Sunday, November 21, 2004

Robert Aickman

Somewhere in my perambulations across the internet I found the name of Robert Aickman (1914-1981), a writer of what he referred to as 'strange stories' -- which are often referred to by others as ghost stories. And, among Aickman's non-fiction works, I found listed a book called The River Runs Uphill. Thinking that this might be an autobiography, I unearthed a copy from the archives of my local library.

Well, The River Runs Uphill is certainly autobiographical in nature. Written sometime in the 1960s, but not published until 1986, it tells mainly of Aickman's experiences in founding the Inland Waterways Association (IWA). The IWA was an organisation set up in 1946 (or so) by a group of true English eccentrics, and was dedicated to restoring England's derelict canals and other waterways to something like their old glory.

Aickman's book is chiefly of interest today in that it provides a wonderful case study of what it is like to become involved in the leadership of an entirely voluntary organisation which is dedicated to achieving something that runs contrary to existing government policy. The experience can, I think, be summed up by saying that banging your head hard, and repeatedly, against the nearest brick wall would be a lot more fun by comparison.

However, it is a measure of Aickman's achievement if I say that, from the very room where I sit writing these words, I can look across the valley and see boats of various sorts proceeding along the Kennet and Avon Canal, a waterway which was largely impassable as recently as thirty years ago. Now, thanks to the work of people like Aickman, it has been fully restored. Only last year Prince Charles came to the town to open some new part of it.

The River Runs Uphill does not tell us a great deal about Aickman's career as a writer. But there are mentions; the text includes various asides about literature and the arts in general. 'Literature,' he says at one point (and he was writing in the 1960s, remember) 'is palpably dying. Man, even the intellectual, is more and more ready to do without the written word.'

Later, he records producing a book of ghost stories in collaboration with the young Elizabeth Jane Howard, noting in passing that 'there are perhaps only twenty-five or thirty good ghost stories in European fiction'.

The chapters are mostly headed by quotations from various philosophers. Chapter VII, for instance, has this from Lao-Tzu: 'Whoever makes good progress in the beginning has all the more difficulty later on.' A good motto for writers to remember, I feel.

That Aickman was interested in the paranormal is made perfectly clear by several passages in the book. At one point, for instance, he tells of hearing (while trying to sleep on a boat) a number of strange noises. The most worrying of these was a sound like a mouse creeping about in straw. For some reason he, and his girl friend, found this terrifying, and Aickman tells us that he concluded that the noise 'related to psychic or mediumistic powers' in his girl friend, whom he refers to as X.

Miss X displayed other 'psychic gifts'. On one occasion, while they were both changing for dinner in Aickman's house, he looked at X's image in the mirror as she sat at a dressing-table. What he saw was an old woman with grey hair; though she was still unmistakably X. He never mentioned what he had seen, but some time later X told him that, one evening while in his house, she had looked in a mirror and seen herself as an old woman; the image seemed to last for quite some time, she said.

The book contains several other stories of paranormal events and experiences, many of them connected with the inland waterways of England, and reported by others as well as Aickman himself.

The regular users of the canals, those who made their living by operating barges on what remained of the waterway system in the 1940s, had an interesting way of dealing with dead bodies floating in the water; for the most part, they ignored them. Apparently, reporting a corpse in the canal would result in nothing but trouble and incovenience: having to give statements to the police, and being obliged to attend inquests. It was much better, the professionals considered, to let someone else have the fame and glory of finding a dead body.

This reluctance to accept the hassle of dealing with the drowned was not confined to bargees. Aickman describes how Geoffrey Percy, a friend of his, was once out birdwatching beside a lake when he saw a uniformed constable having some difficulty with a long pole. When Geoffrey drew nearer, he could see the body of a woman in the water; the constable was trying to move it.

'Let me help,' said Geoffrey. 'The two of us will soon get her out.'

'Get her out!' snorted the constable. 'I'm trying to work her into the next county.'

I have no difficulty whatever in believing this story because some years ago I read of a precisely similar occurrence in the memoirs of a journalist (Percy Cudlipp, if I remember rightly). As a young reporter, Cudlipp had stood on a bridge and watched several police officers and other officials doing their level best to get a body to move downstream, so that some other police authority should be stuck with all the paperwork and expense of dealing with it.

Nothing like that could happen today, I suspect, because of the mobile phone. The first person to find a body in a canal or river will immediately ring all their friends; this will be followed, if they happen to think of it, by a call to the police, and a crowd will have gathered long before any gentlemen in blue arrive on the scene. The TV cameras will not be far behind, as some enterprising soul will surely have rung them in the hope of earning a fee.

A little further (belated) research on my part reveals that Aickman did write a 'proper' autobiography, The Attempted Rescue, which looks intriguing. As for The River Runs Uphill -- it seems to be a rare book: copies cost £65 and upwards on abebooks. Volumes containing his 'strange stories' seem to be easier to find, thanks to Tartarus Press, and I will report back when I have read some.