Right at the beginning of my first job as an English teacher, in South London in 1983, I was shown where the Department book cupboard was and told to have a rummage. This was cutting edge preparation back in the Eighties, when it was assumed that new teachers might have some ideas of their own about what to teach and how to teach it. I can still remember using that oh so familiar standard issue ILEA master key to gain entrance to this Aladdin’s cave of treasures. A gloomy, cavernous store hung with the smell of dust, chalk and cleaning fluids, it revealed its secrets fitfully as the neon strip light coughed into life, taking several pings before flooding the area with dazzling white light.
I shut the door behind me. In the glare, the rows and piles of books covered all four walls and most of the floor. Later in my career, a tidy, catalogued book cupboard was the holy grail of organisation. How did you ensure that teachers booked out the particular set they had taken and even more, signed it back in when they had finished with it? Back then, however, organisational solutions were the furthest thing from my mind, as I was simply dazzled by the cornucopia of books. I spent the first ten minutes greedily picking up copies of old familiar editions of books that I had read at school, and flicking through them fondly until my eye was caught by the next treasure.
Some of the sets of books were ragged and incomplete, with torn and graffitied covers and had clearly fallen out of favour as class readers. These piles were in far corners of the cupboard or behind other, newer boxfuls of the latest acquisitions, usually New Windmills, with glossy hard backs that creaked as they were opened for the first time.
One of these older texts that lurked, ignored in the corners, was Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken. There were hundreds of them. Clearly, at some point in history they had been the subject of a scheme of work, but had fallen out of favour, presumably when the Departmental Aiken fan had moved on to higher things. I picked one up idly, noting only that it was quite a slim volume with an old-fashioned kind of cover and similarly strange Ardizzone-type illustrations. I assumed, purely on the back of that first glance, that it was a sort of cockney working class Children of One End Street type of social realism novel, and put it back to look at something more interesting. (Why the cover illustration of people in historical costume clambering into a hot air balloon didn’t prod me into a different conclusion I don’t know. The brain truly is a complex organ.) I got no further with it than that, and Black Hearts in Battersea, along with many of the other superannuated titles, were all divided up into book boxes to encourage independent reading in form time and at the beginning of English lessons. And in the hurly-burly of a beginning teacher’s life (we’ve been through several different acronyms and titles: NQT, ECT etc. In the eighties we were Probationers) I was so overwhelmed by the demands and excitements of my new job that, with a head that felt like it was boiling by the end of each teaching day, I forgot all about this strange little book.
I came across The Wolves of Willoughby Chase a few years later and did not make the connection between the two books at first. This time the title and the cover were completely enticing. Escaping from wolves in a snowy landscape has a deep, basic appeal. Whether that goes back to fairy tales read in Primary school, or whether it’s just reflective of an ancient survival instinct I don’t know, but Joan Aiken had brilliantly mined an old trope of fear and survival in the natural world, where a group of children rely on each other to narrowly escape a grisly end before falling relieved and exhausted into the warmth, comfort and security of the house. As the door closes on the darkness and the blizzard, and our protagonists are safe in front of a log fire with something to eat and drink, we, the reader, can breathe out, take stock and ready ourselves for the next fearful episode.
I read it, partly professionally, partly through an enduring love for children’s fiction. I was entranced by this strange, slightly off kilter, alternative history of England. The “alternative history” label seems inadequate to fully convey the inventiveness and imagination of this perfectly realised version of a different England. Once the established facts of history are dispensed with, the reader can settle back and luxuriate in a world that is familiar but one where anything could plausibly happen. This is at once unsettling and exhilarating and liberates Aiken from the constraints of the conventional, and allows her to give full rein to her instincts for baroque characters and plotting.
At this stage, I was treating the book as a standalone, having no idea of the existence of a linked series. I don’t know whether Aiken conceived the book as part of a series from the beginning or whether she was enticed down that road by the success of this first instalment. They were more innocent days back then. If she had pitched the idea these days, agents and publishers would be demanding a series with an overarching, faux antiquarian title, with one calculating eye on Netflix and the film rights.Which ever way it happened, the results were magnificent. Each volume adds to the sense of a complete world and adds depth to characters and relationships that would have been impossible in Aiken’s characteristically slim volumes on their own. (Each novel is about 200 pages long, give or take).
As a standalone, the book worked superbly well anyway and became an overnight classic. The snowy scenes, the threat of the wolves, the appealing child protagonists, and evil relations tapped into a rich tradition that linked Fairy Tales in general, The Snow Queen, The Wind in the Willows, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was delicious.
But there I left it, filed amongst my growing list of special Key Stage 3 books. That sentence should give the game away. It was at a time in my life when I was preoccupied with my career as an English teacher. Moving on, adding more – that was the name of the game back then. Until the next instalment of what will be a familiar journey to many people reading this blog – we had our first child and that, as they say, changed everything.
There is an old saying that having a child is like a hand grenade in a marriage. I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly a hand grenade in a life. The following few years were a blur of sleeplessness, wonder and frustration in equal measures. Reading anything beyond the football pages of the paper was an impossible dream. Books were a distant memory, part of an ancient way of life, long vanished, until the point at which my daughter was old enough to read. Suddenly, a way back in to reading for pleasure emerged from the mist. One of the books she read while at Primary school was, of course, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and it was a pleasure to read it aloud to her at bedtime. The film also came in to play, buying some precious free time as she lost herself in the screen for an hour or so. The film, released in 1989, was just about good enough, even though it changed the ending of the novel completely. The Director, Stuart Orme, was wise enough, however, not to mess with the key ingredients: snow, forest, wolves, and feisty, independent children.
This revisiting of the book also alerted me to some of the subtleties and layers of Aiken’s work. This was compounded when my daughter and I tackled another Aiken a couple of years later – “Midwinter Nightingale”. As I read the opening chapter, it transformed my understanding of the earlier book. I was clear that the characters and setting of the first had been worked on and developed over many years giving a depth and a richness unusual in fiction. Familiar names appeared. The setting was powerfully evocative. There is a strangeness and a power that seeps from the pages. It’s hallmark is subtlety – a faint aroma of possibilities not a punch-in-the-face pungency. Details emerged that cemented old connections and suggested new ones. And this book was written in 2004 – over forty years after The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
Finally aware of the books as a linked series, I went back to Black Hearts in Battersea, first glimpsed many years earlier. How wrong my initial judgement was! What had I missed, all those years ago? And what other gems have remained hidden because of erroneous assumptions made on the back of the title, or cover design, or blurb? But life’s too short to worry about what might have been. Better to celebrate the serendipity of a reading journey, with all of its false starts, cul de sacs, and strange byways. Now, I am left with the mouth-watering prospect of having a trail of other Aiken books to read. (Night Birds in Nantucket has just been ticked off). And even better, those first few seeds of magic sewn by The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, have taken root and blossomed in my own writing. My first novel for children, “The Watcher and The Friend”, owes a great debt to Joan Aiken’s imagination. More on that in my next blog.
Have a look at “The Watcher and The Friend” and see if you can spot the connections with “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase”. You can read the first few chapters by clicking the link below, or, even better, buy a copy from the second link.