Monday 14 October 2019

Wincing Again: Back to Ackerley

I've written about J.R. Ackerley – and in particular that canine shocker My Dog Tulip – before, and now I've been reading him again, this time the autobiographical My Father and Myself (a title that would be more descriptive if it was reversed). I thought I might be on safer ground with this one, but, dear me, I was wrong. I haven't winced so often while reading a book since... well, probably since reading My Dog Tulip.
  Ackerley has a good story to tell in My Father and Myself – the story of how, after his father's death, he discovered that this prosperous and respectable fruit merchant, nicknamed the Banana King, had a family of three girls by his mistress, a fact entirely unknown to and unsuspected by his official family. In a disarming preface Ackerley writes: 'The apparently haphazard chronology of this memoir may need excuse. The excuse, I fear, is Art...' And yet the book is oddly artless, with lacunae left unfilled and areas of ignorance acknowledged, where a slicker biographer might have disguised these difficulties and produced an altogether smoother narrative. Ackerley tells the story of his father as well as he can, given those lacunae – and it's full of surprises and mysteries, particularly from his early years, when not one but two older men took him under their wing, gave him every assistance, and seem to have fallen in love with him (and fallen out with each other over him). He also had an early marriage, to the beautiful Louise Burckhardt (who was painted by Sargent). He met Ackerley's mother in Paris in the same year that Louise died of TB, and took up with her, though they didn't legally marry till nearly a quarter of a century later.
  When the book moves on to J.R's relationship with his father, this opens Ackerley to the irresistible temptation to write more about himself. Not that he loves himself – he seems more disgusted than anything – but he is, as he candidly admits, something of a self-fixated solipsist. He wonders whether his father knew about his son's homosexuality (it would have been pretty hard to miss) and, if so, whether that caused some awkwardness or distance between them. And that gives Ackerley the green light to write a long, explicit and gruesomely detailed account of his sex life (this was where most of my wincing was done). I'll spare you the details, gentle reader, but over the years Ackerley devoted an extraordinary amount of his time and energy to pursuing young men in uniform, and he's happy to tell us precisely what he did to them and they to him. There were so many he couldn't remember anything about many of his encounters – and all the while he seems to have believed that he was pursuing the 'Ideal Friend', a fiction that was surely wearing thin by the time his sexual appetite  finally became less pressing – at which point he fell in love with Tulip, the Alsatian bitch who seems to have been the closest thing he ever got to the Ideal Friend.
  There is another book about Ackerley's father, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre, one of those three secret daughters, another of whom, Sally, married Gerald Grosvenor and became Duchess of Westminster.
  And here is Sargent's portrait of Louise Burckhardt, Roger's first wife.


  1. Sad about Harold Bloom. He taught me how doctor Johnson and Falstaff can be heroes

  2. Yes, a sad loss, Ricardo. One of the last giant trees of the cultural forest...