My Father and Myself is dedicated simply “To Tulip.”
Tulip’s identity is no enigma. Although the real name of J.R. Ackerley’s dedicatee was “Queenie,” his editors worried the name had racy connotations, even for a dog, and hence the title of his earlier book had been My Dog Tulip. It is perhaps the only story of a man and his dog in which the two are treated as equals.
Ackerley was clearly besotted with his Alsatian bitch. It is said that photographs do not do her justice: she was by all accounts a beauty, and she shuddered with pleasure when Ackerley stroked her back and tail.
Ackerley would take her for long, leisurely walks before going to his office in Putney, noting the “Victorian calling cards” she left behind on various trees and bushes. As they strolled, he introduced her to other dogs and sang the ditty he had invented for their walks:
Piddle piddle seal and sign,
I’ll smell your arse, you smell mine;
Human beings are prudes and bores,
You smell my arse, I’ll smell yours.
“She offered me what I had never found in my sexual life, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which it is in the nature of dogs to offer,” he wrote. “She placed herself entirely under my control. From the moment she established herself in my heart and home, my obsession with sex fell wholly away from me. The pubs I had spent so much of my time in were never revisited, my single desire was to get back to her, to her waiting love and unstaling welcome. So urgent was my longing every day to rejoin her that I would often take taxis part-way, even the whole way, home to Putney from my London office, rather than endure the dawdling of buses and the rush-hour traffic jams in Park Lane. I sang with joy at the thought of seeing her.”
His friends did not feel the same enthusiasm: E.M. Forster referred to her as “that unnecessary bitch.” In an all-too-typical incident at a garden party given by friends, Queenie positioned herself under the buffet table and snapped at all who attempted to help themselves to food. On another occasion, one friend recalled waiting for Ackerley in his room, as Queenie hunkered down on the bed to watch the intruder, ears pinned, never ceasing her low protective growl as he counted the minutes. Apparently, Ackerley’s only method of discipline was, according to a friend, to smile at Queenie and say “in a tone of intense affection and delight, ‘Queenie, I’ll murder you.’ Queenie would wriggle with pleasure and wag her tail, and do just what she wanted.”
She was, in the end, incorrigible. Friends dropped away and made excuses to avoid visiting or being visited. Witness this 1950 letter Ackerley wrote to a Yorkshire friend, the writer Herbert Read:
“I would love to come and see you this year, and love, of course, to bring my bitch, but I don’t know whether I should impose her on you. … I expect I could control her over the sheep alright. But I fear she may defecate in your house the first night, for the excitement of journeys always upsets her stomach. Ordinarily she never goes in the night, but if she should happen to want to here, there is a terrace for her to walk out onto; but on the last two occasions that I have taken her to friends in the country, I fear she has let fly in my bedroom – on the first night; for the rest of the time she was alright. On the first of these occasions it was my fault; she woke me up and did her best, poor girl, to get me to take her into the garden; but hearing the cat mewing there, I mistook her motives and let her down. What happened at Siegfried’s [Sassoon's] later I do not know; I was worn out when I got there and don’t know whether she tried to wake me or not.
“This worries me rather; it would be alright, of course, if she had access to the garden in the night – or if you could give me a camp bed somewhere on the ground floor or in an outhouse. But otherwise I fear your beautiful house would be in danger during our first night – tho’ I must say she is jolly considerate usually in selecting linoleum for her operations, or the oldest and darkest mat.”
Such were his attentions to his beloved. During Queenie’s final illness in October 1961, Ackerley spoon-fed his dying dog. Her circulation had become poor and her digestion unreliable. Finally, she could no longer stand on her own. “Lying in her bed under her blanket here eyes were fixed always upon me, so loving, so bright still, so beautiful. It made the step I had to take in the end all the more difficult,” he wrote, “until she did something that upset me even more than her inability to eat, she began to turn her face to the wall, to turn her back on me. Then I had her destroyed.”
He never got over it. As he wrote in My Father and Myself, “I was just under fifty when this animal came into my hands, and the fifteen years she lived with me were the happiest of my life.”
A gentler, less nuanced image of Tulip emerges in the 2009 film, based on Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. Trailer below.
– Cynthia Haven