Joe Randolph Ackerley was born on 4 November 1896, the second of the three children of Roger Ackerley, co-founder of the fruit importers Elders & Fyffes, and a former actress called Netta Aylward. His parents lived as husband and wife, but did not in fact marry until 1919.
He attended Rossall School and Magdalene College, Cambridge, but his education was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served on the Western Front as an officer in the 8th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. He was wounded during the First Day on the Somme, and again at Arras in 1917, where he was also taken prisoner. He was subsequently transferred to an internment camp at the ski resort of Mürren, and his experiences there provided him with the material for his only play, The Prisoners of War (1925), which had a homosexual theme and was a considerable succès d’estime.
In 1922 Ackerley received a letter of appreciation from E.M. Forster about his long poem ‘Ghosts’, which had been published in the London Mercury and would be republished in the collection Poems by Four Authors (1923). The two men subsequently became close and lifelong friends, and it was at Forster’s suggestion that in 1924 Ackerley took up the post of personal secretary to the eccentric, homosexual Maharajah of Chhatarpur, a princely state in central India. The five months Ackerley spent in India provided him with material for his travel book, Hindoo Holiday, which had to undergo several revisions in order to avoid risk of prosecution for both obscenity and libel before being published in 1932.
In 1928 Ackerley joined the Talks Department of the BBC as an assistant producer. He edited a book, Escapers All (1932), based on talks given by former prisoners of war, and made many friends and acquaintances among other speakers from the world of literature and the arts. These contacts would prove useful when in 1935 he became literary editor of The Listener, the BBC’s weekly magazine which ran from 1929 to 1991. He was responsible for the eight pages per issue ‘allocated to art, poetry, books and literature’ and persuaded many of the leading writers of the time to become regular contributors: E.M. Forster, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, Wyndham Lewis, Kenneth Clark, Maynard Keynes, Geoffrey Grigson, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. He held the job for almost a quarter of a century, and was described by Anthony Howard as ‘by common consent the greatest literary editor of his time – perhaps of all time’.
Meanwhile, Ackerley discovered that his father had a second, secret family consisting of a mistress and three daughters. As a consequence, Ackerley inherited little more than financial chaos when Roger died, and thereafter was always short of money. Energetically homosexual, he was, like many men of his class and generation, principally attracted to working-class men, a procession of waiters, actors, sailors, guardsmen, delivery boys, petty criminals and policemen amongst whom he hoped to find what he called ‘the Ideal Friend’.
This hopeless quest came to an end during the Second World War, when he acquired a neurotic and highly possessive Alsatian bitch called Queenie, who would rapidly come to be the centre of his emotional life. My Dog Tulip (1956) is a love-letter to Queenie, which describes her life - notably her sexual and excretory needs - in unabashed detail. Several of his admirers were appalled, but while Edith Sitwell dismissed the book as ‘meaningless filth about a dog’, others, including Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Rosamund Lehmann and Julian Huxley, recognised that, like everything else Ackerley produced, the book was both seriously intended and beautifully written.
He was now living in a cramped top-floor flat in Star & Garter Mansions on the river at Putney, not only with Queenie but
also with his divorced and mentally unstable sister Nancy and his aged Aunt Bunny – ‘my three bitches’, as he referred to them collectively. He kept a guilt-ridden and highly self-critical diary of this period, which was published posthumously under the title My Sister and Myself (1982).
We Think the World of You (1960) is a lightly fictionalised and grimly funny account of how he acquired Queenie from a married, long-term lover who was serving nine months for burglary. Ackerley cheerfully described the book as ‘Homosexuality and bestiality mixed, and largely recorded in dialogue: the figure of Freud suspended gleefully above’. The book was published at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and friends worried that Ackerley had laid himself open to prosecution, but instead the novel won the W.H. Smith Literary Award.
The BBC had provided an arena for Ackerley to conduct his guerrilla campaign against conventional moral values, and he spent much of his time battling with his superiors and attempting to smuggle politically or sexually ‘difficult’ material into the magazine. ‘I think that people ought to be upset,’ he once wrote, ‘and if I had a paper I would upset them all the time ... life is so important and, in its workings, so upsetting that nobody should be spared.’
Ackerley upheld this invigorating creed throughout his life and spent many years working on a ‘family memoir’, in which he attempted to fathom his own character and that of his father, who may also have had a homosexual past. Ackerley completed the book shortly before his death in 1967; it was published posthumously as My Father and Myself (1968) and set new standards for sexual frankness in autobiography.
Ackerley was a true libertarian, who believed that life for dogs and humans alike should be lived off the leash, and in retirement he continued to argue in favour of both homosexual and animal rights. He died a month before homosexuality was (partially) legalised in Britain – an irony he would have been the first to appreciate. The Putney Society erected a Blue Plaque on Star & Garter Mansions in June 2010. The PEN Ackerley Prize was founded in his memory in 1982 and is awarded every year to a volume of autobiography by a British author.
Poems by Four Authors, Bowes & Bowes, 1923
The Prisoners of War: A Play, Chatto & Windus, 1925
Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal, Chatto & Windus, 1932; revised edition 1952
Escapers All[ed.], The Bodley Head, 1932
My Dog Tulip: Life with an Alsatian, Secker & Warburg, 1956
We Think the World of You, The Bodley Head, 1960
My Father and Myself, The Bodley Head, 1968
E.M. Forster: A Portrait, Ian McKelvie, 1970
Micheldever & Other Poems, Ian McKelvie, 1972
The Letters of J.R. Ackerley, ed. Neville Braybrooke, Duckworth, 1975
My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J.R. Ackerley, ed. Francis King, Hutchinson, 1983