Sunday 11 March 2018

A Canine Shocker

'I don't know when I read anything so indecent, disgusting, touching, beautiful and stylish; I do fervently recommend it,' writes Julia Strachey to Frances Partridge in 1956. What is this indecent, disgusting  etc. book, this 'veritable marvel of brilliance and shockingness'? It is My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley, a slim volume that I'd always assumed was just another charming memoir of life with a much-loved dog. Having now read it, I can confirm that it is no such thing, and that Julia Strachey was quite right about it. It's an extraordinary book, by turns jaw-dropping, hair-raising and laugh-aloud funny, with odd moments that are indeed touching and even beautiful.
  Ackerley is a now nearly forgotten figure who was from 1935 to 1959 the hugely influential literary editor of The Listener, from which position he championed many younger writers, including Auden, Spender and Isherwood, Larkin and Francis King – often in the teeth of opposition from the obdurate BBC. He was openly gay, at a time when it was dangerous to be so, and was such a ruthless self-editor that he only brought to completion in his lifetime a memoir (Hindoo Holiday), a stage play, a novel (We Think the World of You) – and the sui generis My Dog Tulip.
  The real-life original of Tulip was an Alsatian bitch called Queenie, but the publishers understandably thought it wiser to change the name. Ackerley states matter-of-factly that he and 'Tulip' fell in love with each other at first sight; he has no qualms about using such anthropomorphic language, and even talks of finding a 'husband' for Tulip, by whom she will have 'children'. These twee usages are, however, totally at odds with Ackerley's all too vivid descriptions of Tulip's inflamed condition when she is in heat, and the exertions of her various sex-crazed suitors and carefully selected 'husbands' (selected in vain; a grubby mongrel eventually impregnates her, giving her eight 'babies').
  It becomes clear to the reader very early on that Tulip is a nightmare dog, so fixated on her equally besotted master that she won't let anyone near him and can't bear to be out of his sight. And Ackerley is a nightmare dog owner, the very model of arrogant irresponsibility, as is made unblushingly apparent in the extremely graphic chapter titled 'Liquids and Solids'. Surely no other dog memoir has gone into these matters – or the gynaecological ones – with such relish. The jaw drops, the hair is raised, and so it goes on, until the action reaches a kind of climax with Ackerley sharing his tiny Putney flat (the terrace of which is Tulip's outside lavatory) with his beloved bitch and her eight puppies – a situation that gets so out of hand that the author is threatened with immediate eviction if he doesn't get rid of the puppies (half of whom he had been calmly preparing to drown, before he had a change of heart).
  So what are the redeeming features of this often disgusting book? For one, it is extremely well written: Ackerley knows exactly what he is doing, every episode is expertly related, and the book has a crispness and sharpness that is surely the product of much paring down. Then, amid all the unsparingly anatomical stuff, there are passages of quiet lyrical beauty – especially in the descriptions of idyllic interludes on Wimbledon Common – and there are even times when you can see, or at least glimpse, why the author is in love with his nightmare bitch. The emotional restraint of this unblinkingly realistic book keeps it well this side of sentimentality, making its moments of tenderness all the more effective and believable. And unlike most dog memoirs, this one doesn't include the beloved's death. Ackerley merely notes that 'Whatever blunders I may have committed in my management of this animal's life, she lived on to the great age of sixteen-and-a-half'.
  Ackerley described that day of Queenie's death as 'the saddest day of my life' and declared that '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'. After her death, he carried on writing and kept himself afloat on a sea of alcohol until his death in 1967.


  1. This disgusting etc book was adapted for an animated feature film in 2009, with Christopher Plummer (Ackerley) and Isabella Rossellini (the vet) amomg the voice actors.

  2. Indeed it was Frank (as was We Think the World of You) - Tulip must have been massively sanitised for the screen, unless the film was aimed at a very specialised section of the porn market...

  3. According to Philip French in The Grauniad, "The Fierlingers retain the detailed descriptions of Tulip's bowel movements and sex life that troubled many readers 50 years ago".

  4. The film sounds rather wonderful. French adds: "With surprising accuracy, they capture that far-off Britain of the 1950s, using a subdued palette and gentle line that draw on the British artists of the period. One thinks especially perhaps of the book illustrator Edward Ardizzone".