6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 19

Family ties

Neville Braybrooke

My Father and Myself J. R. Ackerley (Bodley Head £3.00) The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley Diana Petre (Hamish Hamilton £4.95) In 1966 Joe Ackerley sent the manuscript of his autobiography, My Father and Myself, to his half-sister, Diana Petre. He wanted her opinion on the part that she and her twin sisters played in the story. In his covering letter he remarked: "I don't expect you to like the book, I don't enjoy it myself, but it tries to speak the truth, which is seldom palatable . . ." Later, when I was editing his Letters, she told me: "I did not get Joe to alter anything in the part about me and my sisters."

Now, under the title of The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley, Diana Petre gives her account of the story, and its publication has been timed to coincide with a reprint of the 1968 edition of My Father and Myself. Both are cast in the form of family memoirs, and both employ shock-tactics. Diana opens hers with the revelation made by her mother: "It was Uncle who was your father ...'' Joe begins his: "I was born in 1896 and my parents were not married until 1919." Both brother and sister had a similar reaction to their father's death. "I had never known him at all," declares his son. "I had never had a real relationship with him," echoes his daughter.

When Alfred Roger Ackerley died in 1929 at the age of sixty-six, he was a founder-director of Elders and Fyffes, and affectionately known as the Banana King. Four men had to be specially delegated to unload the wreaths at Richmond Cemetery, and two-thirds of the mourners were unable to get into the chapel for the service. A note, which he left for his son, explained his "secret orchard." "My dear Lad," it began — and then elaborated: "For many years I had a mistress and she presented me with twin girls [in 19101 ... and another girl [in 1912] . . . The children are alive and are very sweet things. . . They know me only as Uncle Bodger . . ."

On reading this Joe felt that if his older brother had not been killed in the trenches, he would have been let into the secret of the second family. So, why had he been 'excluded' for so many years? Could it be because his father, who had once exclaimed "Oh! Joe and his waiter friends!" had guessed that he was a homosexual? Or was it, as Joe came to believe in his late sixties, that he had never taken his father seriously and, unless you treat someone seriously, you cannot expect to share their confidences? Whichever verdict is correct, Roger Ackerley never seems to have suffered unduly on account of his secret.

For his mistress it was otherwise. She had to bear her suffering in silence — and, at the beginning, she often begged to be allowed to tell her children who Uncle was. Roger refused. Then with the years the conviction grew in her, almost to the point of mania, that if the truth leaked out Uncle would be ruined as a businessman. She had grown up in an era of sexual secrecy.

Muriel Haidee Perry was twenty-seven years younger than Roger Ackerley, and claimed that she was born on 5 March, 1890. At Somerset House Diana discovered that nq such person had been registered. Muriel also , claimed that she had never been to school but. been brought up in Clifton by a step-brother — a painter called Henry John Foster who had, known many famous artists and writers of the time. Diana could find no trace of his name or work in any local galleries. There is uncertainty, too, about where she originally. met Roger. On occasions she would maintain, that it was when she was the book-keeper at the Tavistock Hotel in Covent Garden. But once she let slip that she had been compelled to come to London, because she and Roger had been seen together in a box at a Bristol theatre.

(she would have been in her late teens). Who. spotted them? Could Muriel have been an orphan from a local convent, and could, someone connected with the nuns, perhaps an. employer, have noticed her out with a man old. enough to be her father? Was it Roger who arranged for her employment at the Tavistock? And had she exaggerated when she said she was the book-keeper? She had no head for figures — and some of Roger's 'pals remembered her working at the hotel as a barmaid. Muriel Perry has carried far more secrets to the grave than Roger Ackerley.

The war years were her most fulfilling — and: they are particularly well reconstructed by her daughter. In running a mobile kitchen, in preparing billets and in nursing the sick abroad, she excelled: service-life freed her from personal responsibility, and between 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945 she was decorated eight times. Even her suspicion of the male sex disappeared, for in her eyes once a man was in

uniform, and on active service, he became a protector. In peace-time it was different, and

her mistrust of men returned; she would warn her daughters: "Never let a man know you care." Only Roger was set apart, since he was to her a mixture of father-figure, lover and protector. "You always felt so safe with him," she would recall nostalgically. Yet had the situation been reversed and she, rather than Netta Ackerley, been the lawful wife, would she have survived the day-to-day rigours of a. conventional marriage? Certainly her marriage in 1930, a year after Roger's death, to Lt.-Colonel Alfred Scott-Hewitt petered out and was only saved by the second World War when she volunteered again to go abroad. .

But at home, and in the years between the wars, Muriel had the restlessness of a gypsy.

Hotel-life, with constant room-service, suited her best. She had a flair for taking the impersonality out of such surroundings, by draping a few pretty clothes across a chair. She liked to gossip with the chambermaids about other guests and drink brandy with her friends.

Guerlain's 'Jicky' was her favourite scent and.

She would splash it extravagantly over. everything. When she was seventy and dying, Muriel began to muse about what she would do if she had her life over again. Rather skittishly, towards the end, she confessed to Diana: "I think I should be . . a prostitute" , and then added: "Of course I'd be very choosy; I wouldn't take anyone ..." These are her last recorded words in the book.

Truth is seldom palatable. The Secret. Orchard of Roger Ackerley cannot have been. easy to write — and, at times, it must have been for the author both a traumatic and a painful experience. But Diana Petre has made no concessions to sentiment, and her deeply moving memoir is distinguished by the same_ ruthless, self-examining honesty that also marks Joe Ackerley's My Father and Myself.