Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Oh, Whistle And There’s A Vague Chance I Might Come To You M’lad: The Diary Of An Amateur Dog Walker (Part Three)

Part three of an extract from my book, Talk To The Tail! Read part one here and part two here.

25 June 2009
Henry seemed fully recovered when I collected him today.
With the addition of a sleek haircut– the dogwig is gone,
and I can’t pretend I don’t miss it– he actually looks health-
ier than ever. When I arrived at Hannah’s, he commenced
his usual routine, with no noticeable difficulty; this involves
him stealing his lead from my hand, then running in mani-
acal circles for three or four minutes before he allows me to
attach it. I then stroke and pat him, and he seems to enjoy
it, but here I miss the feedback I receive from my cats. I
have no idea whether I’m rubbing him up the wrong way or
the right way and I suspect he doesn’t care.

‘Are all dogs like this?’ I wonder. I know you don’t get purring dogs, but surely some canines are a little more dis-
cerning, and offer a more comprehensive appraisal of your
affections. Having said that, I’m yet to meet one. I suppose
this says a lot about why I’m a cat owner. I love dogs, but I’m
not sure if I truly respect them. They’re too easily pleased,
and their judgement offers no true preparation for the trials
of real life.

Some of this is undoubtedly down to intelligence. Dogs
chase cats in the folklore of cartoons, but the reality is rarely
as simple. In almost every household I know containing
dogs and cats, the cats have the upper hand. In the vicinity
of my last house, there were few sights more satisfying than
watching my neighbour Jenny’s little dog Tansy trying it on
with Jenny’s hulking black moggy Spooky, then getting a
sound paw slapping for her trouble. Even if a dog such as
Henry came to live with my cats and retained the physical
upper hand, the labyrinthine complexity of their mind
games would soon get the better of him.

Nonetheless, I am not sure you could call Henry com-
pletely stupid. Evidence of a primal and mysterious intellect
of some form can certainly be found in the timing of his
whimpering on our car journeys. I still haven’t experienced
the obsession with speed that Hannah warned me about
early on, but I have noticed that a couple of minutes before
I park the car at our destination, be begins to squeak and pip
excitedly. Take today, for example: I’ve checked with
Hannah, and I know Henry has never before visited the
enchanting Arts and Crafts village of Thorpeness, on the
Suffolk coast, yet from a few minutes before I pulled into
Leiston Leisure Centre car park, where our walking route started, his familiar chorus began.

This is not merely a matter of him responding to the slowing of the car. I slow the car down plenty of times on
our journeys– sometimes I even stop for petrol– and Henry
barely stirs. But, in Henry’s mind, who is to say I’m not
going to stop and walk him round a petrol station? This
seems evidence of a different extreme stupidity/crafty intel-
ligence dichotomy to the one found in cats, but it does seem
to share something in common: the overwhelming sense
that an animal is reading my mind.

16 July 2009
Perks of dog borrowing, #173: So far this week I have used
the phrase ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to forgive me: my car smells
of spaniel’ three times. My car does not actually smell of
spaniel. It is just very dirty.

3 August 2009
My walking regime for this year means that I’ve also been
doing something I haven’t done for with any regularity for
two decades: rambling through the countryside with my
parents. This is rather unnerving for them, as it occurs with-
out me asking ‘How long is it to go now?’ or lagging behind
them and practicing my golf swing, and rather alarming for
me, as there’s a thirteen-year-old part of me that still feels it’s
my duty to not enjoy walking with my parents and to ask
‘How long is it to go now?’ and lag behind them practicing
my golf swing.

I’ve been a bit slow in taking Henry on a walk with my
mum and dad. Not that I could remotely imagine Henry scar-
ing any human being, but my dad was bitten by an Alsatian
when he was young, and has a slightly fractious relationship
with dogs as a result. This is a shame, because in many ways a pet dog of his own would be a perfect apprentice for my dad: a creature who could look up adoringly and non-judgmen-
tally at him as he makes a succession of wordplay-based jokes
and campaigns evangelically to get everyone around him to
listen to the Radio 4 News Quiz. My canine world is one
where you say, ‘Hello!’ to dogs in a posh voice, they say hello
back to you, then move along their way, or at the very worst,
smear their paws on your new Aerosmith t-shirt. My dad’s, by
contrast, is one where snarling East Midlands men in baseball
caps say, ‘Don’t worry, mate, ’e not hurt you’ a split second
before their Rottweiler gnaws chunks out of your cheek.

I often suggest to my mum that she and my dad get a dog,
and not just because, having now got a taste for dog bor-
rowing, I am actually fantasising about building myself a
network of canines available for my use at a succession of
evenly spread points across the British Isles. I tell them it
would suit their lifestyle well, and would be a brilliant addi-
tion to their walks.

‘Ooh no, I don’t think it would work,’ my mum says.
‘Life’s already too complicated as it is. And I don’t know if
your dad wouldn’t really like it.’

It would be an understatement on a par with many of his
own overstatements to say that my dad is prone to exagger-
ation, but I can see there’s truth in what he says: dogs and he
do appear to have some insurmountable issues. It’s as if they
both come into each encounter knowing the mutual history
of their breeds. My dad and dogs don’t just nod and go along
with their business. When they cross paths, Things Happen.
Just a month ago when he was walking in Cambridgeshire,
my dad found a stray golden retriever wandering through a
meadow. Not spotting any owner around, he removed his
belt from his baggy cord trousers, tied it around the
retriever’s neck, and began to lead it back towards a nearby village, in an attempt to find its owner. A mile further on,
he was surprised to find a woman in wellies in her mid-for-
ties charging up to him, accusing him of stealing her
beloved pet.

When my dad walks, he invariably carries with him a ‘dog
dazer’, in case of emergencies: a handheld device that emits
ultrasonic sound waves that stun aggressive dogs into sub-
mission. I made him promise to leave this at home for our
walk with Henry at Blakeney Point today.

as Henry jumped out of the boot of my car enthusiastically
in the quayside car park.

‘No, no. You’ll be fine,’ I said, and pretty soon the two of
them were striding out over the salt marshes together, forty
paces ahead of my mum and me. Perhaps in consideration of
the immense unspoilt natural beauty of this stretch of the
North Norfolk coastline, Henry opted to wait to empty his
bowels until we had looped back to the main road, leaving
me crouched down on the white line, hurriedly bagging up
the contents as a BMW 7 Series came snaking into view at

asked my dad, when I had dragged myself to the grass verge.

‘I’m going to put it inside my bag until I find one of those
special dog bins for it.’ I replied.


It was a hot day, and, though the excrement was double
polythened, then placed in the relative cool of my shoulder
bag, I felt an acute sense of it changing texture as we walked
on. It really did seem an awful long time between dog bins.

I chose to remain a model citizen for the time being, and keep the offending item in my bag, but I could definitely see
the appeal of hurling it full toss into a nearby field, and the
liberation that would follow: me striding off into the sun, a
shit-free knapsack on my shoulder, all my worries behind

After about five miles, we came to a stile. The fencing
was a little low, and Henry looked up at me, expectantly,
and I lifted him over.


‘I do if he can’t go underneath,’ I said. ‘He’s a bit


By now I’ve learned that Henry is drawn to loud people
and, perhaps for this reason, he tended to gravitate towards
my dad. Earlier, as we’d stopped beside the marsh for a
picnic, my dad had even shared some pork pie with him.
You’d have to know my dad, who is notoriously cautious
about sharing meat, even with some of his best friends and
closest relatives, to realise what kind of a breakthrough this
was. Once again I talked about how well a dog of their own
might suit my parents’ lifestyle, and what a great addition it
would be to their walks. However, as fond as they seemed of
Henry, they seemed unconvinced, and my dad, in particular,
didn’t seem to be listening.

‘KEEP IN!’ he shouted as each car passed us on the
narrow country lane.

It was an extremely useful instruction, under the circum-
stances. After all, what with my mum and I not being
scheduled to start our first term as primary school pupils for
another two months, and not yet having any road sense, either one of us could have wandered blithely out in front of
a car at any time without his crucial guardianship.

‘Mick,’ said my mum. ‘You don’t have to shout that every
time a car comes.’


A mile or so later, as we turned onto a heath land path, I
gently suggested that an earlier right turn might have led to
an even more scenic route.


He was beginning to sulk now. In retrospect, I probably
went too far by following up by asking him if he was ‘the
man who invented walking’. I felt guilty, as I always do
when I’ve been sarcastic towards him. On the upside, Henry
was looking up at him with undiluted admiration. I couldn’t
help thinking back to the photos I’d seen of my dad as a
teenager, in so many of which he seemed to be pulling a
kind of proto punk, mocking face at the camera, and also of
something Hannah had said about Henry: ‘I swear if this dog
had fingers on the end of his paws, he’d spend most of his
life sticking two of them up.’ Watching them picking up the
pace and walking back towards the salt marshes ahead of us
and thinking about the dog dazer and the Alsatian bite, you
might have initially thought it was an unlikely meeting of
the minds, but when you considered it more deeply, there
was something very right about it.

3 August 2009
Email from my mum: ‘Lovely to see you. Was really great
meeting Henry. We both loved him. We’re actually thinking
of getting a dog now. Your dad thinks it would really suit our
lifestyle, in a way, and make our walks even more interest-

Sent reply: ‘Really? I suppose I had never thought of it
that way. I probably should have suggested it.’

7 August 2009
Have not seen Henry for a few days and am, just for the first
time, missing him slightly. Received update from Hannah,
to tide me over: a photograph of him happily licking an ice
cream, and the news that, yesterday, he attempted to swing
from her CEO’s tie.

Read the final part of the diary in Talk To The Tail!, published on January 6th, 2011.


Nic's Notebook said...

Awww fab! Did your parents ever get a dog?? The youngest cat in our house certainly gives our puppy a run for his money, she enjoys jumping out at him and terrorising him lol... We may be mad but we are getting another pup in Jan/Feb and another kitten after Xmas. Hahahaha

Julie said...

Our dog always knew when we were driving down the road ready to turn in to my Nana's street. We always assumed it was because she knew the road, but proof that she was reading us instead came when we went there the final time after my Nana died (to help clear out the house). Our dog didn't react at all, even when we pulled in to the driveway. She KNEW there was no-one to greet her this time...