The River Runs Uphill by Robert Aickman

With the intended change in status of British Waterways to charitable status the ideas of Robert Aickman, the founding chairman of the Inland Waterways Association, for a National Waterways Conservancy have become more relevant and certainly more discussed in the waterways press than of late. Indeed Waterways World recently ran a series on Aickman.

So what of Aickman’s most significant waterways book – The River Runs Uphill? I picked up a first edition late last year on ebay, read it, and then pondered long and hard before writing a review. From this you might guess that it hasn’t been easy to sum up my feelings about the book and you would be right.

The first thing to note is that this book is largely Aickman’s views of the early history of the IWA and it was only published posthumously in 1986, by Michael Pearson, after it had lain gathering dust at another publisher for several years. It was published to help celebrate the IWA's 40th anniversary.

The early years of the IWA were full of conflict between those who supported Tom Rolt’s more “pragmatic views” and those who supported Robert Aickman’s crusade. As a result you might have thought that the book would provide a fascinating insight into what occurred by one who was deeply involved. However, you would be wrong. The book is largely a mixture of the author’s philosophy of operating a campaigning organisation and historical notes abstracted from early IWA Bulletins. It does contain some interesting passages, particularly associated with the famous 1950 Market Harborough Rally, but even this section omits important details and skirts around several issues; a problem that runs throughout the book.

Michael Pearson, in his publisher’s note, appears somewhat at odds with the book, almost apologetic. He points out the Aickman heavily edited his original manuscript and that it contains “serious flaws” – not much of an advert. He expects the reader to “take the book as he or she finds it”. He does however claim it to be a minor masterpiece of its genre.

What are the flaws? Firstly, the key relationship between Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman is very sparsely and unevenly covered. He speaks highly of Rolt’s book “High Horse Riderless but not much else. Reading this book doesn’t provide any more revelations concerning the well-known difficulties that the two had; they are covered better elsewhere. Secondly, Aickman often name drops or at least appears to be cultivating relationships with the “great and the good” at what appears to be the expense of growing a mass membership for the IWA. Maybe because this is because he considered the IWA to be primarily a campaigning organisation and he was operating under the principle “it’s not what you know but who you know that’s important”. However, reading the book I became more and more annoyed at his attitude and by his elitist philosophy.

There is no reference at all to Robert Aickman’s wife Ray, who appears in plates in the book and was with him when he met Tom & Angela Rolt at Tardebigge. She is “airbrushed” out of the manuscript. He does however mention in adoring terms Elizabeth Jane Howard, who was then married to Peter Scott. Aickman was clearly besotted by her describing her as the most beautiful of women and like a creature from the Arabian Nights.

Several passages in the book are also devoted to ghost stories; Aickman published collections of ghost stories and wrote several. The stories don’t fit well in a book which essentially describes the early days of the IWA.

So what are its good points? Although the description of the Market Harborough Festival is less than adequate, the book highlights the role of theatre in the event. I for one did not realise the importance of this. The famous voyage in the wooden cruiser Ailsa Craig on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is well described in an interesting and enjoyable manner and the black and white plates, presumably selected by the publisher are very good.

Oh and the dust jacket, if you can find a copy with one, it is very attractive. Praising a book’s dust jacket must say something about a book. Pearson stated that “at worst the book frustrates attempts to read between the lines”. I got frustrated and I wasn’t reading between the lines.