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.”
When, as a result of appeals to people who had known Roger Ackerley as a young man, the darkness was partly uncovered, it revealed two photographs of a remarkably handsome young guardsman. Joe already knew that his father had run away from his home to join the Household Cavalry in 1879. But he did not know how this impecunious runaway youth had become transformed into “the cultivated, urbane, travelled and polished young man of the world with £2000 a year” who married his mother and who became the enormously successful director of a firm of fruit merchants, known to his cronies as “the Banana King.”
Joe’s researches revealed that when he was a guardsman Roger Ackerley had been taken up by two men: the first bequeathed him £500 and the second, who bore the fictitious-sounding name of the Count de Gallatin, to all intents and purposes adopted him, and then broke with him, with bitter recriminations, when he married the lady who was the predecessor of Joe’s mother. Joe discovered the Count de Gallatin to have been a notorious homosexual. Joe also confirmed, from reading a book of erotica about London, published in 1881, that already at that date the guardsmen who frequented Monkey Walk were notoriously accessible to wealthy gentlemen for sexual purposes. Thus the real purpose of Joe’s search was to prove that his father had been at some time a homosexual like himself. He could fall in love with a father whom he might, in fantasy, have picked up.
There is nothing of this aspect of Roger Ackerley’s life in The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley, by Diana Petre, Joe’s half-sister, the daughter of Muriel Perry, their father’s mistress (Joe’s mother was also his father’s mistress for the first twenty-five years of their cohabitation). In Diana Petre’s book, as indeed in much of Joe’s, “Uncle Bodger” appears as stridently heterosexual: as, indeed, I am sure he was, Joe’s researches having caught the very tip of an early phase of homosexuality, which was like a previous incarnation. Roger Ackerley seduced Muriel when she was barmaid at a hotel near his offices in Covent Garden. After Muriel had borne him twin girls and Diana, Roger Ackerley set her up in a separate establishment and packed the twins off to a house where they were care-taken by a formidable Scotch housekeeper.
During the First World War, Muriel had an almost heroic career mothering, nursing, and tending soldiers. Eventually this took her to the Italian Front where she was much admired by the Duke of Aosta. After the war she suddenly threw up what seems to have been a rather successful demi-monde existence, turned up on the doorstep of the house where her three illegitimate daughters were ensconced with the Scotch housekeeper, shut herself up with these three children, and embarked on the role of a misunderstood and alcoholic mother. The family was occasionally visited by the man whom the children were told was their Uncle Bodger.
If Joe’s life at The Listener was that of an inhabitant of Forsterland, the world which Diana Petre describes in The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley is that vague gray area of English middle-class life which Henry James grasped so wonderfully in nouvelles such as What Maisie Knew and The Pupil, where the sheet anchor of respectability consists simply in not belonging to the working class. The following is one of those anecdotes which, dropped into Henry James’s ear by a neighbor at some dinner party, would have burgeoned into a master-piece of social ambiguities. Diana, as a schoolgirl, occasionally brought home echoes of things said at school:
At another weekend lunch I said: “Mummy, are we common?”
….Muriel’s face went a burning red, and it was a second or two before she could formulate words.
“Common, indeed! COMMON!” She kept repeating the word. And then she couldn’t stay seated any longer…. We had never seen her so agitated. And who, she soon wanted to know, had made a suggestion like that?
One of her schoolmates had said to Diana:
“You’re something beginning with C”…common.
Muriel went on pacing in the small room.
“Your father came of good yeoman stock,” she kept repeating, “the backbone of England. Ask anyone. Common, indeed. I’ve never heard anything like it….”
…She never touched on her own antecedents that day…. I failed to notice this interesting omission….
Vagueness of social status, of connections, of sources of income; secrets clutched to the hearts of damaged, sultry-looking women lying in seedy hotel bedrooms with blinds drawn and a bottle open on the bedside table; strange hiatuses, such as Roger Ackerley’s forgetting to marry Joe’s mother for twenty-five years; omissions of putting contraceptives on or in (all births are accidental); illegitimacies proliferating: these make up this world which is full of shabbiness and pathos. Diana Petre gives an unforgettable portrait of Muriel’s life, with the center of it a passionately withheld secret. When World War II broke out, this mysterious woman went back to nursing soldiers.
Uncle Bodger would of course make splendid Jamesian material. The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley is the memoir Maisie might have written; Joe is the beautiful, poetic, infinitely sensitive, miraculously cultivated and perfectionist twelve-year-old victim of such a world, forced to run down endless corridors in which he is forever seeking the mirror of his own desolatingly isolated face—a mirror image perhaps to be found in the Ideal Friend.
With James, such young doomed heroes suddenly drop dead, in the middle of a sentence, on a floor of stone. The artistic reason for this is that, unless perhaps in art itself, there is no future for them except that of an emotional situation which repeats itself endlessly like a recurring decimal. In childhood or adolescence their sensibilities have been keyed up to a point beyond which when they are grown men they will not be able to develop; therefore they have always to go back to that moment when the utmost innocence coincided with the utmost capacity of expression. The rest of life is an attempt to reach that pitch of intensity.
Joe’s descriptions of his own sex life—the progression from the golliwog to the hundreds of young men to the Alsatian bitch—is also a recurring decimal. The young men whom he took home were difficult to distinguish from one another, and when they got home nothing very much happened. Sometimes, indeed, nothing at all happened, because Joe, who experienced premature ejaculation, had attained his pleasure before his friend was undressed. This tendency surely suggests that by temperament he wished to dispose of sex as quickly as possible and attain a relationship at once innocent and aesthetically beautiful. Nakedness was of course a desideratum because the Edenic innocent walk naked. But Joe could not go to bed with friends with whom he shared intellectual interests, or who were of his own class. Looking at his Alsatian bitch, he writes, “sometimes I used to think that the Ideal Friend, whom I no longer wanted, should have been an animal-man, the mind of my bitch, for example, in the body of my sailor, the perfect human male body always at one’s service through the devotion of a faithful and uncritical beast.”
In We Think the World of You Ackerley describes the transference passion of the hero, Frank (whose situation was certainly Joe’s, though he is anxious to deny that this character is a self-portrait), from Johnny, a delinquent—beautiful but corrupt—to an Alsatian bitch. The book is a disturbing case history but also a despairing parable of modern life: as though Wordsworth, looking for integrity of nature and mind among Cumberland shepherds, was driven to conclude that he could only find these noble qualities among their sheep dogs.
Johnny is sent to prison for committing a burglary. While there he asks Frank to keep an eye on his Alsatian bitch which is in the care of his wife and family. Doing so, Frank becomes more and more outraged at their ill-treatment and neglect of the dog, which seems to him an infliction of their degradation, slovenliness, and gross manners on the beautiful and charming animal. He takes the animal away from the family, and, when Johnny gets out of prison, also from him. He comes to realize that he is in love with Johnny because the boy retains under all that is awful about him an innocent animality which he shares with the dog. Watching them together, Frank sees this innocence of being that is reciprocal:
It was, I always thought as I watched, with a passionate participation, these passionate demonstrations of her love, a proof both of his tenderness towards her and of the essential sweetness of his nature that he never turned his face aside. Over his beautiful lips and eyes, into his nostrils, the dog’s tongue would go, as though she could not lick him enough, as though she, too, knew how delicious was the taste of his flesh, and he never drew back or turned his face away, but let her lick her fill.
However when this beautiful and innocent creature opens his mouth to speak, the English he talks is that of his ruinous wife and family. When Frank goes to visit him in prison, Johnny says:
” ‘Ow ‘ave you been keeping, Frank?” “All right. And you?” He made a grimace. “Browned off. I’m weel in meself though.” Then almost at once: ” ‘Ave you seen ‘er lately, Frank?”
We Think the World of You is very far from Forsterland. Yet whatever one thinks of the conclusions drawn, it is, almost incidentally, a very literal portrayal of an English working-class family. At the end, Ackerley is describing a world in which the animals are better than the people, and are, moreover, increasingly their victims. There may be crankiness, even a certain madness in this, and at the end of his novel, the idyll of Frank alone with his dog in his room, from which he has barred a female relation who shares the apartment with him, becomes suddenly terrifying and “leads me into dark waters, too deep for fathoming; it leads me into the darkness of my own mind.”
In the letters he wrote at the end of his life Joe denies that he has become misanthropic; and indeed, articulate and amusing as they are, the letters themselves are strong evidence that he had not turned against personal relations. However they are often concerned with describing attitudes to animals which do raise the question of misanthropy. Letters about the injured sparrow which he nursed back to life in his apartment, the friends’ cats which he would visit and sit up with when the friends were away, suggest that he is a partisan of the persecuted animals against the whole race of human beings.
The letters also confirm the impression all his books produce—that under all his considerateness, kindness, affection, and conscientiousness he does not really like people very much. If one compares his lack of patience with a beautiful-bodied boy he picked up when he found that the boy’s accent was less perfect than his body, or that his feet were smelly, with his patient concern for a sick seagull, one seems to detect something deeply flawed in Joe’s attitude, a flaw perhaps of sentimentality. This may be so, yet may not his partisanship of the cause of animals against that of human beings have been a response to a modern situation in which the animal population of the world is being exploited by the human one with a callous disregard for the animals as living creatures entitled to enjoy their existence in natural surroundings?
Ackerley thought of life as some vivid activity, the most important of values wherever and in whomever it existed, regardless of class, or race, and even of species. If one considers it neurotic of him to have felt in this way, the neurosis may have been the result of his having been a soldier, a prisoner, and later an intern in the First World War. In The Prisoners of War, the hero, rejected by his male lover, is left loving a plant which, as Joe himself later thought, might have foreshadowed the author’s affection for “my dog Queenie.”
But what was subjectively neurotic in origin could be said to have had its counterpart in the state of the world toward the end of Joe’s life. Despite the long history of the cruelty of human beings to animals it has been a tradition of civilization to regard the well-being of animals as the responsibility of people. As far as possible animals should be allowed, in nature, to enjoy their nature. What horrified Joe was the denaturalization today of the environment in which animals live in cruelly artificial conditions created for them by human beings who sell and consume them. The ox and the lamb are reduced to the status of their own fodder. The excuse for this is, of course, the pressing demands of human overpopulation. But overpopulation is man’s responsibility. And from Joe’s point of view, in a world reduced to a ruthless war of exploitation by man of animals—as indeed of all natural resources—what we call Nature becomes a wronged and oppressed interest in a struggle against human beings.
In these circumstances, he took sides with the animals against the human beings. As he wrote to Geoffrey Gorer in September of 1966:
I have no animus against the human race, I simply want it painlessly but drastically reduced, for I don’t believe it will ever reduce itself. I don’t want a nuclear war, it would destroy the animals and our treasures, which I wish to preserve. I want a beautiful plague, a human scourge, which would take off in a jiffy three-quarters at least of the entire population.
Of course, thinking along these lines leads to madness, but sometimes I have a nightmare that today human beings are the subjective agents or midwives of an objective madness, in which the mineral and animal resources of nature are blindly being destroyed. At such moments it strikes me as remarkable that people can remain sane in view of the world suicide that is taking place. And someone like Ackerley, with his concern for a cat, a seagull, or a sparrow, if not entirely sane, seems at least more aware than the rest of us.
September 16, 1976