Chapter 16: A Renaissance Guide to Dog Walking

A bit barky – Dog walking obstacles, being mostly other dogs – An inappropriate war metaphor – A couple of things I remember from University – How to Make an Impression – BrodySheep – The Ghent Altarpiece – Blessed Tripe

‘He’s a bit barky.’

Which is like saying a Great White’s a bit bitey.

Vesuvius a bit erupty.

Or Donald Trump a bit totally unfit for public officey.

But I digress.

When I strode out for an early walk this morning the clouds were clearing, the sun was shining, I was fresh and new-made upon this glorious world – in other words, not concentrating, and totally unprepared for the dog-walking obstacle course that lay ahead.

Although, not totally unprepared.  And I suppose that’s the benefit of routine. You can be half-asleep with your hair pointing straight up and your eyes gummed shut but there’s still a part of your brain that keeps you breathing, and another that guides your hands to the poo bags, lead and treats. So at least I had a pocket load of tripe sticks. Like a marine about to fall out of a helicopter. Lock & Load. Tripe sticks taped together for quick deployment. A pack of cigarettes in the band of my helmet. I’m overdoing this. It’s a dog walk, for tripe’s sake.

I think it worked in my favour that Stan was as sleepy as I was. The two of us stumbling haplessly from situation to situation, pinch point to pinch point. A poodle – good boy, Stan – tripe treat. A springer spaniel – good boy, Stan – tripe treat. A Labrador – good boy, Stan – you get the picture. We reached the kissing gate into Hole-in-the-Hedge field, admittedly more awake by now. There was a couple approaching it with a feisty little thing. No idea what breed. Looked like a cross between a Border Terrier and a Marmoset.

‘Which way are you going?’ I said.

‘Why? Which way are you going?’

‘Into the field. Only he’s a bit barky.’

More tripe stick, feeding it into him like a log through a sawmill whilst the couple hastily turned right out of the gate, giving us enough room to get into the field before they turned left and carried on.

I did English & Drama at university (which obviously stood me in good stead for a career in nursing). A lot of it’s a happy blur now, but some things stand out from the course. The character of Despair from The Faerie Queene – the most haunting depiction of depression I’ve come across. Japanese Noh theatre, where I played a mysterious masked figure who took ten minutes to shuffle on stage, ten minutes to look into a mirror, posture tragically, then ten minutes to shuffle off again (but at least it means I don’t have any trouble wearing masks these days). Talking to a big, bearded guy in the student bar a few minutes before I was due outside in the windy courtyard to do some fire eating and juggling, and the guy turning to face me, scooching his beard to one side, to show me the horrendous scars he suffered from fire swallowing and juggling in a windy courtyard some years previously.

But one thing I remember from reading Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier – an early renaissance etiquette FAQ for aristocrats and politicians – was the idea of sprezzatura. Castiglione recommended putting in hours of secret practice in a thing – whether that’s painting, dancing, sword-fighting or whatever – but not letting on that you’ve studied to that level. So that when you’re asked to paint a picture, and then demonstrate the jitterbug, and then have a fight about it, the whole thing comes so effortlessly it makes more of an impression. Which always sounded like a lot of preparation for a fleeting social kickback, but then again, they had more time in the sixteenth century, and the lighting wasn’t as good. The only reason I mention any of this is that I think Castiglione would’ve raised his Renaissance eyebrows and quietly applauded in his kidskin gloves to see the sprezzatura Stanley evidences when he barks.

I’ve talked about Stan’s barking before, but it’s worth revisiting.

He looks angelic, otherworldly. Like Adrien Brody went into a matter transporter but didn’t realise there was a sheep in there as well. But then launches the kind of apocalyptic woof that would make a pilot of a passing Airbus at thirty-five thousand feet frown and rap the console with his knuckles.

There was a big hoo-hah in the papers recently about the restoration of the 15th century Ghent Altarpiece painting by van Eyck. It’s a big painting, with lots of people standing around and not much happening (a bit like that Noh play I was in). But central to the thing is the Mystic Lamb up on the altar, being sacrificed in the way God liked it, and looking strangely happy about being bled out into a cup. The hoo-hah was that people didn’t like the way the lamb’s face had been restored. They said it made it look like Kylie Jenner. But the truth was, that’s how van Eyck painted it (spookily pre-empting Kylie J. by 588 years). There’d been so many restorations and adaptations since it went up, the original lines had become blurred. (Although I have to say, I prefer the blurred version. The repainted lamb had a certain mystery; the original lamb is too – well – pouty).

All of which is a massive digression. What I really wanted to say is that Stanley has perfected the art of sprezzatura to such an extent that he goes from Mystic Lamb to Great White in one effortless intake of breath. The kind of transition that would put even the most adoring angel on the back-foot, and have the priest dropping his crucifix and reaching blindly for a holy club.

Or tripe stick, depending on how well prepared he was.

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