Thursday 26 May 2022

My father and myself, My dog Tulip, J.R. Ackerley,

J.R. Ackerley, as he appears in My father and myself, is a polite and questing son, investigating the complicated lives of his father, known as the Banana King. It took him half a lifetime to piece together his father's exploits, his relationships, his children, his early life with louche semi-aristocrats. J.R. Ackerley devotes many pages to his own awkward and unsatisfied love life, (even the phrase, 'love life'  has an optimism his life didn't match). He was a homosexual who didn't like the word, who never found his Ideal Friend, his formulation for the boy (beautiful, working-class) he sought through hundreds in his life (1896 - 1968), at least not until he stopped sifting through boys and acquired a pedigree Alsatian bitch he called Queenie in life, and Tulip in the extraordinary book he wrote about her.

Where he might appear circumspect and even prudish in his trawl through his father's life and his own, when it came to Tulip, he said it all. The politeness of his writing style, echoing his social style, allowed him to investigate this Ideal Friend, to provide for her happiness in any way he could, most particularly her sex life. He wanted her to mate, with the right dog, to know (as he hadn't, we suppose) the joy of sex, and procreation, which he certainly didn't. He follows each coming into heat, twice a year, evokes the opening of the vagina, the heating of the vulva. 

In the event, canine relations were already denatured in the 1950s and 1960s, as now, pedigree did not easily mate with pedigree. Quite how complex it is you may not want to know, but Joe Ackerley spells it out. A mongrel made it through to Tulip/Queenie who had a litter of eight puppies, not the triumph of pedigree and cherishing he had imagined, but he gave them every care, at the expense of his bourgeois flat in Putney. 

I am not at all a dog person. But I was riveted. Here was fulfilment. Not to be denied. Tulip draws from Joe a lyricism that nothing in his own life could match. I read both books in a few days, labouring under a cold following a party last weekend in a chilly May breeze, dozing now and then in the new room, the dozing room. 

The opening sentence of My father and myself, 'I was born in 1896 and my parents were married 1919' sets the frame for Joe's investigations into his family, conducted with a graciousness neither apologetic nor judgemental, nor even exactly sad. It is a gift to tell a history how you have found it, with the language you have learned to use for other purposes, ( J. R. Ackerley was for many years literary editor of The Listener).

Whatever sadness and desolation follows on from his quest to know the history of his father, and his family, Queenie/Tulip redresses all. Not many can do as much.

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