Friday 17 May 2024

The Tardebigge Myth

The only known photograph of Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt together (Yorkshire Post, 31st August 1948)

Robert Aickman’s primary ambition was always to be an author, but during his lifetime his public profile was that of the co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association, which campaigned for the restoration of the canals of Britain. The IWA’s activities can be judged a success, although Aickman baffled a lot of people by claiming its achievements actually constituted a failure.
He admitted that L.T.C. Rolt was the co-founder of the IWA, but Aickman was often at pains to suggest that he himself had been the prime mover behind the association, and that he undertook by far the largest share of the work, for which he was never properly paid. There is a great deal to be said for this version of events, although such a campaigning organisation may well have been created anyway (pressure was already building), many other people also put in valuable and little-acknowledged work over many years, and there are some who argue that Aickman’s role was sometimes divisive and may have actually held back the IWA. (Also, Aickman’s accounting seems to have been slightly opaque.) However, after several years of hard work, Aickman was the victor in the various battles against the authorities and many of his own enemies within the IWA, and was therefore able to write the history in The River Runs Uphill.
Cressy at Tardebigge (Photo by Hugh McKnight)
In my Biography of Robert Aickman I make a point of questioning the author’s account of his important first meeting with L.T.C. Rolt at Tardebigge, on Rolt’s boat, Cressy, because it seems to me indicative of not just how Aickman tells the story of the IWA, but also the rest of his life. Most autobiographers are centre stage in their work, and they naturally choose how they present their material. We know we are seeing events from their point of view, and with understandable biases, but we like to think they can be trusted.

A rare photo of Angela Rolt, with Tom behind her.

The problem with Aickman’s account of the meeting at Tardebigge in August 1945 is that he clearly implies that only he and Rolt were there, with Rolt’s wife Angela in a supporting, but mainly decorative role. However, surviving letters in the National Archives suggest that Aickman mythologised his account of their first meeting when he described it in 1968, twenty-three years after the event. The most obvious deviation from the facts is the omission of his wife, Ray, from the account. She was certainly on board Cressy when the two men met for the first time. Admittedly, Aickman may have excised Ray from his account because he had a lifelong detestation of the institution of marriage and did not like admitting that he had wife. He was also horrified when Ray divorced him, leaving their marriage to become a nun (which he might have expected people to consider a judgement on his own failings as a husband, rather than to the attractions of the religious life).

Robert and Ray Aickman

But Aickman also seemed to have left out of the account of the Cressy meeting his friends Howard and Joan Coster. The couple wanted to meet Tom Rolt because they were planning on buying a narrow boat themselves, and were seeking his advice. I was careful how I put this in my Aickman biography because there had been a last-minute change of date for the meeting and I didn’t know for sure if they had been available for the rearranged rendezvous at Tardebigge.

   However, I have recently received a copy of the newly published The Life of L.T.C. Rolt by Victoria Owens. The book is a very readable account of an interesting and likeable figure, and I was intrigued to see that Owens states categorically that the Costers were present at the Tardebigge meeting. When I asked her for clarification, Victoria quoted from an exchange of letters between Joan Coster and Ray Aickman in the National Archives I had not seen. Writing to Ray on 13th August 1945, Joan thanked her for arranging a pleasant weekend. In her reply dated 17th August 1945, Ray wrote:

'I am glad you enjoyed seeing Cressy.'

This would appear to be conclusive evidence.

Joan and Howard Coster

But am I making too much of Aickman’s omission of half the people who were on Cressy that day? After all, Aickman is correct in the essentials that he and Rolt were there and that they discussed the formation of a campaign organisation. It was an account that was endorsed by Rolt himself, even after the two men had become bitter enemies.

I believe the omissions are important because all six people on the boat were there because of a shared interest in the waterways, and all would have a vested interest in seeing the canals maintained and hopefully restored. It seems highly unlikely that the formation of a pressure group would not have been discussed by all six, and that everyone would have had some input into the discussion.

In his defence, I should point out that Aickman was a great believer in rhetoric. He also believed that causing trouble was more effective than engaging in reasoned debate. The creation of the myth of Tardebigge was useful, not just as a shorthand explanation of what took place on Cressy at Tardebigge, but it would also have sidelined those who attended the first official IWA meeting in London a short while later.

A biographer stands or falls through the accuracy of the details they supply, while also trying to tell an engaging and honest story. The same criteria should go for those writing autobiography. The trouble with being discovered to have manipulated particular facts is that it causes the reader to question everything else they have written.


Robert Aickman: A Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2023


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.

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Correspondence between Robert Aickman and Edith Tyler, March 1937 to August 1940

One of the great loves of Robert Aickman’s life was Edith Tyler, whom he called ‘Eve’ in The Attempted Rescue, presumably to hide her identity. When his autobiography was published in 1966 she may have been still alive, and perhaps had a family. Recently discovered love letters exchanged by Robert and Edith corroborate many of the details he gave in The Attempted Rescue, but Aickman appears to have re-written their history in a few respects.

Robert and Edith met in 1937, at a time when both were living bohemian existences in London. It is not surprising he omitted to mention that when they became lovers she was a married woman. It is unclear whether Edith was estranged from her husband, but she and Aickman were at pains to keep their relationship out of the public eye, and especially unnoticed by her family. She was 29 and he was 23.
The letters are full of their love for each other, which is obviously sincere, although Aickman is by far the more conscientious and assiduous letter-writer. He makes a point of asking Tyler to preserve the letters, and she writes, ‘I know you like to keep track of your literary efforts’. At one point he says the letters may one day be published, and when their relationship ended she returned them all to him. Most of Aickman’s letters to Tyler contained an extra sheet of notepaper on which he quoted from his favourite writers, including Oscar Wilde, Gabrielle D’Anunzio and Oliver Onions.

It is clear that Aickman preserved their love letters for posterity, and he would have been able to consult them when writing The Attempted Rescue. Nevertheless, he knowingly altered the facts beyond what was required to simply preserve Edith’s privacy. For example, he wrote that they ‘moved into’ a disused windmill at Baldslow just before the start of the Second World War. It is offered as an important moment—the last period of true happiness he would ever experience in his life. He wrote to Audrey Linley in April 1940 that during the summer of 1939, he spent ‘three weeks in a windmill which I leased with some friends,’ which is a different story already. But the letters clearly show that it was Edith’s family who rented the Windmill, briefly, and that Aickman visited them on only a couple of occasions. (He left at one point because it was important for him to go to the first night of the Proms.)

He also wrote that when war broke out, Edith was sent to Liverpool ‘for a few weeks’ to be trained before departing for the West Indies. These details may have been made up so that she could not be identified, but when she moved to Liverpool she was to stay there for the rest of the war, and beyond. She went to work for the Postal Censorship (which greatly annoyed Robert), and while in Liverpool she met John Mallinson, whom she married. There may have been a very good reason for Aickman altering some of the facts, but it is strange that he felt the need to show her in a bad light by saying she thought he resented her for going to somewhere as nice as the (fictional) West Indies.

The correspondence between Aickman and Tyler is fascinating, not least for what it tells us about Aickman’s view of life when he was in his early/mid twenties. His interests and obsessions, his loves and fears, are all those that he appears to have carried into maturity. They reveal that an ordinary, conventional life of work and family was anathema to him; only the arts were of any importance to him. The arts . . . and love.
While protesting his love for Tyler, Aickman devotes an equal amount of time in his letters to the organisation of visits to the theatre and to concerts. He refers to himself as an artist, but it is not clear what creative work he may be doing, and no writing projects are mentioned. His ambitious philosophical work, Panacea, seems to have already been completed. He complains of having very little money, but he is unwilling to find employment. There is brief mention of him attempting to help set straight his father’s business affairs, but this is only in passing. Aickman’s claim that he and ‘Eve’ dreamed of living together in a studio is corroborated by the letters, and he may have been correct to say that to afford such accommodation would have meant finding employment to pay the rent. He implies they were both equally unrealistic, but during their relationship Eve was always employed, first in the Staff Training Department at Harrods department store in London, and later for the Censorship in Liverpool. It was Robert who was unwilling to find a job that would have meant they could have rented their studio and lived together. Aickman is dreaming of an ideal that he is unwilling to try and realise. 

Aickman also explains how they must not make onerous demands on each other and tie the other down. For him, their great love exists because they are free of commitment, and he makes it very clear that he does not believe in marriage. Their free and easy relationship seems to have appealed to Tyler as much as to Aickman, at least to begin with. He also discusses the fact that he is at ease with her seeing other men, as long as he is still considered the most important man in her life. Again, he dreams of an ideal, but must know it is unworkable. It seems he thinks the ‘miracle’ he failed to perform was to offer her marriage.
One can’t help thinking that in those worrying and uncertain times, as war loomed, Aickman found solace in romance, while Tyler enjoyed the attentions of a fervent young lover. She then met somebody who not only offered her love, but the development of a long-term, workable relationship. Aickman would spend the rest of his life looking for other women who would not spoil his dreams by engaging with the conventional, everyday world.
Edith is not quite honest with Robert as to when she was married, and she returns his letters stating that he has reminded her often enough how important his writing is to him. He would thus be able to keep both sides of the correspondence for posterity.

Robert Aickman: A Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2023


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.

Monday 19 February 2024

The Hill of Dreams and The House of Souls

The very first Tartarus Press publication, 34 years ago, was a small booklet entitled The Anatomy of Taverns, celebrating Arthur Machen’s favourite public houses. Our first hardback was the first ever publication of ‘Chapters Five and Six’ of Machen’s The Secret Glory, and we have always had a number of books by the author in print over the years, both as collectable hardbacks and affordable paperbacks.

This February we are delighted to make available once more, two very important sewn hardback editions of books by Machen:

The Hill of Dreams, lauded by writers as diverse as H.P. Lovecraft and Henry Miller, has been described as ‘The most decadent book in the world’. A novel of great power and beauty, it was Machen’s attempt ‘. . . to invent a story which would recreate those vague impressions of wonder and awe and mystery that I myself had received from the form and shape of the land of my boyhood and youth.’

We have also been able to bring back into print The House of Souls, an omnibus edition of some of Arthur Machen’s best-known, controversial, and curious fiction, first published in 1906. It contains ‘The Great God Pan’, his notorious 1890s tale of science and sex, and its accompanying story ‘The Inmost Light’. These appeared first in John Lane’s sensational Keynotes series, as did the portmanteau novel The Three Impostors, containing ‘The Novel of the White Powder’—another story of science gone bad—and the classic folk-horror tale ‘The Novel of the Black Seal’. ‘The Red Hand’ is a ‘shocking’ tale of curious survivals from the past lurking just beneath the surface of everyday London.

In an altogether more sensitively supernatural vein is ‘A Fragment of Life’, a quietly ambitious and affecting tale of a seemingly ordinary suburban couple who receive intimations of a much more numinous way of life.

But the tour-de-force of the volume is Machen’s occult masterpiece ‘The White People’, a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ tale far ahead of its time, written with the utmost empathy and panache.

Still in print and available as a sewn hardback is the now complete text of Machen’s novel, The Secret Glory. Ambrose Meyrick is at first a pupil at a hateful English public school, then a young man at large in bohemian London. Throughout his adventures, Ambrose cherishes his childhood vision of the mystical cup of Teilo Sant. But the young man also displays a fine delight in the good things the world can offer, and a few weeks spent with school servant Nellie Foran in a London lodging house prove a turning point in his life. When Ambrose returns home to his native Wales, Machen describes, in writing of great beauty and power, how Ambrose rediscovers the magical Gwent countryside, and performs the marriage of the cup with Sylvia, his symbolic muse.

Also available in paperback are Arthur Machen’s 1890s Notebook, which gives a great insight into the background to some of his most important writings, including The Hill of Dreams. We can also offer Dreads and Drolls, a series of essays, and the very curious book, The House of the Hidden Light (written with A.E. Waite)

Anyone who would like to go further into Machen’s books and writings might be interested in a series of videos entitled Collecting Arthur Machen:

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...