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, adopts the role of a character in an E. M. Forster novel who is on the side of liberal angels.
Forster was, indeed, Joe’s closest friend. He had the greatest influence on Joe’s writing and his behavior, supported him with the utmost generosity in his hours of need, and loved him, though they never had any kind of “affair.” Joe modeled his prose style on that of Forster, as is evident even in so short a run as the first two sentences of the foreword to My Father and Myself: “The apparently haphazard chronology of this memoir may need excuse. The excuse, I fear, is Art.” Here the second sentence corrects the charge of haphazardness in the first sentence, is self-puncturing, conveys a slight jab at insensitive readers, and is a shared joke with those in the know. All that is very Forsterian.
Forster, with his code of “personal relations,” the “invisible values” of a chosen few of friends who recognize one another, sharing jokes and responsibilities, and of art, was a moral force, acting almost as a pin-pricking conscience, among brothers—fratribus. The letters which Joe wrote to contributors when he was editor of The Listener are excellent examples of the Forsterian ethic. They belong to E. M. Forsterland. They are open, candid, courageous, friendly, and always based on an implicit confidence between editor and contributor that what matters most is to maintain the highest literary standards.
The letters are always personal and at times almost excessively affectionate. Yet there is never the slightest suspicion that Joe would publish work because he likes the author or expects some favor of him. The basis of affection is agreement on values which, in literature, are outside “personal relations.” The editorial advantage that Joe got out of friendship was simply that he knew the best writers. He published reviews by E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Kenneth Clark. In a footnote to Appendix E of his excellent collection, Neville Braybrooke records that Joe once said to him: “I have been lucky with my team—in particular with Morgan [E. M. Forster] and Virginia Woolf. What they said really did matter. You could feel their impact.”
Forster in fact kept a sharp eye on The Listener, sometimes remarking to Joe: “How dull your magazine is getting.” (Any dullness was largely due to the fact that Joe had an officious senior editor sitting over him, who represented the Reith-indoctrinated BBC and with whom Joe was forever conducting a running battle about poems and stories which contained overt mention of sex.) But in his personal life Joe exhibited behavior which went beyond the pale of the Forster “good” character. One cannot, for example, imagine a Forster character being in love with his Alsatian bitch. And Joe had already begun to devote the greater part of his emotional attention to “Queenie,” his Alsatian bitch, before he retired from The Listener. After his retirement, he also began, deliberately and good-humoredly, to take to the bottle. Forster referred to Queenie as “that damned dog” and must sometimes have thrown up his hands in distress at Joe’s boredom and dejection, the grayness of his pleasures. But in a very practical way, by giving him money for trips to Greece and Japan, he alleviated Joe’s gloom, and he never ceased to show the utmost loyalty to him.
My Dog Tulip, We Think the World of You, and My Father and Myself, the books which Ackerley published after his retirement from The Listener (the last being published posthumously), though written with Forsterian stylishness and wit, do not belong to E. M. Forsterland. They extend what I called above “the cult aspect” of Ackerley’s writing, the cult here going beyond that of homosexuality to the rejection of human beings in favor of animals. Essentially they are strange and beautifully written books about the quest of the writer to discover in the external world some image which corresponds perhaps to an idealized narcissistic picture of himself which he has formed early in life.
The center of the writing of a “cult figure” is a personal secret, like the grain of sand in the oyster around which the pearl is organized. With Joe, it is true, the secret is made as accessible as possible—indeed, described in the most insistent physiological detail—but it remains a secret, nevertheless, in being an interest which only a very few readers are likely to share. Admirers of the cultist work feel that the grain of sand is provided by some very private experience in the writer’s life. In My Father and Myself Joe lets fall a remark which exhibits his own sense of his peculiarity:
To psychologists my love-life, into which I must now again go before continuing with my father’s, may appear somewhat unsatisfactory. It may be said to have begun with a golliwog and ended with an Alsatian bitch; in between there passed several hundred young men, mostly of the lower orders.
This is put in a frivolous way, the frivolity being part of Joe’s self-denigration; but the remark is saved by its indicating that his love-life was a quest: and the passage also suggests that the quest was in search of lost innocence.
The quest is the subject of all his books except perhaps Hindoo Holiday. In My Father and Myself, it is set up as his search for his father, Roger Ackerley. The occasion which provided the initial impulse for this particular search was Joe’s receiving, after his father’s death in October 1929, two letters which his father had left in his office to be delivered posthumously to Joe. In the first of these, Roger Ackerley wrote: “Now for the ‘secret orchard’ part of my story. For many years I had a mistress and she presented me with twin girls ten years ago and another girl eight years ago. The children are alive and are very sweet things and very dear to me. They know me only as Uncle Bodger….”
Joe was not greatly concerned with this information. Regarding this second family, he felt “no interest or curiosity about them; I was leading a homosexual life, totally indifferent to girls.” He had met Muriel Perry, the mistress, once in his father’s sickroom at the hotel on the English south coast, when his father was dying. To him she was “a tall rather coarse-looking woman to whom I did not take,” but he noticed that she was clearly fond of his father, addressing him as “dear” and “dearest.” Her appearance out of some remote past, as a nurse, seemed to him almost miraculous, as his own mother (Roger Ackerley’s legitimate wife) could not bear to visit his father on his deathbed. Nor did she attend his funeral.
However, it was not until five years after his father’s death that Joe seriously became interested in putting together a real person to replace the conventional picture in his mind, formed when his father was alive, of “the paterfamilias, the respectable, dull, suburban householder, the good, poor, old dad.” He records various occasions when he was with his coarse-grained, barroom-story-telling, kindly father—very much the “Uncle Bodger” of the other family—all of them illustrating the lack of any real communication between father and son. Roger Ackerley clearly regarded Joe as an intellectual giant and literary genius, and was a bit afraid of him.
One doubts though whether this elderly heterosexual, approaching the tertiary stage of the syphilis which he had contracted as a young man in Cairo, was really the father who was the object of Joe’s quest. It was another father, a young man, almost a boy, whom he was looking for. Significantly, if off-handedly, Joe explains that he started looking for the “mystery man” his father “for want of something to occupy such leisure time as was not spent at the BBC or prowling the streets.” But the street-prowling and the search for his father both had the same end in view: the image of a beautiful young man. Joe was not so much concerned with recollecting the father whom he had now discovered to be “Uncle Bodger” as with “uncovering the part of the picture which still lay in darkness.”