Friday, January 14, 2022

An Interview with R B Russell - Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography

Tartarus Press have just announced the publication of R B Russell’s Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, the first full biography of this enigmatic author. Aickman’s character is in many ways as cryptic as his stories, and this fascinating study offers a lucid and even-handed assessments of his achievements, his idiosyncrasies, his aesthetics, his politics, his romances and his writing. We are pleased to present an interview with R B Russell about the book.

What was the most unexpected thing you found in researching the biography?

I don’t think there was any one particular surprise. Like Aickman’s stories, there was an accumulation of information that was often quite odd and unexpected, but which resonated with Aickman’s world view (“philosophy” is not quite the right word). He believed that art and aesthetics were of primary importance, and that the modern world had lost its way and was irrecoverable. If I was surprised by one thing, it was how strongly he held and expressed these views, but how he was not particularly successful in explaining or defending them. When called to do so, he relied on rhetoric and emotion, and often seemed to be simply finding excuses for his personal prejudices. Aickman usually cultivated those who were sympathetic to his outlook (which is quite natural), but was surprisingly content to shun those who might have challenged it.

I was very pleased, though, to answer some questions that had been bothering me for many years, such as was he really a Conscientious Objector in the Second World War, and what argument could he have possibly made to a Tribunal? . . . And while I loved his volumes of autobiography, I was never sure how much of them I could believe.  

Did you find that some details of Aickman’s life cast new light on his strange stories?

It was interesting to discover some of the places, people and situations that provided inspiration for his fiction. Usually this was just “colour”, or the starting point for a story, although, for example, ‘Sub Rosa’ was firmly based on a personal episode that he was happy to exploit. Aickman was rarely on firm ground when attempting to explain his views of the world in non-fiction, but in fiction he found a very persuasive vehicle for his romantic, idealistic, often reactionary way of looking at the world.

If Aickman gave an elevated place to art and the appreciation of beauty, do you see him mainly as an aesthete, in a similar tradition to those of the Eighteen Nineties?

He would have embraced the idea wholeheartedly! It is easy to see his love of beauty in his dedication to opera, the theatre, classical music, art and literature. But it also informed his view of the waterways of Britain. His reaction to them was almost entirely aesthetic, which is what put him at odds with many in the Inland Waterways Association, including his co-founder. L.T.C. Rolt’s prime aim was to make the waterways viable for the people who had traditionally worked on them. Aickman had a completely personal vision for the restoration of the waterways which was so idiosyncratic that he failed even to convey it to many of his supporters.

Contrastingly, you also show that Aickman saw himself as a capable leader and administrator, as shown in the inland waterways campaign. Do you think he ever quite resolved these two roles (aesthete/administrator)?

In some ways he did resolve them. He may have caused arguments and schisms, but he genuinely inspired many people who were happy to put long hours of often back-breaking work into helping him realise his aesthetic vision. It is a very unglamorous thing to say, but Aickman was himself capable of putting in a great deal of hard work in an attempt to realise his vision.

One of the themes that certainly resounds throughout your book is Aickman’s great capacity for friendship, particularly with women. And yet there is still, ultimately, an impression of melancholy, of loneliness. Was he really, do you think, an outsider?

In some ways he was a self-imposed outsider. His claims to a lonely childhood in The Attempted Rescue are overdone—he always had friends, and enjoyed company, but, presumably, he felt that few friends understood him properly. As for women, he had such unrealistic and ambitious expectations, while being a confirmed pessimist, that he could not have a satisfactory romantic relationship for long. (His time with Elizabeth Jane Howard was an ideal, but she could not put up with the demands he made on her.)

To widen the scope of your question, Aickman enjoyed being an outsider when it suited him. For example, he liked causing trouble to successive governments over the waterways because he had little time for politicians or democracy. He felt that he could most effectively agitate for change from the outside. But, in contrast, he was a confirmed snob and adored aristocracy and royalty. He would never have wanted to be a member of the House of Commons, but he would have happily accepted a peerage and joined the House of Lords.  

Some biographers end up appreciating their subject more, others come to dislike or even loathe them. Where have you ended up with Aickman?

I was aware that Aickman’s politics and reactionary way of looking at the world was the opposite to my own, but I admired his writing, and was impressed by what he had achieved with the I.W.A. The more I have learned about him, the more I disagree with many of his views, but my admiration for his undoubted achievements is undiminished. One thing that I have come to realise is that his pessimism must have caused him a great deal of pain. His sincere belief that the past was not just a different country, but a superior one, spoilt any capacity for happiness in the present. Through his writing and his work for the inland waterways he was striving to achieve a very personal utopia that he knew was impossible. He was such a pessimist that he must have taken some pleasure from knowing that he could never succeed in changing the world to his satisfaction.

(Mark Valentine)


  1. Interesting. Looking forward to having my opinions of Aickman right royally finessed.

  2. Ray, I'm very much looking forward to the new biography--which is, I suspect, a sentiment shared by every Aickman devotee. One can only hope that the book will lead to some press coverage and increased appreciation of Aickman's haunting stories. What these mean may often be elusive, but their imagery, tone and mystery leave one deeply shaken and stirred.