A flock of twites

Photo © C A Lovegrove

As is my practice after reviewing one of the instalments in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles I explore four main areas: people, places, timelines and themes. Within these four categories answers are sought for the classic six questions — who? what? when? where? why? and how? — and applied to Cold Shoulder Road, one of the penultimate episodes in this alternative history saga set in the first half of the 19th century.

* Spoiler Alert *

Following posts on chronology, topography and themes, this post now begins exploring the personages in Cold Shoulder Road, many of whom (as the title suggests) aren’t particularly friendly to our principal protagonists, Is and Arun Twite. Unlike many previous instalments this novel includes fewer peculiar or even humorous names than before, but many nevertheless have likely or possible significances. And we get to discover yet more Twites, members perhaps of the extended family with a name recalling a rather undistinguished-looking finch.

As the blurb of the Red Fox edition has it, young Arun Twite

returns to his mother’s house on Cold Shoulder Road, only to find it deserted and flood-ravaged. […] With the help of his indomitable cousin, Is Twite, Arun sets off in search of Admiral Fishskin — their only key to discovering the real truth, whatever it may be.

Fellow author Nina Bawden wrote that Joan Aiken is such a spellbinder, and she wasn’t far wrong.

Kent, from a 1936 school atlas, where most of the action takes place, with a short episode near Calais

The Dark Diamond
Schooner which has sailed south from northeast England down to the Kent coast in late spring 1843. It had escaped the tidal wave in January while at anchor in Poole harbour.

Captain Isiah Podmore. Skipper of the Dark Diamond (who appeared in Is Underground) and partial to seamen’s slang (such as ‘toploftical’ for hoity-toity) and slang (‘strum’ is a periwig). Sam is the steersman on the schooner.
Possibly the name is inspired by Frank Podmore (d 1910), a member of the Fabian Society and associate of Edith Nesbit (the latter one of Aiken’s favourite children’s authors); he was a member of the Society for Psychical Research and believed telepathy was a possibility — and ‘thought messages’ are conveyed between Is, Arun and a few other characters in this novel.

Is Twite. Lived in a converted wooden barn in Blackheath Wood, where she’d been staying with her older sister Penny since the end of the events in Dido and Pa. Now maybe in her early or mid teens, Is had helped save some of the inhabitants of the northeastern town of Blastburn from a tidal wave caused by the Icelandic volcano Hekla in January 1843, and has now sailed down to Kent to help her cousin Arun find his mother.
Named Isabett after a great aunt and a Breton great grandmother, the devastated town of Blastburn was renamed Is in her honour (whilst also commemorating the drowned city of Ys in Breton legend).

Arun Twite. Is’s 14- or 16-year-old cousin from Folkestone who had gone to Blastburn on the Playland express to escape the dour Silent Sect, only to find the reality of Playland was working down a coal mine. He occasionally reverts to cat-like behaviour adopted after escaping from the mine; like his cousin he is able to communicate by a form of telepathy. He’s accompanied by his cousin on his return to Folkestone.
Arun takes his name (with its variant spelling of Aaron) from the River Arun in West Sussex.


Frog-Hole Lane, East Folkestone, Kent
Also known as Cold Shoulder Road (presumably from the unfriendliness of the sect of Silent Folk who once lived there), flood-damaged Frog-Hole Lane is largely abandoned. No such street exists in our Folkestone, however.

Amos Furze. Wigmaker and former leader of the Silent Folk in Kent, now in Connecticut, New England. Arun was to be apprenticed to Amos to learn wigmaking — before he ran away.
Furze means gorse, a spiny shrub, and the name may imply that Amos was prickly as well as being a producer of itchy wigs.

Matthew Penge, weaver, now deceased due to ‘lung-rot’, possibly byssinosis (though this is associated with cotton, flax and hemp rather than wool) or an inflammatory infection cause by bacterial endotoxins.

Mrs Winnie Boles. Weasel-looking widow of lamplighter Ern Boles (who was abducted bu smugglers and fated to be eaten by wolves in Shadoxhurst Forest near Ashford). Mother to Meena (married to Horatio Fishskin) and grandmother to their daughter Abandella (known as Pye). Said to suffer from the affliction called gordelpus (“gawd-‘elp-us”), which partly helps explain her irritating manner to Arun and Is. She is also anxious about the whereabouts of Abandella, whom she at first claims is a Twite. Now lives with sister in Eccleston Road, Folkestone.
Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) has a joke about a future scientific religion from China with, as its central tenet, “the awful mystery of Gordelpus, by means of which it should be possible to utilize the energy locked up in the opposition of proton and electron.”

Josiah and Ruth Twite. Arun’s parents, members of the Silent Folk, used to live here. Josiah, despite rescue from wolves by Is Twite and her sister Penny, died in Blackheath from his wounds, as related in Is Underground. And now his wife has disappeared, supposedly with the so-called ‘Handsel Child’. Ruth it turns out is a talented artist, painting expressionist canvases as well as figurative studies.
In common with most of the Silent Folk, Josiah and Ruth have names derived from the Old Testament.

Dominic de la Twite. Possibly another of Is and Arun’s cousins (many times removed), though the French de la appears to be an affectation even if he’s said to be from the Low Countries. He has become the leader of the Silent Folk despite not needing to observe the vow of silence kept by the rest of the sect. Like Is and Arun he has a facility for telepathy, which he uses to dominate Arun in particular. Before he moved from Frog-Hole Lane with his sister Merlwyn Twite the pair treated the Handsel Child called Pye appallingly, but with the remainder of the Silent Sect they’ve moved 15 miles from Folkestone, to Seagate further north and east along the Kentish coast. His cupidity results in a particularly gruesome death.
Dominic is one of the two principal villains of the piece and co-leader of a group of smugglers called the Merry Gentry which use the train tunnel from Folkestone to Calais to transport mammoth ivory from Russia and other goods which normally attract duty. His name is ultimately derived from the Latin word ‘Dominus’ meaning a lord, from which we get the verb ‘to dominate’.

Joan Aiken may have been partly inspired by the smugglers in the Doctor Syn novels of Russell Thorndyke, the first of which, called Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, was published in 1915, and the last in 1944. Doctor Syn, in the guise of The Scarecrow, became the leader of the Night Riders or Devil Riders on the southeast coast of Kent.

Unlike Doctor Syn’s scarecrow disguise, de la Twite wears a black hood with eye-slits like the rest of the Gentry but also a white hat on top of that. There may be a connection with the domino, the hood worn by cathedral canons, also applied to the female mourning-veil, half-masks worn by women when travelling or at a masquerade such as the Venetian carnival, when it was even a masquerade-dress worn by both genders as a disguise. Some game sets have domino pieces which are black with white pips, recalling the smugglers’ disguise; like the tiles, often for fun set out vertically in a row, once one is tipped all the smugglers meet their downfall.


Folkestone, from the Ordnance Survey First series 1816

High Street, Folkstone
Probably what’s now known as The Old High Street, part of Folkestone’s Creative Quarter with pedestrianisation and independent shops on the “steep and narrow” thoroughfare through which Is climbs to get news of Arun’s mother Ruth.

Mrs Barefoot lives here. Also, the widow Mrs Lillywhite, who lives above the paint shop from where Ruth Twite purchased her painting materials and from whom Is gets information concerning Ruth. Elsewhere in the town live old Mr Crockenden and deaf Miss Tinpenny, according to Mrs Boles.


East Hill House, East Cliff, Folkestone
The redbrick House may have been partly inspired by one of three 19th-century Martello Towers (possibly No 3 constructed in 1806 on the cliff edge above Copt Point) in the East Cliff area of Folkestone, overlooking the Channel. Half the garden extended out on a platform supported by girders.

Admiral Percival Fishskin. Retired naval officer and widower: Maria his wife was nursed by Ruth Twite in her final days; their son Horatio married Meena, the daughter of Ern and Winnie Boles, and they had a granddaughter called Abandella. The Admiral’s transport is his own invention, a dupli-gyro. a kind of boneshaker or bi-cycle, assisted by a kite when the wind is right. In public he and Dominic de la Twite express disinterest in each other, but not so in private. An attempted escape will result in his literal downfall, along with Dominic’s sister Merlwyn.
The admiral is of Welsh origin, his surname perhaps analogous with Welsh Border names like Watkin and Jenkin, and his forename from the questing knight in Arthurian legend. The combination of Percival and Fishskin puts me in mind of Sir Perceval’s relative in the Grail stories, the Fisher King. Like the Fisher King Admiral Fishskin is associated with boats, but that’s as far as the analogy seems to go.

In the form “Fishkin” is a Yiddish or Ashkenazi surname, originating from Eastern Europe and suggesting descent from a fishing community. We may rightly infer that there is something ‘fishy’ or dodgy about him.

Rosamund. Admiral Fishskin’s enormous pet spider, who with her family menaces Is.
• The name is chosen deliberately: in 12th-century England Rosamund was Henry II’s mistress, and she was supposedly kept hidden in a labyrinth at Woodstock near Oxford. Visually the plan of many mazes or labyrinths resembled spider’s webs; in addition, under the Admiral’s house outside Folkestone his cellars lead off into a maze of tunnels, one of which conceals treasure and, beyond that, a view onto the channel tunnel where some of the smuggling takes place. The cellars of Fishskin’s house are inspired by the dene-holes of southeastern England, shafts leading to cavities for extracting chalk mostly dug from the 18th century onwards; one such, Moseling’s Hole at Alkham near Mount Ararat Farm, is six miles north of Folkstone. The Admiral declares that dene-holes were made “by prehistoric folk some time between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. That is to say, many thousand years ago.”

Alf. The Admiral’s gardener, he is also Winnie Boles’ cousin’s boy.
In view of the tunnels under East Hill House, I wonder if Alf’s name was suggested by Coleridge’s line about Xanadu “where Alph, the sacred river, ran | Through caverns measureless to man | Down to a sunless sea.”

Folkestone Hundred in 1797, when turnpike roads began operating

In the second and final part of this Who’s Who we’ll be introduced to the inhabitants of Dover, Seagate, Womenswold, Blackheath and Calais.

2 thoughts on “A flock of twites

  1. I have an Aiken snippet for you in return for all this glory! I think the de la in DominicTwite’s name is a tongue in cheek family allusion:

    The Delanos were early American settlers whose family name was passed down over the years, also to my mother and to myself (and the American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.) The first of these was called Philippe de Lannoye, a Walloon from Belgium, or its near neighbour, French speaking Flanders. These people were originally a Celtic tribe who travelled through Gallia, some say originally from Transylvania, and were so called, according to a joke by sixteenth century philosopher Jean Bodin, because of their perpetually enquiring of themselves – or residents of whichever country they were currently traversing – “Ou- allons nous?” (“Where are we going?”) and so they came to be nicknamed the W’allons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you know, I always wondered about the Delano name but somehow didn’t make the de la Twite connection! I do like that touch, also the Où allons-nous joke, which made me smile. Poor Walloons, always the butt of French jibes.

      Of course all these names –Wallonia, Gallia, Galicia, Galatia, Pays de Galles and Wales, not forgetting names like the Polish Wałęsa (meaning wanderer) — all point to that modern sense of outsider or stranger which the English term ‘Welsh” originally indicated.

      Liked by 1 person

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