Ackerley was born 4 November 1896, the second son of a fruit merchant and an actress he met in Paris. The couple, who also had a daughter, did not, apparently, set up home together until 1903, in London, and did not marry until 1919. Joe was educated at public school in Fleetwood, Lancashire, and his study at Cambridge was interrupted by service in WWI as an officer in the 8th battalion of the East Surrey regiment. He was wounded twice, and imprisoned by the Germans, but assigned to an internment camp in neutral Switzerland, which is where, biographers say, he first acknowledged his homosexuality. His older brother, Peter, was killed just before the end of the war.
After leaving Cambridge with a poor degree, Ackerley moved to London, wrote poetry, saw his play - The Prisoner of War - produced, and came into contact with other literary figures, not least E. M. Forster who became a close friend. Indeed, it was Forster who helped arrange for Ackerley to work for five months in India as secretary to the Maharaja of Chhatarpur. His experiences there, tinged by a dislike for several Anglo-Indians, fuelled his comic memoir, Hindoo Holiday. Back in London, in 1928, he joined the nascent British Broadcasting Corporation to work in the Talks department; and, in 1935, became editor of the Corporation’s publication The Listener, a position he held until 1959. During this time, he is credited with championing many young writers, including Philip Larkin, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood.
In his early 30s, Ackerley discovered that his recently-deceased father had led a double life, supporting another household with several children. He subsequently took over financial responsibility for his sister, Nancy, and for an elderly aunt, Bunny. He, himself, lived an openly homosexual life, paying male prostitutes, and never finding a long-term relationship. Aged around 50, he acquired an Alsatian named Queenie, a pet that became his primary companion for the next 15 years; the day she died he called the saddest of his life. His later years at the BBC are when he wrote his most well-known books: My Dog Tulip (1956), We Think the World of You (1960), and My Father and Myself published posthumously
Ackerley clearly had a tendency to keep a diary. Hindoo Holiday presents as a journal, albeit a well-worked one - ‘as perfectly constructed as A Passage to India’ for Eliot Weinberger, and, posthumously, in 1982, Hutchinson published My Sister and Myself - The Diaries of J. R. Ackerley, as edited by Francis King. Hindoo Holiday has never been out of print for long, although it was not until 2000 that an edition edited by Weinberger, by the New York Review of Books (see a few pages at Amazon), revealed the full, unedited text for the first time in English (ironically, an Indian edition had done this earlier, restoring cuts made to the original about the Maharajah’s sexual preferences).
In his introduction to My Sister and Myself, King explains how, when his friend Ackerley died, he left him a large brown paper parcel with 17 small notebooks and five larger notebooks without any instructions as to what to do with them. After Ackerley’s sister, Nancy, had also died, King edited the diaries (all from the smaller notebooks) to be published as My Sister and Myself (the title echoing Ackerley’s own memoir, My Father and Myself). In preparing the book, King says that most of the entries he omitted were about Queenie, his walks on Putney Heath, and travels around London. ‘What I have concentrated on in this selection is the extraordinary relationship between Joe and what he would call, in the tones of a sultan speaking of his often refractory harem, “my women”: meaning by that not merely Nancy and his ancient, twice-married Aunt Bunny, but also the Alsatian bitch.’
‘At the time covered by these diaries,’ King summarises, ‘Joe’s and Nancy’s symbiosis was a ghastly caricature of the kind of marriage, devoid of sex, that is held together merely by feelings of obligation, pity and guilt. But, as in many marriages, the two participants, exhausted by their conflicts, eventually reached an understanding and even mutually helpful modus vivendi.’ Here are several extracts from
30 September 1948
‘Today Queenie bit my hand. I do believe she was horrified as soon as the accident occurred. She grovelled on the pavement before I had rebuked her; no doubt she both tasted and smelt the blood that was dripping from my hand. I was angry and upset and gave her a number of cuts from the lead. Then I took her back to the flat so that I could bathe and bandage the wound. She went straight down the passage into my dark bedroom and stayed there, not coming out again for some time, which she would ordinarily have done, hearing me moving about (in search of bandages, scissors, etc.) outside. It was only when I had finished attending to my wound and, feeling slightly faint, sat down for a moment on the stool in the bathroom to rest, that she came in, looking very unhappy, and, gently putting her front paws on my lap, rose up, smelt my face and then licked it. I petted her and said it didn't matter. I felt awfully sorry I'd hit her. After that I took her down the towing path a short way, so that she could do her shits. There were dogs about so I put her on the lead, but they followed us back to my front door, Queenie barking at them and then looking up into my face as though to say, ‘That’s what you want, isn’t it?’ Indeed, she loves me so much, it must have been dreadful for her to have hurt me.’
14 February 1949
‘A dreadful, dreadful week of worry and self-torment. I have not been able to sleep at night without aspirins, and only patchily then. It has gradually emerged, from phone conversations with Brodie, that Nancy’s present condition is little better than that of a lunatic, that she can hardly walk or hold her water, has gone quite out of her mind. She is having this electrical convulsion treatment. Dr Brodie would not let me see her; he told me that he would send me word when I might go if I would keep in touch with him.
Alas, in my guilty mind, I see what happened as surely as though I had deliberately willed it to come to pass. She has been accusing me lately of never being the same, as always being different whenever she sees me; and of course it is true. I am deeply attached to her, my sister, in my way, and in emergencies, when I am deeply touched by her, or frightened for her, as when I took my letter down to Worthing after Haywards Heath, or burst into tears in Worthing Hospital, or saw her, so gentle and sweet in Chichester, I can love her and am ready to do or promise anything. But then I leave her, and remember the past, and become worried and anxious, and see, for instance, old Bunny, quietly and uncomplainingly packing up her gear to go and live elsewhere, and my consideration and affection or feeling turn elsewhere, or simply withdraws, and Nancy sees it going, and feels it gone.’
14 March 1949
‘Graylingwell again yesterday. And I was astounded by the improvement which Nancy showed since I last saw her. She walked in, not altogether steadily, but by herself and sat with me, and conversed in a comparatively sensible way. Though still vague in many respects, she was now in possession of much of her mind. She asked for some money, complained about the food, and seemed to expect to be able to come and join me quite soon. Some of her luggage, she said, was missing, and she was concerned about that. She asked after my health, and seemed to take an interest in my replies. Her head was still too heavy for her neck and hung forward rather, but she was altogether, excepting for a cold, a well woman compared with what she had been before. She had even written me a letter, which I had not then got, but have since received - uncertain in writing, and rather rambling in thought, but wonderfully encouraging. She said she was having insulin now every day except weekends. I asked her if she had had electrical treatment too; she said no, not to her knowledge.
Oh dear. What was it that sent her down and out at the Acre? What thought, what anxiety, what revulsion - if any? And when her mind is able soon to embrace once more all the problems of her life, will she come up against that thought, that anxiety again, and fade out once more? At the moment there seems no reason why she should not be with me in a week or two - as Dr Brodie prophesied.’
19 September 1949
‘I see there is a correspondence between tapeworms and my sister - perhaps women generally. Tapeworms are two or three yards long and composed of segments. A well-grown worm may consist of 800-900 segments. Each of these segments is hermaphrodite, and though it is not certain how fertilization occurs, it must sometimes be incestuous. A ripe segment, ready to fall off the end of the worm, contains 30,000-40,000 eggs, each already developed into a little six-hooked embryo and protected by a shell.
To the worm’s monstrous body is attached a blind and mouthless head no bigger than a pin’s, by a neck as thin as sewing cotton. But how aggressive it is, grappling itself to the wall of its host’s gut by four strong muscular suckers, and a circle of rose-thorn hooks to make doubly sure. What chance has one to get rid of a thing like that? As it lives a long time - probably its length of life is only limited by the death of the host. One man was known to keep the same tapeworm for thirty-five years. It is stubborn, resisting all attempts to get rid of it; even if you manage to get rid of the main body, the head remains and soon grows a new one, inch by inch. However, it takes no holidays, and Nancy is going off for one on Wednesday for three weeks. Bunny comes to take her place.’
4 March 1950
‘Never a dull moment, I think to myself when I look back over four years with Queenie. What a rare thing to be able to say of any relationship.
That is why one is never free from anxiety and fear. Life is so insecure. Happiness is so insecure. At any moment, some disaster. Now, travelling to Notts., I look at my watch and say, “She’s having a fine walk on Wimbledon Common with Nancy.” Then I think, Perhaps at this very moment she has been run over and is screaming in her death agony.
Georges [DuthuitJ said of dogs: “How sad and frustrating for them: never quite able to say, to convey, what they wish and try to convey.” Georges also said, about women: “Each one believes herself to be the centre of the cosmos.” ’