‘Indeed, a most remarkable tale,’ the Marquess said silkily. ‘So, on the very night that you were to perform my errand, you will have me believe that by some bizarre coincidence, the curator’s grandson had already made off with the object?’
‘That’s about it, gaffer. Beats cockfighting, dunnit, how these things comes about? The young kinchin had left a note for his granfer, scribed very neat: “Dear Granda, sorry to prig your property but I’m off.” And that’s the probal truth, your worship … Prigged the brandore, he had, before ever we got there.’
‘By gar, that’s so,’ agreed Bilk. ‘Stole a march, he did, the miching young co. I’ll lay the miserable sand-blind little foister is halfway to London by now.’
‘Sand-blind?’ the Marquess said sharply. ‘You have met this boy then? You know what he looks like?’
There came a suppressed grunt from Bilk; it sounded as if his partner had kicked him.
‘Why yes, your worship, we seen him in Pennygaff while we was a-waiting for your worship to come along and tip us the office,’ Prigman’s voice said.
‘And his name is Owen Hughes?’
Indeed it is and Owen’s flight to find the treasured harp’s real owner is the fabulously fruitily written, death-defying story, The Whispering Mountain, published in 1968 and now reissued in the A Puffin Book series.
In the notes at the back of this new edition we’re told this is a prequel to the Wolves sequence of a dozen novels set during a period of history that never happened, but might have done. It’s the 1830s: but with a different king, different national enemies, a time in which England and France are connected by an underwater tunnel which permits the movement of the fierce wolves of the best-known title, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but who aren’t, perhaps, quite as sinister as the governess Miss Slighcarp.
The Wolves sequence was, unbelievably, just one highlight in Joan Aiken’s long and distinguished career. Her Arabel and Mortimer stories were written for the TV series Jackanory and then published as popular volumes, which are still in print. Her collaborations with Jan Pienkowski, such as A Necklace of Raindrops, delighted readers and must have been favourite projects to work on because towards the end, Joan wrote stories to accompany his starkly beautiful illustrations, instead of the other way around. There was a chilling selection of supernatural stories published at regular intervals with titles such as A Goose on Your Grave and A Touch of Chill.
Born in Rye, Sussex, in 1924, Joan came from a family of writers – her father and sister wrote but perhaps her greatest influence was her stepfather, Martin Armstrong, who made a writing career seem like an obvious occupation.
Early success came for Joan, with a story accepted for the BBC’s children’s hour, as a teenager. But she faced dark times, too, when she was widowed young and had to bring up her two children herself. It was then her writing gifts were unleashed with stories for adults and children pouring forth from her typewriter.
This phenomenal productivity continued unabating until Joan’s death in 2004. But stories appeared posthumously, including the final Wolves book – a short novel, because Joan, always economical, sensed she hadn’t time to tie up all the loose ends of a long one.
Since then, there have been glorious reissues not only from Puffin – Virago have released several story collections, including The Kingdom and the Cave, and The Monkey’s Wedding, a stirring and elegant collection of adult stories, some unpublished, appeared from an American press a few years ago.
I was fortunate enough to correspond with Joan in the 80s, when she led a hectic life of writing on both sides of the Atlantic, because she and her second husband spent half the year in New York, and half in England, in the village of Petworth, where I visited her once. Joan was a marvellous correspondent and supporter. Valerie Grove writes of Joan’s support and friendship of Kaye Webb, who was Mrs Puffin Books for 30 years, when Kaye was facing an uncertain retirement.
Joan would have been 92 today so it’s a good chance to remember her work, and even better, to read it. I’m going back to The Shadow Guests, a rare contemporary novel for young teens that appeared in 1983. But let’s leave the last word to Joan, writing in The Whispering Mountain. She worked so hard, so fast, on so many books, with different deadlines and schedules, that I imagine she wrote long into the night. Perhaps it was a little like this …
‘All through the hours of dark he continued to write as if somebody were shouting the words into his ears and he only just able to get them down in time; at last, just as the first green sprouts of dawn began to uncurl in the eastern sky, he drew a line at the foot of the final page and wrote Finis under it.’
To explore the world of Joan Aiken, visit the official website here.
For the full range of classic reissues in A Puffin Book, look here.
Here’s a wonderful piece by Joan’s daughter, Lizza Aiken, on the Virago reissues.