I’ve been banging on about Roald Dahl without Quentin Blake for quite some time now. So I thought I’d better redress the balance and look at the work of the man who was in my opinion an equal partner in their creative relationship.
Another equally important collaboration began several years before his work with Dahl. Joan Aiken, the author of the Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, first teamed up with Blake on the BBC Jackanory stories about Arabel and Mortimer – which I’ll look at soon. Aiken was an amazingly versatile modern writer, moving between fantasy, fairy tale, horror and what is now known as young adult fiction.
Many of these things came together in a series of collections of modern fairy tales, which she began in the 1960s in collaboration with Jan Pienkowski. Come 1993 Jan was busy, so she teamed up again with Blake, for what he describes in his autobiography Words and Pictures as one of his most satisfying projects:
‘It’s this moving from mood to mood that has, all the more in recent years afforded me an extra pleasure. Joan Aiken’s The Winter Sleepwalker remains for me a striking example: a collection of invented folktales which mix traditional elements such as spells and witches and transformations with dustbins and rubber tyres and telephones.’
Many writers (Dahl included) have turned their hand to attempting to update the work of Grimm, Andersen et al. Few have done it with such effortless élan as Joan Aiken.
In The Liquorice Tree she takes the classical scenario of a community plagued by ravenous monsters, and forced into sacrificing its people one by one in an effort to keep their appetites in check. But Aiken manages to root them in a version of the present day that doesn’t appear incongruous, or too try hard with the contemporary references. Which isn’t to say it’s not silly; the heroes are Mat and Rod, the resourceful sons of Neptune who outwit the Martian dino-monsters with a mixture of technology and raw rock’n’roll.
It’s a mighty clever trick, and one she’s pulled off again and again in her writing. As with the Wolves series she creates an ‘Aiken world’, a place that’s neither part of our past or present but contains elements of both.
In Melusina Aiken tackles the well-worn story of a capricious Queen who curses an unfortunate baby. ‘Once a week every Sunday, that person will turn into a pink snake… And in between times, the person will hiccup every time they eat an apple. And her tights will always ladder. And her nail polish will peel. And her lipstick will smear. And she will lose her rail-pass and her contact lenses will fall out. And she will marry a skeleton. And -‘
Humour is ever present, but the jokes are tempered with an air of mystery and melancholy. The true curse, as it turns out, is on the Queen, who spends her life in mourning for a lost ball, and shame over the curse she cast in anger. Meanwhile the girl gets on uncomplainingly with her life as a part-time snake, until inevitably she marries the Queen’s son, a man who has no problem with the turning into a snake business. ‘My dear! We all have our odd little ways.’
The book builds to a trio of stories for which Quentin Blake produces some of his finest work and which immediately jumped out at him when asked to supply some sample drawings. ‘I had no difficulty in knowing which ones I wanted to try. First of all there was the horse with the eight legs and its sinister one-eyed rider galloping up the mountain track.’ This story, Furious Hill sees the mysterious stranger ride into the town where his father died. He sets up a stall healing the townsfolk and in return asks them about his father’s dying words. The story is perplexing and enchanting in equal measure, ending with a simple image of a glowing red circle that gave me chills.
The title story is something of a grab bag of your favourite fairy tales, featuring a woodcarver with a wooden Midas touch and his daughter who falls in love with a sleepwalking bear. The image of Alyss swathed in red against the snowy forest so that ‘she looked like a blazing fire moving along among the trees’ is just utterly magical. Blake repeated the image on the cover (featured at the top of the page), ‘I think there must have been some sort of charm on the book, because I did the cover just once without discussing it with anyone, carried along on a smooth wave of euphoria.’
Aiken saves the best for last in Catch a Falling World, which moves beyond fairy tales and into creation myth, going far back to a time before ‘our little cut price universe was put together’. Even in those days there were irritating people playing football; games that ‘went on without ever coming to a finish.’ In goal is an angel called Icarus who plays it not entirely fair, knocking the ball away with a broom made from clusters of stars and wreaths of gas.
He’s a little OCD is poor Icarus, obsessing over a tiny hair sitting out of place in his well-broomed goal mouth. Its extraction leads to him ripping a hole in the floor of space, revealing a massive mess of wires, one of which he accidentally snaps, plunging the universe into darkness.
His punishment from The Umpire (a god like figure who runs the whole space football thing), is to fall for all eternity until his plight is noticed by a howling dog. I won’t give away the twist at the end, but it’s one that Douglas Adams would have surely approved.
A word of warning, I first came by the Winter Sleepwalker a few years back in a Red Fox paperback edition. Although the stories enchanted, the pictures were reproduced in a quality that recalled those old magic paint books where you had to add water to reveal the muted, matt colours behind. Except in this case there was no colour. So I was thrilled to spot this majestic colour edition from 2012 on a recent pilgrimage to the wonderful Toppings bookshop in bath. It’s well worth seeking out.