The Many Loves of J.R. Ackerley

With a young friend in Athens

J.R. Ackerley was sitting on a park bench with Forrest Reid in Hyde Park, when the older writer asked him, “Do you really care about anyone?”

In My Father and Myself, Ackerley says he pondered the remark long afterwards. “To this searching question I do not know the answer, it goes too deep; since people and events vanish so easily from my memory it may be no.”  Not everyone shares his assessment. “It is characteristic of him to report against himself – he fears he is an uncaring person,” said Edwin Frank, founder of the New York Review Books Classics.

When accused of hating the human race, however, Ackerley was quite startled: “I am not a misanthropist,” he insisted. “I like people and get on well with them; I am only a numerical misanthropist.” To stem the rising population tide, he recommended homosexuality. No one could be entirely sure how serious he was.

In his own life, he adopted his recommendation seriously and with enthusiasm: he restlessly cycled through men – hundreds, by his own account. Yet, in My Father and Myself, few even get a first name.  Most of them got money – “a pound was the recognized tariff for the Foot Guards then, the Horse Guards cost rather more.”

His father and himself.

He admitted that his “love” was entirely self-serving.  “I was not out to give pleasure but to get it.” He describes it as a quest for the “Ideal Friend,” but recites a list of requirements, as if he is ordering the appointments on a customized computer: “He should not be effeminate, indeed preferably normal; I did not exclude education but did not want it, I could supply all that myself and in the loved one it had always seemed to get in the way; he should admit me but no one else; 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: no phimosis, halitosis, bromidrosis.”

He did, in the end, find his ideal friend, and it was to drive away all the other loves for a very long time.  Ackerley has been accused of misogyny, yet his beloved was exactly the kind of female he had always loathed. Jealous, capricious, and demanding – yet he adored her.  Like so many previous occasions, this love had a pricetag.  For Ackerley, she was a link to an estranged lover he couldn’t quite relinquish. Hence, he bought the lover’s abused dog.  Soon his love for Queenie supplanted all.  In typically solipsistic fashion, “it is not she herself but her effect upon me that I find interesting. She offered me what I had never found in my sexual life, constant, single-hearted, uncritical devotion.”

In Japan’s Nara Park

He had probably always had a heart more greatly touched by animals – the kind of man who would open a window to let a wasp escape.  Kindness to creatures was a family trait.  After his father’s death, his mother befriended a housefly, for which she would leave breadcrumbs on the edge of a bathtub.  After his Queenie’s death, Ackerley’s craving for love eventually settled on a common sparrow.

When he found a fledgling bird outside his flat, with a damaged leg and almost entirely bald, he took it into his room and fed it with bread and milk, offered via a pen nib.  His friends noted with horror the transformation of his flat to accommodate the bird: he made a playpen with cardboard boxes, old files, and an Oxford atlas. He made a perch, and used an earth-filled flowerpot, so the sparrow would have the luxury of a dirt bath.  The bird slept in the woolen folds of an old sock.  A bowl of seed and another of water were on the hearth. The bird defecated freely as it flew about the newspaper-covered apartment.

His mother in the 1920s

“I expressly said I did not hate people,” he explained again. “I only wanted to tease them about the superior attitude they adopt, the distinction they make between themselves and the animals. I make no distinction, and I think if the word ‘human’ had never been invented we might all be a great deal happier than we are.”

So where did that leave the humans in his life? If the confessions of My Father and Myself sound a little cold-blooded, they should be taken with a grain of salt.  In the eternal courtroom of his mind, Joe Ackerley himself was always the defendant in the dock.

“Joe Ackerley in his later years railed at mankind, just as he railed at the ‘horrid, tatty, ungrateful little bird’ that he rescued and lovingly cared for for months. His tongue was acerbic, not his heart,” recalled his friend Donald Windham. “Certainly I remember him as anything but forgetful of all he owed his friends, especially Forster. Arranging frequent meetings, writing frequent letters, he was self-forgetting, self-knowing, self-merciless, and about his own faults one of the funniest men alive.”

The young Nancy

In My Father and Myself, love appears in unexpected places.  At the death of his father, Ackerley faithfully attended a raft of quarrelsome and quirky people – including his dotty mother and a down-to-earth aunt.  Between the lines, one can see he loved them all.

Love isn’t martyrdom, of course, but sometimes martyrdom can be the best proof of it – that is, how we behave when love ceases to be fun or a pleasure, and becomes   an effort of will.  That’s why the surest test is often illness, or rejection, or dementia. Perhaps that word that surfaces almost inevitably when Ackerley describes a woman – “jealous” – offers the biggest clue.  It takes us directly to perhaps the most important woman in his life, and one of his earliest models for love.

Ackerley’s beautiful sister Nancy was a heartbreaking case of a woman who started out with everything and ended with nothing.  She was clearly mentally ill, and so emotionally draining that a half-sister said that visiting her was like losing a pint of blood.  Nancy was jealous of Ackerley’s attentions to his aunt, to his dog, to all the others in his life.  She was exacting, sensitive to slights, smotheringly possessive, eternally ungrateful, sometimes violent.  Ackerley pitied her, loathed her, resented her – and took care of her.  He dutifully performed the rituals and necessities of loving service, long after it had ceased to be rewarding… if it ever had been.

The drawings made a few years before his death by Christopher Isherwood’s companion, Don Bachardy, show them to be almost mirror images of each other, two angular, elegant elderly people with haunted, shell-shocked eyes. Each looks to be the other, re-sketched into the opposite sex.  It was an anguished, tortured relationship in which one must give everything and expect nothing in return.

My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J.R. Ackerley describes the relationship in two hundred pages.  Ackerley paws over their history together, blaming himself for each failure of love, blaming her for each outburst.  Again and again, he justifies and exonerates himself, then returns to a ruthless self-denunciation. The entire book is his futile attempt to come to grips with a character he will never comprehend. Forty pages are devoted to the 1949 suicide attempt that left her in a hospital and him at the local police station for questioning.  The police grilled him, in particular, about Nancy’s suicide note, “a long letter, which began with firm writing, and then straggled off into incoherency.”

“She seems to have been jealous of your wife as well as your aunt,” said the constable.

“I have no wife; I’m not married.”

“Well, another woman is mentioned.”

I looked at him blankly. “Who?”

“Someone called Queenie.”

“Queenie’s a dog, my Alsatian dog.”

The friend and editor of the volume, Francis King, recalled, “Clearly, Nancy loved Joe; and, when I once said that to E.M. Forster, he gently corrected me, ‘Nancy is in love with Joe.’ No less clearly, Joe loved Nancy, and was perhaps, in some measure, also in love with her; but since that love and that being in love both frightened him, they were transformed, in the years when first I knew him, into what often seemed cruelly near to hatred.”

True love

She achieved a measure of peace after his death in 1967.  Friends encircled and protected her – even refurbishing the rundown apartment Nancy had inhabited with her brother so that she could receive visitors once again.  And visitors came: she became one of the keepers of her brother’s legacy before her own death in 1979.

Most of Ackerley’s closest friends are dead now.  His older brother Peter died during the First World War.  Nancy left behind an only child, Ackerley’s nephew Paul West. No one seems to know his whereabouts or well-being.  The author seems to have disappeared without a trace, except in the legacy of his books.  Edwin Frank describes Ackerley’s oeuvre simply, this way: “In a way, the books are all a meditation on love, and the difficulties of love.”

– Cynthia Haven

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