The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories by Joan Aiken

If there was any need to prove J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books weren’t created ex nihilo, but as part of an existing tradition of magical fantasy in English fiction (which includes Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, and Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (filmed as Bedknobs and Broomsticks)), here it is. Joan Aiken‘s Armitage Family stories have very much the same feel of institutionalised magic, where spells work just like recipes, where fantastical beasts are as likely to wander into the story as their mundane counterparts — and just as likely to be adopted as pets, or hatched from the egg and raised till they get out of hand and have to be released into the wild — where BBC 13 is the radio station to listen to if you want to learn about magic (which you can also do by a home study course), where there’s a charity for replacing the worn-out wands of “fairy ladies” (the polite term for witches), and a Board of Incantation that can requisition your home to use as a seminary for young magicians… It all sounds and feels so Potterish, yet the first Armitage Family stories were published in 1958, and Aiken continued writing them throughout her career (the last to be published during her lifetime was in 1998, and this book collects them all, plus four previously unpublished).

There are differences, of course. Aiken’s stories, being short stories, don’t build up into an epic battle against evil, but are, rather, about the more mundane conflicts, botherations, quibbles and quandaries of childhood and family life. Mark and Harriet are perfectly normal children, constantly engaged in their own projects and interests, but quite level-headedly dealing with curses, spells, hauntings, and visits from fantastical creatures, sorcerers and minor gods, as well as that more fearsome antagonist, the awkward relative, in their four-decade long childhood (whose background details get quietly updated as the stories go along, so there’s mention of computers, and the wearing of jeans, though it never breaks the spell of timelessness around their childhood. There seems to be no TV, for instance — Mark and Harriet are simply too busy to watch it).

Andi Watson provides some wonderful illustrations to the Armitage Family stories

Aiken writes with a light narrative tone, perfectly suited to the air of casual, childhood magic and nonsensical surrealism she creates, and that tone never wavers, even when there are touches of genuine tragedy. There’s not a lot of tragedy, nor does it involve any of the main characters (unless you count Walrus the cat), but there is a rather awful, casual destruction of a magical portal (built using sections collected from the backs of cereal packets), that separates two lovers, perhaps forever; and elsewhere, a harmless minor character gets killed so suddenly in a road accident you can’t quite believe it’s just happened (nor that it’s not about to just as-suddenly un-happen, which it doesn’t).

Aiken’s Armitage family stories are full of magical invention, weird characters, and a sort of enduring faith in the resilience, adaptability, open-mindedness, and fair-mindedness of her child characters. (Who, I can’t help feeling, would deal with Lord Voldemort in somewhat under seven pages, never mind seven books!)

Farewell, Book & Magazine Collector

This December sees the last ever issue of Book & Magazine Collector, after 26 years of publication. I was never a regular buyer, but usually had a look at the contents, and bought it if there was an author I was interested in. (I also went on a couple of back-issue binges over the years.) It was always gratifying to see how many fantasy, science fiction and horror authors the magazine covered.

It’s tempting to say the internet killed it, and this must be partly true, if only because B&MC was always at least half made up of wants & for-sale lists — stuff which came to seem quaint, not to say dated, when you consider how the internet has changed the buying of secondhand books. (Not all for the good, no — it’s almost impossible to find a bargain nowadays, and some prices get artificially inflated. But not all for the bad, either. I loved hunting through booklists for titles I wanted, but love far more being able to quickly search multiple booksellers and find all the available copies and editions of the book I want.) I never used that part of the magazine anyway. What really interested me were the articles about individual authors & illustrators, and that’s the thing I’ll miss.

But surely the internet has blogs and wikis enough to make up for that? In theory, yes. There’s nothing to stop people writing in-depth, well-researched, well-written articles about authors’ oeuvres and posting them on the internet. But, on the other hand, there’s nothing to spur them to do so, either. And that, really, is the difference with the internet: not in what it can do, but in what, in practice, it does do.

If nothing else, print magazines encourage higher standards. For the reader, they act as a stamp of quality; and the same stamp pushes the writer. This isn’t something that’s impossible on the internet, but, let’s face it, Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have a tag for “this article reads like it was written by a committee more interested in facts than readability”, as it does for “this article needs more references”. Good, expert writing tends to be led by examples set by the likes of B&MC. It’s all too easy, in a Wikified world, to forget what good writing is like.

Also, there’s just finding the information. When I started my website on David Lindsay (back in 1998), I assumed that, soon enough, every writer would get a website dedicated to them, providing all the information you want to know about them, including news, a bibliography, a biography, and so on. But it’s rather disappointing to see how few authors that I’m interested in have well-run, up-to-date websites — even the living ones! Fritz Leiber, for instance, is surely crying out for something as good as, say, this Tim Powers site, or this Joan Aiken one. (But Fritz Leiber is perhaps starting to see something of a revival, what with a new Selected Stories, a collection of rarities, and the cornucopia of download delights recently on CthulhuWho’s’s blog. So, there’s hope.)