Friday, 1 December 2017

Aickman at the British Library: A Symposium

Our panel of 6, plus the 7th who moved unseen among us. (Photo: Chris Power)

Our Aickman evening at the British Library was, I believe, something of a success. At least, I like to imagine the man himself was with us in spirit, wearing the smile that a ghost would wear while we sang his praises. To be a ‘neglected’, ‘cult’ author is of course to be a bit of a phantomic presence, a perpetual ghost at the feast of English letters, maybe doomed to walk the earth forever unwelcomed. But Aickman is now a kind of fixture in the nation’s great library, and that’s not nothing, as they say in showbiz.

We tried to summon him right from the start of the night by playing a small audio clip of him reading, very characteristically, from ‘Bind Your Hair.’ (In a letter to Ramsey Campbell of June 1978, now lodged in the BL archive, Aickman writes: ‘I always read each story aloud to a [certain] selected person... There is nothing like reading aloud for the tidying up of stylistic shortcomings.’)

Then Ramsey himself spoke, reading from the memoir The Attempted Rescue in which Aickman praises the mountain-film era Leni Riefenstahl at vivid length and makes a tortuously felt effort to exonerate Riefenstahl of her later closeness to the Nazis. It was an astute way for Ramsey to open a window on Aickman’s unbending opinions – mostly of an artistic nature, some of them expressed in political conservatism. He was – to put it mildly, though it was put so on several occasions during our evening – a man out of time, who felt himself born in the wrong age.

Reece Shearsmith’s reading from ‘The Hospice’ could have lasted all night, such was the pleasure it stirred; and Jeremy Dyson’s turn with ‘Wood’, a superb if less-celebrated story replete with a secluded village and some sinister corn dollies, showed very well why The League of Gentlemen, as well as the contemporary turns both in English nature writing and supernatural writing, are really rather Aickman-esque.

In the end I had to ask the panel: here is a superb writer, a writer’s writer, writing (whether he disdained it or not) in one of the world’s most popular genres – why, then, is he still not better known? One reason, perhaps, is now to be found in the BL archive: a letter to a literary agent in which Aickman distinguishes between ‘entertainers’ who ‘write for a specific market’ and ‘artists’ who ‘write in response to a voice inside them.’ Aickman refused to sell out, whether or not anyone was buying. His friend Jean Richardson told me that he steadfastly refused to inject his stories with ‘more subtle sadism’ of a sort that might have served to ring the mainstream bell. No tears, then – for Aickman did what he wanted to do, and the outcomes earned him undying respect, that elusive immortality that many an artist will dream of.