My Father and Myself – J. R. Ackerley

MFAM(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

In this memoir, which one reviewer termed the “mystery” of the son on the track of his father, Ackerley speculated that his father had some homosexual experiences as a young guardsman, but never proved it. In trying to understand his father’s life, he grappled with his own.

This posthumously published autobiography was written in his last depressing years and concentrates more upon his lack of fulfilment than the humorous enjoyment of experience that was typical of most of his life.

Joe Randolph “J. R.” Ackerley (4 November 1896 – 4 June 1967) was a British writer and editor. Starting with the BBC the year after its founding in 1927, he was promoted to literary editor of The Listener, its weekly magazine, where he served for more than two decades. He published many emerging poets and writers who became influential in Great Britain. He was openly gay, a rarity in his time when homosexuality was illegal and socially ostracized.

His memoir serves as a guide to the sexuality of a gay man of Ackerley’s generation. W. H. Auden, in his review of My Father and Myself, speculates that Ackerley enjoyed the “brotherly” sexual act of mutual masturbation rather than penetration. Ackerley described himself as “quite impenetrable.”

 He met E. M. Forster, though strangely he never mentions him, but was lonely despite numerous sexual partners. With his play, The Prisoners of War,  having trouble finding a producer, and feeling generally adrift and distant from his family, Ackerley turned to Forster for guidance. Forster, who he knew from writing A Passage to India, arranged a position as secretary to the Maharaja of Chhatarpur.

In his introduction, W. H. Auden makes some strange observations (though they reflect the views of his time):

Mr. Ackerley strictly limits himself to two areas of his life, his relations with his family and his sex-life. His account of the latter, except for its happy ending, is very sad reading indeed. Few, if any, ho­mosexuals can honestly boast that their sex-life has been happy, but Mr. Ackerley seems to have been exceptionally unfortunate.

any permanent relationship demands interests in common. However their tastes and tempera­ments may initially differ, a husband and wife acquire a common concern as parents. This experience is denied homosexuals. Consequently, it is very rare for a homo­sexual to remain faithful to one person for long and, rather curiously, the intellectual older one is more likely to be promiscuous than his working-class friend. The brutal truth, though he often refuses to admit it, is that he gets bored more quickly.

It doesn’t really get going until you’re 94 pages in.

It isn’t mentioned in this book, though J. R. aye that he saw it when he was ill, but Wendy Moffatt, in her life of E. M. Forster, says that Ackerley’s farher had a twelve inch penis – though with his blood pressure at around 300, I doubt it would have reached its full potential very often. Did the son inherit this or was his from his maternal grandfather?

I had to look up ‘cascaras’ = a fruit with a thick shell

MFAM 3Quotations

“I was born in 1896 and my parents were married in 1919.”

“I was now on the sexual map and proud of my place on it. I did not care for the word ‘homosexual’ or any label, but I stood among the men, not among the women. Girls I despised; vain, silly creatures, how could their smooth soft, bulbous bodies compare in attraction with the muscular beauty of men? Their place was the harem, from which they should never have been released; true love, equal and understanding love, occurred only between men. I saw myself therefore in the tradition of the Classic Greeks, surrounded and supported by all the famous homosexuals of history—one soon sorted them out—and in time I became something of a publicist for the rights of that love that dare not speak its name”

“Oh, lord, you’ll be the death of me! I think he did once say he’d had some sport with him [Count de Gallatin]. But me memory’s like a saucer with the bottom out”

“I am not going to make any excuses, old man. I have done my duty towards everybody as far as my nature would allow and I hope people generally will be kind to my memory. All my men pals know of my second family and of their mother, so you won’t find it difficult to get on their track.”

In spite of such adventures, if anyone had asked me what I was doing, I doubt if I should have replied that I was diverting myself. I think I should have said that I was looking for the Ideal Friend. Though two or three hundred young men were to pass through my hands in the course of years, I did not consider myself promiscuous. It was all a run of bad luck…What I meant by the Ideal Friend I doubt if I ever formulated, but now, looking back, I think I can put him together in a negative way by listing some of his disqualifications. 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 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…. The Ideal Friend was always somewhere else and might have been found if only I had turned a different way. The buses that passed my own bus seemed always to contain those charming boys who were absent from mine; the ascending escalators in the tubes fiendishly carried them past me as I sank helplessly into hell…. In the “thirties” I found myself concentrating my attention more and more upon a particular society of young men in the metropolis which I had tapped before and which, it seemed to me, might yield, without further loss of time, what I required. His Majesty’s Brigade of Guards had a long history in homosexual prostitution. Perpetually short of cash, beer, and leisure occupations, they were easily to be found of an evening in their red tunics standing about in the various pubs they frequented, over the only half-pint they could afford or some “quids-in” mate had stood them. Though generally larger than I liked, they were young, they were normal, they were working-class, they were drilled to obedience; though not innocent for long, the new recruit might be found before someone else got at him; if grubby they could be bathed, and if civility and consideration, with which they did not always meet in their liaisons, were extended to them, one might gain their affection.

in the matter of sex there was nothing he had not done, no experience he had not

“I’ve got something to tell you, Dad. I lied to you about Weybridge. I didn’t go there at all.”
“I know, old boy. I knew you were lying directly I asked you about the floods.”
“I went to Turin.”
“Turin, eh? That’s rather farther. I’m very sorry to have mucked up your plans.”
“I’m very sorry to have lied to you. I wouldn’t have done so if you hadn’t once said something about me and my waiter friends. But I don’t mind telling you. I went to meet a sailor friend.”
“It’s all right, old boy. I prefer not to know. So long as you enjoyed yourself, that’s the main thing.”

(About his dog, Tulip): She offered me what I had never found in my sexual life, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncrit­ical devotion. She placed herself entirely under my control. From the moment she established herself in my heart and my 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. I sang with joy at the thought of seeing her. I never prowled the London streets again, nor had the slightest inclination to do so. On the contrary, whenever I thought of it, I was posi­tively thankful to be rid of it all, the anxieties, the frustrations, the wastage of time and spirit. The fif­teen years she lived with me were the happiest of my life.

MFAM 2 Did I tell you that story Bilson told me the other day? There was a fellow walking down the street when he saw a pretty girl—Ah! damn you! Why can’t you let up?—in a very short dress bending down to adjust her garter. So as he passed he put his hand up under her skirt between her legs. She was furious at this. “How dare you!” she said, but he passed on with a—Crikey! ­a smile. So she called a policeman. “Constable!” she said. “Arrest that man! He’s insulted me!” “What’s he done?” asked the policeman. She told him “Well,” said the policeman, “I’m afraid the evidence isn’t sufficient. You’ll—Oh, drat the thing!—You’ll have to come back with me to the station so that I can photograph the finger-prints.” Te-he-he. . . .

Though two or three hundred young men were to pass through my hands in the course of years, I did not consider myself promiscuous but monogamous, it was all a run of bad luck, and I became ever more serious over this as time went on.

some time in the ‘thirties, a friend asked me if I had any notion how many boys I’d taken to bed, I was astonished to find that those I managed to rec­ollect got into three figures, for I never had any sense of riches, only of poverty, and at last of dire poverty.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] My Father and Myself by JR Ackerley (1968)Ackerley, born in Richmond in London, would only learn after his father’s death from […]

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