Joan Aiken Mortimer’s Tie
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
BBC Publications 1976
The fourth of Joan Aiken’s Arabel and Mortimer books, Mortimer’s Tie is also the first I’ve ever read, but not being acquainted with what preceded the events here was, I felt, no barrier to following what was happening. And what a lot happens! You don’t need to know quite how Arabel (who is “still too young for school”) acquires her pet raven Mortimer, you just need to know what results when the corvid is introduced into a human environment. One word: chaos.
The plot involves Mr Jones’ taxi being cleaned out, what Lady Dunnage lost in it, a cruise ship with a full compliment of crew and passengers, and an unfortunate episode with a grand piano. Oh, and the green tie that Mortimer has as his snuggy or comfort blanket. Going from Number Six, Rainwater Crescent, Rumbury Town to somewhere off the coast of Spain and back is the arc of the story, a sequence of related events that is rarely aided but always abetted — usually for the worse — by Mortimer. Only Arabel has some control over him, but sadly that’s not always enough. (But if she did there would be no story!)
The heart of this story is not the mayhem but the characters. Mortimer is a most disarming individual, totally self-centred as wild creatures tend to be but with an innocence that displays none of the more devious aspects of the Trickster Raven in the mythology of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. If, as the author suggested, Mortimer is the Ego that many young readers could easily identify with then Arabel is the complimentary Id trying her darnedest to ameliorate the situation or mitigate the excesses of Mortimer’s actions. Arabel’s mother, meanwhile, is an anxious latter-day Mrs Malaprop — she believes at one point that Mortimer has been “magnetised by one of those hypopotanists” and that the cabaret singer Miss Brandy Brown is “a very silly historical girl to fly off the handle” with her claim to have “an algebra about birds, or an agony”. And we mustn’t forget the good guys such as Mike the friendly steward, or Mr Fairburn the chief engineer with his idiosyncratic Scottish turn of phrase, or Henry Mainbrace the captain’s son …
Joan Aiken of course plays on the folkloric characteristics of many of the crow family — Mortimer has the corvid ability to mimic (“Nevermore!” is his chief and only phrase) and the tendency to thieve anything that catches his fancy, from a diamond ring to potato crisps — but her intended audience may often be unaware of this reputation; in fact the raven’s association with doom, gloom and death is not even hinted at. To me the type that Mortimer most resembles is a Zanni (“zany”) character in the Italian commedia dell’arte who usually — and maybe not coincidentally — wears a dark or black mask with a beaky nose, and whose role in to create chaos in a household.
Finally, the cruise ship itself is the perfect theatre for Mortimer’s strain of havoc: The Queen of Bethnal Green becomes a closed system where the bird can unwittingly create a train of disorder and confusion. Like a talented composer of miniatures Aiken skillfully reintroduces thematic material throughout the seventy-odd pages, even adding a pastiche popular song or two, all to the accompaniment of a doomed grand piano. Created for the popular children’s TV series Jackanory in the seventies, the Arabel and Mortimer stories were programmes that I somehow missed even though the first of our children was growing up at the time. Thank goodness then that there are another dozen stories still available for me to explore.