11-04-1896

Ackerley and Tulip

J.R. ACKERLEY, English writer, born (d: 1967); Arts editor of The Listener, the weekly magazine of the BBC, and an important author in his own right. He was also openly Gay, a rarity in his time. Ackerley was educated at Rossal School, a public and preparatory school in Fleetwood, Lancashire.

While at this school he discovered he was attracted to other boys and realized he was homosexual. His striking good looks earned him the nickname “Girlie” but he was not sexually active, or only very intermittently, as a schoolboy, though there was ample opportunity. He described himself as: “a chaste, puritanical, priggish, rather narcissistic little boy, more repelled than attracted to sex, which seemed to me a furtive, guilty, soiling thing, exciting, yes, but nothing whatever to do with those feelings which I had not yet experienced but about which I was already writing a lot of dreadful sentimental verse, called romance and love.”

By all accounts, he was “a writer’s writer” because he devoted a good portion of his creative years helping young writers working on their manuscripts, and assisting them to get published. His own published works are few in number, but each is perfect, a polished gem, including at least two minor masterpieces of English prose, the unforgettable My Dog Tulip, perhaps the most perceptive and moving book ever written about the mutual dependence of man and dog, and My Father and Myself, an autobiographical work that is almost indescribable because of the many layers of truth it explores, from the inability of human beings to ever understand one another fully, no matter how closely related, to a profound understanding of the nature of one’s own sexuality. Truman Capote, not one to comment lightly on other writers, called it “the most fascinating autobiography I ever read.”

Ackerley’s life was intertwined with that of his friend E.M. Forster, and a greater study in contrasts cannot be imagined. Ackerley was a remarkably handsome, well-built man. Forster, as described by Virginia Woolf, was, “timid as a mouse.” Ackerley never hid his sexuality, his masculinity seemingly insulating him from gibes and insults. Any sniggering was immediately met with a blazing string of epithets, ending with “bloody pack of arse-holes.” And that usually settled it. Ackerley spent his life in quest of “the Perfect Friend,” and, there being no such critter, never found him. He waged a lifelong battle to get Forster to come out publicly, saying, “Look at Gide!” To which Forster would whine, “But Gide has no mother.” Ackerley is a wonderful, wonderful writer. Read him.