God spare us from ever having to read the books our children might
write about us unless we provide them with opportunities for later-life
pursuits less grim than parental payback. To get off the hook, it helps
if you are by nature uninteresting. Better a life of quiet desperation
than to be laid out on the dissecting table by our spawn on some
pretext or another.
Otherwise we might suffer from our progeny’s prose for such sins as being murder victims (James Ellroy’s mother), Bloomsbury homosexuals united by mutual affection (Nigel Nicholson’s mum and dad) or the dysfunctional morons who screwed up Marvelous Me (variations on a theme by Eugene O’Neill from just about anyone you care to name). In calibrating the refinements of parricidal prose, I know of two such accounts that rate as sui generis thanks to their extraordinary melding of parent and offspring — that is, subject matter and author. Extraordinary not in the sense of great or hugely important, but by virtue of being out of the ordinary, startlingly original and worth a read.
For all I know, My Father and Myself by J.R. Ackerley (1896-1967) may be required reading in Sodomy 101 classes at America’s Great Universities, but my impression is that the third of the book taken up with dreary pickups of “several hundred young men, mostly of the lower orders and often clad in uniforms of one sort or another” comes up short of the gaiety required for inclusion in the “gay lit.” canon. If aversion therapy ever makes a comeback, though, this might be just the thing. Example: Joe Ackerley is with his father in the dining car of a train. A waiter comes by and an “exchange of smiles and winks” takes place. A few minutes later Ackerley excuses himself, heads off to the lavatory, gets it on with the waiter and returns in time for coffee. In a famous memoir called My Dog Tulip, Ackerley recounted his one and only experience of reciprocated affection, after he had become an “old twank” who found happiness in a cross-species relationship notorious for having added unwholesome new layers of significance to the word “petting”.
When not cataloging sexual transactions and churning out self-pity (“the latchkey turned night after night into the cold, dark empty flat”), Ackerley brings his father into focus. The old man is rendered as a typically “bluff and jovial” Edwardian known as the banana king of Covent Garden, successful enough as director of a firm of wholesale fruit importers to ensure that Ackerley, his brother and sister enjoyed all the amenities of their social class and era; house in the country, servants, public schools, followed in his case by Cambridge and a harrowing stint in the trenches. The “charming, feckless and garrulous” mother who took to the bottle in a big way during her latter years gets cursory nods of filial affection.
So the big deal must be that the author and his father had a troubled relationship. No; actually they got on fine. Ackerley wonders whether the old man suspected his proclivities, though it’s clear he must have. Young Joe brought his boyfriends home, never feigned even a polite interest in women and by his own account was enough of a swisher to be instantly recognized by others of that ilk. Dad was careful never to ask a loaded question, much less a direct one, and pretended not to catch the open allusions in his son’s published work. In general, the elder Ackerley was as dutiful and affable a parent as one can hope to draw in life’s lottery.
On the first page of his book the author promises “surprises, perhaps I should call them shocks” but not until tertiary syphilis has laid father in his grave and Joe has embarked on his distinguished career as a literary editor do we find out what was so special about the father with his “heavy figure, his Elder Stateman look, his Edward VII hat, umbrella and eternal cigar, his paunch, mustache, his swivel eye, his jumps and unsteady gait, dull commuting, respectable life, his important business, his dreary office pals and their eternal yarning about chaps putting their hands up girls’ frocks (never into boys’ flies)”.
Turns out dad led a double life, spending alternate weekends keeping company with a mistress who bore him three daughters that were farmed out to a governess and to whom he paid sporadic but sincere paternal attention in the guise of dear “Uncle Bodger”. Making provision for his secret family drained the inheritance that was supposed to maintain the other one, so the younger Ackerley ended up supporting his mother and sister for the rest of his life, as he complains (far too often) in his memoir.
Does the revelation of dad’s duplicity disconcert Ackerley? No, he makes it clear that as jolts go, the posthumous glimpse into what he calls his father’s secret garden “was not severe to a mind as self-centred as mine”. But what it does do is open up the intriguing possibility that — hold on a minute — if Ackerley Sr. could have had one secret life, well, why not two? And why shouldn’t that other one have been gay enough to have him turning tricks way back when he was a young, good-looking and penniless trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, a regiment in which the younger Ackerley found easy pickins for pickups.
The final pages of My Father and Myself key in on the son’s impassioned attempt to get the goods on the late Alfred Ackerley. The devoted son tracks down doddering old cronies who might have known the truth and obsesses over remarks that could absolve him of his “long pursuit of love through sex, out of which, in the end, I emerged as lonely as I began”.
Well, was the father a fruit? It looks to me like the old boy and some of his uniformed pals were streetwise enough to tease cash, gifts and favors out of a wealthy count whose inclinations are as clear-cut as are the indications that he was terrified of acting on them or venturing beyond the boundaries of “befriending” the young protégés he doted on. Maybe not, though. But who cares?
Ackerley does, desperately, “Was not a man who was capable of so much, capable of anything?” he asks himself over and over as he peers at images of his father in fading sepia only to conclude, in consternation and uncertainty, “I would not have picked him up myself“ and then immediately adds “but the photograph was said not to do him justice.”
What should have been the point of departure turns into the deadest of dead ends; and so Ackerley throws in the towel after exhausting so much of his own energy, his considerable skill as a writer of prose and the reader’s indulgence in hot pursuit of the most Monty Pythonish of biographers’ Holy Grails, “outing” dear old dad.