Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Last of Aickman?

Possibly the last writing Robert Aickman did for publication was a foreword to a book of canal poems, Echoes of a Canal Travelling Man by J.H. Burman (1981). His contribution is dated December 1980 and a note from J.H.B. follows: “On February 26th, when this booklet was still only in proof form, Robert Aickman died. Tributes to his inspiration and zeal for the waterways have been most adequately expressed elsewhere. He never saw this booklet complete, but I hope he would have approved. I add it, as my personal tribute, to those, from the thousands of waterway enthusiasts who will remember him.”

I came across this when I picked up a book of poems called Excalibur Immersed at the excellent bookshop at Gatehouse of Fleet, Galloway, thinking it was on some Arthurian theme. It was in fact a book of canal poems by J.H. Burman, and the writer of the foreword remarked that he was following an illustrious predecessor, since the previous volume by this poet was foreworded by Robert Aickman. There proved to be two other titles by J.H. Burman: one was Scantlings – Yet More Soundings from a Canal Travelling Man, but the first, which I soon sought out, was ‘Echoes…’. Mr Burman seems also to have written books of local Warwickshire history.

Aickman’s foreword begins in his characteristically opinionated and somewhat lofty style: “Strong links with general and universal culture have always seemed to me of the first importance to the waterways campaign, which has regularly tended to drift into the parochialism of minutiae.” Here he briefly makes it clear that he is not of the hobbyist or special interest approach to the canals: he wants them to be recognised as part of the very fabric of the country, and its arts and traditions.

He goes on to note that “Beyond doubt, the turning point in the entire escapade was the Market Harborough Festival of 1950”, since this brought together drama, art exhibitions, films, “a grand ball and a fireworks display” and “persons, often of eminence and influence, were attracted from far and wide”. This commentary illuminates Aickman’s approach to the campaign: to get the attention and support of those who could make a difference, by putting the canals in a wider context, and, incidentally, ensuring these movers and shakers had a good time. “No one who attended, prominent among them the present President of the Royal Academy, will ever forget the raree show,” he avers, in another characteristic Aickman assertion.

Perhaps recalling at this point the particular occasion for his foreword, Aickman next speaks of Mr Burman’s poems. These, he says, combine the knack of the “technicalities and the quasi-gypsy (but not gypsy) lingo of the cut” with that wider culture he has praised, for the poet has written parodies, for example of Masefield and de la Mare, of which “Max Beerbohm would not have been ashamed”. Like this leading figure in the field of the spoof, Mr Burman “enters into the original author’s inner life, going far beyond surface mannerism”.

This is perhaps a surprising observation to make of what may seem at first sight simply light-hearted imitations of the masters, substituting canal themes for theirs. But in fact Aickman’s observation is acute. The parodies get not only the particular lilt and rhythm of the originals but something of their innate quality. ‘Spring Fever’, for instance, after Masefield’s famous poem ‘Cargoes’ (“I must go down to the sea again”) doesn’t miss the shortened end-line of each stanza, deflating the more sonorous swing of the lines before.

And ‘The Old Mill’ (“with apologies to Walter de la Mare”) understands exactly how this dreaming poet’s work proceeds from impressions of loneliness and decay. “If ghosts exist,” Mr Burman says, in a brief note accompanying this piece, “they ought to be found in canal tunnels, or in long, dripping, overgrown, narrow cuttings. There can hardly be a lone steerer, who has not experienced the feeling that he is not alone.”

Aickman concludes his tribute to the poet and his book, apart from a conventional commendation, by commenting that they “capture to precision the waterways amalgam of physical effort, often a consequence of mere neglect on the part of authority; bliss in natural things; the curious joy of almost all boating in itself; nostalgia; and, impregnating the whole, crusade, all too much of it, when viewed down the years”. In this he was no doubt summing up, too, his reflections on his own long involvement with the waterways.

Mark Valentine

1 comment:

  1. I came across this little volume some years ago when tracking down Aickman's assorted non-fiction writings for my now defunct RA bibliography site. And as you say the introduction is classic Aickman.

    This is a lovely summary, Mark. I thought that no one else had come across the book before!