A Japanese Joan Aiken Picture Post


A Pop up Nantucket Whaler from Japan.

Joan Aiken has inspired, and herself created, some beautiful art work, often with Japanese and also sea-faring connections.

This exquisite cut out card came from a devoted Joan Aiken fan, Kayoko, and arrived fittingly one Valentine’s day.

A new edition of the Dido Twite adventure Night Birds on Nantucket had recently been published in Japan – a labour of love for the translator who had to to convey Dido’s cockney slang, nineteenth century whaling jargon, and the little American island’s old fashioned Puritan speech patterns…

Joan Aiken’s books have flourished in Japan and inspired some beautiful editions:


Another translation, of Cold Shoulder Road, a later book in the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido’s younger sister Is, was stunningly illustrated by graphic artist Miki Yamamoto. Here in a dramatic sea scene she captures the moment when a Tsunami rolls into town:


Joan’s early memories of her father, poet Conrad Aiken included being carried on his shoulders to look at, and listen to his stories about, the many Japanese prints on the walls of their old home in Rye which used to be a sea port; he named one favourite print  ‘The twenty-seven drunken poets.’

Here are twelve of them:


Conrad also supplied her with some very fascinating picture books, which inspired some of her own drawings – here’s an early Christmas card she drew –  it could almost be a Night Bird?


The history of Rye and it’s sea faring visitors also inspired an illustrated poem she produced for her father:


Although the sea and sailing ships often feature in Joan Aiken’s books, one story which was particularly near to her heart, was set in the countryside close to her childhood home and celebrates Dido Twite’s return from all her voyages.

The Cuckoo Tree, another of the Wolves Chronicles, has for some reason inspired unknown numbers of Japanese followers to visit this part of the Sussex countryside and try and find the miniature tree – a real live Bonsai – that is the setting of the story. That was how I came to meet Kayoko, who I offered to guide there, and who later sent the beautiful whaling card.

On the Sussex Downs, near the village where Joan grew up, it was a favourite private haunt of her childhood, a place to sit and draw or write, and perhaps appeals to these particular fans  because Joan herself was so diminutive – there is just room for one small person:

writing cuckoo tree

Joan Aiken would probably be astonished to know what devotion, and artistic creation her writing still inspires…long may it continue!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all, when it comes round again, and many thanks for the lovely letters:



Find out about all the Wolves Chronicles on the Joan Aiken website

Read more about visitors to the Cuckoo Tree here





The Village… Joan Aiken’s Childhood Inspiration

10. Sutton Village May Day parade    This Sussex village where Joan Aiken lived from the age of five was to inspire the Armitage Family stories that she returned to over and over again throughout her life, and which are now published in a collection called The Serial Garden.

She wrote:

 ‘Childhood almost entirely shapes one’s later outlook – I’m sure it is true that we never escape from our early conditioning.  Chagall, to his ninety-seventh year, painted the village where he grew up, and I have total sympathy with his cows and cottages – I know them too.  When I start to lay out a setting for a story – unless it is unmistakeably located in Battersea, or Nantucket, or the Pyrenees – I too inevitably begin by thinking of a village – a village of forty houses.  When I think about my life, the adult years are just like anyone else’s, whereas my childhood was the village…’

When Joan Aiken was five, her parents divorced and her Canadian mother married  English writer Martin Armstrong, and took the family to live in his beautiful ancient cottage in a small village under the grassy Sussex Downs. The village was remote,and in the 1920’s few people had cars of their own, so Joan’s brother and sister, seven and twelve years older, were sent away to school, and Joan was taught at home by her mother, a graduate from Radcliffe college in Boston.

‘My mother had quite correctly estimated that I would learn a great deal more from her, than by attending the village school, without considering how much this would cut me off from the communal life of the village children.  They used to shout “Gin-ger” after me in the street, and I was scared and shy of them.’

But she had the freedom of the countryside, climbing the slopes of the Downs, and filling her local landscape with imaginary characters from the books she read like Mowgli, or Puck, or the Greek heroes; also discovering the legends and local stories, for instance about ‘The Cuckoo Tree’ – where the cuckoo built its nest, or learning to run past  the ghost of an angry game-keeper who sat on a leaning tree on the deep-banked road that ran past her house…

These were just some of the memories that formed the background to The Armitage Family Stories that she would go on to write throughout her life – stories that re-imagined for example the many elderly widows in the village, whose husbands had died in World War I,  as mysterious ‘Old Fairy Ladies’ to be treated with respect… In her recreation of those early years,  she transformed many of the village customs she remembered into her own myths, creating her own magical village.

‘The best event of the year for me was May Day. This had been revived by the Rector, who was a morris-dance enthusiast, and opened with a grand procession.  First came the young males of the village, prancing, white-trousered, straw hatted, cross gartered, accompanied by bells, fiddle, and accordion, and by the scoffing comments of their relatives lined along the grassy banks of the village street.  Then came the crowning of the May Queen with a wreath of primroses and pink campion, and while she sat enthroned the schoolchildren did elaborate dances with ribbons round the white maypole.’

In her stories, the Armitage children, Mark and Harriet may have regarded some of these customs with scorn, and taken them with a pinch of salt, but for Joan Aiken as a small girl they were an inspiration.  On the left of the photograph above is a figure in a long coat, standing on the bank watching the procession go by. Many years later at a sale of old photographs from the archives of George Garland, the photographer who provided pictures to all the local newspapers from the 1920’s onwards, Joan Aiken came across this picture, and recognised herself as the small red-headed girl watching the parade who so longed to be part of it all.

‘From that age I knew I was going to be a writer. Of course my personal ambition was to be the May Queen myself, but even then I knew this was out of the question. But that hope translated itself to the stories of my imagination. The whole ceremony, the music of the dances, the intricate turnings and spider-web patterns made by the ribbons filled me with supreme ecstasy.’

* * * * * * * * * *

Joan Aiken’s collection of Armitage Family Stories The Serial Garden is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics

And in the USA by Small Beer Press

Home is where the heart is…in your imagination


Joan Aiken’s childhood home

   We have just been saying goodbye to our old family home, which had belonged to my  Grandparents since the 1920’s,  the village house where my mother Joan Aiken spent most of her childhood before she went away to boarding-school at the age of twelve.  During her lifetime she had the good fortune to be able to go back there often and visit her family, as she still lived nearby.  Now, thanks to her writing, as in this piece from 1980 where she describes her happy memories of the house and village,  even though the family are all gone now, and we have had to say goodbye to the house,   I can still go there whenever I wish.

Joan wrote:

“When I was a child, I was lucky enough to live in a very beautiful place in Sussex, England. Our cottage, which was quite small, perched on top of a steep bank behind a gnarled laurel tree, and a quince tree which was covered with pink blossom in spring and quinces in fall. Once a woman came to the front door and wanted to buy the quince tree. Imagine wanting to buy some­body’s quince tree! I wrote a story about her.  Across the nar­row, deep lane was a farm, with an orchard, pigs, cows, poultry, and two huge horses called Prince and Blossom. Our cot­tage was called Farrs, after someone who had lived in it dur­ing its three hundred years. In its big garden were plenty of climb­ing-trees — a willow, a walnut. apple, plum and cherry trees, a tall copper-beech.

The village was very small — only forty houses. I can still remember the names of all the people who lived in them.  There was a shop, a pub, a cobbler, and a black­smith. All around lay green un­spoiled country: fields, woods, brooks, an encircling horseshoe of rolling chalky hills, the South Downs, which I described in my book The Cuckoo Tree.   The Cuckoo Tree was really there, and still is. We could walk for miles in any direction, looking for white violets, butterfly orchids, green-glass snails, blackberries. mushrooms, or wild strawberries. In winter if there was snow we tobogganed down the steep slopes of the Downs. When my elder brother and sister were at home I did these things with them. When they were away at boarding-school and college I missed them terribly, and counted the days till they would be back. That was partly why I took to writing, because I was lonely; until my younger brother grew old enough to be good company  – he was seven years younger.  I made up some of my first stories for him, telling them to him as we came home, limping and thirsty, from some long expedition over the Downs.

Now I am grown up, I am lucky in a different way. Because the cottage where I lived as a child, and the village, and the green country, are still there, almost exactly the same. My younger brother owns the house now, so I can visit it whenever I want to. Another walnut tree has grown where the old one used to be. The quince tree still grows in front and the copper beech at the back. It is now so huge that you can see it from the top of the Downs.

Many people aren’t able to go back to their childhood homes. The world changes so fast now: whole towns grow up like mus­tard, or are knocked down; whole landscapes are changed by bulldozers; wars force people to leave their countries and never return. So I know how lucky — how fantastically lucky —I am. Whenever I want, I can go back and take a look at my child­hood scene, and it is still there, like a tiny precious world inside a glass paperweight. I can go to the top of the stair, where a little bureau stood, which I shared with my sister; where I used to sit on the wooden chest that held the vacuum cleaner, and lick my pencil, and write “Once upon a time …”

And I appreciate this luck. I marvel at it more and more, be­cause now I lead a very movable life, half in England (where I have a house five miles from my brother’s); half in New York where my husband teaches painting. Last week I was in a mossy English lane, looking at icicles hanging from a sand-stone cliff. Now, from where I sit in a room in Manhattan I can see the Empire State Building, all lit up, red and blue. Next week I shall be in Australia, where I have never been. Sometimes all these changes seem too start­ling, too dreamlike. As I fly, faster than sound, from one place to another, the only thing that stays constant is the book I am writing, the place I have in my mind … just now it is an old, old stone city, the city of New Bath, thousands of feet up among a ring of volcanoes somewhere in the Andes, where Queen Guinevere is still waiting, as she has waited since the year 577, for King Arthur to come back …”

The book she was writing was The Stolen Lake, one of The Wolves Chronicles, telling of her heroine Dido Twite’s adventures in a Southern American country which she imagined had long ago been settled by the Romans, and where the ship that should have been bearing Dido and its English naval crew back to Old England has been summoned to find and return a stolen lake – the lake which may contain the sword Excalibur…