Monday, 31 January 2022

Bernard Heldmann/Richard Marsh

Until recently there were only two known photographs of Bernard Heldmann, Robert Aickman’s grandfather, who also wrote under the name of Richard Marsh.

 
Bernard Heldmann

Heldmann initially had a good career writing thrilling stories for boys, publishing under his own name such novels as Boxhall School: A Tale of Schoolboy Life (1881), and Dorrincourt: The Story of a Term There (1881). He only began writing under the Marsh pseudonym after serving a prison sentence, following his conviction for ‘obtaining goods by false pretences’ (he wrote cheques without having the funds to honour them). 

Here is the entry in the Home Office Criminal Registers, Middlesex, showing Bernard Heldmann’s conviction in 1884.


The story of his conviction was only recently unearthed by Callum James, and retold by Robert Kirkpatrick (The Three Lives of Bernard Heldmann, Occasional Paper VII of the Children’s Books Historical Society. No date.)

Heldmann achieved even more success writing as Richard Marsh. The Beetle, by ‘Marsh’, was published at the same time as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and was said to have sold even better than its equally shocking literary rival. (In truth, Dracula was not a best-seller at the time of publication, although, unlike The Beetle, it became an enduring classic.)

  
First Edition of The Beetle, 1897
 
 
Brochure for the Film (1919)

The Beetle was filmed in 1919, but this film is considered "lost". (It is said on various databases that no stills exist, although this is not the case. A brochure for the film exists in Robert Aickman's archives.)

Bernard Heldmann was said to have met Robert Aickman’s father William in the gents toilets at the Hydro Hotel in Eastbourne, and was subsequently introduced to Bernard’s daughter, Mabel.

This photo in the Aickman archive does not inform us of exactly who is in this charabanc, but because it was among William Aickman’s papers, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the man in the middle of the back seat is William Aickman (there is a distinct resemblance.) It is also possible that one of the women either side is Mabel, his future wife (and Robert Aickman’s mother). Just as intriguing is the possibility that the man sitting on the running board is Bernard Heldmann (Richard Marsh).

 

Robert Aickman was very proud of being related to Richard Marsh, discussing his grandfather approvingly in The Attempted Rescue. When he later set up a literary agency with his wife, Aickman called it the Richard Marsh Agency, and all through his life Aickman collected Marsh's books. It is possible that the family disgrace was kept from him.

 

You can order Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography now. It will be published February 3rd, 2022.

 

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2022

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.



Thursday, 27 January 2022

Robert Aickman’s Favourite Film: The Blue Light


In 1966 Robert Aickman devoted most of Chapter Twenty-Four of The Attempted Rescue to a lengthy description of his favourite film, Leni Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light (1932). He wrote: 
 
I saw it again and again, as an allegory so near to my heart

   In The Blue Light the heroine, Junta (Riefenstahl), lives apart from her fellow villagers, and is popularly considered to be a witch. She is shown roaming over the mountains and through the woods as a free spirit. At the time of the full moon, light enters a grotto on the mountainside, illuminating the crystals inside which give off a beautiful blue light. This place is sacred to Junta. However, the blue light can also be seen from a distance by the young men of the village. The light appears to bewitch them and when they attempt to reach it they fall to their deaths.

   The hero, Vigo, a painter from the city, visits the village and falls in love with Junta, despite (or because of?) her persecution at the hands of the locals. He later saves her from the villagers after another young man dies, and follows her to the cabin where she lives. At the next full moon he sees her climbing to the grotto and follows her, finding her inside in a state of ecstasy, bathed in the mystical blue light.

 
Junta in the grotto on the mountainside

   Vigo realises the value of the crystals, and now he knows how to reach the grotto. He hopes to help both Junta and the villagers by revealing his knowledge. The villagers remove the crystals and sell them, but Junta is devastated by the desecration of her sacred place, and by her misplaced trust in the hapless hero. Her body is discovered by Vigo after she falls to her death. 
   For Aickman the allegory is clear—there is truth, beauty, mystery and love in this world, but it is destroyed by the greed and ignorance of modern man.

When The Blue Light was re-released on DVD in 2010, it was reviewed in Video Watchdog (#159) by Aickman’s old friend, Ramsey Campbell, who pointed out that there had been several different edits of the film over the years (including a silent version with inappropriate music and many cuts, as well as one prepared by Riefenstahl herself in which the uncanny elements are downplayed). Campbell also pointed out another apparent variant—the one that Aickman relates in The Attempted Rescue.

 

[Aickman] has Vigo learning of the blue light when he watches all the men of the village attempt to scale the mountain with ladders, and Vigo later climbs the mountain in their company but reaches the summit alone. In Aickman’s version it’s Vigo who finds the cave despoiled because ‘the villagers have called in experts’, and the film ends with him roaming the mountains and vainly calling Junta’s name. I don’t think any amount of re-editing could change the film so radically, and must conclude that this vision was to some extent Aickman’s own.

 

   It is very odd that Robert Aickman should get the plot of his favourite film so wrong—a film that he had seen ‘again and again’, and often cited as an example of great film-making. Although he did not have the modern luxury of being able to view the film at home whenever he wanted to, being such an admirer, and living in London, he would have had many opportunities to see it over the years. 
   For Aickman to call the villagers who mine the crystals ‘experts’ is characteristic Aickmanesque propaganda—he distrusted experts, and although this might be viewed as an affectation or an excuse for his own shortcomings, it was nevertheless sincere (and it may have resulted in his early death). 
   However, to have made errors in describing the plot is more difficult to explain. Aickman re-tells the story from the idealised viewpoint of the hero, Vigo, and it is his part in the story that is altered and embellished. It seems possible that Aickman was so enamoured of the film, and thought about it so often, that he imagined alternative scenarios, and that these became more real to him than the film he had seen. We know that he was a great admirer of Riefenstahl, and even went so far as to write to her. An old friend has said he was ‘potty’ about her. When he wrote about Riefenstahl in The Attempted Rescue he portrayed her as a beautiful victim and refused to accept that she was anything other than innocent in her associations with Hitler and the Nazis. It is not too fanciful to believe that in Aickman’s imagination he merged Riefenstahl and her character, Junta, who is likewise persecuted. He may even have imagined himself as Vigo, the doomed lover of the beautiful heroine who must be revealed as innocent of the crimes of which she is accused.
 
Vigo and Junta

It is telling that when Aickman and Elizabeth Jane Howard were putting together the stories that would be published as We Are for the Dark, Aickman considered using a pen name—Robert Vigo:

Corrected title page of typescript of We Are For the Dark

 

You can order Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography now. It will be published February 3rd, 2022.

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2022

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.

Friday, 21 January 2022

Robert Aickman: Worton Court

One of the highlights of Robert Aickman’s autobiography, The Attempted Rescue, is his evocation of Worton Court, the historic William-and-Mary house in Isleworth, Mid­dlesex, which was the home of his great uncle, Harry Heldmann. During his childhood, Aickman spent time staying there with his mother, and it provided a model to Aickman of how life should be lived. Worton Court included four reception rooms and ten bedrooms. Aickman described a library, a billiard room, wine cellars, back stairs, and servants’ quarters (which he was not allowed to enter). He also gave long descriptions of the fascinat­ing furniture, textiles and pictures from all over the world (including ‘a complete suit of black Japanese armour’).

 

Worton Court c.1945  

Aickman recounted Harry Heldmann’s many achieve­ments and forceful personality, summed up in the portrait:

'The animals barked around him as he strode, a white-haired Dionysus.'

 

 
Alice and Harry Heldman

 

Aickman gave the impression that there was a family fortune and social standing which had largely been lost. It was a lifestyle that Robert Aickman admired and aspired to, but Worton Court was in fact only leased by Harry Heldmann, a self-made man who worked in the City of London. After Great Uncle Harry’s death in 1932, Great Aunt Alice, Harry’s sister, continued to live in the house until her death in 1938.

The 1939 particulars of the sale of contents of Worton Court give some idea of the lavish style in which the Heldmann’s lived.

 

 
Worton Court Sale Particulars

 

 
Cutting from Middlesex Chronicle, 25th February 1939

 

Worton Court seems to have been sold to a property speculator just before the Second World War, and the house stood empty and derelict for several years before being pulled down. When I started to research Aickman’s biography I discovered that I had just missed buying a set of photographs of Worton Court from an online auction. Intriguingly, one had written on the back:

 

 
Some say it was a prison. 
But on the floor was a sheet of music with the title “Home Sweet Home”

 

Another interesting side-note, the property adjoining Worton Court, Worton Manor, was a film studio during the years that Aickman was a visitor. It is curious, given Aickman’s interest in film, that he did not mention this in his autobiography. Much of The African Queen was filmed at Worton Manor in 1951, just before the closure of the studio.

 

 
Filming at Worton Hall Film Studios. (Note local houses in background, behind the immediate set of a scale model of a castle on a hill.)

 

When Robert's Great Aunt Alice died, he spent some time at Worton Court. Aickman suggests that he was given certain duties. His mother’s sister, Aunt (Madge) Shaw, moved into the house, and Aickman may well have also lived there for a while. For a brief period he was in the surroundings to which he aspired, and he invited his girlfriends there to dinner on several occasions. He remembered this as a ‘gay’ time, but it must have also been bittersweet because the house was being prepared for sale (it would eventually be demolished), they would have been letting the servants go, and the contents were being catalogued for disposal at auction.

 

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2022

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Robert Aickman: A Curious Lack of Honours

Robert Aickman introducing the Queen Mother to David Hutchings, 1974

Robert Aickman was the co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association, and for many years its driving-force and main spokesman as the IWA campaigned for the restoration of Britain’s waterways. It is curious that despite his work he never received any official honour or recognition, as, for example, did David Hutchings, who received an M.B.E. for being the prime mover in the restoration of several canals. 

It cannot have helped his cause that Aickman was a rather divisive character, splitting the membership of the Association, causing, in effect, a civil war. His dogmatic approach was one reason why some regional branches disassociated themselves from the I.W.A. But despite these battles, the stated aims of the association were eventually met and its work is widely considered to have been a success.

The reason Aickman did not receive an M.B.E., a peerage or knighthood is that he made enemies in high places. Sir John Smith at a Memorial Tribute to Robert Aickman explained:

To further a cause, you have first to gain attention, particularly from those in authority. There are two ways of doing this; you can cajole and influence and generally stroke the ears, or you can attract a person’s attention by punching him on the nose. Robert belonged to the latter school of thought with this important refinement—he made the opposition look ridiculous as well.

According to Hugh McKnight, the photographer and commentator on the waterways:

. . . . people in high places put his name forward, only for the proposal to be blocked by a man that Aickman had insulted in the most unkind, uncalled for, and unprovoked manner years earlier. Meanwhile, that person progressed to a position of power and influence. Time passed and the application was repeated. Once more, it arrived on the desk of Aickman’s enemy and once more the idea was dis­carded. A member of the House of Lords, mystified at this outcome, told me that he was astonished at such an unheard of double rejection.

 

Hugh McKnight is waiting until the publication of his own memoirs before making public the name of the man who blocked Aickman’s honours.

You can order Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography now. It will be published February 3rd, 2022.

 

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2022

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.

 

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Some Thoughts on the Writing of Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography

I am sure that every biography has its own challenges and rewards. In writing about Robert Aickman’s life and work, I thought that I would be able to rely on his two volumes of autobiography, The Attempted Rescue and The River Runs Uphill. For a variety of reasons, however, neither book can be entirely trusted. In the former volume, Aickman writes an entertaining account of his life until just before the Second World War, but it is often inaccurate (arguably, made so for artistic effect). Having side-stepped the events of the war, his second volume of autobiography, The River Runs Uphill, is an account of his time with the Inland Waterways Association (from 1945), and is, perhaps, an even more partial view of events. To cite the most glaring example, Robert’s wife, Ray Aickman, is never mentioned, despite their marriage, her long-time partnership in their literary agency, and her work for the I.W.A. Aickman’s memory was ‘selective’ in many other matters, also.

 

 
Robert and Ray Aickman, 1940s

It is not unreasonable to assume that Aickman foresaw the advent of a biographer. He kept an extensive archive of personal, family and professional papers (and drew on these when writing his own memoirs in the 1960s.) This archive is now kept, mainly, in the British Library in London, although some items made their way to Bowling Green University Library in the U.S., and the majority of the I.W.A. papers are in the National Archives in Kew. I have drawn on these resources, as well as other material in private hands.

One other frustration was the refusal of a bookdealer to let me consult an important cache of letters by Aickman unless I actually bought them at what seemed to me an exorbitant price! Luckily, I was able to access copies of them.

Previous research by David Bolton and Gary Crawford was essential. It is sad that Gary died before I was able to tell him about the biography.

Any biographer is required to assess evidence, explain its relevance and give it context. I hope that my biography of Aickman is fair and balanced. I believe that I have answered some previous queries about Robert Aickman’s life (what he did in the Second World War, for example), although some mysteries remain (for example, who was ‘Eve’?) One frustration that all biographers must face is that fascinating nuggets of information and evidence do not always fit into the strictly biographical narrative. Some of these will be explored in a series of blog posts on this site over the coming weeks, with photographs, giving more information about Aickman’s grandfather Richard Marsh (author of The Beetle), the family house at Worton Court, Aickman's father and his architectural designs, his time at Baldslow Windmill and other characters in his life such as Ray Aickman, and David Hutchings. 

You can pre-order Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography from the 14th January. It will be published February 3rd, 2022.

 

Robert Aickman, 1940s
 

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2022

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.

Mark Valentine's Essays on Little-Known Authors

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