Those who know me well enough – and even some people that don’t, becasue I am such a show-off – know that I have three ravens tattooed on one shoulder. I love them, and listen out for the Cronk Cronk of the one that occasionally heckles me on the allotment. They are there because I used to sing the Thomas Ravenscroft song to my children in the hours of walking them back to sleep when they were babies. This link takes you to the text, and this one to the first version I knew, sung by Alfred Deller. One lot of ravens.
The second is the lino cut Corvus Corax my daughter has made:
The third is another raven from my adolescence (yes I still watched Jackanory when I was in VIth Form) and my children’s childhood, Arabel’s comic and anarchic raven in stories by Joan Aiken, among them the three I know best, Arabel’s Raven, The Escaped Black Mamba (I left that out of the precis below) and The Bread Bin. In the first, the respectable taxi-driver Ebenezer (Ben) Jones picks up a distressed raven which his daughter Arabel names Mortimer, much to her mother Martha’s despair. Adventure follows, as the raven becomes entangled in a kidnapping and bank heist. In the second, Mortimer is firmly established in the Jones’ household, although not without protest from the grown-ups. Chris the babysitter is involved this time as Arabel’s parents go out, and the raven gets stuck in a trumpet, and more gangland involvement ensues. In the third story, Arabel gets bronchitis and goes to hospital, and Mortimer goes missing. There is a happy ending, if you’re worried. Other stories also came out in similar vein: the riotous Mortimer, Carnival in black; robbers; clashes with the establishment in the form of police, librarians, huntsmen and research scientists.
And there we have it with Arabel and The Common Raven. Aiken is careful with her class distinctions, drawing heavily, it seems to me, on the conventions of Ealing Comedy to depict her colourful inhabitants of NW London. What amazes me is her ability to write about an ordinary family in N London and hint at accent and (therefore, indirectly underline) class without becoming incoherent or patronising. There is a wobble, perhaps, in the depiction of the Irish Mr Plunkett who does say “Glory Be!” and “Begorrah” and uses “Ye,” but little else. Much of the comedy that does not come from Arabel’s trust for the raven’s really poorly adapted way of living with humans comes from Mrs Jones and her outbursts:
“Oh good gracious me did you ever see anything so outrageously provoking in all your born days?” said Mrs Jones. “I never did, not even when I worked at the Do-it-yourself delicatessen: don’t you go running after that black feathered Monster, Arabel, you stay right here.”
Notice the punctuation. We are meant, I think, to hear this as a stream of outrage; I can imagine Kenneth Williams in full flood (it was actually Bernard Cribbins who read them on Jackanory and I do recall he was fantastic: here is Cribbins in fine form in a later story). Her annoyance makes her instantly believable, and a true foil for Arabel’s innocence. As with the latest film adaption of Paddington, where his migrant refugee status is played up, there is perhaps a hint that Mrs Jones over-emphasising the blackness of the raven – the “black fiend of a bird” – but ambiguous, and in character, not as narrator, and nothing to compare with the more explicit comments of Roald Dahl. As a final thought, and very revealing of his own processes, Quentin Blake is here commenting on the process of preparing for the illustrations in Jackanory and the printed books.
Where the social distinctions are drawn in the Raven stories, it is mostly in the clashes with authority. The doctors in Rumbury Central are somewhat exempt (except for nervous rashes), but the fierce ward sister Sr Bridget Hagerty and in a later story the visiting GP are not; the police investigating possible GBH in the Jones’ household are stock figures of po-faced ineptitude; bank managers and solicitors all get some sort of come-uppance. We are in the realm of Capt. Mainwaring and the Ealing Comedies. The record shop bosses in Arabel’s Raven, for example, who try and dun the Joneses for the damage the raven causes, employ solicitors to try and recoup their loss; they are described as “that pair of sharks” by Mrs Jones and end up being arrested. Dominant Aunt Olwen in Mortimer’s Cross, a descendant of Saki’s humourless older women bullies, is abandoned unceremoniously in favour of the much nicer Auntie Meg in Bangor. The gentle representation of a Welsh dialect is telling:
“Ben never said anything about sending you, lovey,” she said. “Company for me you’ll be, while Gwennie’s in hospital. Nice, that is.”
Aiken plays with stereotypes skillfully by not over representing them, by hinting through the characters’ use of language. It becomes natural that Mr Jones’ family are Welsh – why would a Jones not be? – and the pomposity of the establishment is lampooned and dismantled – as any comedy from Moliere (and before) suggests they must be. The Raven stories thus represent a first satire for young readers on societal difference, in which the comedy is found in the situations and language of an ordinary family and their interactions with their world, the catalyst for adventure being the Loki-like disrupter, Mortimer the raven. Mortimer is thus the inheritor of the mantle of the divine trickster (a good Wikipedia entry [sic] here). That the Joneses and Mortimer are a far cry – a far Kaaark – from the Wolves of Willoughby Chase and the other, more solemn, work Joan Aiken did for an older audience is only a testament to her skill.