My Father and Myself
by J.R. Ackerley
Coward-McCann, 219 pp., $5.00
My first reason for wishing to review this book is that it gives me an opportunity to make public acknowledgment of a debt which not only I but many writers of my generation owe to Mr. Ackerley. He informs us that he became Literary Editor of The Listener in 1935, but of his work there he says not a word. Those of us, however, who were starting our literary careers at the time have very good cause to remember how much he did for us: The Listener was one of our main outlets. More surprisingly, he says nothing about his intimate friends in the literary world, of whom there were many, including E. M. Forster. He says that he went to work for the BBC because he felt he had failed in his ambition to become a writer himself. On first reading this statement seems absurd: though he published only four books in his lifetime, all were enthusiastically received by the reviewers, and are just as good reading today as when they first appeared. I think, though, I understand what he means, namely, that he discovered that he could not create imaginary characters and situations: all his books were based on journals, whether written down or kept in his head.
In My Father and Myself, Mr. Ackerley strictly limits himself to two areas of his life, his relations with his family and his sex-life. His account of the latter, except for its happy ending, is very sad reading indeed. Few, if any, homosexuals can honestly boast that their sex-life has been happy, but Mr. Ackerley seems to have been exceptionally unfortunate. All sexual desire presupposes that the loved one is in some way “other” than the lover: the eternal and, probably, insoluble problem for the homosexual is finding a substitute for the natural differences, anatomical and psychic, between a man and a woman. The luckiest, perhaps, are those who, dissatisfied with their own bodies, look for someone with an Ideal physique; the ectomorph, for example, who goes for mesomorphs. Such a difference is a real physical fact and, at least until middle age, permanent: those for whom it is enough are less likely to make emotional demands which their partner cannot meet. Then, so long as they don’t get into trouble with the police, those who like “chicken” have relatively few problems: among thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys there are a great many more Lolitas than the public suspects. It is when the desired difference is psychological or cultural that the real trouble begins.
Mr. Ackerley, like many other homosexuals, wanted his partner to be “normal.” That in itself is no problem, for very few males are so “normal” that they cannot achieve orgasm with another male. But this is exactly what a homosexual with such tastes is unwilling to admit. His daydream is that a special exception has been made in his case out of love; his partner would never dream of going to bed with any other man. His daydream may go even further; he may secretly hope that his friend will love him so much as to be willing to renounce his normal tastes and have no girl friend. Lastly, a homosexual who is, like Mr. Ackerley, an intellectual and reasonably well-off is very apt to become romantically enchanted by the working class, whose lives, experiences, and interests are so different from his own, and to whom, because they are poorer, the money and comforts he is able to provide can be a cause for affectionate gratitude. Again, there is nothing wrong with this in itself. A great deal of nonsense has been spoken and written about the sinfulness of giving or receiving money for sexual favors. If I may be forgiven for quoting myself:
Money cannot buy
the fuel of Love,
but is excellent kindling.
No, the real difficulty for two persons who come from different classes is that of establishing a sustained relationship, for, while a sexual relationship as such demands “otherness” any permanent relationship demands interests in common. However their tastes and temperaments may initially differ, a husband and wife acquire a common concern as parents. This experience is denied homosexuals. Consequently, it is very rare for a homosexual to remain faithful to one person for long and, rather curiously, the intellectual older one is more likely to be promiscuous than his workingclass friend. The brutal truth, though he often refuses to admit it, is that he gets bored more quickly.
For many years, Mr. Ackerley was a compulsive cruiser:
In spite of such adventures, if anyone had asked me what I was doing, I doubt if I should have replied that I was diverting myself. I think I should have said that I was looking for the Ideal Friend. Though two or three hundred young men were to pass through my hands in the course of years, I did not consider myself promiscuous. It was all a run of bad luck…What I meant by the Ideal Friend I doubt if I ever formulated, but now, looking back, I think I can put him together in a negative way by listing some of his disqualifications. He should not be effeminate, indeed preferably normal: I did not exclude education, but did not want it, I could supply all that myself and in the loved one it always seemed to get in the way; he should admit me but no one else; he should be physically attractive to me and younger than myself—the younger the better, as closer to innocence; finally he should be on the small side, lusty, circumcised, physically healthy and clean: no phimosis, halitosis, bromidrosis…. The Ideal Friend was always somewhere else and might have been found if only I had turned a different way. The buses that passed my own bus seemed always to contain those charming boys who were absent from mine; the ascending escalators in the tubes fiendishly carried them past me as I sank helplessly into hell…. In the “thirties” I found myself concentrating my attention more and more upon a particular society of young men in the metropolis which I had tapped before and which, it seemed to me, might yield, without further loss of time, what I required. His Majesty’s Brigade of Guards had a long history in homosexual prostitution. Perpetually short of cash, beer, and leisure occupations, they were easily to be found of an evening in their red tunics standing about in the various pubs they frequented, over the only half-pint they could afford or some “quids-in” mate had stood them. Though generally larger than I liked, they were young, they were normal, they were working-class, they were drilled to obedience; though not innocent for long, the new recruit might be found before someone else got at him; if grubby they could be bathed, and if civility and consideration, with which they did not always meet in their liaisons, were extended to them, one might gain their affection.
Frank as he is, Mr. Ackerley is never quite explicit about what he really preferred to do in bed. The omission is important because all “abnormal” sex-acts are rites of symbolic magic, and one can only properly understand the actual personal relation if one knows the symbolic role each expects the other to play. Mr. Ackerley tells us that, over the years, he learned to overcome certain repugnances and do anything to oblige but, trying to read between the lines, I conclude that he did not belong to either of the two commonest classes of homosexuals, neither to the “orals” who play Son-and/or-Mother, nor to the “anals” who play Wife-and/or-Husband. My guess is that at the back of his mind, lay a daydream of an innocent Eden where children play “Doctor,” so that the acts he really preferred were the most “brotherly,” Plain-Sewing and Princeton-First-Year. In his appendix, he does tell us, however, that he suffered, and increasingly so as he got older, from an embarrassing physical disability—premature ejaculation with the novel and impotence with the familiar. O dear, o dear, o dear.
But then, when he was nearly fifty, a miracle occurred. He acquired an Alsatian bitch named Tulip. (Had Fate sent him an Aureus dog instead of a Lupus, there would have been no miracle.)
She offered me what I had never found in my sexual life, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion. She placed herself entirely under my control. From the moment she established herself in my heart and my home, my obsession with sex fell wholly away from me. The pubs I had spent so much of my time in were never revisited, my single desire was to get back to her, to her waiting love and unstaling welcome. I sang with joy at the thought of seeing her. I never prowled the London streets again, nor had the slightest inclination to do so. On the contrary, whenever I thought of it, I was positively thankful to be rid of it all, the anxieties, the frustrations, the wastage of time and spirit. The fifteen years she lived with me were the happiest of my life.
Very fittingly, My Father and Myself is dedicated to her.
In considering the story of his relationship to his father, let me begin by making two chronological lists.
Needless to say, it was only by degrees that the son discovered some of the more startling facts about the father’s life. He tells us that he learned of his illegitimacy (curiously enough, his maternal grandmother was also illegitimate) from his sister, who had heard it from his mother, but he does not say if this discovery was made before or after the marriage. There was, on the face of it, no reason to suspect such a thing. The children were given the name Ackerley and even Roger’s business partner, Stockley, believed there had been a registry-office marriage. Though for the first few years, he seems to have been “a week-end father,” who only paid them occasional visits, he set up house with them in 1903 and was as attentive and generous to both the children and their mother as they could possibly have wished.
Of his father’s second family, Mr. Ackerley only learned from a letter he left to be opened after his death, requesting his son to make certain financial provisions for them. For Muriel’s children he had shown less paternal concern.
The birth of the twins was registered by him under an assumed name, he borrowed the name of his mistress; the youngest girl was never registered at all. They were all stowed away in a house near Barnes Common in care of a Miss Coutts. Through dietary ignorance or a desire to save his pocket, she fed them so frugally and injudiciously that they all developed rickets. They had no parental care, no family life, no friends. Their mother whom they did not love or even like, for she had less feeling for them than for her career and reputation, seldom appeared; the youngest girl does not remember to have seen her at all until she was some ten years old. But three or four times a year a relative of theirs, whom they knew as Uncle Bodger and who jokingly called himself William Whitely, the Universal Provider, would arrive laden with presents. This gentleman, almost their only visitor, they adored. He would come in a taxi with his load of gifts (sometimes with a dog named Ginger, who had perhaps provided him with a pretext for the visit: “I’m taking the dog for a walk,” and who, since he was our dog, was also therefore another conspirator in my father’s affairs, had he but known it.
Then, even after learning from his landlord, Arthur Needham, that the Comte de Gallatin was not only queer but a bold cruiser of Guardsmen, it was only after his father’s death that he began to wonder about this friendship and its break-up. It must have been odd to realize that, had some Time Machine monkeyed with their time-spans, it might well have been a thirty-year-old Joe who picked up a twenty-year-old Roger in a bar, and for a short while believed he had found the Ideal Friend.
The Fruit Business did extremely well, so that the household enjoyed every comfort. There was a butler, a gardener, and, evidently, a very good table. Ackerley Senior had an Edwardian appetite in food and drink with all the risks to health which that implies. Like King Tum-Tum, he had to take the waters every year, in his case at Bad Gastein.
As a father, aside from a distressing habit of telling dirty stories, for which he must be excused because it was the convention among his business colleagues, he seems to have been all that a son could reasonably hope for. To begin with, he was good-tempered.
Even in family quarrels, he seldom intervened, he did not take sides and put people in their places. Whatever he thought, and it was easily guessed, for the faults were easily seen, he kept to himself until, later, he might give it private expression to me in some rueful comment.
Unintellectual businessmen who find they have begotten a son who wants to become a writer are apt to be bewildered and resentful, but he gave his own a liberal allowance and never attempted to make him go into the family business or even take some regular job.
Then he was unshockable. In 1912 he told his two sons that
in the matter of sex there was nothing he had not done, no experience he had not tasted, no scrape he had not got into and out of.
At the same time, and this seems to me to have been his greatest virtue, he was never nosy. It is quite obvious, for example, that he knew perfectly well what his son’s sexual tastes were. In view of some of the characters the latter brought to the house, he could hardly have helped knowing.
There was a young actor who rendered my father momentarily speechless at dinner one evening by asking him, “Which do you think is my best profile, Mr. Ackerley”—turning his head from side to side—”this, or this?”; there was an Irishman with a thin, careful curled cyclindrical fringe of a moustache and black paint around the lower lids of his eyes, who arrived in a leather jacket with a leopard-skin collar and pointed purple suede shoes; and an intellectual policeman. “Interesting chap,” said my father afterwards, adding, “It’s the first time I’ve ever entertained a policeman at my table.”
I don’t think Mr. Ackerley ever fully appreciated this aspect of his father’s character. Speaking for myself, I would say that between parents and their grown-up children, the happiest relation is one of mutual affection and trust on the one hand, and of mutual reticence on the other; no indiscreet confidences on either side. In the following dialogue, it is the father, surely, who shows the greater wisdom and common sense.
“I’ve got something to tell you, Dad. I lied to you about Weybridge. I didn’t go there at all.”
“I know, old boy. I knew you were lying directly I asked you about the floods.”
“I went to Turin.”
“Turin, eh? That’s rather farther. I’m very sorry to have mucked up your plans.”
“I’m very sorry to have lied to you. I wouldn’t have done so if you hadn’t once said something about me and my waiter friends. But I don’t mind telling you. I went to meet a sailor friend.”
“It’s all right, old boy. I prefer not to know. So long as you enjoyed yourself, that’s the main thing.”
Like all of us, Mr. Ackerley had his cross to bear, but I simply do not believe he was as unhappy as his habit of glooming led him to imagine. How many people have had so understanding a father? How many have found their Tulip? How many have written four (now five) good books? How many have been in the position to earn the affectionate gratitude of a younger literary generation? No, he was a lucky man.