Joan Aiken’s Blastburn

Kingston Upon Hull as Blastburn, in Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (credit here)

Another post in my series exploring the ins and outs of Joan Aiken’s paracosm Midnight is a Place (1974) set in an alternate Britain she calls Albion.

This time I’m taking a closer look at the fictional industrial town of Blastburn, making an assumption that it’s in the region of Kingston upon Hull in East Yorkshire, maybe even contiguous if not actually occupying the same equivalent space.

In fact, I’m going further by basing Blastburn on Hull’s Old Town, the core of the medieval settlement bounded by the river Hull to the east and the Humber estuary to the south.

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Voyage upriver

The ‘Roi des Belges’, the Belgian riverboat Joseph Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889

‘BB’ (D J Watkins-Pitchford):
The Little Grey Men
Oxford University Press 2012 (1942)

“This is a story about the last gnomes in Britain,” begins the author’s introduction to this story, winner of the Carnegie Medal in the dark days of the second world war. The author, long the art master at Rugby School in Warwickshire, clearly based his tale on a countryside he knew well for not only is this an affectionate piece of nature writing set on and around a brook, ‘BB’ himself illustrated the text, and included a handful of songs with piano accompaniment credited to, perhaps, his father.

Two gnomes, Baldmoney and Sneezewort, set off one spring morning up the Folly Brook in search of the long-lost Cloudberry who, a year before, had himself gone in quest of the stream’s source. They leave behind the older, rather grumpy, Dodder who’d lost a leg to a fox many years ago; thus begins a voyage upriver, full of delights but also fraught with danger and mortal perils.

The Little Grey Men is charming and old-fashioned (with all that implies), a mini-adventure for us but a hardy expedition for the gnomes that undertake the journey. Will they achieve their goal or will it all end in disaster, not least from the prying eyes of Giants?

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Courting danger

Brontë birthplace, Market Street, Thornton

In this post, one of a series about Joan Aiken’s uchronia Midnight is a Place, we shall be meeting the people associated with Midnight Court, the mansion just outside Blastburn, an industrial town in the northeast of Albion.

In this mini-prosopography there will be the inevitable *spoilers* but also much revelatory biographical and other material, for those who are fans of the author and her Wolves Chronicles.

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No Snow White

Front cover art by Walter Simonson

Archie Goodwin (writer) & Walter Simonson (artist)
Alien: the Illustrated Story
Titan Books 2012 (1979)

Originally issued forty years ago and timed for the release of the film, Alien: the Illustrated Story has a different narrative vibe from the movie while essentially giving us the same tale. Where the screen version used muted colours and shadows and built up the tension with long stretches of inaction and a strong sense of claustrophobia — as I remember it: in fact it’s been decades since I saw it — this graphic novel instead gives us bilious hues in which flashes of yellow (for lights), blues (for Ripley’s overalls) and especially red (for the inevitable blood) punctuate the action. Unlike the celluloid alien, which we only caught intermittent glimpses of, in these pages our eyes can linger on the dread details of Giger’s design for the malevolent predator in its disturbing exoskeleton.

Do I need to spell out the plot in detail? The original authors, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, were influenced by the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None in depicting a group of individuals who are bumped off one by one. In Alien the crew of the space transporter Nostromo are diverted from their homebound journey to investigate a CETI-like signal from a planetoid body. Inadvertently one member gets infected by an alien life form, which quickly matures and then proceeds to prey on the crew in the close confines of the spacecraft.

The stuff of nightmares, you can imagine why this story was initially — and so aptly — pitched as “Jaws in space”.

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Tipping point

The day after midsummer’s day
Every day seems to bring new evidence of the parlous state that we and the planet are in. Microplastics in the food we eat, in the air we breathe. The sudden death of coral reefs. Glaciers melting. Species extinctions. Climate extremes. Sabre-rattling by malevolent despots. Politicians proving to be the new Neros fiddling even as Rome burns, while mobs are bribed by bread and circuses.

As the hours of daylight start to shorten (for northerners at least) have we passed the tipping point in more ways than one?

My reading this year has, in some ways, paralleled these doomsday scenarios …

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Blastburn themes

Norton Conyers Hall, 1899 © North Yorkshire Country Record Office

Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) is a curious uchronia or alternate history: though not officially part of the sequence that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase it shares many of the features that distinguish the Wolves Chronicles, including themes, period and places.

In 1971 Joan published The Cuckoo Tree which seemed to end a run of novels that had characters in common, namely Simon, Dido Twite and Owen Hughes. In 1974 Midnight went back to Blastburn, where ten chronicle years before (in 1832) Bonnie and Sylvia had been treated so badly at a charity school; fans of Charlotte Brontë will have recognised that the Brisket school will have shared qualities with Lowood School in Jane Eyre.

In this post I want to identify the themes that it shares with other chronicles in the sequence, plus a couple of other features that I feel merit attention. As always with these discussions there will a high risk of spoilers so do read the novel first or skip this post if that troubles you.

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Grim up north

19th-century Grimsby (image credit: Grimsby Telegraph)

Joan Aiken: Midnight is a Place
Hodder Children’s Books 2014 (1974)

‘Nowt said breaks no head.’ — Davey Scatcherd

A dark tale of unspoken secrets and kind words, sharp practices and generosity, bravery and steadfastness, all set in a grim manufacturing town may not sound ideal fare for young readers, and yet Joan Aiken to my mind has carried it off. While there is no “Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills” there is hope and optimism amongst the tragedy and a determination that creativity can counteract the bleaker side of human contradictions.

Orphan Lucas Bell is under the guardianship of Sir Randolph Grimsby, privately educated by a a taciturn tutor at the forbidding Midnight Court, hard by the town of Blastburn. As Lucas turns thirteen he is joined by another orphan, Anna-Marie Murgatroyd who, lately come from Calais, speaks only French.

But relationships between these four individuals is somewhat strained as suspicions sour the atmosphere, already fouled by the smoke and grime from nearby Blastburn. Something has to give and for Lucas and others they find it is a case of out of the frying pan, only to find themselves, almost literally, in the fire.

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