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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A Grail quest in Catalonia

Joseph Goering:
The Virgin and the Grail;
Origins of a Legend
Yale University Press 2005

South of the high peaks of the Pyrenees and bounded by Aragon to the west and Andorra to the east lies a corner of Catalonia that offers an unexpected but strangely satisfying explanation for the literary Grail’s medieval antecedents.

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A brief guide to Blastburn

Bramshill House, Hampshire, from an early photograph: how Midnight Court might have looked

I’ve just started my reread of Joan Aiken’s standalone title Midnight is a Place (1974) and thought I’d say a few introductory words about the fictional town of Blastburn which features so strongly in this novel, set as it is in both an alternate history (or uchronia) as well as an alternate world (or paracosm).

By the way, it has nothing to do with the move called Blast Burn in Pokémon, a term which postdates Joan Aiken’s first Wolves story. More likely is that she was inspired by the development of blast furnaces in the early industrial period: for example, ‘hot blast’ was a method for preheating air blown into iron furnaces, a procedure invented and patented by James Beaumont Neilson in Scotland in 1828, four years before the Chronicles actually start.

Though not officially part of the author’s Wolves Chronicles the mention of Blastburn in this novel brings to mind its appearances earlier in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) and later in Is (1992, also published as Is Underground). For the purposes of this and subsequent posts I’m going to assume that they all refer to the same place, and this has implications for Blastburn’s geography and chronology.

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Green flash

Vita Sackville-West:
No Signposts in the Sea
Introduction by Victoria Glendinning 1985
Virago Modern Classics 2002

At the age of fifty Edmund Carr knows he is dying, with just a few months left to him. On impulse he gets what he calls ‘extended leave’ from his job as a leader writer on a broadsheet newspaper and embarks on a round-the-world cruise. He has an ulterior motive, to spend as much of the voyage in the company of an acquaintance, the widow Laura Drysdale, but without letting anyone know of his fatal illness.

All is going well until he succumbs to the dread “green-eyed monster” jealousy in the shape of his perceived rival, Colonel Dalrymple. He finds an outlet for his feelings by confessing all in a journal, noting that writing is

the most egotistic of occupations, and the most gratifying while it lasts.

No Signposts in the Sea is purportedly his journal entries, undated but, we are led to imagine, written some time in the late fifties. What gives added poignancy to this last novel by Vita Sackville-West is that it in many ways parallels the final years of her life spent on cruises with her husband Harold Nicholson: she was to die aged 70 in 1962, the year after this novella was published.

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Midsummer madness: Brexit

Stop Exit Only

I posted this nearly three years ago and apart from Theresa May becoming (and now unbecoming) Prime Minister and foolishly triggering Article 50, aided and abetted by — we now see — a duplicitous Leader of the Opposition, nothing much has changed: Britain is still in a state of omnishambles.

My faith in Parliamentary democracy has been severely dented, and I can’t see that a General Election would solve anything nor that another referendum could be offered since there is no agreed deal to vote for or against.

All I can do is bleat “Revoke, revoke, revoke” in the hopes that somebody sane will listen and make that happen.

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Vaults of heart and brain

Manticore, Edward Topsell (1607)

Robertson Davies: The Manticore (1972)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin 2011 (1983)

To live is to battle with trolls
in the vaults of heart and brain.
To write: that is to sit
in judgement over one’s self.
— Henrik Ibsen, extract from a letter, quoted twice in the novel

David Staunton is a criminal lawyer, trained to operate in logical fashion; in a moment of crisis he acts on impulse to seek help, only to find himself plunged into a world in which he has to access parts of himself, parts where rationality has no part to play.

Among so many other things The Manticore turns out to be an exploration of two different ways of apprehending reality: the Platonic modes of Reasoning and Understanding or, as the protagonist comes to know them, the Jungian concepts of Thinking and Feeling.

This novel follows on immediately where Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business left off, in the aftermath of a magic show in a Toronto theatre. In a drunken outburst from the auditorium David publicly demands to know who killed his father, ‘Boy’ Staunton. The enigmatic answer leads him to an analyst in Switzerland: here he delves into the labyrinths of his mind and the caverns of the Alps; here he observes the Comedy Company of the Psyche and examines the figures in the Cabinet of Archetypes, all in a bid to reach the understanding that has eluded him so far.

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Crossing boundaries

Inverted Commas 11: Genres

There seems to be something about the human race that makes it crave Rules. Or maybe it’s a quirk of the human brain that it gets frightened if it’s allowed too much exercise.

Diana Wynne Jones is talking about Rules. In particular about Rules for Fantasy and what Children should be allowed to read (‘A Talk About Rules’ in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, 2012).

She then comes round to Genre: “Genre has been around as a convenient idea for a long time,” she writes.

I prefer to think of it as a notion mostly developed in the 1920s, whereby publishers and reviewers could point people at the kind of thing each person liked to read. It was a useful system of tagging stuff. They sorted books into Detective, Thriller, Children’s, Ghost, Horror, and so on. And naturally they went on to do the same with the newer things like SF and Fantasy. Everyone in, say, the seventies knew what Genre was.

Unfortunately, as she points out, once writers began believing in Genre it became a Rule. One which stated that each Genre has absolute boundaries which Must Not Be Crossed — or else readers will be confused and won’t read any fiction that crosses those boundaries.

Potentially this could result in “a fair old disaster for all kinds of writing,” she suggests, meaning that “almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s Genre.”

In the years since 1995, when DWJ gave this talk in Boston to the New England Science Fiction Association, readers fortunately are a little less constrained by arbitrary rules on genre, especially as mainstream literature has happily strayed across the boundaries by utilising time travel, or employing magical realism, or introducing elements of horror, thriller or whatever into their narratives.

But there are still diehard conservative fans who take a rigid approach to what is Right and Proper in whatever Genre they are currently world authorities on. You come across these angry voices in social media, or when they’re writing opinion columns for literary supplements.

Surely, she argues, the reader should take each story on its own merits, not on whether it fits a template, or slots into a pigeonhole, or suits a straitjacket. Shouldn’t we see the story first and not the label?

And what you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action, and bizarre adventures. And the frame that holds this mess is a story […] The story is the important thing.

It’s like that argument about different races, when in fact, biologically speaking, there is only one race — the human race.

Individuals are hybrids, each with their own story to tell; and, just as humans all have their own unique genetic code, the stories we tell don’t have to confirm to one genre let alone be clones of one another.

Delayed gratification

Eva Ibbotson:
The Secret of Platform 13
Macmillan Children’s Books 2009 (1994)

A quest to find a missing prince. A portal that opens for a few days every nine years. A rescue mission by a hand-picked team. Obstacles to be overcome — or else disaster follows. Eva Ibbotson writes a witty narrative that combines a comedy of errors with incipient tragedy, likeable protagonists with a dastardly antagonist, familiar landmarks with an insular fairyland straight out of legend.

Forget cranky critics who archly suggest J K Rowling ripped off ideas from this fantasy for her Boy Who Lived series: bar an access to a magical world via a platform on Kings Cross Station in London — Platform 13 as opposed to Nine & Three Quarters — and a boy rudely separated from his parents (and forced to sleep in a cupboard) there is little else that they share … apart from the usual staples of witches and wizards, fantastic beasts and non-magic users.

The secret of platform 13, revealed in the first few pages, is that there is a kind of wormhole to the Island in the disused Gents toilet on Platform 13, access to which is available only during a narrow window of opportunity. Inhabitants from both worlds can use this ‘gump’ but actually very few non-magical people are aware of it. When the baby prince’s nostalgic nurses make a return visit to London they’re devastated when their charge is kidnapped whilst they’re buying fish and chips, and the Island’s Royal Family have to wait another nine years before an attempt can be made to rescue him.

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Distressed damsels

Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

Rosemary Craddock: Avalon Castle
Robert Hale 2015

1867. It’s almost halfway through Victoria’s reign, the American Civil War has not long finished and nouveau-riche industrialists are creating castellated Gothic residences to suggest spurious ancient heritages. From Cyfarthfa Castle (1840) in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales to King Arthur’s Castle Hotel (1899, now the Camelot Castle Hotel) near Tintagel, Cornwall these bastardised edifices stand as monuments to limited imaginations and dubious tastes.

Avalon Castle in Worcestershire is just such an edifice in this mystery romance laced with murder and intrigue by Staffordshire author Rosemary Craddock. Along with family secrets, suspicious deaths, concealed rooms and hidden drawers we have faint Arthurian echoes: damsels in distress and a lady in the lake, for example.

As suits this genre there are also stereotypes out of the pages of Jane Austen, the Brontës and Georgette Heyer, even fairytales such as ‘Bluebeard’, rubbing shoulders with railways, the telegraph and the arms industry.

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