His Dog Tulip

Having just acquired a puppy of our own, I thought it time to read My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley. I have a 1999 reissue with an introduction by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, of The Secret Lives of Dogs fame.

I vaguely knew that J.R. Ackerley was a contemporary of folks like E.M. Forster and Christopher Isherwood (they have blurbs on the back of this edition), gay, upper class, British, literary. There’s a lovely picture of him and Tulip on the cover of my edition: a thin, older man, round glasses, sweater vest with tie and jacket, corduroy trousers. Looks gay, something about the way he’s leaning coquettishly, cocking his head to one side.

His writing is beautiful, slow and deliberate, nice pedantic words I don’t know and have to look up in the dictionary. You can tell he’s a big grump, a misogynist, a classist bigot, a darling romantic, an empathic and sympathetic observer of natural life.

At the same time I was exclaiming over how much dog ownership has changed since Tulip graced Ackerley’s life (he had her for 16 ½ years starting sometime in the 1940s; the book was first published in 1956), it was gradually dawning on me that all the gorgeous observation and loving detail he pours into this description of Tulip is gorgeous observation and loving detail he could not, at the time (at least not publicly) pour into descriptions of his gay life and love.

Everything about Tulip is beautiful to him: the second chapter (they’re really more like essays), “Liquids and Solids” is all about Tulips bodily functions, and makes surprisingly entertaining and interesting reading (this was, of course, long before pooper scoopers), especially the scene where’s he’s trying to get Tulip to go before they get on a train, and says encouragingly, “Come on, Tulip, be a sport. Shitsy-witsy, you know.”

The third chapter, “Trail and Error”, begins, “Soon after Tulip came into my possession, I set about finding a husband for her. She had had a lonely and frustrated life hitherto; now she should have a full one.” Later in the chapter, he goes on to a seriously sensual description of Tulip coming into heat, which he finds completely enchanting: “That small dark bud, her vulva, became gradually swollen and more noticeable amid the light gray fur of her thighs as she walked ahead of me, and sometimes it would set up, I supposed, a tickle or a trickle or some other sensation, for she would suddenly squat down in the road and fall to licking it. At such moments I could see how much larger it had grown and the pretty pink of its lining. Then there were spots of blood on her silvery shins. She did not bleed much, nor did she smell; I should not have minded either. I was very touched by the mysterious process at work within her and felt very sweet towards her.”

How loving and supportive he is of his pet’s sexuality – a sexuality that is, without any doubt, natural and a part of natural life. His own sexuality? The sexualities of his friends and lovers? Near the end of the book, he details how he attempts to get Tulip through her heats as painlessly as possible by letting her run wild after rabbits in a nearby wilderness area, saying several times that he is able to give her everything she wants, but not what she needs (he does not want her mated again, as it was incredibly distressing trying to find good homes for the pups the one time she did mate and get pregnant).

This particular wilderness area was the site of a tragic suicide many years earlier: “And young Holland, where did he die? Where is the swamp into which he drove his face? Lost, lost, the inconsiderable, anguished deed in the blind hurry of time. The perfect boy face downwards in a swamp… The doctor who performed the autopsy remarked that the muscles and limbs were absolutely perfect, he had never seen a better developed boy in his life, nor, when he split open the skull, such deep gray matter. Ah, perfect but imperfect boy, brilliant at work, bored by games, traits of effeminacy were noticed in you, you were vain of your appearance and addicted to the use of scent. Everyone, it seemed, wished you different from what you were, so you came here at last and pushed your face into a swamp, and that was the end of you, perfect but imperfect boy…” (He references The Times, June 30, 1926 in a footnote, perhaps having preserved the clipping for over 20 years).

Ackerley laments the state of dogs’ lives, that they cannot just be dogs and do what dogs naturally do because for untold generations they have been inextricably linked to human beings, and the two species, as much as they can love each other, know very little about each other and have a hard time living peacefully together. Humans are always trying to make dogs be not-dog: not letting them have sexual freedom, not letting them be who they are. Ahem.

Don’t you think that in 1999, when this book was reissued, they could have had someone like, oh, I don’t know, some well-respected literary fag writer like Mark Doty or Michael Cunningham write the introduction? Someone queer, someone who gets what’s going on? Ok, yes, My Dog Tulip is ostensibly a dog book, and a rather wonderful dog book at that, so I can see why they might have thought of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, and her introduction is ok, but it says nothing about the deeper waters of the book. Nothing of the above incredibly moving passage – gee, why is that in there when this is a dog book? Oh, I dunno, I’ll just skip over it. Just like that part of Ackerley’s life was undoubtedly skipped over his entire literary career.

Ok, I actually know nothing about his life. Maybe he was completely out and had lovers and was deliriously happy. He’s just got one published novel, according to the information from my edition of My Dog Tulip, called We Think the World of You, as well as two other memoirs, one about his father and one called Hindoo Holiday, and I haven’t read any of them. I also know nothing about The Listener, the BBC magazine for which he was literary editor.

And I know I could look all this stuff up in just a few strokes of my keyboard, but I don’t feel like it. I mean, I really don’t feel like it! Today, I just feel like reacting to an actual book I have in my actual hands. I would like to enjoy feeling outraged, sit around and ponder, talk to other people and see what they have to say without mucking things up by flitting about on the stupid internet and finding sound bytes of information on Wikepedia and allowing them to dilute and dissipate my thoughts. Fuck that. And fuck the publisher, New York Review of Books, for falling so disastrously down on the job of reissuing this integral piece of queer history without putting it in context and honoring it like the brave and desperate work that it continues to be.

Published in: on September 1, 2009 at 1:30 AM  Comments (3)  

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  1. I can’t remember the exact sequence of my acquaintance with Ackerley, but a little known film, “We Think the World of You,” based on his only novel was reviewed in the L.A. Times around 1990. I was one of probably 50 people who saw it in its L.A. run, but I subsequently read a review of his memoir, “My Dog Tulip.” It had just been re-published. Bought it, loved it, and realized “We Think the World of You,” was a slightly fictionalized account of Ackerley, his hapless young working class lover, who was Tulip’s original owner, and the obsessive bond that grew to dominate both Ackerley’s and Tulip’s lives for 15 years. Ackerley was exposed to the mistreated Tulip while the young lover was incarcerated for a year. Ackerley occasionally took Tulip for walks and their mutual love overtook their lives. A real tug of war, tinged with minor epic jealousy ensued between Ackerley and the young lover’s wife and parents over Tulip. Tulip became the symbol of the young man to all parties, at least until Ackerley was able to secure her as his own, losing the lover at the same time.

    Both books were written while the “buggery laws” were still in effect in Britain, so the memoir carried not a hint of Ackerley’s life before Tulip. “We Think the World of You” is a fabulous novel, the movie is terrific too — and because it was fiction, Ackerley could tell the full story of his life. (Note: I’m almost sure that the edition of Tulip that I originally read did not have a forward by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. I know that W.H. Auden wrote the forward for Ackerley’s brilliant memoir “My Father and Myself.”)

    I agree that the reading of “My Dog Tulip” is enhanced by knowing more about Ackerley, his life and times. But I read it originally without that knowledge and enjoyed it so much so that when I subsequently adopted a Belgian Tervueren mix off the streets of L.A., I named her Tulip. She had many of the same unfortunate but ‘endearing’ qualities of Ackerley’s Tulip. Fortunately for me she calmed down somewhat as she gained confidence. She’s now 12 and I share Ackerley’s obsession to a greater extent than I readily admit. (For example, I did the math recently and realized I walked her 1,825 times in the last year. An older dog now, she needs to go outside 5 times a day. So Ackerley’s chapter heading of “liquids and solids” is more a part of our life than I’d like to admit.)

    Do not miss the beautifully animated adult film of “My Dog Tulip,” which is in U.S. release now (not out on DVD yet as of Jan. 2011). Wonderful reviews, too numerous to mention, but see the NYT, NYRB, LA Times, etc. And, also see “We Think the World of You,” which is available online streaming through Netflix. Gary Oldman and Alan Bates. And/or read the book. All his books are available through the NYRB website at a discount. The whole Ackerley crowd of late Edwardian writers and poets are worth exploring. (Note that Colonel Pugh in “My Dog Tulip” is really the poet Sigfried Sassoon.)

  2. Maureen, thank you so much for stopping by and leaving such a long, interesting comment! I appreciate your recommendations and will definitely check them out. What was it that you loved so much about My Dog Tulip?

    I just read Mark Doty’s The Dog Years and am about to read Flush by Virginia Woolf. Have you read them? I also read Dogged Pursuit by Robert Rodi. Perhaps a dogs and their queers post coming up at some point!

    My regards to your Tulip — may you two continue racking up the miles walked together for a long time! (Our Cairn is now almost 2 — we walk with him a lot, too!)

  3. Perhaps this best answers your question. It’s from an extraordinary review on Amazon about Tulip-the-book:


    “My Dog Tulip lampoons the British middle class as well as human anthropocentrism in general. Ackerley’s technique of combining shocking subject matter with a genteel, decorous prose style is always a joy to read. It’s also definately the main reason he managed to get away with publishing this book in 1956. It’s no small measure of the success of this balancing act, that a book which still manages to upset a minority of readers in 2001 was published in 1956 to general critical acclaim.”

    “What you get, if you buy My Dog Tulip, is a very detailed account of Ackerley’s life with his dog Queenie (he changed the name to Tulip, only after it was suggested to him that ‘Queenie’ might cause some tittilation, as Ackerley had been a somewhat outspoken member of London’s gay community for some time). At times it is hilarious – never more so than when he’s poking fun at English propriety. At other times it is very touching, and at others there is a barely concealed anger against human arrogance. Yes, there are many, detailed descriptions of canine bodily functions – one chapter is titled ‘Liquids and solids’. In my view Ackerley pulls this off with complete dignitiy, even if I’m reminded of Salvador Dali explaining to a shocked society lady how he covers himself with filth when he paints, but in order to attract “only the cleanest flies.””

    “When the real Queenie died, Ackerley was devestated, and never really recovered. The greatest achievement of My Dog Tulip is its final chapter ‘The Turn of the Screw’, where suddenly the style of the writing changes; the comic veneer is dropped, and suddenly all the imagery about life, death and reproduction make sense. Tulip is still with him, but time is against them. It is one of the most beautiful and moving ruminations on mortality that I’ve read.”

    Me, again (sorry I’m not sure how to use HTML to blockquote the above excerpts from the Amazon review): I am a dog worshipper. Couldn’t have one as a kid, but read every dog book in our local library. Every one. I thought dogs were like Lassie, Laddie. By the time I adopted my Tulip 10 years ago, I thought back with a kind of hazy fondness of those heroic dogs, but I loved even more the idiosyncratic dogs that I knew once I could have my own. Ackerley wrote about a real dog. And he unveiled himself in writing about his adored Tulip.

    I’m taken with those post-Edwardian writers and poets, many survivors (or not) of WWI. Ackerley was one. I’ve read other Ackerley books and read quite a bit about him and his literary peers. I think he’s a remarkable writer. As that perceptive Amazon reviewer said, ‘who else could write such prose about dog urine, poop, and menstrual blood!”

    I’ve not read the dog books you mention, but hope to read Virginia Woolf’s “Flush.” I am reading the Pat Barton trilogy beginning with “Regeneration” and am dragging my feet reading the third as I don’t want them to end. Sassoon (Ackerley’s Colonel Pugh) is a major character.

    I hope you see “My Dog Tulip.” It’s a literary and beautifully drawn film, made by a producer (Norman Twain), director-animator and painter team, the married couple Paul and Sandra Fierlinger (of PBS fame) for whom Tulip is a labor of love. Tulip doesn’t have a campaign budget for the Academy Award nominations, but one can only hope it is nominated along with the mega $$$ Toy Store 3. I’ve developed an e-mail friendship with the producer who lives here in NY and kindly invited me to some screenings.

    And I also hope you can see “We Think the World of You.” As mentioned you can see it (streaming online) through Netflix. It isn’t available on DVD.

    Finally, I’ll say that I find more remarkable books on the New York Review of Books website. They started up their own publishing arm a few years ago, re-publishing many that were out of print (Ackerley’s books were their first, and Tulip is their best seller over the years). You can order their books through them, most at discount. I’ve often found remarkable authors and titles there I wouldn’t have encountered elsewhere.

    My Tulip and I send our regards back to you and your Cairn. I’ve tried to adopt a Cairn a couple of times over the past 20 years but keep getting sidelined by other dogs in greater need, Tulip-the-Belgian-Tervueren-mix, and a champion Westie whose breeders didn’t want her after she won her championship and gave them champion pups. When I got her at age 6, I realized she didn’t even know her name as she was never a pet. I had her for 7 years until last year. Those Scottish dogs are stubborn but loving, aren’t they?

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