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Joan Aiken (1924-2004) began writing the Armitage Family stories when she was still in her teens and sold the first story, "Yes, but Today Is Tuesday," to the BBC Children's Hour programme in 1944. This and another five stories about the Armitage children, Mark and Harriet, and their encounters with everyday magic, were included in her first published collection, All You've Ever Wanted, in 1953. Over the years Joan continued to add to their adventures, and the stories appeared in six further collections of fantastic tales during the next four decades. For the American collection Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home in 1968, Joan added a prelude introducing the Armitage parents on their honeymoon, and ensuring, by means of a wishing ring, that despite living "happily ever after" the family would never, never be bored. Before she died in 2004 she had completed four new Armitage stories, and had just sent them to her typist, together with all those from previous collections, with a letter saying that she hoped to try and have all of them gathered together and published in one volume. Here it is at last!
Joan was the daughter of writer Conrad Aiken, who was divorced from her mother, Jessie McDonald, when Joan was five. When Jessie married his friend, the writer Martin Armstrong, in 1929, the family moved from Joan's birthplace in the town of Rye to a tiny cottage in a village on the other side of Sussex. Armstrong was nearly fifty and had no children until Joan's half brother David was born in 1931, and she says: "I was rather nervous of him and he, probably rightly, found most of my remarks silly." Nevertheless he was "immensely entertaining, both witty and erudite,"and life at the cottage was graceful in spite of the family's poverty, as Armstrong depended for their living on what he wrote. In those days there was no running water, it was drawn from a well, and no electricity, but oil lamps and fires to prepare daily. Joan always said that these formative years were lonely but happy; her friends were books.
Her brother John and sister Jane, twelve and seven years older, were sent away to school, but Jessie, who took a B.A. at McGill in her native Canada, and a Master's at Radcliffe in 1912, before marrying Conrad, was well able to teach Joan at home, and was herself a great reader. Armstrong was also an enormous influence on Joan's reading--his house was full of books--and on her writing, both by example and in his comments on her early work. All through the 1920s and 1930s Armstrong was producing novels, biographies, and poems, but perhaps his greatest gift was for short stories, and it is for his fantastic, often ghostly, and wildly imaginative stories that he will probably be best remembered. In the late 1930s the BBC invited him to write for their Children's Hour programmes, and he produced a series of stories called "Said the Cat to the Dog" about a middle-class English family and their rather extraordinary talking pets, which became an enormous success.
Joan was about sixteen and, as she says, "in a snobbish sort of teenage rebellious mood, and it seemed to me that they were terribly silly." In fact they probably were intentionally so, but this only reflects the difference between Joan's attitude to writing for children, and what her stepfather considered would be suitable (and indeed moral) fare for the young. "Silly" had been the most withering criticism he had levelled at her own early work, and this had clearly rankled.
"Just for fun I thought I would write a kind of skit on them, so I wrote a story, called 'Yes, but Today Is Tuesday,' calling my family Armitage instead of Armstrong, in which a lot of totally unexpected and horrendous things happened, sent it to the BBC, and to my amazement they took it!"