Book Review

My Father and Myself by J. R. Ackerley

an important, wonderful, book

Fathers. We all have ’em, technically. We’ve all met some, definitely. And now, in a couple of special posts (not special) I’ll be plonking up here over the next couple of weeks (probably), I’ll be looking at books that are explicitly about fathers, in celebration/promotion/excitement related to my forthcoming prose chapbook, My Father, From A Distance, available [insert date here] from Selcouth Station Press.

Fathers, as anyone who has read Bad Boy Poet knows, are a tough subject for me. I won’t repeat myself here, but illness, education and intellect have always kept me and my own father distant. Too much psychological distance between father and son is a classic English problem: see Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, see Scott Manley Hadley’s My Father, From A Distance, see this: My Father and Myself by J. R. Ackerley.

Ackerley was a BBC man, the son of a fruit importing magnate (“The Banana King”), and a somewhat lonely man who eventually found happiness when, in late middle age, he bought a dog and stopped hoping for romance. He writes about that canine adventure in another memoir, My Dog Tulip, which I can’t imagine is half as frank as this text.

Ackerley began writing My Father and Myself  in the 1930s, immediately after the death of his father, but abandoned it until a few decades later, when he tidied it up and finished it off just before his own death. I’m very glad he did so, because this book is a moving, articulate, witty and perceptive exploration of the numerous ways in which male, British, emotional repression causes so much fucking unhappiness and sad, silent, unfulfilled men.

Ackerley (the writer) was homosexual, back in the era when it was illegal. He writes, honestly and openly, about his first sexual experiences and his deep initial sense of shame. He writes about the passage of time and his acceptance of himself, before his BBC salary and inheritance allowed him to enjoy his 30s and 40s as a wealthy man-about-town picking up young poorboy soldiers often in exchange – directly or indirectly – for money. Ackerley speaks about the romance that he yearned for; of simple, domestic, affection, and how he – and many of his lovers – seemed unable to ignore repressive societal mores (and tbf corrupt, unjustifiable laws) and combine sexual and romantic love. Ackerley wanted fucking, but he also wanted the chaste ideal. Maybe, he writes, he was sabotaging himself: by not tempering his contradictory hopes and desires did he prevent himself from finding, to use his term, “the Ideal Friend”?

A romantic sadness caused by poor communication is at the heart of My Father and Myself, because a lack of honesty is central to every relationship it contains. After his father dies, Ackerley discovers that “The Banana King” had been a crazy horny bisexual with a secret second family and a professional history that had been entirely reliant on the hand-outs and favours he got from the wealthy men-about-town who picked him up when he was a young poorboy soldier. That, I suppose, is social mobility in action, innit.

Ackerley and his father never bonded how they could have; they never opened up and helped each other feel more at peace in the world. These were two men with many secrets, secrets that they kept even from people who would have accepted them.

This is the risk of emotional repression: things do not get said that need to be said, that help to be said. My father and I bonded, eventually, for a bit, and it was a great relief, but it was also “too little too late”, as they say. I know how Ackerley feels: he doesn’t find out the truth about his father until he is dead, likewise I didn’t find out enough about my father to empathise with him until he was too ill – and I was too old – for it to make much of a difference to either of our lives. Sad.

Talk, I advise, communicate. Tell the people who you love that you love them, trust in the sympathetic ear of those you believe to be sympathetic. 
We exist, we must exist, within society, amongst others. To hold ourselves tightly within, unspeaking, unweeping, unknowing, helps no one. If you feel nothing, you are not alive. If you think you feel nothing, you are repressed.

Everybody feels something, sometimes, and pretending the opposite does masses of harm: silence is not innocent, in fact it can be the most evil thing in the world, I type hyperbolically.

My Father and Myself is about how the lack of connection, of honesty, impacts every interaction we have. Telling stories is telling lies, says BS Johnson, but telling ourselves something honest and truthful of ourselves is of great fucking worth.

This is a funny book, a sad book, a necessary book. For anyone lonely in love, lonely in family, lonely in life, I recommend it, and I recommend too that fucking Forster quotation that BBC4 quiz is named after. We are only what we reflect to the world. So shine bright, like. Shine on bright.

Order My Father and Myself direct from NYRB Classics via this link.

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BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS

I started writing this post twice. This was what I wrote the first time before getting distracted by caffeine or snow or my dog or an email or something:

Honestly, J. R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself is one of the most wonderful and underrated memoirs I have ever encountered.

For the first time in a while, a man tried to pick me up on public transport while I was reading this. The man was wearing khaki camouflage trousers while living in a snow out, so unlikely to be hidden away. He wanted to talk about Ackerley’s other memoir, My Dog Tulip. I haven’t read it.

Just before that happened, I had been chastised (again) by a fucking baby boomer for reading while walking. This one pompously told me I’d get “carsick”, but before I could sneeringly snap something back about the impossibility of getting carsick when not in a car, you fucking baby boomer bastard, I looked up and saw that the voice belonged to a person wearing insect-like antennae made from a coathanger tied to their head by a towelled belt. This person – this was not the only tell – had mental health issues. This is something I’m seeing a lot here in Canada.

In fact, the higher visibility of people with clear mental health issues is almost as striking a change from Europe as the fucking weather. There have been visible drunks and junkies in other cities I’ve lived in, of course, but on certain – long – streets here, “these people” outnumber everyone else, especially when I’m mooching around with my dog and a book during the hours when “normal” people are at work.

It makes me feel weird. I have mental health issues, and there are times when that is crystal fucking clear to an outsider. I spent half an hour yesterday throwing ice into the lake, loudly singing to myself a song I’d made up about dog poo. That’s not the behaviour of a “normal” person, is it?

I don’t know how I feel about this increase in visiblity of people who are worse than me at hiding their problems (or better at not hiding it?). My biggest worry is that I’ll continue to grow to see it – as I currently am – as an assault on my identity. I’m not the craziest person I encounter most days any more. If I’m not mad, bad and dangerous to care about, then what am I? Who am I? Under-employed poet? Dog owner? Bibliophile? I don’t think mental health issues are meant to be seen as fucking competitive, and I don’t think I’m “no more than my mental health issues”. But maybe I am? I need to find myself a therapist here, in the New World. I’m slipping into negative thought patterns and I just don’t want that any more.

I’ve done nothing today except eat soup, read I, Claudius and listen to the official soundtrack playlist of The Young Pope on repeat. I don’t think any of this is healthy.

More soon.


On November 14th 2018, I launched my first (and so far only) book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:

Order Bad Boy Poet from the UK publisher here.

Order Bad Boy Poet with free Worldwide Shipping from The Book Depository here.

Order Bad Boy Poet from Amazon/Waterstones/Hive/Foyles etc if you’d prefer.


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1 comment on “My Father and Myself by J. R. Ackerley

  1. Pingback: Granta 104: Fathers – Triumph Of The Now

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