One quality ever-present in Robert Aickman’s stories is a sense of heroic futility. Many of his characters lead lives that appear, properly considered, absurd or meaningless. Some of them even know this, either directly or dimly. And yet they carry on as they are. Aickman often has a certain amount of fun at their expense, but his attitude is nevertheless one of a bitter sympathy. He is not an inhuman writer: he recognises the little tragedies of so many lives limited by character, upbringing or circumstances.
One of his favourite authors, whose books perhaps cast a light-hearted relief upon this attitude, was H B Creswell. “I learnt to appreciate,” Aickman writes in The Attempted Rescue (1966, p. 143), “the extremely instructive and entertaining architectural novels of H. B. Creswell, of which the best are the two Honeywood books and “Jago versus Swillerton and Toomer”, cumbersomely entitled but brilliant.”
His books are not very well known now. They are comical farces, usually relating to litigation about a building project that has gone wrong. Creswell was himself a working architect, designing a range of buildings, from churches to factories. His writing career began with stories for children, but where he is read today at all it is for his humorous books drawing on the vicissitudes of his profession.
Harry Bulkeley Creswell (1869-1960) is an elusive author. The few facts about him are mostly found in Alistair Service’s Edwardian Architecture: A Handbook to Building Design in Britain, 1890-1914 (1977). This records that Creswell was educated in Bedford and at Trinity College, Dublin, articled as an architecture student in 1890, and set up his own practice in 1900. His notable designs included the Parthenon Room in the British Museum, the Law Courts in Sierra Leone and the College of Agriculture in Mauritius.
The best-known of his books, still occasionally revived and cited with appreciation in architectural circles, is The Honeywood File (1929), an epistolary novel containing the correspondence between a young, keen architect, and his patron, a knight of the shires who has his own ideas about house-building. The letters originally appeared as a series in The Architectural Review, and the book has been regularly reissued by The Architectural Press since. In this, and its sequel, The Honeywood Settlement (1930), Creswell created a minor masterpiece of under-stated, slightly Wodehousian humour.
Less noticed, but equally droll, is the similarly-devised book that followed, Jago versus Swillerton & Toomer (1931), an account of litigation between a country squire and the architect and the builder he commissioned to erect a village hall, which fell down during a rather rumbustious dance. We observe the proceedings of the case, overseen by an expert adjudicator, through the evidence of a range of witnesses, each of them with very distinct foibles and prejudices. If just occasionally the details are a little technical, the dialogue is superb: sly, spirited, individually inflected, and at times enlivened by vividly reconstructed slapstick.
Aickman appreciated these books particularly because his father, as he recounts in Chapter Four of The Attempted Rescue, was himself a working architect, though of indifferent success. He had hoped his son would follow him into the profession but, Aickman recorded, “His main professional preoccupation at this period was the installation of lavatories in…public houses.” The few other clients he had were “of the type Creswell describes” – that is to say, idiosyncratic, single-minded and unwilling to be thwarted.
However, there may be more to his admiration of the books than his recognition of their acute satire. Aickman rarely himself deployed humour so overtly, but he was adept at implying his character’s self-delusions through their own thoughts and voices, and I suggest he may have learned some of this allusiveness from Creswell’s books. Lives may be markedly affected by untoward events: and the fine historical novelist Peter Vansittart, after long and liberal study, concluded that history was far more a matter of chance and confusion than of intent and plot. Creswell’s funny books, in their modest way, make exactly this point: things happen, quite dramatic things, because of a bumblesome sequence of unintended consequences. And that is often the implication of Aickman’s stories too.
We may sense that his characters could sometimes have taken more control of the rather desolate course of their existence. But it is rare in Aickman’s stories for his figures to take such decisive action: limits to their imagination or energy seem to prevent them. And there is also often a rather fatalistic implication that, even though things might have happened differently, his characters don’t know at any given moment what is the lever they should pull to avert the fate they do not want. In H B Creswell’s Jago book, the pulling of a few levers – well, wedges – might have made all the difference.
Checklist of Books by H B Creswell
Thomas (Nisbet, 1917)
Thomas Settles Down (Nisbet, 1918)
Marytary (Oxford University Press, 1928)
The Honeywood File: An Adventure in Building (Faber, 1929)
The Honeywood Settlement: A Continuation of The Honeywood File (Faber, 1930)
Jago versus Swillerton & Toomer (Faber, 1931)
Diary from a Dust-bin - Pre War (Faber, 1935)
Johnny and Marytary (Faber, 1936)
Grig (Faber, 1942)
Grig in Retirement (Faber, 1943)