Tuesday 22 February 2022

Robert Aickman and Gabriele D’Annunzio

Go Back at Once, published by Tartarus Press (2020) and And Other Stories (2022)
In Robert Aickman’s novel Go Back at Once, the enigmatic and shadowy Virgilio Vittore personally annexes the Adriatic state of Trino and governs it ‘according to the laws of music’. Aickman sends his three female characters there from London, which proves to be an exciting, anarchic and surreal experience. Arguably, this is the best part of the book, where the author is able to explore a fantasy that was close to his own heart: the establishment of a society with the Arts at its centre. It is run by an ‘enlightened’ individual, rather than a bothersome democracy.

 Gabriele D’Annunzio, Comandante of the Carnaro

Vittore was based on the Italian poet and author Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), regarded in his home country as a war-hero, and who, in 1919-1920, as a part of the Italian nationalist reaction against the Paris Peace Conference, set up the short-lived Italian Regency of Carnaro in Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia). D’Annunzio entered the city with only a handful of soldiers and proclaimed himself Duce.

Fiume residents cheering D’Annunzio and his soldiers, September 1919

D’Annunzio (with cane) with legionaries in Fiume in 1919.

In Carnaro, D’Annunzio wrote the constitution, and Aickman quoted approvingly, ‘ “In the Regency of the Carnaro, music will be a religious and social institution”.’ D’Annunzio never called himself a fascist, but he is considered the forerunner of Italian fascism because his ideas and aesthetics were highly influential on Benito Mussolini. Aickman himself did not believe in democracy—he was an unashamed elitist, certain that some were born to rule over the majority. In Virgilio Vittore, Aickman offers us an example of how he believed an enlightened country could be run.

1920 25c stamp from Fiume

D’Annunzio would have felt vindicated when the independent Free State of Fiume was created by the Treaty of Rapallo on 12th November 1920, but he overplayed his hand. He ignored the Treaty and declared war on Italy itself. In retaliation, the Italian army attacked Fiume on 24th December, and the Royal Italian Navy commenced a bombardment. After five days of fighting, known as ‘Bloody Christmas’, the Fiuman legionnaires evacuated and on 29th December surrendered. The Free State of Fiume, however, lasted officially until 1924, when it was formally annexed to Italy under the terms of the Treaty of Rome.

Despite declaring war on his own country, D’Annunzio was able to retire to his home on Lake Garda where he spent his remaining years writing and campaigning. Although he influenced the ideology of Benito Mussolini, he was not directly involved in Italian fascist government politics. In 1922, he fell out of a window (it is not known if he was pushed), and was badly injured. He was ennobled by King Victor Emmanuel III in 1924 and given the hereditary title of Prince of Montenevoso. In 1937 he was made president of the Royal Academy of Italy, and when he died in 1938 (of a stroke) he was given a state funeral by Mussolini.

Mausoleum of Gabriele D’Annunzio, at the Vittoriale degli italiani, in Gardone Riviera, on Lake Garda, Brescia, Italy. Photo by Daderot.

D’Annunzio’s remains were interred in a grand tomb constructed of white marble at Il Vittoriale degli Italiani (the shrine of victories of the Italians) at a hillside estate in the town of Gardone Riviera, overlooking Lake Garda. It is where he lived after his defenestration until his death. The estate includes his residence (the Prioria), an amphitheatre, D’Annunzio’s cruiser Puglia set into a hillside, a boathouse containing the torpedo-armed motorboat used by him in 1918 and a circular mausoleum. The Vittoriale is described variously as a ‘monumental citadel’ and a ‘fascist lunapark’.

Jutting out of the hilltop at at the Vittoriale degli italiani, the bow of the D’Annunzio’s cruiser Puglia. It points in the direction of the Adriatic, ‘ready to conquer the Dalmatian shores’. Photo: Federica Pinelli.

Robert Aickman travelled extensively in Europe after the Second World War, until his death in 1981. As he is known to have visited Mussolini’s tomb, it seems quite likely that he would also have visited Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Mausoleum.
The above is an expansion of material from Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography by R.B. Russell.



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 17 February 2022

Robert Aickman: Second World War and Conscientious Objection

St Paul's Cathedral, from Paternoster Row, WWII

Robert Aickman reported that he had been a Conscientious Objector during the Second World War, claiming that he had made such a good argument before a Tribunal that he was exempted from any kind of war work. Friends like Elizabeth Jane Howard took this at face value and have repeated the assertion in their memoirs and recollections. I have to admit that, personally, I had always been a little sceptical, not least because Aickman’s claims about himself in his autobiographies and elsewhere are not always to be relied upon.

The main reason to doubt his word is that in his unpublished philosophical tome Panacea, Aickman wrote positively about the First World War. Many historians look back on ‘The Great War’ as a political escapade that had unforeseen consequences (none foresaw the huge loss of life over so many years). In Panacea, Aickman did not give any impression of being a pacifist (as far as he was concerned, the First War had been an aid to progress, and the death toll doesn’t seem to have been an issue for him). His main objection to the Second World War, expressed in letters to friends, was that it was ‘unnecessary’, even ‘silly’, and he appears to have believed that negotiation with Hitler would have made him go away. Most of Aickman's recorded comments were made with the benefit of hindsight.


I was also sceptical that Aickman could have been exempted from all war service by a Conscientious Objection Tribunal. In London, only 2% of all COs were given complete exemption, and most of those argued from a position of strong Christian conviction. Panacea shows that Aickman had an interest in religion, but no religious beliefs.


With an apparent lack of proof either way (most CO Tribunal records have been lost or destroyed) I discussed a number of possibilities with Aickman’s surviving friends (none of whom remember him expressing Pacifist or religious convictions). One possibility was that he had been made to do something dull and clerical, or even demeaning (in his estimation). Another possibility was that he had been sent to prison for refusing to help the war effort (although this would have been only for a few weeks, at most.) His various hints that he had talked to psychologists or psychiatrists suggested that he may have even been considered psychologically unfit. One friend considered that he may have done secret war work that he could not reveal (the CO claim being a cover story), but I thought that it would have been uncharacteristic of Aickman not to have later alluded to such a role.


The mystery was solved almost by accident, but as seems appropriate, it resulted in yet another mystery. Rosalie and I were visiting the Aickman collection at the British Library during Covid restrictions and we were only permitted to see a limited number of items. We had been perplexed by the description of one of these as Aickman’s application for a position in the Civil Service. This seemed uncharacteristic of Aickman, and piqued our interest. It was, in fact, a mis-description of his Conscientious Objection papers, including his statement to the Tribunal, which he had kept. . . .


. . . Robert had indeed registered as a CO, and had been given a full exemption, exactly as he claimed. Quite how you view the arguments he makes in his Statement depends on your own attitude towards both conscientious objection, and how Aickman presented him­self to the Tribunal. The statement is included as an Appendix to the newly published biography, so the reader can make up their own mind.



Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography by R.B. Russell is available now.



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 10 February 2022

Fathers & Sons: Robert Aickman and Edmund Gosse

Philip Henry Gosse & Edmund Gosse (1857)

Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) was an accomplished and respected English poet, author and critic. Among many well-received books, he wrote a biography of his father, Philip Henry Gosse, and in 1907, aged fifty-eight, published a memoir of his youth, Father & Son, focussing on his relationship with his father. His family were very devout members of the Plymouth Brethren, and Philip Henry was a self-taught marine biologist. The primary interest in Father & Son is the relationship between the religious father (who cannot reconcile his fundamentalist faith with the new evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin), and the son who questions and rejects his father’s beliefs. His father is a looming presence over Gosse’s childhood and could even be considered something of a tyrant, but the relationship is not without a measure of love.

In August 1971 The Folio Society asked Robert Aickman to write an introduction to their reissue of Father & Son. Aickman noted that this request was, no doubt, prompted by his own autobiography, The Attempted Rescue (1966), which had been compared favourably to Gosse’s classic memoir. Despite a tight deadline, Aickman submitted eight typed sheets, for publication in 1972.

Father & Son by Edmund Gosse, Folio Society, 1972

I do not know why The Folio Society did not use Aickman’s introduction, which is interesting and entertaining. However, it is somewhat rambling, and in many respects says more about the introducer than the author. Aickman, for example, states that the central theme of the book is ‘the right to be an individual’, which, it can be argued, is only a part of what Father & Son has to offer the reader. Aickman also uses the introduction to complain about his usual bug-bears (‘the great modern trinity, technocracy-overpopulation-egalitarianism’).

There are striking similarities between Father & Son and Aickman’s own The Attempted Rescue, but there are also important differences. Gosse’s father is a strong, charismatic personality and Gosse is obviously in awe of him. Aickman described Philip Henry Gosse as a 'unique and noble figure', and suggested that his own father was similar. But Father & Son is a coming-of-age book in which Edmund learns to reject everything that is most important to his father (a man who exemplified the contemporary dilemma of religious faith in a modern world). Aickman, however, seems to have lived a life in thrall to his father until 1941, when Robert was twenty-seven, and his father died. William Arthur Aickman appears to have been a personality adrift in the world as he became more elderly.

Gosse wrote of his memoir, 'This is not an autobiography' and published the first edition anonymously. Aickman noted that Gosse left him with the ‘impression that every single word had been fought for to express the exact truth as the author felt it’. (My italics.) This acknowledges that Father & Son might not have been precisely factual (and did not need to be). It is interesting that Ann Thwaite’s 2002 biography of Philip Henry Gosse suggests that Edmund’s father was a far more gentle, loving and thoughtful man than the one portrayed by his son. Far from being sequestered and melancholic, Edmund’s childhood appears to have been full of affection and warmth, and he was surrounded by many friends.

Robert Aickman with his mother and father, 1920s

There is a fascinating similarity between Edmund Gosse and Robert Aickman, for Aickman attempted to persuade readers that his own childhood was lonely, with his mother sick and his father domineering and eccentric. However, Aickman himself admits in The Attempted Rescue that he had friends throughout his early years, attended parties, was popular at school, and saw a great deal of his wider family. Some members of his family thought his descriptions of them highly inaccurate, and it is quite probable that Aickman would have excused any exaggerations and embellishments as the truth ‘as the author felt it’. Such judicial management of information would, of course, only serve to cement Aickman’s similarities to Gosse, whom Aickman described as a Grand Old Man in the field of letters—a description that Aickman would have been delighted to receive himself.

A melodramatic Four Square paperback edition from 1959

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography by R.B. Russell is available now.



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 3 February 2022

The Importance of the Inland Waterways of Britain


Robert Aickman at the Festival of Britain, 1951 (David Bolton, The Race Against Time)

The rivers and canals were the arteries of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, transporting all around the country every conceivable commodity from raw materials to finished goods. They were still in very limited commercial use after the Second World War, but were in serious decline. Many users of the canals today have no idea that in the 1940s and for the next few decades there was a battle to save them, not just from dereliction, but from being removed entirely from the landscape.

Those who came together to form the Inland Waterways Association to fight for the preservation and restoration of the canals had various agendas. For example, the writer and campaigner L.T.C. Rolt fought mainly to preserve the way of life of the families who had traditionally worked on the canals—living their lives entirely on the cramped narrow boats. Other campaigners believed that the canals still had some commercial potential for transporting materials for various industries. Others were able to see their potential for exactly the recreational uses to which they are put today.

Pushing open a lock beam during an IWA members cruise of the Regents Canal in 1948 (David Bolton, The Race Against Time)

But what was Robert Aickman’s motivation in wanting to preserve the inland waterways of Britain? This is hard to explain. At the end of the Second World War he was looking for a cause to further. He agreed with Rolt that the traditional boating families had a culture that ought to be preserved. He also saw the potential for increased commercial traffic, and he was even happy to embrace their use for pleasure boating. But more than anything, Aickman saw the restoration of the canals as a social experiment. He despaired utterly of the modern world and believed wholeheartedly that life had been better in the past. Because the canals were a product of the past they were de facto something to be championed. They might seem a strange cause to adopt because they had enabled the industrial revolution that he hated, but Aickman embraced Rolt’s philosophy of “man on top”—ie, that technology should be subservient to man (as in the canal locks, which were massive feats of engineering, but could be worked by a single person.) It can be argued that those who lived and worked on the canals endured incredible hardships in poor conditions, but Aickman believed it was an ideal life because it was lived as a family and lived outside. Aickman carefully selected his arguments to justify his vision. But what was that vision?

Market Harborough Festival of Boats and Arts, 1950.

In 1950 Robert Aickman was responsible for the Market Harborough Festival of Boats and Arts. He arranged, against considerable opposition, a huge display of narrow boats, with concerts, theatre productions, talks, cinema shows, dinners, dances and much more besides. It was a triumph, and he would have liked to have organised more. A festival for most people is something to enjoy for a few days as an escape from their usual routine, but Aickman would seem to have wanted people to spend their whole lives in such an atmosphere. His aspiration for society was that it should be lived by the rules of art and culture, in exalted company and, no doubt, accompanied by fine dining. That this was an unrealistic aspiration for most people’s daily life did not bother him. He didn’t feel the need to justify his dreams. He didn’t mind that his aspirations might be seen as elitist. Above all, he never attempted to coherently explain his vision because he knew that it was impractical, contradictory and highly personal.

Aickman was an ingrained pessimist who may well have taken an “I told you so” delight in his failure to improve the modern world. He argued that with every success in restoring the waterways, he came closer to overall failure. He refused to accept that any successes were possible because they would suggest that his basic argument, that the past was a better place, had been wrong. To a very great extent the inland waterways of Britain were saved both because of Robert Aickman, and despite him.

Robert Aickman on a canal boat, from Bulletin 52, 1956

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography by R.B. Russell is available now.



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.

The Tardebigge Myth

The only known photograph of Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt together ( Yorkshire Post , 31st August 1948) Robert Aickman’s primary ambition w...