Joan Aiken’s Desert Island Stories

Winterthing Island

When the writer Joan Aiken heard a powerfully melancholy piece of music that was written to save an island, this story, and the story told by the music itself, inspired her to write her own book about a lost island.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Farewell to Stromness when the  future of the Orkney Islands where he lived, was threatened by a proposal to mine there for uranium, known locally as Yellow Cake. His music formed part of a protest performance on Orkney called The Yellow Cake Revue, which helped put paid to the horrific project. His hypnotic piano piece, only five minutes long has become a poignant part of many people’s lives, played at weddings and funerals, bringing peace, comfort and hope.

But it is not an entirely friendly piece; it begins with a gentle walking rhythm, that suggests tradition, familiarity, the pace of daily life, with difficulties maybe, moments of  deeper feeling, but nothing too unexpected.  Then the music begins to change at the early midpoint of its five minute length, when a strange new, more threatening tune appears; it begins to climb steeply, not strolling any more, there are difficulties, turns, threats and challenges and the way has to be followed round crags, up mountains, over high bridges, through mists and fog – we are in danger – until at last the light appears through the mist, first dimly then welcoming and then blazing, and home is seen again. The earlier rhythm returns, this time more like the rocking of a boat, and quietens, takes us in its arms into the rocking of a lullabye. Finally it softens, and fades, gently into history.  The danger has been surmounted, but the experience remains.

Inspired by this powerful musical expression of resistance,  Joan Aiken wrote a story called The Scream,  which also references the famous Munch painting of that name. Here the original inhabitants are forced from their homes on a Scottish island which is due to be poisoned for a scientific experiment. Brought up on their own myths, they had believed local dangers to be wrought by Kelpies – water demons, very hostile to humans – “Before the time of electricity, radio, motors, long-range missiles, aircraft, people thought seriously about such things.” Now the islanders have to adapt their way of life to towns and tower blocks, but underneath they have brought with them a powerful magic which is stirring and seeking to return, and finally it breaks out in a great Scream, with the force of a tidal wave, and with this power the island is reclaimed.

As the daughter of the writer Joan Aiken, I was brought up on stories that saw me through dangers and rocked me to sleep. We shared music too, and this piece which recalled the Scottish folk tunes her mother sang, spoke to us both of our roots, and a love of islands, many of which we had visited together. The last one we visited before she died was the Channel Island of Herm, and we joked about it being our Herm from Herm. Sitting on a shore of sea shells, she told me how she had always longed to be on Desert Island Discs, and had often thought about her music choices when waiting to fall asleep at night. One of her choices would have been Farewell to Stromness, and so we had it played at her funeral, to see her safely home.

I would love to hear it played for her on Desert Island Discs, and for all of us in this new time of danger, to remind us that stories, and music help us to find a way back to safety.

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Hear Farewell to Stromness played by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

 

More about The Scream here:

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/magic_mystery_07.html

The Scream

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The illustration at the top is by Arvis Stuart from the cover of a children’s play by Joan Aiken called Winterthing – another mythical island which disappears each winter

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/plays_01.html

 

 

Imagination, Hope, and our children

true-colours

Joan Aiken believed that encouraging the development of imagination in our children would be the key to the survival of the human race, and the surest way to create hope for the future; perhaps this is the reason why we must now rely on our young people to lead the way for us on climate action.

“How can we cultivate this faculty in our children?”  she wrote, and went on to imagine that perhaps in every school there could be special classes which would:

“Teach children to use their own wits, to amuse themselves, to keep themselves hopeful, to solve apparently insoluble problems, to try and get inside other people’s personalities, to envisage other periods of time, other places, other states of being…”

…and of course her own way of passing on these ideas would eventually be by writing and sharing her stories, but this was something she realised that she too had to learn. Taught at home in an isolated village until the age of twelve, she found relating to the world of other people extremely difficult and threatening when she first arrived at a small boarding school:

Imagination 4

“Training the imagination takes time and energy. Most adults keep their imagination at low level voltage a lot of the time – we have to; otherwise life would be too grim.  We are so bombarded with news from outside; unlike our ancestors who knew only what was happening in their own villages or cities, we know, all the time, what is happening in the whole world. Nevertheless we need to help children retain their early curiosity, their urge to explore.”

The picture of the small girl above, proudly displaying her own statement amongst hundreds of others expressing themselves in a sea of placards during a recent demonstration, seemed to be a perfect expression of the kind of encouragement we can and must show our children; she is being encouraged to express her own self and allowed to be proud of it.

In Joan Aiken’s writing on imagination, and ways of teaching our children to be hopeful and positive in their contribution to the challenges of life, she concluded that patience, and indeed our own hope for the future are very much a part of the process:

imagination-1

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Joan Aiken was often asked to speak about education and writing for children; she was a huge advocate of reading aloud to children and encouraging discussion, and many of her ideas about reading and writing for children can be found in a short book called

The Way to Write for Children

w2w web page

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On Holiday with Joan Aiken and friends…

Sea Monster

“Down, sir! Heel. Go home now, good serpent.”

What would you wish for on your holiday, apart from lazy days of  sunshine, rest and relaxation and a good book? Joan Aiken’s Armitage family have an unfortunate knack of wishing for things that come true when they least expect it; in this case Mrs Armitage is finding her honeymoon a little too peaceful, and idly slips a round white stone with a hole in it on to her finger, remembering:

“When I was little I used to call these wishing stones.”

She goes on to speculate happily about the future, imagining:

‘a beautiful house, in a beautiful village… with at least one ghost…two children who never mope or sulk or get bored…and a few magic wishes…and a phoenix or something…’

“Whoa, wait a minute…you don’t really believe in that stone, do you?” Mr Armitage said anxiously.

“Only half.”

“Well how about taking it off, now and throwing it in the sea, before you wish for anything else?”

Armitage honeymoon

And of course now we’ll be waiting to see how those wishes  come true…

The amazing adventures of the Armitage family continue in

Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden

  Perfect Summer reading for all

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UK edition from Virago illustrated as here by Peter Bailey

US edition from Small Beer Press with pictures by Andi Watson

Andi Watson dragon

Joan and Jessie Aiken – how the stories began (& Sir Denis Part One!)

j-jessie-at-jeakes

 March 1st is a day worth celebrating as the birthday of Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, a lively and fiercely intelligent character who had a lasting influence on her daughter, having taught her at home, in the small Sussex village where they lived until Joan went away to school at the age of 12.

Jessie was a postgraduate at Radcliffe, the women’s college of Harvard, where she met and fell in love with the poet Conrad Aiken, Joan’s father, in 1911. They presently moved to England where Joan was born, but had separated by the time Joan was five.  Jessie was a strict but inventive teacher, setting Joan exercises such as rewriting passages from the Bible in the style of Shakespeare, and being a great reader aloud, also provided Joan with all sorts of literary models from a very early age. Not only was Joan’s father Conrad Aiken a notable writer of short stories, but so was her step-father, Jessie’s second husband, Martin Armstrong. With these two examples to follow, it is no wonder she started early.

Pages from Joan’s early notebooks show Jessie’s spelling corrections, and also Joan’s already rampant imagination – here’s one of her very first stories where her hero Sir Denis meets Satan….more next week!

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Read on for part two of this gripping story here

and more about Joan’s childhood here

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