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’.



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Nic's Notebook said...

Haha - yes you would look very wierd walking about by yourself in your deer stalker hat. Henry sounds fab - I have a springer (5 months) he is mad and he loves my 3 cats (ahem!)... When are you getting your own dog then?!!

Rosie said...

Did you know... if you feel a dogs head they have a bump, it is the knowledge bump. The bigger the bump the clevered the dog.
My aunts dog doesn't have a knowledge bump, and as a result has special needs. A very silly dog indeed, she often forgets his owners and wanders up to strangers and follows them instead. She also suddenly starts to snap and nothing, and just as quickly rolls over and acts like a tart. She has a gluten intolerance, making her the most middle class dog I know.

Gris said...

Hi, I've just adopted a cat and I came across this blog while looking for infromation (it is the first cat I have and I have plenty of doubts).I just wanted to thank you and let you know I'll be reading the blog to gather as much information as I can.