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My Dog Tulip (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – 14 Apr 2011
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Wryly comic and strangely moving. (Daily Mail)
A beautiful evocation of the relationship between dog and owner, which doesn't lapse into the sentimentality so common in the books that people write about their pets. (Sunday Telegraph)
Best animal book ever, by a literary agent bonkers about his Alsatian bitch. (Evening Standard)
About the Author
J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967) was for many years the literary editor of the BBC magazine The Listener. His works include three memoirs, Hindoo Holiday, My Dog Tulip, and My Father and Myself, and a novel, We Think the World of You (all available as New York Review Books).
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's most recent books are The Hidden Life of Dogs, Certain Poor Shepherds, and The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture. (May 1997)
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It is not a remarkable story in any way - simply that of their life together and Mr Ackerley's thoughts on the nature of their loving relationship - but it is deeply affecting in its gentleness and the quality of thought that he brings to their relationship. Early on, Ackerley comes to understand that Tulip thinks it is her job to protect him. She cannot therefore let him out of her sight without worrying about him. He has no need to train her on a lead since she would follow him anywhere. Theirs does seem an ideal, if unequal, relationship - one based, nonetheless, on mutual trust and a desire to be close.
Of course, Mr Ackerley has a job and a life outside of this relationship, (the rest of his life - job, family, etc., is never mentioned) but in this book (and, I feel, in his life itself), he gives priority to the time he spends with Tulip. As an aside, he reports on other dogs and their relationships with their owners and very few come up to the exacting standard of his own.
Tulip is allowed one experience of motherhood, at which she excels. However, the problems Mr Ackerley has in finding her pups suitable owners brings him to decide not to go through it again. It is only when he relaxes about the problem of Tulip coming on `heat', however, that he learns that Tulip herself can quite happily cope with the solution of dog `followers'. At the end of the book there is a kind of extended meditation on the nature of dogs' sex-lives which is instructive and profound. Dog owners are mostly found wanting, when not outright cruel.
This was a delight to read from start to finish. How could it be so riveting? It is nothing but a story of one man and his dog, devoid, I might add, of any trace of sentimentality. Nevertheless one comes to understand and appreciate both man and dog so well that a warm glow of admiration pervades one's being. Of course, it is no good reading this book if you have never had a dog yourself, because you simply won't understand.
The adoration he holds for her becomes immediately evident as he spends two delightful pages describing her physical appeal in ponderous detail, from her tall, pointed ears that 'glow shell-pink as though incandescent,' right down to the black fur covering her back which, 'descending over her shoulders, fastens at her sternum, seeming to clip together with an ivory brooch.' Ackerley is not a confident owner and the way that he describes Tulip's everyday routines reveals as much about his own personality and attitudes as it does about the dog itself. It is heartbreaking to read on, as he laments his shame at not being able to fully understand what it is Tulip wants from him. He inexorably turns to his favoured Vet, 'Miss Canvey for aid, and is full of frothing praise after she has solved yet another niggling behavioural problem that he has been unable to get to the root of. He finds it hard to cope without Miss Canvey - "I'm not exceptional," she tells a downcast Ackerley before leaving for a new country practice. "You are to me," he replies with a sigh.
This helplessness, although endearing, contrasts sharply with other sections of the book where Ackerley and Tulip come across as a terrible twosome. This is most evident when he describes the problems he has with her 'mess'. Reluctant to train her to poo in the gutter for fear of her getting run down, he allows her to 'do her business' on the pavement, (it must be remembered that this is the early sixties and 'pooper scooping' was a long way from its conception.) This drags him into all sorts of altercations with shopkeepers, cyclists and pedestrians. During these confrontations, Ackerley shows another side of his character, one which has little patience with the human race.
Interestingly enough, the introduction to this new edition, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas provides a great deal of insight into this dichotomy of character. Luckily, I have made it a habit always to read introductions at the END of books, that way the book does not suffer from pre-imposed actualities. This time, I was extremely glad of my habit because the impression I was left with was of a short piece of writing crammed with compressed beauty and touching tenderness. It was a surprise gift from Ackerley that the inevitable drawn-out death scene never materialised; instead he chose to leave us with a a finely tuned descriptive passage condensed from a thousand early morning walks on Putney Common. It is almost as if every thought and impression culled from these walks that spread across the years and seasons, has been squeezed into one short glorious, final chapter.
Aside from that, Ackerley helped me understand how some people can be so very devoted to their dogs, in the way he was, indeed, almost in love with them (in non-sexual terms, I fervently hope!)
Yes, this is a love letter to a dog, but one utterly believes its sincerity 100% because she was such a special dog and Ackerley such a special writer.
This is a book one re-reads every five years, each time surprised by the mastery of the English language, and the special magic Ackerley brings to it.
Read it, you will not regret it.
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