From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That therby beauty’s rose might never die, / but as the riper should by time decrease / His tender heir might bear his memory: / But though, contracted to thine own bright eyes, / Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel, / Making a famine where abundance lies, / Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Shakespeare, Sonnet I
When I was a boy we got a cat called Penny. She was a Siamese cat; angular and chocolate pointed. Penny was a kitten when we got her and very unhappy and lost when we let her loose in our house. She spent days mewing and calling, stalking about searching for her mother or her sisters and brothers in every unfamiliar corner of our unfamiliar house. Eventually she settled and accepted us. We moved house a few times for the seven or eight years she was with us. I wasn’t always kind to her as I suppose many nine year old boys aren’t to their pets, but I did love her and became used to having her around, to finding her in some sunny corner of the garden or curled in a ball on the couch. At some point Penny had to be put down because she had a disease. The knowledge of her coming death affected me tremendously. I was aware of her last night and aware also that she was unaware. I imagined her stalking through the night, feeling her muscles move and the cool air. The last time I held her I took the hair she left on my jersey and put it in my diary. I felt her death enormously, it overwhelmed me, and it still upsets me today when I think about it. I also learned about myself because for some reason I couldn’t show what I felt to anyone. I just couldn’t. To my mother I think I appeared largely indifferent to Penny’s death, and yet I was locked in my room at night sobbing. I don’t understand this about myself.
My Dog Tulip is a short book written by J.R. Ackerley and first published in 1956. It is an account of the author’s fifteen year relationship with his Alsatian bitch called Tulip. I picked this book up at the library the other week because I had read and liked another book by Ackerley called Hindoo Holiday. Ackerley’s style is usually clear, and precise and quietly humourous. Here is an example from early in the book My Dog Tulip. Ackerley’s dog could never be trusted with vets, and was notoriously defiant and troublesome whenever he had to seek their advice. As the duo approached the offices of a yet another vet Ackerely observed the following scene through the surgery window:
[The poodle] was standing quietly on a table with a thermometer sticking out of its bottom, like a cigarette. And this humiliating spectacle was rendered all the more crushing by the fact that there was no one else there. Absolutely motionless, and with an air of deep absorption, the dog was standing upon the table in an empty room with a thermometer in his bottom, almost as though he had put it there himself.
Ackerley was the arts editor of The Listener from 1935 to 1959 and a close friend of E.M.Forster. As the arts editor of The Listener he was encouraging to artists like Auden and Isherwood. Because of these facts, which have a slightly effete air to them, and his writing style, it comes as little surprise to learn that he was gay. Then, once you feel like you have the man pegged, you come up against the hard fact that he served in France during World War One in the Somme and at Arras for almost the entire war. There can have been very little that was effete about that experience, or the experience of discovering after your father’s death that he had a secret family that included three daughters.
My Dog Tulip is an odd book. Superficially it is the biography of an unremarkable dog. I am not a dog person and a lot of this book made for slightly uncomfortable reading. As Tulip was not spayed a good 60% of the book concerns her being in heat. I can confidently say that I would have died a happy man without ever having read it detail about a dog’s vagina. This book has regretfully robbed me of this chance. It is a book about love and, as I have reflected while changing my daughter’s nappies or wiping her sick off my shoulder, there are certain kinds of love which do not flinch from the nitty gritty facts of existence, but embrace them as part of the person or animal loved no matter how distasteful they may be to an outsider. This is the kind of experience you can have as a reader of this book; you experience a complete love from the outside and it is both moving and also a little discomforting.
However, I don’t want to talk about the whole book in detail. What I really want to do is focus on the penultimate chapter which I think is remarkable. I said at the start of this post that Ackerley’s style is usually clear, and precise and quietly humourous. Sometimes however it is rather poignant, subtle and ambiguous. This book turns out to be about sex and death in its problematic, natural, unspayed form. Ackerley responds to the cycles of nature through his dog, and through his dog we confront the facts of life. Most of the penultimate chapter takes place in the heart of a wood on Wimbledon Common.
It is summer, and the heath fires have broken out. The sultry air is acrid with the smell of burning. Inexorable fires that smolder away below the peaty soil, flickering up from time to time in a momentary flower of flame as they gnaw their way towards the roots of trees. Dear willow, foremost ever with tidings of spring, sweet chestnut who lays down for me every autumn a carpet of the palest gold, how can I help you? I stamp and I stamp along the devouring edge, puffs of ash spurt up beneath my feet. Out! Out! It is out…. But when I glance back the wisps of death are rising once more.
I think this is very beautiful writing, and it is clearly about more that the author’s desire to save some trees from peat fires. There is a growing sense as this chapter unfolds that each thing in nature contains the seeds of its death within it, and while we may not know exactly what will takes us we know that we will be taken. This awareness creates in the author a great tenderness for the animal he loves because he becomes aware of life’s brevity. The noticing of this is quite a Shakespearean trait: that peculiar emotion that runs through so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets registering the ephemeral nature of beauty, and the need to breed in order to have some kind of legacy. Not breeding is a kind of vanity that deprives the world of joy by leaving of something wonderful no trace.
There is a sudden scurry of noise, and Tulip flies across the ride on which I stand, her nose to the ground. Out of the tattered undergrowth on one side, into the tattered undergrowth on the other, she rushes; she has come, she has gone, silence claps down again, it is as though she has never been. Excepting that, caught upon the cinders of the ride in front of me curls and wavers in the frozen air the warm white fume of her breath. I watch it as it clings, writhes, wavers, slowly dissolves. She has been, she has gone, nothing now remains.
But if an awareness of death is in this place in the middle of the forest then so is an awareness of the urge if sex. The author has spent the whole book battling against the times when his dog comes into heat (“You shall mate! You shall bear! And now! Now! My time is short and must not be wasted!), but when he finally gives up and lets his dog do as she pleases it is in the wood on Wimbledon Common. I couldn’t help but wonder though if the book was not concerned only with the insatiable desire of beast to mate with beast, but with other desires in man. What do we make of this fragment of the book that also comes in the forest chapter, a fragment of the book that comes, a footnote tells us, from a story in The Times, 30 June, 1926,
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 down in the 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 effiminacy 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….
This is a sad story, a story that makes your heart ache for the boy called Holland and the society he found himself in, and how it must have resonated with Ackerley who discovered himself attracted to other boys at school and was nicknamed “girlie” for his good looks and vanity. And you feel, too, that there is something of the war in all of this: young, perfect boys pushed face down into the swamp, and dying. But is there something else? What is at work under the skin of all this for the author? All this feeling of being driven by a need but somehow also needing to control and contain it, never to let it run free, or even walk the street, but finding it “flickering up from time to time in a momentary flower of flame”. Not to resist it though, or try to change it. Ackerely was gay and appears to have lived at relative ease with himself, but it is impossible to imagine that life was easy.
Not that I think this whole book is really secretly talking about being gay. This is completely wrong. It’s about Ackerley’s dog. Of that you can be certain when you read the book. Through their pets people often confront the blunter aspects of life, and are able to witness the whole of a life in a compressed way. It is this that Ackerley is doing. Describing the life of an animal he loved dearly, and confronting the fundamentals of life with her. In describing those confrontations it is perhaps unsurprising that the a little of the author’s own self appears, however fleetingly. What is surprising, in such an odd little book, is how beautiful and moving these scenes in the wood are, and how much they reveal and conceal.
I’m not sure what my reaction to Penny’s death tells me about myself. In fact I feel that living with Penny often revealed things in me that I would rather conceal, unpleasant sides to my character that came out more easily when I was a boy. Then again, I still can hold her clearly in my mind’s eye, sitting at the foot of the fridge with pointed, pleading gaze, or circling about on my lap before settling down for a snooze, and at those times I feel the warmth of whatever the bond was between us.
Postcript: An animated movie version of My Dog Tulip is due for release this year. This is the official site.