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.

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