March 17, 2011

J.R. Ackerley: My Dog Tulip

Posted in Ackerley J.R. at 8:00 am by John Self

One of the hidden gems on this blog is J.R. Ackerley’s only novel We Think the World of You. So when I was disappointed by the next book of his I read, Hindoo Holiday, I decided my next visit had to be to the book I understood to be broadly the source material for the novel. (Ackerley’s method of acquisition of his dog – from a lover about to go to prison – is the same as in the novel.)

My Dog Tulip (1956) is presented as non-fiction but for the dog’s name: Ackerley’s dog was named Queenie (the name was changed for fear of causing mirth about the author’s sexuality). The connection with We Think the World of You is clear: the narrator of the novel is indistinguishable from Ackerley here, his strongest identifying traits being love of his pooch and disdain for the working classes.

To describe this book as a love letter to a dog is both accurate and inadequate. Ackerley described the fifteen years he spent with Queenie as his happiest, and when he finally had her put down in 1961, he lost much interest in life. Money brought in from winning the WHSmith Literary Award (for We Think the World of You) and the sale of letters E.M. Forster had sent him did nothing to alleviate his depression; indeed, he viewed the proceeds from the latter as “a sum of money which will enable [his sister] Nancy and me to drink ourselves carelessly into our graves.” This he more or less proceeded to do, dying in 1967.

However in the book there is no reference to this later darkess; My Dog Tulip was published during Queenie’s long life, and only an appendix from (I think) 1965 makes indirect reference to her death. (“She lived to the great age of sixteen-and-a-half.”) The book is composed of equal parts Ackerley’s almost pathological devotion to Queenie (hereafter ‘Tulip’, dammit) – and hers to him – and his frustration at the difficulties presented by daily life with her. One of these is Tulip’s untrammelled devotion to Ackerley, which makes it almost impossible for vets to treat her. Until one of them points out to Ackerley what might have been clear to him all along, had he not been hindered by his own love: “Tulip’s a good girl, I saw that at once. You’re the trouble.”

“Well, she’s in love with you, that’s obvious. And so life’s full of worries for her. She has to protect you to begin with; that’s why she’s upset when people approach you: I expect she’s a bit jealous, too. But in order to protect you she’s naturally got to be free; that’s why she doesn’t like other people touching her; she’s afraid, you see, that they may take hold of her and deprive her of her freedom to guard you. That’s all the fuss is about, I should say. It’s you she’s thinking of. But when you’re not there, there’s nothing for her to do, of course, and no anxiety. Anyone can handle her then, I’m sure. That’s all. Dogs aren’t difficult to understand. One has to put oneself in their position.”

Ackerley never seems entirely keen on putting himself in Tulip’s position, preferring to revel in his own trials with her, though not unsympathetically. We get a good deal on Tulip’s waste (a whole chapter on it, titled “Liquids and Solids”), and the way Ackerley describes his dog’s posture when defecating may give an insight into the level of detail he is prepared to go into: “Her long tail, usually carried aloft in a curve, stretches rigidly out parallel with the ground; her ears lie back, her head cranes forward, and a mild, meditative look settles on her face.” (An aside: did Ackerley really write “sidewalk” when describing where Tulip does her business? This repeated Americanism in the NYRB edition trips up the British reader.) The half-century vintage of the book shows in passages where Ackerley wonders, rhetorically and even incredulously, how on earth people expect him to prevent his dog from fouling the pavement – the standard practice of post-shit bagging evidently being some decades off. This chapter contains some lovely sensitivity born from potential slapstick, as Ackerley stays with friends and Tulip soils their carpets, leading to agonies of guilt for our man, not because of what Tulip did (she was never invited back) but because she had tried to warn him that she needed to go outside, and “I had failed to take her meaning, and nothing I could ever do could put that right.”

But this attention to what comes out of Tulip is as nothing compared to Ackerley’s detail in, well, what goes into her, as he attempts to have her mate with a fellow Alsatian of suitable pedigree. (“Although I had no profit-making motive in the matter, so beautiful a creature as Tulip should certainly have children as pretty as herself.”) Here is where even my high appetite for elegant self-enquiring sentences by a man who would be struck dumb if deprived of the semicolon, began to fade. It’s not so much the intimate elements (“Miss Canvey, I’m awfully sorry to bother you again, but where exactly is the vagina?”) as the sheer length of the subject: almost a third of the 200-page book.

Happily, the last chapter, “The Turn of the Screw” ends the book on its highest note, the same elegiac tone which made We Think the World of You so haunting. Ackerley addresses Tulip’s ageing and her closing seasons of fertility (“It is spring, it is winter, it is summer…”), reflecting on how he can “give her everything she wants, except the thing she needs.” (Inevitably, a certain question arises in the reader’s mind about Ackerley’s closeness to Tulip. That tricky subject is discussed, along with much else, in Joan Acocella’s superb profile of Ackerley in the New Yorker, from which I took many of the biographical details above, and which I recommend without hesitation to all, whether familiar with Ackerley or new to him.) Finally My Dog Tulip seems less an individual book than part of something larger, the recreation of his life which Ackerley undertook in his four published works. He comes across as a man difficult to deal with, unclubbable, snobbish, but penetrating and self-revealing. His capability for love, expressed almost exclusively through his “beautiful bitch”, is all the more affecting for the narrow circumstances in which it flourishes, rejecting people as it embraces Tulip. As she enters her final years, Ackerley is walking with her in the woods when he spots shards of a broken bottle, which could damage her paws.

One pounce upon this bottle, with both front feet perhaps… I pick it up. I pick it all up, every tiny fragment. I seek it out, I root it up, this lurking threat to our security, our happiness, in the heart of the wood; day after day I uncover it and root it up, this disease in the heart of life.

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10 Comments »

  1. Lee Monks said,

    I’ve got a copy of this somewhere…must root it out. Great review which had me laughing away (I do hope this is the required response, at least partly?) and eager to have a look.

  2. Hugo said,

    The only Ackerley I’ve read is his memoir, My Father and Myself, which I thought was superb – full of fascinating vignettes of life at the front in WW1, life as a gay man in 1920s London, and ultimately a kind of detective story about his father. Well worth seeking out.

  3. John Self said,

    Hugo, I’ve been keeping My Father and Myself ‘for special’ as my last Ackerley, as I’ve been led to believe it’s as good as you say.

    And seriously, everyone should read that Joan Acocella piece I linked to in the review. Though you might end it by thinking you’ve learned so much about Ackerley that you don’t need to read his books.

  4. Lee Monks said,

    It is a great profile, and certainly impels me to read the books that much sooner. A fascinating character.

    ‘Ackerley was remarkably handsome. At school, the other boys begged to get into his bed. He says he fought them all off, with a few exceptions—for example, a certain Jude, who undid the seams of his pants pockets and invited the occupants of neighboring seats to feel him up during class…probably during the war, but unquestionably afterward, when he was at Cambridge, Ackerley realized that he was homosexual. He says that he was proud of it, identifying himself with the ancient Greeks—Socrates and so on. Soon, he began searching for what he called the Ideal Friend. This man, he wrote, should be “normal,” that is, heterosexual, or, in any case, not effeminate. (Ackerley loathed pansies, as he called them.) “He should be physically attractive to me and younger than myself—the younger the better, as closer to innocence; finally he should be on the small side, lusty, circumcised, physically healthy and clean.” Ackerley didn’t like smells. (One man, to accommodate him, kept his boots on in bed.) During sex, Ackerley always remained fully clothed and insisted that the other man be naked.’

  5. Lee Monks said,

    And:

    ‘In his thirty years at the BBC, he published only two books, “Hindoo Holiday” and “My Dog Tulip.” This was not just because he came home tired from the office. He was a relentless self-editor, and therefore a slow writer. Most important, however, was his acquisition, in 1946, of the beautiful German shepherd Queenie, his first (and last) dog. Queenie became the love of his life, and the brilliant, bounding subject of most of the rest of his work. She didn’t give him much time to write, however. He baked her dog biscuits. He stood in line to buy her horse meat. Most days, he got home by four in the afternoon so that he could take her for a three-hour walk.’

  6. John Self said,

    One of my favourite details from the piece, Lee, was this:

    He liked working-class men best: policemen, waiters, soldiers. He was also fond of petty criminals. He congratulated himself on the fact that, in the circles he frequented, he made no secret of his homosexuality. Lytton Strachey, whom he knew only slightly, closed a letter to him as follows:

    “With best regards to
    The Army
    The Navy
    and The Police Force.”

    • Lee Monks said,

      Ha, yes. I could’ve copy-and-pasted the lot to be fair. It’s a cracking good profile.

  7. Guy Savage said,

    I have this so thanks for the nudge. I live for my dogs, so I understand what is perceived as “pathological closeness.” That barb is often aimed at me.

    For anyone interested, there is a wonderful film version of “We Think The World of You,” starring Alan Bates and Gary Oldman.

  8. JMW said,

    Hugo beat me to the punch recommending My Father and Myself, also the only Ackerley I’ve read. I enjoyed it, and I’ll look forward to hearing what you think.

  9. [...] My dog Tulip. Pretty much agree with this review, with addition: I felt even more weird reading about real – no, really uncommon – [...]


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