15 July 2022
A researcher's story: using the Robert Aickman Archive at the British Library
by R.B. Russell, researcher, publisher and writer, who consulted the Robert Aickman Archive at the British Library and writes here of his experiences.
I first came across Robert Aickman (1914-1981) as the author of ‘strange stories’ (his own term), psychological tales that updated the traditional ghost story to the requirements of a more ‘knowing’ late twentieth century. I soon discovered that Aickman’s literary activities (he was also an editor of ghost story anthologies and wrote two volumes of autobiography) were just one part of his life. Another was his campaigning, largely successful, for the restoration of the inland waterways of Britain.
I was lucky enough to first see Aickman’s literary archive in 2014 when I visited his literary executor in Guiseley, West Yorkshire. At that time, Aickman’s manuscripts and typescripts were being stored in a spare bedroom. With my partner, Rosalie Parker, we produced an inventory of what was in the archive and we borrowed material to publish The Strangers and Other Writings (Tartarus Press, 2015) collecting together previously unpublished fiction and non-fiction. The Guiseley archive was ultimately acquired by the British Library in 2017. There are also collections of Aickman’s waterways papers at the National Archive in Kew and at the National Waterways Museum Ellesmere Port in Cheshire.
The more I found out about Aickman, the more interested I became in the man, and in 2020 I decided to write his biography. I realised there were several obstacles, however, and that any one of them might cause there to be a major shortcoming in the finished book. Until I started my research, though, I couldn’t be certain whether they were surmountable.
The first problem was one shared by all researchers—the pandemic. I couldn’t consult any of the archives I wished to visit, meet up with anyone who knew Aickman, or visit any of the sites associated with him. However, since the 1990s I had amassed more research material than I realised, and now I had the opportunity to read it! If anything, being confined to home was a blessing in disguise. As for interviewing Aickman’s old friends, they were very helpful and they now had the time to share information with me. Those who might otherwise have been wary of using modern technology were happy to make Zoom and Skype calls.
I had to wait for the archives to re-open here in the UK, but there was another small collection of important material at Bowling Green University in America. Even if I could travel there at some unspecified time in the future, I wasn’t certain I could justify the expense. When I contacted them, I discovered the librarians were able to make pdf copies (for a modest fee) of all that I needed to see.
After a year of intensive and productive research from home, I was confident that many gaps in my knowledge would be filled when the British Library re-opened. There were only two major lacunae that concerned me.
The first was my inability to read Aickman’s letters to his American agent, Kirby McCauley. This mine of useful information was in the hands of a rare book dealer in the US.
The second was any concrete information relating to Aickman’s claim that he had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War, exempted from any kind of war work. This seemed out of character, and his old friends suggested several alternative theories, none of which could be verified. It seemed unlikely I would ever clear this up because the majority of official records relating to conscientious objection have been destroyed.
In June 2021 Covid restrictions were lifted somewhat and Rosalie and I were finally able to travel from North Yorkshire to visit the British Library on the Euston Road in London. After our informal experience in Guiseley, I must admit that it seemed like an imposition to have to join the British Library in advance (in Wakefield), then to book tables in the reading room, and to have to book the material we wanted to see from the online catalogue. Pandemic restrictions meant that the number of items we could consult at any one visit was limited.
However, over three days Rosalie and I looked through everything we asked for, and because of the friendly efficiency of the staff, we were able to see a little more besides. Despite the restrictions, the atmosphere in the reading room was relaxed and comfortable, and it was brought home to me how important it is to have this vital material publicly accessible (not kept in bedrooms, or overseas, owned by rare book dealers). So much was still uncertain in the world at that time, but there was something reassuring about being inside the British Library with the background sounds of murmuring voices, pages turning, and pencilled notes being made. I filled in all the gaps in my knowledge that I had been aware of, and discovered additional important material, besides.
My preparation for the visit to the British Library (which felt very long-delayed) meant that I extracted the most out of the three days. And I also discovered in the various files of Aickman’s correspondence carbon copies of all his letters to his agent. They were as important as I had expected.
This left just that one unanswered question—Robert Aickman’s apparent conscientious objection. I felt I knew Robert Aickman’s beliefs and motivations well by this time, and it didn’t ‘fit’ with his personality. It was out of character in the same way that one item in the British Library catalogue seemed out of place. Tucked away in a folder, according to the catalogue, was an application by Aickman to work for the Civil Service. I called up this folder to discover that the item had been mis-described (it has since been corrected). Rather than an unlikely application to work for the Civil Service, it was Aickman’s application to be considered a conscientious objector, and the decision that had been made.
The biography came together at that point, although I still do not know what to make of the statement Robert Aickman submitted in support of his application for conscientious objection. He claims religious beliefs he does not profess anywhere else, and appears to contradict other statements he made. Whatever I may think of his justifications, he did receive the very rare judgement that he was exempt from any kind of war work.
My biography of Aickman was published in early 2022, as Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by Tartarus Press It contains extensive acknowledgements in alphabetical order, but if I had listed them in order of importance, along with Rosalie Parker, the British Library would have been towards the top.