18
Mar
14

What A Bitch: My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

My Dog TulipMy Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

A month or two ago, my dog died. He was about 15 years old and admittedly in rough shape near the end, having accidents in the house and spending most of his days sleeping. Still, it’s hard to let go and a couple of days after his passing, I found myself looking for a good book about a dog. Eventually I ended up with JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, an amusing, fun account of life with a skittish, freewheeling German Shepherd. And although it’s a nice read, I can see why it’d also turn some readers off.

For many years, Ackerley was an editor at The Listener, a magazine published by the BBC. In his lifetime he wrote a handful of memoirs – Hindoo Holiday, My Father and Myself – and a novel, We Think the World of You, which prominently features a dog. I think it’s safe to say he was a dog lover, or at least that he loved one dog in particular: Tulip, a German Shepard he insists is more intelligent, beautiful and interesting than the average mutt.

He let her do whatever she pleased, more or less. When they went for a walk, Tulip was off-the-leash, roaming around as she pleased to sniff, scratch and take a crap. If people didn’t like, tough on them. Take this exchange from when a passing bicyclist yells at Ackerley:

“Try taking your dog off the sidewalk to mess!”

“What, to be run over by you? Try minding your own business!”

“I am an’ all,” he bawled over his shoulder, “What’s the bleeding street for?”

“For turds like you!,” I retorted. (pg. 33)

Turds come up in more ways than one, since what this book does best is what some people hate about it: its utter frankness. Ackerley never minces his words, describing Tulip in startling detail: her rambunctious attitude, her fur coat, her bowel movements and her heats. He never once tries to turn her into a human, but never treats her flippantly, either. It’s a full portrait of a canine, warts and all.

Well, sort of. While Ackerley never hides how naughty she was – “I never knew you friendly before,” says one anonymous person when approached by a subdued Tulip – apparently he’s also got the blinders on, too. Sure, he mentions how she takes a dump in front of a greengrocer, chases and kills a rabbit or bites a bus driver, but according to Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ introduction, that’s not the half of it. In real life, Tulip was often so wild Ackerley’s friends stopped inviting him over since he always brought the dog.

But then again, Ackerley was utterly devoted to her and tried to make her life as happy as he could. He tried to find her a “husband,” so she could experience being a mother and he nurses her (and the pups) to health. He takes her for long walks in the woods and along the riverside, even takes her inside the pub when he gets a Sunday pint. When she does something bad, he occasionally yells and gives her a swat, but all she has to do is look at him with her and he just about melts. Truthfully, I did, too.

A note about context: this book is mostly set in the mid-to-late 1940s. This was a time when you fed your dog table scraps (or, as Ackerley does, raw meat), and before getting your dog spayed or neutered was a common practice. I’ve seen more than a few people cringe when Ackerley debates his options with puppies (does he do The Dark Deed, as he calls it?), but such a practice was hardly unknown then – and besides, all the pups get a home, anyway.

Rating: 6/10. I liked this a lot: it’s insistence on a total portrait, its frank language and utter devotion to Tulip. Ackerley certainly loved his dog. But I can see those very same things turning people off, too. This is one of those books that either clicks immediately or repels you. Maybe it was a matter of timing, but it clicked with me.

Advertisements


Archives


%d bloggers like this: