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On Mad Dogs and Englishmen

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Last week, my dog left me. Walked out. Gone and left me for another man.

I knew what had happened when I returned to the vineyard after a week or two abroad. As soon as I got out of my truck, there he was, running right past me without so much as a how d’you do. I couldn’t help it — I’m afraid I yelled after him, ‘Listen, you little shit, I saved your life! One day from death row you were, and this is what I get?’

I suppose you think I should be heartbroken. I’m not really. Truth is, I liked him well enough, but I never really loved him. That’s hard to admit; you are meant to love your pets unreservedly. My last dog, a brindle Staffordshire bull terrier, I loved more than I can say. She was a very young dog when she came to stay for a few weeks while a friend of ours was recovering from an illness. She never left — our friend luckily recognised she was happier with us. She was called Fire, who knows why. It was awkward because if you had to find her in a park, for instance, mothers of small children would become alarmed at the sight of a scruffy man running about yelling ‘Fire!’

She became my closest ally: affectionate, fun, full of life. But also, curiously soulful. I couldn’t bear to part from her. The feeling was mutual — the sound of a suitcase coming out of the attic would plunge her into despair. The look on her face would make you weep. When you returned home, she’d pretend that you were quite beneath her dignity. It wouldn’t last — soon she’d come bounding up, leaping in sheer delight that you were back. The best of dogs.

Anyway, about three years ago, very old and almost blind, she died. I haven’t really recovered. It was my wife’s idea to replace her with another Staffy. I wasn’t at all sure about that, but found myself north of Sydney at an institution that rescues Staffordshire terriers. You should know that this is a most delightful breed, kind and gentle, great with kids, but they get a lot of bad publicity. Erroneously, they are depicted as vicious killers, but the truth is that any aggression against humans was bred out of them hundreds of years ago. Nevertheless, there are those who want a vicious dog for whatever reason: these are the people who abandon Staffies when it becomes clear they’d just lick a burglar’s face.

So there we were, surrounded by about 50 dogs, all desperate for a good home, when this ginger creature looked pleadingly into my eyes. I fell for it. After a few shots from the vet, he was flying at great expense to New Zealand. Honestly, he’s a nice enough dog, but we never bonded. What rankled with me is that whenever I took him for a walk, he’d either go straight back into the house before you could get away, with a look that clearly said, ‘No thanks, I just can’t be arsed.’ Or if you were actually on a walk, he’d slip away and vanish. What’s the use of a dog that won’t bloody well walk with you? Anyway, he’s found a great pal in Simon, who works for me in the vineyard; they’re thick as thieves. And we’ve all just had to accept that he’s moved on. And don’t tell anyone, but I don’t miss him at all.

Nevertheless, a house without a dog is oddly empty. I grew up with dogs. My mother was horsey and English, and my father wasn’t far off it (Harrow and Sandhurst), so their dogs got any physical affection that was going, while their children got almost none. Before I got on the train to boarding school, my father would give me a firm handshake (‘Goodbye old boy, work hard’) — this from a man who’d happily pat his labrador all day. Just as well, probably; much as I loved my father, a hug would have been mortifying, I suspect.

We had a succession of corgis, and I was very fond of them. My brother, a distinguished academic, somehow retains that affection, and keeps them to this day. All of his have been most disagreeable, and one had a nasty habit in tutorials of exploding like a vicious orange missile from under his desk at girls in sandals. Plus corgis are incessant yappers. I suspect all those whispers about the Queen’s dogs being a tad horrid are well founded.

My sister, on the other hand, has a knack for choosing dogs of no known provenance who turn out to be the sort that will mount anything: other dogs, bitches, grandmothers, plumbers. Speaking of which, some family friends had a particularly disgusting smelly spaniel, who always seemed dead in a heap by the fire until his ancient ears detected a woman wearing stockings. Just the rustle of nylon, and vile Humphrey would leap up, seize the stockinged leg and commence a frenzied humping.

Not so long ago I was in a film about all this — dogs, fathers, sons, errant behaviour and so on. It’s called Dean Spanley and I recommend it. And not least because it is one of the great Peter O’Toole’s last films. I don’t think he himself cared for dogs much, but by God, he’s fantastic in the movie. Heartbreaking in fact.

The Spectator

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