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

 

 

A Joan Aiken Weather forecast…

Winterthing

What if Winter came and never ended? We now know our world and our climate are changing, and the outcome may be already beyond our control.  Joan Aiken imagined a time where our actions, as in the old stories before science gave us the alarming facts, would bring the wrath of  the Gods or Nature down upon us; now the reality of our future  is not so different.

One poetic but salutary summing up of the possibilities of increasingly wild weather conditions was given in the Beaufort Scale, a weather system devised by a Royal Navy officer, later Admiral, Sir Francis Beaufort, which shows by detailed observation increasingly worsening conditions at sea, and on land. Joan Aiken was very taken by its descriptive language and desperate message of foreboding and adapted it into a song for her play about a family trapped on a tiny Winter-fast island about to disappear into the  snow and the Northern Lights…

Beaufort SongBeaufort Verses

Joan Aiken allows a bit of fun with the earlier verses and rhymes, suggesting a moderately accepting frame of mind, an observer who notes the changing conditions and takes precautions, ‘canoes return to port as…’ but Beaufort’s description for Force Twelve is simply one word – Devastation – and here we understand that everything is finally out of our hands – we may as well try and count the flakes of snow.

Kaye Webb the inspired and inspiring Editor of Puffin Books commissioned Joan Aiken to write this play in the 1970’s, and it was produced at the Young Vic Theatre. She wrote in the introduction to the Puffin edition:

“Joan Aiken’s stories are all touched with magic…so it is not surprising that she has written plays about mysterious, lonely places… and here a group of children come to the island named after the deadly ‘Winterthing’, the time when the island is so swallowed up in winter that it disappears from mortal sight.”

And of course this is not just a story, we do need to pay attention to the changes going on around us, for as Joan Aiken also wrote :

Purpose of stories

…and maybe take action before it is too late?

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More about Joan Aiken Plays can be found here

Illustration by Arvis Stewart from the Holt Rinehart Winston edition

Music by Joan’s son John Sebastian Brown