Macropsia and Micropsia in Free Will


A CHOICE OF WEAPONS by Robert Aickman

“You must have heard that love doesn’t go by desserts.”

In the context, I assumed it should be ‘deserts’. Well, this desiccated Des at least would prefer the smell of desserts to the later one in this story of “charred bloaters.” Meanwhile, to unpick this astoundingly associative work (free association or determined?), it starts with a posh restaurant where there is  an ante-room with three-legged tables, presumably leaning against walls. And Malcolm, the main protagonist with an overt Macbeth connection, falls in love, by Aickmanly obsession, with a woman he sees in that ante-room who turns out — with the intermediary help of Dr Bermuda’s hypnotic ‘magnetic undermind’  — to be called Dorabelle and living in Arcadia Gardens in a house of sphinxes and a strangely slow servant — but, later, uncharacteristically  quick, too — called Gunter.

 Malcolm falls so deeply in love with Dorabelle that  he ups and leaves his fiancée Ann in the restaurant (who later consequently  commits suicide and becomes an oracle for us all) and follows  Dorabelle in a taxi to where she lives; she is mourning her father, but later deeming Malcolm to be her father’s tutelary reincarnation….

“You know very well you can know.” Please compare the problem solving in ‘Letters to the Postman’. And Dorabelle  embroiders what she considers to be beautiful stuff but which, in truth, contains  ugly tangles:  and she weaves a black veil for her coming marriage to a man she first found in a mirror. It is with this man that Malcolm ends up having a duel, with a choice of weapons. The dreaded tasselled cane, notwithstanding. 

Wine that gives a shell of sobriety. Her tapping heels hard to hear whilst he can hear a darting cat’s ‘furtive footfalls in patchy dimness’. It is Dr Bermuda, though, who fascinates me most. He believes in masticating and biting and fully digesting the woman one loves (please see elsewhere John Magwitch’s theories on the theme of cannibalism in Aickman.) Also, Lewis Carroll’s   micropsia/ macropsia in a room at Arcadia Gardens. And biscuits that are large enough for serving at the Hospice, I guess.  Dessert enough, I say! 

Even banknotes cram and stifle at best. The “vilest anti-climax”, of all…not to speak of the ‘orange-coloured fungus’… all of this story proving  ‘free will is an illusion’ by simply saying it!  Dorabelle’s embroidery thus duly unpicked, if not the whole of this astounding cat’s cradle of a story.

“‘Gunter seems a little under the weather. That cough . . .’
‘I know he’s slow. I’m sorry.’”

‘The ruined clock lay between them.”

All my reviews of Aickman:

The A to Z by Steve Duffy

A man generated with its own progression of letters into words, a man called Hugo, in the well-portrayed era of the 1980s, who “made a virtue of his own marginalisation.” Aickman might easily have named a protagonist Hugo, and at first I thought this story was a particularly effective, even playful, theme-and-variations upon Aickman’s ‘Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen’ (note, inter alia, the use of telephones etc. and, later, the use of a woman’s ‘mincing fingertips’ in this Duffy), but I soon realised it goes even beyond Aickman in its deceptively playful power. Believe me!
It has the naively sexual and lifely failed young man from Aickman’s ‘Letters to the Postman’ (reviewed by me only yesterday!) and similar obsessions …here with Hugo seeking out that ‘hidden clue’ scrawled into his London A to Z to renew contact with a past fling. Well, as this work compellingly progresses, I immediately airbrushed the mention of my old university up north, and I thought where has this terrifying story been all my life? I can only imagine I had airbrushed it if I had indeed read it before, i.e. blocked it into a form of denial. As I hope I will airbrush it again! As Hugo had himself airbrushed from his memory the previous experience of that past fling called Caroline and her ‘flatmate’ called Lucy. Anything else I tell you will be a spoiler. And indeed if I go into too much detail in public, I will not be able to airbrush it very easily for myself. Suffice to say, I loved its initial development of Hugo’s life up north and now in London, and its era-painting, and the plot mechanics regarding the A to Z, and the taxi man that finally took Hugo home. But some of the implications of its explicitly mentioned ‘muscle memory’ as to the nastinesses within it, ‘the something that becomes something else’, the reference to ‘camps of last resort’… well enough is enough! (Its ‘musky base note’, notwithstanding.)
Seriously, a classic.

My reviews of Steve Duffy:

‘The A to Z’ is in ’The Moment of Panic’:

Protocols of Romance in Aickman



“All the larks were holed that day. […] The larks were chiming to the pulses in his body; the waves whispering. […] The larks flew higher than ever. The waves lapped erotically.”

“They were in a region of unadopted roads, underdefined boundaries, random structures at uncoordinated angles.”

It is is usually down to any Aickman readers to help triangulate such regions of his work into a gestalt, I guess. Not least with this particular  story, where genders feint and prestidigitate across such underdefined boundaries — feints and prestidigitations between sister and brother, mother and son, man and woman, more specifically, here, a young postman and the peat-burning woman to whom he delivers letters and from whom he receives personal letters when they spring out of her literal letter “box”, a box where her letters are placed at the front door, these being missives about the husband who once turned up without her knowing who he was, just his name. There are mysterious protocols of ‘Your’ without an s and an x as a kiss, whether it be an initial as a name or the full name itself, at the end of the letters to each other. The woman seems to want to be rescued from this mysterious (uncouth?) husband and later to find a handsome Prince perhaps currently disguised as a dog. Equally, our callow GPO postman  (who happens to be the son of a GP) wants to find a woman to fulfil his even more mysterious  protocols of relationship and/or his physical expectations of romance. You see, he plants his face into his own mother’s bosom one day in the family kitchen and later allows his own sister to pull down her skirt in the expensive digs he hires  to house the woman to whom he delivers letters and from whom he receives letters. Except pulling down her skirt really means that his sister is pulling it down straight in a prudent spinsterish way while keeping it tightly belted at the waist! Ironically, when he later tells the woman whom he has rescued to take off her dress when alone with her in the digs, it is discovered that she is wearing more than one dress underneath. Every young man should take note, I guess. All of this taking place in an Aickman-like Holihaven seaside resort where the sea is so flat the tide never comes in, and the larks are now inaudible, I infer. All of it being an absurdist way to make some sense, some rhyme and reason, of the interaction between different genders in the days of yore when there was always a second delivery. A second meaning that creeps up on you like a letter dropping on the mat late in the afternoon, that you discover later and decide to leave ever unopened and unrequited. Meanwhile, in order to rescue you ‘little people’  from future temptation of coming in closer union with this story’s own delivery, below there is a harmless clue  as another quotation that I have endangered myself by digging it out  from the rest of it… The further need for any of you little people to triangulate coordinates from “deep beneath the praties” is thus obviated….

“Problems, if meant to be solved, solve themselves more effectively than we can solve them.”

All my reviews of Aickman:

The Forfeits of Bashan

“How agreeable to watch, from the other side of the high stile, this mighty creature, this fat bull of Bashan, snorting, champing, pawing the earth, lashing the tail, breathing defiance at heaven and at me … his heart hot with hate, unable to climb a stile.” – Rose Macaulay

 Robert Aickman considered Elizabeth Bowen to be “the most distinguished living practitioner” of ghost stories. And she happened to be a close friend of Rose Macaulay. Bowen has long been my favourite writer!

Elk and yak, the bulls of Bashan and of Babylon, mammoth and mastodon, they come trooping to the sunken sea, Lacus Mortis. Ominous revengeful zodiacal host! They moan, passing upon the clouds, horned and capricorned, the trumpeted with the tusked, the lionmaned, the giantantlered, snouter and crawler, rodent, ruminant and pachyderm, all their moving moaning multitude, murderers of the sun.” — ULYSSES by James Joyce (a book also with a section headed ‘Raising the Wind.’) 

And Thomas Mann had a favourite dog called Bashan about which he wrote one of his works. 

My photo of a Thames Barge also on route for Southend Pier.

RAISING THE WIND by Robert Aickman

“The din was like six mad bulls charging about and bellowing like Bashan. You will remember Bashan.”

No, but I do remember the bulls disguised as cows, or vice versa, in Aickman’s other Essex story HAND IN GLOVE, and the implications involved there, making it a strongly kindred work  (my review of it HERE). Now, after some research, I can see the connections with the Bible. And the wind that God makes in the same context of the Book of Amos. And this story is a brief gust of a story compared to his usual seeming attritional story  lengths elsewhere! And, indeed, I see this story as an ironic nod by an author at his own now perceived obsession in fiction with literary slowth, Zenoism aka nullimmortalis….

“; and I could imagine that speed could well be of the essence.” — here in RAISING THE WIND

compared with

“‘I’m not sure that time is the essence, Slow,’….”  — THE BREAKTHROUGH

A story of an insurance man as narrator raised from rest by a friend to accompany him in a commission to sail, two-handed, a Thames Barge along the estuary coast  in the area where I happen to live — from a stinky downtrodden port to another no doubt more salubrious one,  with a time deadline involved and if they didn’t get there duly on time there would be a financial forfeit! 

While they did succeed, they also somehow didn’t succeed! See what I mean by raising this story to read. It won’t take much of your time, I promise. 

The wind raised through the keyhole of a church door between the narrator and an old stinky woman blowing into each other’s mouth raises whatever power is then somehow bottled in a Chianti flask provided by the narrator,  later to help the sails of the barge fill with wind…. And the voyage then became  indeed ‘sweetly swift’, but leaving behind the church in a near ruinous mess. But their craft perhaps fares no better, by some act of ‘pandemonium’, I infer. A craft called Dorothea.

I mean, marriage drinks up all of our power of giving or getting any blessedness in that sort of love. I know it may be very dear—but it murders our marriage—and then the marriage stays with us like a murder—and everything else is gone.” — said by Dorothea Brooke in MIDDLEMARCH, probably the most famous Dorothea of all.

I simply know in my heart, from research, that Aickman was an enthusiast for Thomas Mann, but now I wonder what MIDDLEMARCH meant to him. It seems, in hindsight, now, and from what I have grown to know about his fiction and its themes, that it surely must have been an enormous influence on him!

“When I was a boy, confetti was at least confetti. Now it is great lumps of stuff, which lie about far longer than the tiny things ever did.”

I’d better now try halt this review before it grows longer than the story itself!

All my reviews of Aickman:

PS: That old photo above perhaps inadvertently the perfect expression of Aickman’s Zenoism!
Half and half again.

The Ornamental Waters

COMPULSORY GAMES by Robert Aickman

“‘But books take you away.’”

Here it is the buzzing Moth aeroplane that the book creates, not to take you away, but to stalk you as close to the loose slates of your roof as possible. And it sure did this to me many years ago I now recall, but I must have blocked it out or — perhaps more meaningfully in the context — airbrushed it till I foolhardily read it again just now, and without warning, it’s back there but this time under the roof of my head, seeking to airbrush equivalently its version of my own “implicit ghost”, I feel.

The satisfyingly complex story of the Trenwiths, Colin and Grace, husband and wife, living near Cromwell Rd and their endurance of the ‘boring’ Eileen McGrath, a widow and top civil servant with her own ‘lodestar’, the one who lives in oblique neighbourly contiguity with them, along with her invisible tenants — a story of aloneness and social differences and false fronts, and richly if darkly tantalising interactions between them. About the English and their use of laughter. Then there is Eileen’s one  attempt to co-opt Colin when Grace is abroad in India to visit a dying mother. But when Grace returns it is her instead who is co-opted by Eileen into an aviation project, resulting in the hunting of Colin by both or one of them — or by neither of them, as the small aeroplane is often seen flying without a pilot. It even hugs Colin’s trail on holiday by train to visit a country house, one whose “ornamental waters were full of sewage.” (My italics.)

Reading this story one tempts such airbrushing or subsuming upon oneself in a similar way, and so I am trying to get it off my chest again, and leaving it for you to deal with  by means of this review. Not a game, I assure you, but something definitely compulsory! Not sure whether it is a gender thing, whether any reader is more or less susceptible to reading it? But I sense it is a masochistic man who wrote it for married  men to read.  Unless you know different?

Probably the most important passage that Aickman ever wrote:

“A year ago, all the words that matter had suddenly changed their meanings and changed them for ever. Nor was this process of change going to cease. Colin felt that he would never even die. Rather was he to be endlessly dragged out of himself; moulded, melted, and miniaturized: while all the time, his real self remained entirely conscious but entirely powerless, like a discarded chrysalis still with feeling. A manikin was materializing while the man watched, having first been paralysed.”

The heads above the country house wall watching him at the end are probably all you readers. Me included, if I could but know. Or have all the words changed meaning yet again?

All my reviews of Aickman: