Friday, 29 October 2010

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

The first part of an extract from my book, Talk To The Tail!

14 January 2009

Today Dee and I went for a walk with Hannah, Dee’s friend
from work who has just moved in up the road, and Hannah’s
cocker spaniel, Henry. ‘Hannah might even let you walk
him, if you’re lucky,’ Dee told me, as we waited outside
Hannah’s front door. It’s been a few years since my regular
walks with Nouster, the Border collie owned by our former
neighbours Richard and Kath, so I was thrilled at the
prospect of having a new dog in my life.

‘Really?’ I asked. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Are you... panting?’ said Dee.

No,’ I protested. ‘I’m just a bit wheezy, what with the

The four of us set off down the hill, leading out of East
Mendleham past the old fairground site, Henry pulling
Hannah along at quite a pace. ‘He’s not fully trained yet,’
she said breathlessly. Henry is a cocker spaniel, but he is so
big he is usually mistaken for the next breed up: a springer.
He is black with white splotches and has mischievous, red
eyes that seem to glow even redder as he makes a dastardly
beeline for ducks and pedestrians carrying freshly-wrapped

‘You’ll be okay,’ Hannah said. ‘He likes men.’ One of the
men Henry showed a liking for on this occasion was a hobo,
living in the woods beside the heath, where the river cuts
in, about a mile from East Mendleham. ‘Henry! Come back
here! No! Leave that man alone!’ Hannah shouted. She
and Dee seemed nervous, but I was impressed as the hobo
came out from beneath his tarpaulin to see what all the fuss
was about. His weather-beaten hawkish face looked star-
tled, with no evidence of the usual jumpy smile of the
person who gets accosted by a dog in the British country-

East Mendleham is not without its colourful transients.
The man with the overalls and the David Crosby hair who
sits beside the town lake all day and reads nineteenth-cen-
tury French literature has long intrigued me, and I suppose,
if you like that kind of thing and don’t have to make a
living from writing in the nearby vicinity, the old man with
the badge-covered blazer who shouted, ‘Fucking come on
then! Let’s be having you!’ at the town ducks every morning
has his pluses. But, whatever terrible tragedy had put you
there, however down on your luck you were, choosing to
bed down in the middle of the countryside was something
else: the act of an iconoclast.

I didn’t want to get too close and disturb the hobo’s busi-
ness – and he definitely looked like he had some– but I
found myself peering over, curious about the paraphernalia
of his life. What were those papers next to his campfire? Old
pamphlets of some kind, containing the wisdom of previous
hobos from many years before? Or just his special Hobo’s
Diary? Actually, getting a bit closer, they looked more like
the last couple of issues of GQmagazine. But what did he
cook? What did he spend his days thinking about? Did his
voice taste odd in his mouth on the rare occasions he com-
municated with another human being? Hannah and Dee
looked relieved as Henry trotted back over to us, but I was
thinking forward to my and Henry’s mutual future, uncov-
ering the eccentrics of the East Anglian countryside.

I took Henry’s lead as we turned for home. He was smaller
than Nouster had been, but I was struck by his strength, par-
ticularly when he found the rotting ribcage of some sizeable
road kill on the verge of the road, and decided he would like
nothing better than to wriggle on top of it on his back. This
kind of animal communion with the deceased was new to
me. My cats have killed plenty of creatures, of course, but
after a couple of scissor kicks and a bit of juggling they usu-
ally lose interest in their rodent victims. You might find
them neatly severing a shrew’s spleen and placing it on the
carpet outside my bedroom, as a child might leave the crusts
from his bread for a parent to clean away, but you wouldn’t
have caught them using it as a pillow later.

‘Oh, yes, that’s happened before,’ said Hannah. ‘He sat on
a dead pheasant the other day.’

Before heading home, we stopped at the local pub, and I
congratulated Henry on being a good boy– I wasn’t actually
sure that he hadbeen a good boy, not being aware of the previous standards set, but it felt like the polite thing to
do– and ordered us each a pint of Guinness and a packet of
cheese and onion crisps. I was about to dip my hand into the
latter, but remembered just in time to go the bathroom, lest
I fatally mix rotting ribcage with cheese powder, vegetable
oil and salt. As we drank, Hannah and Dee taught me some
spaniel terms, from the spaniel-heavy office of the horse
charity where the two of them work. A tail, apparently, was
known by insiders as ‘wagstick’. The curly scribble of hair on
Henry’s dome was officially termed his ‘dogwig’.
‘It’s like I told Tom after I’d first met Henry,’ Dee said to
Hannah. ‘ “You’ll love this spaniel. He’s almost exactly like
you, only he’s a spaniel.’”

It wasn’t the first time I’d been compared to a dog, and in
this specific instance, I could see the physical evidence on
hand. Since my mid-teens, I’ve had dark, thickish curly
hair. Over recent years this has receded slightly at the tem-
ples, leaving something of a fluffy peninsula at the front; I
can assure you that it’s one hundred per cent natural, but I
suppose, in spaniel vernacular, you could call it my own sort
of dogwig. I was fine with that. Still, considering that the
observation had come from the person I spent most of my
time with, and who had also just used the term ‘simpleton’
and ‘galumphing’ in describing Henry, I could not help
dwelling on it slightly, as we walked home.

23 January 2009

I hear from Hannah that, on his walks, as he passes The
Upside Down House, Henry has been pulling her towards
the front door. I could hardly believe this could be the case,
as he’d only been to visit us once, but as I brought him
down to my car, from Hannah’s house, before setting off on our first walk together alone, he seemed to know where he
was going. I decided not to let him in, for fear of alienating
the cats, who already seem to sense something is not quite

Henry, I’m told, can get a little bit antsy in the car when
traffic is slow, tending to howl whenever Hannah’s
speedometer slips below 30 mph: a kind of dog version of
the movie Speed, but with a spaniel instead of a bomb and a
Nissan Micra in place of a bus. If so, he was on good behav-
iour, only beginning to whimper impatiently as we arrived at
our destination, Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast.

One of my New Year’s resolutions four weeks ago was to
try to complete fifty-two East Anglian walks of four miles or
above, in an attempt to get to know my local area better, an
endeavour for which I have purchased a deer stalker hat,
and grown a winter beard. They say the most important
part of the body to keep warm is the head and this hat is so
absurdly furry, I sense that it doesn’t actually matter what
I’m wearing, I’ll still be warm in it. This is, however, a
theory I’m somewhat reluctant to test out in full.

One thing I’ve noticed about being a lone bearded man,
walking through remote countryside donning novelty head-
wear, is that you are not always automatically viewed as a
wholesome figure. You can tell from the shift of your fellow
walkers’ gaze as you pass them. Add a dog to the equation,
however, and everything changes. As I walked Henry along
the beach at Dunwich, everyone I saw stopped to exchange
hearty hellos with us. ‘Is he a springer?’ a fellow spaniel-
walker, a ruddy-cheeked, blonde lady in wellies and a
Barbour jacket, asked.

‘No, just a big cocker,’ I replied, with a certain smug sense
of assurance.

That I can now utter phrases like ‘big cocker’ without
feeling the need to giggle is perhaps a measure of how far
I’ve already come in my short time as a dog walker.
Nevertheless, I remained nervous about further questioning
from the Barbour-jacketed lady. What if she asked me about
what products I used to clean him, or where I got his lead?
I am unconvinced that my bluffing would be able to with-
stand such interrogation. I am also aware that when I call
Henry, and put him back on his lead, I am not just doing so
to prevent problematic encounters between him and other
dogs; I am also doing so to prevent scenarios where, by being
forced to make conversation with doggy types, my phoni-
ness will be revealed.

I’m usually pretty good at getting Henry re-leashed, and
he does always tend to scuttle back to me the second or
third time I call him, but upon spotting a Labrador on the
woodland track back from the Dunwich marshes, I acted a
little slowly. There was a small barking exchange, and the
Lab’s owner and I exchanged a nervous glance, before the
Lab wibbled off, visibly upset, and Henry scuttled back to
me. I noticed three main thoughts going round my head as
I wandered back to the car:

1. ‘I probably would have handled that better if I hadn’t
owned cats instead of dogs my whole life.’
2. ‘I must watch out for Henry’s bullying streak.’
3. ‘My dog kicked another, bigger dog’s butt. Awesome!’

12 February 2009

Hannah and I seem to have come to a happy arrangement
very easily, regarding Henry’s walks. When Hannah is away
on a business trip, I will do my best to walk Henry, and canpretty much walk him any other time I please, so long as I
give her at least a day’s notice. Hannah seems grateful for
this, which is odd, since it’s she who’s doing me the larger
favour. The bonuses are twofold: I get a quick-fix confi-
dence boost for when my cats are treating me even more
like a doormat than usual, and dog ownership without the
hassle– or so it would seem. Yes, I have to pick up Henry’s
excrement, and reward him with biscuits and chews, but I
do not have to clean Henry, buy food for him, take care of
his vet bills, or listen to his whining at night. As someone
who’s toyed with the idea of getting a dog recently, I also am
getting perfect trial run for dog ownership.

This is not to say that I am able to keep my time with
Henry completely compartmentalized from the rest of my
life. During today’s walk near Burnham Overy Staithe, on
the North Norfolk coast, Henry jumped into the river sev-
eral times, and smelled distinctly ripe in the car afterwards.
Later, having dropped Henry home, I collected my friends
Steve and Sue from the train station. Our subsequent con-
versation is the second time I have apologized for the fact
that my car ‘smells of spaniel’.



Buy Under The Paw at amazon with 40% off!

Pre-order Talk To The Tail!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

EXTRA Guest Cat Of The Month For October: Fu Manchu

Fu Manchu

Fu, Fooey, Pooey, Lemony, Puss Puss and Get Down


Emma Clayton (author of The Roar and The Whisper), Jake and Molly.

‘Ermm, what are you doing? Can I do it?’
(‘I’m sorry Fu, but you can’t do it, because you don’t have any hands.’)
‘Then, if it’s alright with you, I’ll lie in the middle of it.’

Favourite Habits?
Keeping an eye on the men who visit our house. If I think they’re a bit iffy, I pee on their things or follow them around to make sure they don’t nick stuff.

What constitutes a perfect evening for you?
Well, I would like to spend my evenings out, prowling my kingdom like a normal cat, but unfortunately I’m forced to stay at home to protect Molly from her shady looking boyfriend. I employ a range of strategies: I either create a cat barrier by wedging myself between them, pin him down so he can’t move, or sit on his head so he doesn’t forget whose house he’s in. Sometimes Molly asks me not to do this, which hurts my feelings because I adore her. I’m just trying to make sure she’s safe.

Favourite Food?
Not what I’m given.

Defining moment of your life?
I had a very frightening and painful experience when I was a young cat.

I was a shy kitten, but I became friendly and gregarious after realising how much I enjoyed playing games. My favourite game was this: I’d sit on Emma’s knee, facing her. She’d throw a ping-pong ball over my head and I’d leap, back flip like a dolphin, catch it with my mouth or paws and bring it back so we could do it again. We used to have such fun. I also loved abseiling the curtains and climbing trees like a monkey.

But when I was two, I was shot out of a tree and nearly died. I managed to crawl home with broken hips and a punctured lung. Emma found me under Molly’s bed and ran with me to the vets. I had to stay there for a long time. When I came home I was very sad. My hips hurt, I couldn’t play games and I was too scared to go outside. It took a long time for me to recover, but I’m happier now. We live in a nicer place where people don’t shoot cats. Molly rides horses and she’s taught me to show jump over piles of books and riding crops. And I have my teddy bear; a really stupid black cat called Fozzie, who follows me around and stares at walls.

My teddy bear, Fozzie (other names: Fat Pants and The Barometer Cat)

Any Enemies?
Human beings who think that just because I’m small and furry I can be shot at like a tin can. I don’t understand them.

If you could meet a celebrity who would it be and why?
Stephen Hawking. I watched Universe a couple of weeks ago. All that star stuff is fascinating.

Which one of the cats in Under The Paw would you like to be stuck in a lift with?
Janet. Janet reminds me of my teddy bear. He would probably make quite a nice beanbag while I’m waiting for the lift to be fixed.

Emma’s first cat, when she was a child, was a Siamese called Lychee, who was very clever and gentle. When she’d grown up, she decided she wanted another cat like Lychee, but didn’t want to buy a show type, pedigree Siamese, because she was worried it might be born without a liver (a friend of hers had owned such a kitten and it had suffered very much before it was put to sleep). So Emma looked for me. I’m three-quarter Traditional Siamese and one-quarter Farm Cat. I came from a country house near Woodstock, in Oxfordshire. My mother was a tabby point, Traditional Siamese, which is why I have such lovely fur and paws. My father was this big, hard thing that lurked in the shadow of the kitchen table. For my first twelve weeks I lived in a laundry room with a litter of Retriever puppies, which may be the reason I used to be shy. For ten days after I arrived in my new home, I was a pair of quivering bat ears behind the sofa.

After I was shot, we moved to Leamington Spa, which was a nicer place for cats and children. For a while I lived next to the river and we had a woodpecker in the garden. But there were quite a lot of scrappy cats there, so it wasn’t that great in the end. Now we live in a quiet corner of the town. Fozzie and I like it here, because there’s just one silly cat over the road. Emma writes books for young humans, so I spend my days sleeping near her and waiting for Molly to come home.

For more info on Fu's human, Emma, and her books, please visit

Monday, 25 October 2010

This Week's Wonderland Documentary Looks... Interesting

During the writing of Under The Paw, I visited Celia Hammond, the 60s model-turned-cat-rescuer, at the Canning Town branch of The Celia Hammond Animal Trust: an experience that was in equal measure surreal and inspiring. This week, the usually excellent Wonderland series (for an example hunt down the phenomenal The Man Who Eats Badgers episode) follows Celia and her feline-mad contemporary Pat as they go about their eccentric-but-admirable cat-rescuing ways:

Monday, 11 October 2010

Cat Proverb For Today

It is days like today when I am reminded of that ancient feline proverb, "Show me a cat acting like a complete idiot and I'll show you a cat that just needs love. It won't be the same cat, but I will show it to you."

No Box Is Too Small For Maru

Monday, 4 October 2010

Guest Cat Of The Month For October: Percy


Persil, Percival,

A youthful 4

Laura and Simon

“Just popping out for a bit”.

Favourite Habits?
Scratching Simon’s very expensive speakers, coming in soaking wet and rubbing myself dry on Simon’s trousers, leaving dirty paw prints on Simon’s keyboard/magazine/laptop.

What constitutes a perfect evening for you?
I spend every evening outdoors because I have a very active social life. If I do grace Simon and Laura with my company, I have a very strict routine which I like to stick to. I come in, have a bite to eat, and walk around the living room for five minutes before deciding I want to go out again; then I stand in front of Simon’s speakers threatening to give them a good scratch until Laura gives in and lets me out of the downstairs bathroom window. I do this three or four times until I’m tired and go to sleep on the sofa.

Favourite Food?
Applaws and Royal Canin dry food. Anything cheaper and I’ll just give it a sniff before burying it.

Defining moment of your life?
Discovering the simple pleasures of a twig. One of my earliest memories is Laura playing with me in the garden. She foolishly lost the ball we were playing with so starting dragging a long twig around the grass like a piece of string for me to chase. Well, you thought string was fun? Twigs are AMAZING! Since that day, at every opportunity, I will bring a twig into the house. If it won’t fit through the cat flap then I leave it on the step outside. Once Laura got a bit frightened by the amount of sticks on the step and thought the Blair Witch was living in the garden.

Any Enemies?
Tyson, the neighbour’s cat. I’ve seen him, making a fuss of Laura in the street, doing those attention seeking roly-polys, but believe me, he’s VERY different behind the garden bushes. He sometimes tries to scare me by knocking on the cat flap but I’m not bothered. Laura thinks I’m bothered because I hide behind her, but I’m really not.

If you could do one thing to make the world a better place for felines, what would it be?
I’d have humans appreciate the effort that goes into bringing home a catch. I’m there, hiding in the dark, wind and rain, waiting for the perfect present. When I finally get something, I rush home all excited, letting Laura and Simon know by shouting whilst holding it in my mouth (which isn’t easy), and how do they react? By jumping out of their chairs, shutting me in the bathroom and scrabbling around trying to catch my present, before PUTTING IT OUTSIDE AGAIN.

If you could meet a celebrity who would it be and why?
I’d like to meet Felicity Kendal because she’s sweetly pretty and I want to protect her.

Which one of the cats in Under The Paw would you like to be stuck in a lift with?
Ralph. He’s a good-looking chap and I think he’d make an excellent wingman. He’d have to let me do the talking though, as I hear he has a very girlish voice.

I’ve been living with Laura and Simon since I was four months old. At that age I had two other names before Percy was chosen. First I was Ossie (after 1960s fashion designer Ossie Clark), but Laura got annoyed with people thinking I was named after the Prince of Darkness Ozzie Osbourne. Then there was Barry, which was Simon’s idea. I didn’t really mind that because it made me sound quite manly but Laura decided she didn’t like it so I became Percy. For a while Laura thought I would be better off living with an enclosed garden because we live next to a busy main road, so she spent ages trying to fix the fence meaning I couldn’t get out. The fence annoyed me so I escaped a few times. Thankfully, Laura decided I was better off roaming free, which I like much better. I don’t like to boast but I’m a pretty confident fellow. Vacuum cleaners don’t bother me, I’m fine going to the vets, and showers are easy. Once I went away for Christmas with Laura and Simon. We stayed in a strange house with Simon’s family but it didn’t faze me, I got to eat lots of nice turkey.

Kitten Massage

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Tea and Kittens Vs The Daily Mail

I think this, by Tom Royal, could be one of 2010's best inventions.