Saturday, November 04, 2017

Born Today in 1896: British Writer J. R. Ackerley

Joe Randolph "J. R." Ackerley was born today, November 4, in 1896. He 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 homosexual, a rarity in his time when homosexuality was forbidden by law and socially ostracized.

Ackerley's memoir My Father and Myself, begins: "I was born in 1896 and my parents were married in 1919." Registered at birth as Joe Ackerley, he later took the middle name Randolph after an uncle. As an adult, he published under his first two initials and surname. His father Roger Ackerley was a successful fruit merchant known as the "Banana King" of London.

His mother was Janetta Aylward (known as Netta), an actress whom Roger met in Paris; the two returned to London together. They had an intermittent relationship and 3 years later in 1895, she gave birth to a son, Peter, then Joe a year later, and Nancy in 1899. According to Joe's maternal Aunt Bunny, Peter's birth, and likely all of them, were "accidents." 

Ackerley was educated at Rossall School, a public and preparatory school in Fleetwood, Lancashire. During this time, he discovered he was attracted to other boys. His striking good looks earned him the nickname "Girlie," but he was not very sexually active as a schoolboy.

Failing his entrance examinations for Cambridge University, Ackerley applied for a commission in the Army and went off to the First World War. After the war, he returned and attended Cambridge but never wrote much about it.

In October 1929 his father Roger Ackerley died of tertiary syphilis. Shortly afterward, 
Ackerley discovered his father had had a second family for more than 20 years.

Joe looked after his father's second family without telling his mother, who died in 1946. For years, Ackerley was obsessed with his relationship with his father, both because of the tension of the son's covert homosexuality and what he described as his father's domineering personality.

As World War I had begun, Ackerley was accepted immediately as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 8th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, part of the 18th Division, then stationed in East Anglia. In June 1915 he was sent to France. The following summer he was wounded at the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. He was shot in the arm and suffered shards of a whisky bottle becoming imbedded in his side from an explosion. After lying wounded in a shell-hole for 6 hours, he was rescued and sent home for sick-leave.

He soon volunteered to go back to the front. As he had been promoted to captain, when his elder brother Peter arrived in France in December 1916, Ackerley was his superior officer. He later wrote that the cheerful Peter saluted his brother "gladly and conscientiously." In February 1917, Peter was wounded in action on a dangerous assignment. Though Peter got back to the British lines, Ackerley never saw him again, as he was killed on August 7, 1918, two months before the end of the war. Peter's death haunted Ackerley all his life; he suffered from survivor's guilt.

In May 1917 Ackerley led an attack in the Arras region where he was wounded, this time in the buttock and thigh. While he was waiting for help, the Germans arrived and took him prisoner. As an officer, he was assigned to an internment camp in neutral Switzerland, which was relatively comfortable. Here he began his play, The Prisoners of War, which expresses the cabin fever of captivity and his frustrated longings for another English prisoner. Ackerley was not repatriated to England until after the war ended.

After the war, Ackerley attended Magdalene College, Cambridge. After graduation he moved to London, where he enjoyed the cosmopolitan capital and continued to write. In 1923, his play was included in a collection of young British writers, so he began to get recognition.

He met E. M. Forster and other literary bright lights, but was lonely, despite numerous sexual partners. With his play having trouble finding a producer, and feeling generally adrift and distant from his family, Ackerley turned to Forster for guidance. Forster, whom he knew from A Passage to India, arranged a position as secretary to the Maharaja of Chhatarpur.

Ackerley spent about 5 months in India, which was still under British rule. He developed a strong distaste for the several Anglo-Indians he met. Ackerley's comic memoir Hindoo Holiday explores some of his experiences. The Maharaja was homosexual, and His Majesty's obsessions and dalliances, along with Ackerley's observations about Anglo-Indians, account for much of the humor of the work. During these months, he developed sexual relationships with the 20-year-old Narayan and 16-year-old Sharma, servants of the Maharaja.

In England, Prisoners of War was finally produced in 1925, to some acclaim. Ackerley enjoyed his success, returning to London to carouse with its theatrical crowd. Through Cambridge friends, he met the actor John Gielgud, and other rising stars of the stage.

In 1928, Ackerley joined the staff of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), then a year old. He worked in the "Talks" Department, which arranged radio lectures by prominent scholars and public figures, and helped create the new organization, which had extensive influence on British literary and cultural life. In 1935 Ackerley was selected as Literary Editor of the BBC's magazine, The Listener, and his work with it was the mainstay of his career; he served in this position for more than two decades until 1959. During this time, he discovered and promoted many young writers, including Philip Larkin, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood. Ackerley was one of Francis King's two mentors (the other being C. H. B. Kitchin).

From 1943, Ackerley lived in a small flat at Putney overlooking the Thames. Almost all his significant work was produced during this period. He had a stable job at the BBC and ended the unsatisfying promiscuity of his younger years. What remained was his search for what he called an "Ideal Friend."

Ackerley took financial responsibility for his sister Nancy, who was unstable, and his aging Aunt Bunny. In 1946 (the year his mother died) he acquired an Alsatian named Queenie, a dog that became his primary companion of the next 15 years. These were his most productive years, when he revised Hindoo Holiday (1952), completed My Dog Tulip (1956) and his novel, We Think the World of You (1960), and worked on drafts of My Father and Myself.

Ackerley left the BBC in 1959. He visited Japan in 1960 to see his friend Francis King; he was very taken with the beauty of the scenery and even more with Japanese men.

On October 30, 1961, Queenie died. Ackerley, who had lost a brother and both parents, described it as "the saddest day of my life." He said: "I would have immolated myself as a suttee when Queenie died. For no human would I ever have done such a thing, but by my love for Queenie I would have been irresistibly compelled." In 1962, We Think the World of You won the W. H. Smith Literary Award, which came with a substantial cash prize, but this did little to stir him from his grief. (He thought Richard Hughes should have won, and also thought little of the award's previous recipients.)

In the years after Queenie's death, Ackerley worked on his memoir about his father and drank too much. His sister Nancy found him dead in his bed on the morning of June 4, 1967. Ackerley's biographer Peter Parker gives the cause of death as coronary thrombosis.

Toward the end of his life, Ackerley sold 1,075 letters from Forster, dating from 1922, for which he received ₤6000; as he said, it was "a sum of money which will enable Nancy and me to drink ourselves carelessly into our graves." Ackerley did not live long enough to enjoy the money but, together with the royalties from his existing works as well as several published posthumously, it allowed Nancy Ackerley to live in relative comfort until her death in 1979.

Ackerly was openly gay after his parents' deaths, having realized his homosexuality while interned in Switzerland during World War I. Ackerley plumbed his sexuality in his writings. He belonged to a circle of notable literary homosexuals who flouted convention, specifically the homophobia that kept gay men in the closet or exposed openly gay men to legal prosecution.

While never finding the "Ideal Friend" he wrote of so often (at least in human form), he had a number of long-term relationships. Ackerley was a "twank," a term used by sailors and guardsmen to describe a man who paid for their sexual services. He described the ritual of picking up and entertaining a young guardsman, sailor or labourer. Forster warned him, "Joe, you must give up looking for gold in coal mines."

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."

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1 comment:

Raybeard said...

Maybe I should be feeling ashamed of myself, but the name means nothing at all to me. Still, nice to be wiser when it's not (quite) too late to do something about it.