November 4, 1896– J.R. Ackerley:
“Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs.”
I love canines. Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt that I like dogs more than people. I started collecting dog books around the time that The Husband and I got our first dog, “Baby Dog”, 34 years ago.
Two of my most favorite dog books, one a novel, and one a memoir, are by the fascinating Edwardian, British writer J. R. Ackerley: My Dog Tulip (1956), and We Think The World Of You (1960), both are beautifully written, heartwarming, and as always with dog stories, heartbreaking.
From 1935 -1959, Ackerley edited The Listener, the BBC’s weekly literature and arts journal. His skill and eclectic touch brought him recognition as one of his generation’s most brilliant editors. Among the cool contributors: E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender. Spender commented:
“Ackerley cared immensely about what books were reviewed, and by whom, and what poems he published. He encouraged young writers.”
Ackerley’s own output was just a single play, one novel, three volumes of autobiography, and a few of poems. His candor, frankness, and honesty would often upset his readers and friends. Late in life, he explained his position:
“To speak the truth, I think that people ought to be upset, and if I had a paper I would upset them all the time. I think that life is so important and, in its workings, so upsetting that nobody should be spared.”
My Dog Tulip (1956) tells the story of Ackerman’s dilemma after being stuck with a dog when his laborer/rough-trade lover was sent to jail. The novel recounts the troubling, erratic behavior, and specific canine tastes of the dog, Tulip, and Ackerley’s determined efforts to ensure an existence of perfect happiness for both of them and his ultimate love for the beautiful Tulip.
We Think The World Of You (1960) is a novelized version of the same story. It was made into a very good film starring Alan Bates and Gary Oldman in 1988.
My Dog Tulip was made into an excellent animated film in 2010, with smart voice work by Isabella Rossellini, Lynn Redgrave, and Christopher Plummer. Put it in your queue.
Ackerley’s memoir My Father And Myself (1968), starts with: “I was born in 1896 and my parents were married in 1919”. He was born Joe Ackerley, and later he took the middle name Randolph after an uncle. His father Roger Ackerley was a successful fruit merchant known as the “Banana King of London”.
His mother was an actor whom his father met in Paris. They had an intermittent relationship, although they had three children together. According to Ackerley, the family had: “…a butler, a gardener, and, evidently, a very good table”.
At school, Ackerley discovered he liked boys. His striking good looks earned him the nickname “Girlie”. Ackerley:
“…a chaste, puritanical, priggish, rather narcissistic little boy, more repelled than attracted to sex, which seemed to me a furtive, guilty, soiling thing, exciting, yes, but nothing whatever to do with those feelings which I had not yet experienced but about which I was already writing a lot of dreadful sentimental verse, called romance and love.”
His father gave him a generous allowance and never insisted that he follow him into business.
In October 1929 his father died of syphilis. Shortly afterward, Ackerley found a sealed note from his father addressed to him, which concluded:
“I am not going to make any excuses, old man. I have done my duty towards everybody as far as my nature would allow and I hope people generally will be kind to my memory. All my men pals know of my second family and of their mother, so you won’t find it difficult to get on their track.”
It turns out, his father had had a second family for more than 20 years.
Ackerley provided for his father’s second family without telling his mother, who died in 1946. For years, Ackerley was obsessed with his relationship with his father. Ackerley spent 34 years working on his final book My Father And Myself, where he reveals that his father was a gay hustler during his years in the Guards. When Ackerley tried to come out to him, his father interrupted with:
“It’s all right, old boy. I prefer not to know. So long as you enjoyed yourself, that’s the main thing.”
When World War I began, Ackerley served in the British Army. He was sent to France, where he was shot. After lying wounded in a foxhole for six hours, he was rescued and sent home. He volunteered to go back to the front. When his brother arrived in France in December 1916, Ackerley was his superior officer. His brother was killed in action in 1918, just two months before the end of the war. His brother’s death haunted Ackerley all his life; he suffered from terrible survivor’s guilt.
In May 1917 Ackerley was shot again. While he was waiting for help, the Germans took him prisoner. His play, The Prisoners Of War (1925), is about his captivity and his frustrated desire for another English prisoner.
After the war, he met gay writer E. M. Forster and other literary gays, but he was lonely, despite having lots of affairs. In 1924, feeling adrift, Ackerley turned to Forster for advice. Forster, who had just published A Passage To India, arranged for Ackerley to gain a position as secretary to the Maharaja of Chhatarpur.
Ackerley spent about five months in India, which was still under British rule. In his comic memoir Hindoo Holiday (1932), Ackerley tells how the Maharaja was gay. During those months, Ackerley had sexual relationships with two servants of the Maharaja.
During World War II, Ackerley lived in a small flat overlooking the Thames. He had a good job at the BBC and had grown tired of the promiscuity of his younger years. He was on a search for what he called an “Ideal Friend”.
In 1946, he acquired an Alsatian Shepherd named Queenie, a dog that became his primary companion of the next 15 years. These were his most productive years was a writer.
While never finding the Ideal Friend he wrote of (at least in human form), he had a few long-term relationships. Yet, basically Ackerley was a “twank”, a British term used by laborers, sailors and soldiers to describe a man who paid for sexual services. He described the ritual of picking up young guys in his books.
Forster told him: “Joe, you must give up looking for gold in coal mines” but it was through one of these rough trade lovers, Freddie Doyle, that Acklerley, at 49 years old, inherited Queenie, because Doyle was being sent to prison for burglary. This is the part of his story that is covered in We Think The World Of You.
He left the BBC in 1959, and visited Japan in 1960, staying with his friend, gay writer Francis King. Ackerley was very taken with the beauty of Japan and even more with Japanese men.
On October 30, 1961, Queenie died. Ackerley, who had lost a brother and both parents, described it as “the saddest day of my life”.
“I would have immolated myself as a suttee when Queenie died. For no human would I ever have done such a thing, but by my love for Queenie I would have been irresistibly compelled.”
In the years after Queenie’s death, Ackerley drank too much. His sister found him dead in his bed on a morning in June 1967, taken at 70 years old, apparently from heartbreak.
His books are worth the time. My Father And Myself, his rather shocking memoir was also made into a film, Secret Orchards (1979). E.M. Forster: A Portrait (1970) is Ackerley’s bio of his pal.
In his writing, Ackerley was adroit at oversharing. For one, he writes of his “fantastically promiscuous” sexual liaisons, always with himself fully clothed and his young trade fully naked, only oral, were ruined by premature ejaculation. For two: “My father’s penis was 12 inches long” was supposed to be the first sentence of My Father And Myself. The line was cut when it was published in 1968, a year after Ackerley had died.
All of Ackerley’s books are still in print.