tricky correspondents to the journal from the 1980’s on – it is of course an anagram of The New Yorker – invented by a gal after Joan’s own heart, Lindsley Cameron who gleefully fulfilled a similar role to the one Joan held at Argosy.

JA Moles NY poem

…and here also perfectly preserved  with a rather familiar signature – and gothic reputation – can this be the real Charles Addams? is that actual 4th of July cartoon:

JA Moles NY cartoon

Which all goes to show that anyone is free to celebrate National Poetry Day  – as we are currently doing in the UK today – and also the freedom for all to practise their penchant for poetry – Long Live Poetic Licence!

Argosy webpage.png

Joan Aiken was also busy honing her story writing skills while at Argosy and thanks to Small Beer Press an entertaining collection of her strangely surreal early stories

( and a few mad verses!) can be found in this collection –

The Monkey’s Wedding & Other Stories

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