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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Willoughby reads

Willoughby Chase, by Pat Marriott, as it appears only in the American first edition https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/willoughby-chase-chosen-as-a-creepy-house-for-this-years-summer-reading-challenge/

A brief notice for all fans of Joan Aiken and the Wolves Chronicles: a number of enthusiasts will be doing a group read of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sometime in August, and tweeting about it using the hashtag #WilloughbyReads.

The read is hosted by Benjamin Harris (@one_to_read), the tag originates with Ed Finch (@MrEFinch) and other signed-up members include Lizza Aiken (@LizzaAiken) and of course myself (@calmgrove). Do join in if you’ve a mind to and are on Twitter.

I meanwhile will be ploughing through the remainder of the Chronicles, taking a slight excursion next with Midnight is a Place (in the same world but not directly linked) before rejoining the saga proper.

All through May I shall be reading fantasy of various stripes and shades, courtesy of Wyrd & Wonder (#wyrdandwonder), and even if you’re not a fan of the genre I hope you’ll find something of interest in my several ramblings.

Finally, here’s the official reminder of my seventh year anniversary with WordPress, received today!

Seven Year Hitch

Middle Earth and Mid Wales

Detail of Pigot & Co.’s New Map of England & Wales […] &c.: Wales in 1830


As part of my anticipation of March’s Wales Readathon (or Dewithon) this post revisits and expands a little on an idea I first posited in the post Parallel lines — the possible connections between Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the alternate Wales of Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Whispering Mountain was first published in 1968, based on research she’d conducted in Brecon public library, undertaken (I’m assuming) the year before. Coincidentally 1968 was also the year that the authorised one-volume UK edition of The Lord of the Rings was issued, which I personally remember purchasing that autumn as a student (and avidly reading when I should have been studying).

LOTR of course was originally published between 1954 and 1955, and I fancy that Joan Aiken, just in her thirties, would have been familiar with the three-volume hardback edition before she embarked on the so-called prequel to the Wolves Chronicles, The Whispering Mountain. Why do I suggest this, in the absence of any written evidence that I’m aware of? Just consider the following coincidences.

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Winter Thing

Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Hunters in the Snow (Winter)

Another waffly post, I’m afraid, but at least it’s mercifully short.

I’ve been diverting myself with a quick dip into Terry Pratchett (in a manner of speaking) in anticipation of March Magics; this last, hosted annually by Kristen of We Be Reading, is a respectful celebration of the work of Pratchett and of Diana Wynne Jones who both died during this month in, respectively, 2015 (March 12th) and 2011 (March 26th).

Now I didn’t mean to, but I found myself picking up the third Tiffany Aching book, Wintersmith, even though I’d intended to leave it till next month. It must have been due to the promised snowful in Britain — unlike North America’s recent dreadful polar vortex and a less deadly dump in much of Britain, the white stuff forecast for my part of Wales turned out however to be a bit of a damp squib.

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A score of stories

Rye, Landgate

Joan Aiken:
The Monkey’s Wedding, and Other Stories
Introduction by Lizza Aiken
Small Beer Press 2011

In the introduction to this posthumous collection of short stories Joan Aiken describes the three ingredients that have gone into the making of these tales: fantasy elements (“witches, dragons, castles…”), realistic elements culled from everyday life (“mending punctures, winning raffles…”) and, finally, dreams (“an old lady hunting for lost things…”). Unlike her longer novels, the tales aren’t planned but spring from a chance combination of two or more of these ingredients; in The Monkey’s Wedding you can marvel at how these elements appear and re-appear in limitless permutations, always surprising, always entertaining, and always haunting.

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Dido and patterns

Over the past few weeks I’ve been exploring aspects of Joan Aiken’s alternate history fantasy Dido and Pa, focusing on chronology, places and people.

To complete most of the picture this post will look at the novel’s tropes and themes, motifs and memes (there are subtle differences between all these, I know, but I’m choosing to bundle them all up together) to see what the stand-out ideas are and how they might relate to what has gone on before in previous Wolves Chronicles.

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The Birthday League

Thames Tunnel (from the circular staircase), London published in Dugdale’s England and Wales Delineated, about 1830 [engraving, credit: Antiche Curiosità]

Remembering a piece of advice that a sailor had once given her, [Dido] said to the boy, “When’s your birthday? Mine’s the first of March.”
‘When you talk to a savage or a native,’ Noah Gusset had said, ‘always tell him some secret about yourself — your birthday, your father’s name, your favourite food — tell him your secret and ask him his. That’s a token of trust; soon’s you know each other a bit, then you can be friends.’

We have already begun to look at the personages in Joan Aiken’s alternate history fantasy Dido and Pa and now it’s time to conclude that prosopography. From Petworth in West Sussex and Wapping in the East End of London we now move to Chelsea and other parts of southeast England to examine who we will be meeting in these places. Here is the usual spoiler alert. As if it is needed.

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