The Letters of J.R. Ackerley
The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley
In the early Thirties when Christopher Isherwood and I used to go every summer to Sellin on the Baltic island of Ruegen, we would walk on the beach discussing writers who had become legendary to us. A figure whom we much speculated about was J. R. Ackerley, author of a play called The Prisoners of War (rather inaccurately so, since it was about a group of English prisoners interned in a rather comfortable pension in Switzerland). What intrigued us about this play was its, for that time, extraordinarily open and candid, grimly ironic, treatment of the theme of homosexuality. Questioned by the young man who is the object of his passion about his attitude to “the fair sex,” the hero (obviously a self-portrait of the author) retorts: “Which sex is that?” In such a fragment of dialogue a writer seems to sum up an attitude which challenges some readers to reject him, others to make him the object of a cult.
The cult aspect of “Joe,” as everyone called him, scarcely seemed visible when, in common with other young writers, I got to know him in the mid-Thirties. He was then editor of The Listener, the weekly magazine published by the BBC. He was the least officious of editors, and he regarded the BBC, with its puritanical, dictatorial, arrogant but highly intelligent director-general, Lord Reith (as he later became), as farce. This did not prevent Joe from being the most conscientious of editors. One became friends with him at once. He was utterly candid, inimitably funny about himself, his sexual adventures, his work, his friends. Awareness of his own charm was part of his self-mocking style. He was serious, but resisted himself being taken quite seriously. One had the impression of someone whose life, far from conventional and respectable, was forever exposed under a bright strong light, and though there were crevices, and even crevasses, the effect was of a leveling out onto an exposed plane of his whole behavior. I cannot think of him as having any secret which he did not tell his friends, and even publish.
So it seems we were wrong if, when we read The Prisoners of War in Sellin, we supposed the author to have dark neo-post-Elizabethan secrets, like Thomas Lovell Beddoes in Bonn, a hundred years previously, in love with a baker’s boy. One does not imagine Beddoes laughing at himself; at any rate, not very much.
Ackerley’s second book, Hindoo Holiday, hailed everywhere as “a minor masterpiece,” seemed to define Joe as ruler of a province of that territory of British imagination in the twentieth century which might be described as E. M. Forsterland. It is the intensely amusing and precisely observed record of his employment in the court of a Maharajah—once, indeed, the employer of E. M. Forster, who had recommended Joe to him. Here Joe, very sympathetic to the natives, greatly entertained by that old humbug his employer, at odds with the officious British of the Raj …