Image of two men kissingGay History and Literature: Essays by Rictor Norton

Just Like Home

The Gay Love Letters of J. R. Ackerley

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Portrait of J. R. Ackerley

Joseph Randall Ackerley (1896–1967) was the archetypal British gay man of letters. His personal and professional friends were all part of the homosexual literary set: E. M. Forster, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Paul Cadmus, Christopher Isherwood, William Plomer, Francis King, James Kirkup, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, John Maynard Keynes, and a host of others. During his twenty-four years as literary editor of the BBC's magazine The Listener he helped to consolidate the homosexual hegemony of British intellectual and literary life during the 1930s and 1940s. His play Prisoners of War (1925) was outspokenly pro-gay, as were his other books and poems. He loathed philistinism and censorship, and delighted in shocking people with homosexuality: "I think that life is so important and, in its workings, so upsetting, that nobody should be spared, but that it should be rammed down their throats from morning to night. And may those who cannot take it die of it; it is what we want." Hindoo Holiday (1932), based upon his experiences as secretary to the gay Maharajah of Chhatarpur in central India, was heavily edited to avoid libel, but Ackerley left detailed notes for its full reconstruction some day. The publisher Frederic Warburg warned "The day after you publish [My Dog Tulip (1956)], the police will be round to arrest you for practising homosexuality." He cut the scene in which the narrator goes to bed with an East End lad named Johnny, but he fully annotated a copy hoping that it would be republished uncensored. Like most upper-middle-class gay men during this period he fell in love with young (basically heterosexual) working-class men. Sex with 200–300 petty criminals, prostitutes and Guardsmen failed to turn up his "Ideal Friend." We Think the World of You (1960) documents his longest affair, with Freddie Doyle, a sailor-deserter and petty thief, whose family Ackerley supported for four years before the jealousy of Freddie's wife made it impossible for them to continue meeting. Ironically it was E. M. Forster's boyfriend the policeman Bob Buckingham who arrested Freddie for theft, not realizing he was Ackerley's boyfriend. The fictionalized autobiography also documents how Ackerley's love was transferred from Freddie to his Alsatian bitch Queenie, whom Ackerley took over when Freddie was sent to prison. Ackerley became an obsessive animal rights advocate, and his almost erotic love for Queenie embarrassed most of his friends. His posthumously published autobiography My Father and Myself was written in his last depressing years and concentrates more upon his lack of fulfilment than the humorous enjoyment of experience that was typical of most of his life. The first letter below is from the boy who became devoted to Ackerley in India, reporting the death of the Maharajah's principal favourite. The second letter comes from a Danish medical student, Ackerley's lover who was arrested in Copenhagen for having sex with a sixteen-year-old and was allowed to escape imprisonment only on condition that he consent to a surgical "cure" by having one testicle removed and replaced by the testicle of a heterosexual man.


October 1924

My dear Sahib,
          I am extremely sorry to write you that your beautiful bachcha [baby, i.e. Raghunandi] after the serious illness of two month lost his breath 12 October. He was suffering by thysis. At first he was under Treatment of Doctor and after that of Vaid Raj. No doubt his death is always piercing and pinching my poor heart.
          May God rest his gentle soul.
          Oh! my dear sahib now I am alone in this world (or in Bundelkhand, Chhatarpur). I have nothing; and I have no lovely friend except you. So you are not here, what can I do. Now I am in Great trouble or (in danger). I have nobody to love me. If you love me you must come here. I want to cry to meet you with both hands in your neck.
          My hand was could not write you this sorryful letter. Why I always write you pleaserful letter. How can I write you such . . . letter.
          Now I want to finish my letter. Now I am crying.
                    I am your unfortunate and
                              Bad luck
                                        Mahadeo Nayak


January 31, 1927

I think that the outcome of an operation is very problematical (do you know anything about it?) but now I'm obliged to submit to operation, although I do not want it now. It will be very interesting to see the outcome – if I will be able to feel the same for women as now for men! – I doubt, and you need not be jealous of one or another girl. You I'll never be able to forget – 10 operations, I feel sure, were not able to alter my love to you.


Putney, S.W.15
November 20, 1942

          Is it considered that educated thought and scientific progress are not yet sufficiently advanced to permit ventilation of a subject which, although it may be freely and objectively discussed in psychological, anthropological, biographical works, &c., seems still to be regarded in contemporary life as almost unmentionable anywhere except in the News of the World. I refer to homosexuality. During the course of the legal proceedings against twenty men recently concluded at Abergavenny, one youth of nineteen committed suicide on the railway lines, and two others attempted unsuccessfully to do away with themselves by hanging and poison, to avoid the shame of exposure. The reports from which these facts are gathered were published on August 23rd and November 8th in the newspaper referred to above.
          It would be interesting to know whether public opinion today regards such suffering as merited, and the savage sentences, up to and including ten years' penal servitude, allowed by the law and imposed by the judge, as the most enlightened method of dealing with this matter.
          Yours, &c.,
                    J. R. Ackerley



Dearest Francis,
          I am flying out of Athens tomorrow, returning to Marseille and Provence, thence home. Another letter before I go. I've enjoyed myself here, though in a baffled and frustrated way: my true misfortune was that you are not here. . . .
          [—] both saved and destroyed my life – at least I think so. I had just begun an affair with a boy of 16, and [—] told me that there was a law against tampering with the under-aged. Of this, I had no inkling, and the news unnerved me. The hotel had regarded the boy, when I had taken him in that day, with what I thought too deep an interest; nevertheless I had got him to my room and we had both had an enjoyable time for a couple of hours. He was a street boy (from Piraeus) – as with Lolita, he did the picking-up, one of a group of naughty boys who operate round the Rex cinema in Venizelos; but he had a nice, affectionate nature, was gay, considerate, active, not grasping and exceedingly prettily made, and, by the sun, coloured. I meant to keep on with him throughout my stay, and had a date with him for the next day – but [—]'s remark unnerved me. [—] had also said "Don't enter with the boy" – but I had: since I could speak no Greek, he no English, it would have been hard to concoct any other plan, my phrase-book does not help.
          I should now provide an elaborate description of the set-up of the Palladion Hotel, which is, as perhaps you remember, on Venizelos, down by Omonia. Enough to say that sometimes, too rarely, at the reception desk a girl or two functioned: sometimes the manager and an older more authoritative sort of man whom I took to be the proprietor were added. In fact, usually there seemed far too many people about, to welcome one and get one into the lift. I must add that everyone was, and continued to be, extremely friendly to me – most attentive – and the "proprietor" kept saying that he hoped I found staying there "just like home" – in spite of my rejoinder (which I don't suppose he understood) that it was from "home" that I was attempting to escape. At any rate, so far as I recall, when I slipped in with my boy, only the two women were functioning.
          Anyway, I was unnerved; I did not keep my appointment with the boy the next day, though he did, I saw him from across the road, smartly dressed in a provocative way, arsing about with the other boys who haunted the "Rex". Sorry though I was, I decided to avoid him in the future. (I saw him some days later, very gay and naughty, no heartbreak!)
          Four days later, as Henry Reed and I were returning from lunch at Vassily's (Henry was in the Alpha Hotel), another boy offered himself, also very pretty. He too could speak no English, but managed to convey that he was a Turkish tourist from Ankara – a story which I have subsequent reason to disbelieve. He was a little older than boy No. 1, either 17 or 18, smartly dressed in a cheap way. Henry soon made himself scarce, I conveyed to the boy that I lived in a hotel down the road, he said he would like to go in with me, and in we went. A bad moment? Everyone was in the foyer, proprietor, manager, two female receptionists, and two of the positively hideous pages the hotel seemed to have thought it wiser to select. Much polite fussifiction, "how do you do?" to me, lift pressed for me, nervous conversation from me, everyone most civil, the manager himself rode us up to my floor, more nervous conversation from me. The boy and I entered my room. My dear, we had not been there two minutes before the phone rang. I picked it up – muffled, muddled voices, excited tones – then it emerged that it was a call for the boy in my room. Perplexedly, I handed the phone to him. More excited conversation – of which I understood not a word, but certainly heated, the sort of "so what!" tone, then he put the receiver down, said "The Police!" in an agitated way, added "give me 3 drachmas," I gave 5, grabbed his little hold-all, and positively fled.
          What was it all about? What did he want 3 drachmas for? Who on earth had known he was in my room? Would he return? Well, I could write a lot more about it – speculation etc. – but I won't. He didn't return. I questioned the manager, very friendly, no change. "Someone phoned saying he had seen a young boy enter the hotel in company with an Englishman. He wished to speak to the boy. Of course, I had to put him through!"
          Well, there seem to me three possibilities only: (the boy himself must have been innocent, for he reaped nothing from it but 5 drachmas); (i) a jealous discarded friend of the boy's had seen our pick-up and dished us, (ii) the police had seen us, and dished us, (iii) the proprietor himself, pretending to be a policeman, had dished us. I think the first rather fanciful and reject it. Which of the other two was right I haven't a clue, but it didn't matter, they had the same effect – I simply couldn't afterwards, take anyone else into the hotel at all. Whoever was watching me, I was a watched, or at least noticed man, either the proprietor had discreetly informed [on] me (he was as nice as pie afterwards) that he wasn't going to have things like that in his hotel, or the police had seen and phoned (scouting round afterwards I observed that the kiosk exactly opposite the entrance to the hotel had a phone). So although I have felt as sexy as the devil I have simply had to give everything up since: I incline to adolescents, as you know, and they incline towards me. But I don't think I would dare to take even an adult in – a sailor, for example. So my life in Athens has been ruined. And how I have wished you were here! I've thought of changing my hotel – but to what? [——] told me he lived in a louche hotel – a sort of brothel – wonderfully cheap, on the Plaka, and I think I found it in his absence. I have visited a dozen hotels observing the set-up, managerial faces, asking for prices, but I didn't move. I have only two or three more days here anyway – and how, after all, should I know whether a hotel that admitted whatever he liked without bother (does he like the brutal?) would also admit what I like, the very young, against the law, without bother? And it is so terribly hot, one really does want a shower in one's room: so does one's boy, and how nice it is to see him taking a shower. Perhaps I should have moved to the Grande Bretagne where, I am told, anything may happen, and indeed it is the middling, family hotel, like the Palladion, which is the difficulty. One wants one so poor and tiny that there are no public rooms for entertaining friends, or one with public rooms so many and so vast that no one can keep track of one's activities.
          Dearest Francis, perhaps next year, or the next, you and I could rent an apartment in Athens for the spring. How delicious that would be. I do think the Athenians most attractive and wonderfully endowed. Last time I came I was not in the humour, not awake, I am wide awake now.
          Anyway (i) how could I get away from [—], who was determined not to get away from me? and (ii) too much time was spent among tattered English and American queens in Zonar's and in those tiresome tavernas (not visited at all this trip) which cater only for those who like he-men and Tarzans! I don't think you ever took me to a Secondary or even Public School or Borstal. My tastes, I now realise, lie in that direction.
          Best love
P.S. I am glad to go, yet sorry. I have missed a lot, I know, so much is going on. Yet how hard it is to get on without a common language (not just love itself, there I don't at all mind not being able to communicate a thought, but in the arranging, situating and defending of love). Besides getting oneself into trouble, it would be terrible to involve young boys in one's follies – ready though they do seem to be involved. [—] says there is an animus against the whole thing. I have no means of knowing, and don't want to end up in a Greek gaol (better than English – gayer, I mean – though they may well be) or to land nice little boys there either.
          But, I have a second string, with details of which I will not burden an already over-long letter. If he materialises, my lonely week here will be improved though not an intelligible word shall we be able to exchange.
          Dear Francis, you cannot write to me here, but you can write to me in Putney. To come out in the autumn to you will mean ordinary London suits I suppose. Plus an overcoat.
          Best love

SOURCE: Reprinted from The Letters of J. R. Ackerley, ed. Neville Braybrooke (London: Duckworth, 1975) by permission of Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd. Letters to Ackerley from Mahadeo Nayak and Johannes, from Peter Parker, Ackerley: A Life of J. R. Ackerley (London: Constable, 1989).

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