Chapter 19: Don’t Quote Me

Why we walk where we walk – The Mysterious Pit – The Wonderful Miss Cox – A Dead Tree kind of Philosophy – Nuts n’Isles – Stanley as Ophelia

Sometimes you need Shakespeare to explain yourself with any weight.

For example. We tend to walk Stanley in the same place every day. The reason is that the fields over the back of the estate are all well fenced off. There are horses in the first field – the Hole in the Hedge gang – but they tend to keep themselves to themselves, playing cards, drinkin’ and cussin’ over the far side – so we’re okay if we take a circuitous route to the two fields beyond them. There aren’t any sheep or cattle in the neighboring fields, and if you pick your time you can avoid seeing too many other dog walkers, so all in all it’s a good place to let Stanley off the lead. He’s getting better at being around other dogs, and I don’t think it’ll be long before he’s completely reliable. Until we’re sure, though, it’s safer and easier to fill our pockets with treats and head that way.

We mix it up a little, for variety. I mean – sometimes we’ll reverse the order. Sometimes we’ll go up rather than down, clockwise rather than anti-clockwise. And anyway, there are plenty of distractions. There’s a mysterious pit in the far corner, completely wooded and overgrown. Stanley often disappears down there for a root-around, and always comes back with a wilder look in his eye.

So where does Shakespeare figure in this?  

Well, to begin with, sometimes when I’m walking I find myself raking through the scraps of memorised lines I know of WS, mostly from my time at Secondary school, and a VERY Pre-Raphaelite teacher with long red hair and a pale expression, who wandered round the margins of our English class like a tragic princess doomed to repeat endless circuits of a pit of ravenous wolves. I had a VERY big crush on this teacher, Miss Cox, who I would risk any humiliation to impress. I even gave her a book of poems I’d written, mostly about animals – moths and spiders and things – basically being a closet goth, before the term goth or closet existed. And when I say book, I mean an exercise book, where the poems only took up the first half, so I ripped out the other pages to make it look as if I’d written more, on the same logic that if you had a bag of crisps and smashed them up before you opened the packet, you got more crisps. Anyway, Miss Cox, with a bravery in the face of ridicule that was basically martyrdom, insisted we all learned poetry by heart, especially the emotionally stormy stuff. I’m guessing she must have drawn some wry satisfaction from seeing eleven year old rugby players scrape back their chairs, stand up, punch the guy next to them, then recite: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day… or Milton: Blind among enemies, O worse than chains, dungeon or beggary, or decrepit age.

The point of this is, the other day I was thinking about the repetitive quality of the walks. I was thinking that actually, the walk is never the same – like the old saying: you can’t step in the same river twice, because it won’t be the same river, and you won’t be the same person (or something like that). There are an infinite number of changes that happen, and in some ways it’s good to do things over and over, because your relationship to them is as fluid as the thing itself. You see that in the quality of the light. How a dead tree looks against a bright blue sky, or low cloud, or through mist. With crows or without. And when you see it with one of its limbs fallen after a storm, the shock that gives you.

Anyway – it reminded me of that Shakespeare quote from Hamlet:  I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space. Which sums up nicely (in the way that Shakespeare can absolutely be relied on to sum things up nicely), the fact that you can always find new things to look at, and new ways of looking at them, if you relax and stop worrying about the pursuit of novelty.

As a side note, there’s a whole range of Shakespeare quotes whose meaning changes if you don’t quote the whole thing. Like the nut one. The whole quote is: I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. Which definitely makes the whole nut gaff a little less cozy. The other one that often get quoted out of context is the ‘sceptred isle’ speech from Richard II. You often hear it as a patriotic thing, an expression of the glorious Britannia mindset… This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle … a long, gaudy shopping list of all the wonderful things about Britain. Except, they always miss the point of it. The payoff of all that hyperbole is to express how much disgust John of Gaunt feels at the way the country was being f*d over: …Is now leased out… Like to a tenement or pelting farm. So nothing new there, then.

Thinking of that elegant, goosey, Pre-Raphaelite look, I’m sure Stanley would’ve made one of those Victorian painters a wonderful muse. I can totally imagine Stanley in a big embroidered frock, lying on his back in the studio with a posey of flowers in his paws. There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. . . then he catches scent of a rabbit, leaps out of the bath and runs off.

Chapter 18: Unreliable Witnesses

Photoshop for Beginners – Into the Woods & Into the Zone – Guard Duty – Jenny & Cecil – Rain & How Animals React to it – An Alarming Picture of One Man & His Labrador – Fake Horses – Crows & Cameras

If Lola seems to have disappeared from this journal for a while, it’s because we’ve been tending to walk her separately. The thing is, before Stanley (B.C.E, or Before Considering Extra-lurcher) she’d been used to long walks over the woods. Off the lead, free to follow her nose from the moment we push through the kissing gate back of the rec. Lola’s completely reliable – dogs, people, cows, dinosaurs (no doubt, if there were any). So all in all, it’s an easy time. The kind of idyllic, carefree country walk you see in adverts for dog food or laxatives. Not only does it mean she gets plenty of exercise, it gives me time to wander off in my own head, a meditative, semi-vegetative state, like a dozy shaolin monk, but in a kagool, not a robe, an iPhone instead of a flute, squinting up at the dazzling patterns of the leaves against the sun, whilst Lola looks back at me from way along the path, wondering what the hell’s holding me up.

It’s a different kind of walk with Stanley, I’m afraid. More like walking a maximum-security criminal round an exercise yard, Stanley in an orange boiler suit, grinning up at the watchtower guards, chewing grass, gauging distances / response times.

I’m over-selling it, of course. He’s not that bad. And if he is, he has good reason. He had nine years of not being walked before we adopted him, so it’s not surprising he has a few issues. The only thing is, you do have to watch him, and it’s not what you might call relaxing. I seem to spend my time continually passing Stanley treats, or scanning the horizon with field binoculars. With Lola, if we see another dog walker, and our paths happen to cross – great! We chat, we talk about this and that. I miss catching up with the people I’ve come to know over the last few years.

Take Jenny, for example.

Jenny’s a middle-aged woman with – from top to bottom – wild white hair, Onassis sunglasses, Barbour jacket, tight blue jeans, hacking boots, and a pug called Cecil. Except for a couple of days midsummer, Cecil is always in a fleecy wraparound, much like a babygro except tighter and with a hole for his stubby tail (although, thinking about it, you have poppered holes for nappy access, so maybe it would make a cheaper alternative, and you could buy them in packs of three). Cecil’s fleece always looks a bit too tight, because he walks with the kind of stiff-legged roll you’d imagine an occasional table would walk with if it could, and his eyes bug-out alarmingly. But that’s a feature of the breed, I suppose, and something you might go for if you had a kink about dyspeptic bank managers. They have a fraught relationship, Jenny and Cecil. You can hear them coming from a long way off, Jenny snapping out his name constantly, driven mad by his latest infraction, like Cecil stopping to sniff a flower, or snacking on rabbit droppings.
‘At least it’s organic,’ I say.
‘Highly toxic!’ says Jenny, clapping him away. ‘We’ll suffer for that later.’

Jenny is worried about everything. Her anxiety is a force of nature, all-encompassing, a low-lying cloud of generalised concern, covering everything from Brexit and the pandemic to the kids who hang around the recreation ground. Trying to stay positive when you’re talking to Jenny is a bit like when you mix all the colours in your paintbox: you start off with yellows and reds but despite your best efforts you end up with puce. It’s exhausting talking to her, like blundering into quicksand and trying to whistle for help. But she often says such strange things I like it. And Cecil is always good value.
‘I was thinking of helping them out over Brexit,’ she says, frowning at Cecil by way of illustration.
‘Oh? In what way?’
‘Fruit picking. I hear they’re a bit short. I think I’d quite like a bit of fruit picking, in East Anglia or wherever it is they do that kind of thing. Lincolnshire, is it? Somewhere flat. But then again, you see, I don’t want to end up in a dormitory. If they give me one of those sweet little painted caravans, well, then – fine – I can cope with that. But a dormitory… Cecil! Don’t eat that! You’ll blow up and die!’

She has bracing views on most things. The pandemic gives her plenty of scope to sound off about the state of the health service, the government and so on. I offer the usual line, which is that they want to dampen the spread of the infection so the health service doesn’t get overwhelmed.
‘We just need a vaccine,’ I say. ‘Once we’ve got that we can start getting back to normal.’
‘Well you know what I think about that,’ she says.
‘What?’
‘Well it’s obvious!’ she says. ‘What did we do before all this medicine? We built up immunity! That’s what we did! Some people would die, of course, but they would have anyway…Cecil! Put that down, darling!’
I mention diphtheria and smallpox, the fact that vaccines had eradicated them in the community. Without vaccination we’d still have a ton of young people dying before they reached adulthood.
‘Maybe,’ she says, unconvinced that’s such a bad idea. ‘I’m not a scientist. All I can say is how I see it.’
She suddenly seems sad.
‘I don’t know,’ she says, with a sigh. ‘Everything’s changing and not for the better. You know – I completed on my mother’s house the other day.’
I’m not sure whether to congratulate her or offer my condolences, so in the end I just raise my eyebrows and nod.
‘I celebrated with champagne and strawberries, but they gave me indigestion. I thought I was having a heart attack. And then I couldn’t sleep, because I kept on having the same thought. If I died here now, who would find me? And what would they think?’
She looks at Cecil again, as if to imagine what he’d have done. But shockingly, Cecil has blundered down onto the shallow bed of a nearby stream, where he snuffles happily and noisily amongst the rocks.
‘Cecil! Cecil!’ she cries, sliding down to grab hold of his collar, then dragging him back up again.
‘I’ve already had to take him to the vets with a chest infection,’ she says. ‘Last time he went after a ball and got water on the lung. He thinks he can get away with these things but he can’t, you see. He can’t. Just because your face is flat, doesn’t mean you can breathe underwater.’
‘No. I suppose not.’

*

Today, though, I decide to take Lola out with Stanley. It’s pouring with rain, and forecast to stay that way, so I figure it’s better they go together for a short walk over the fields and get the thing over and done with. Neither dog is enthusiastic. Stanley pushes his head out of the dog flap, holds it there a second, then slowly withdraws and looks up at me with the kind of expression you might see on a stunt man who’s just been asked to throw himself off Niagara Falls.
‘You’ll like it when you’re out,’ I tell him, pulling on a hat and a waterproof (and feeling a little guilty about that).

The walk doesn’t start well.

As soon as we’re through the back gate, Stan sees a man and a Labrador trudging past the front of the house, so he lets out one of his horrendous, howitzer-grade barks. And although I know I’m prone to exaggeration now and again, and won’t stand up in court about this particular detail, I think I’m right in saying that the dog did the splits in mid-air and the man’s hat blew off. I wave an apology as they hurry on. Lola looks up at me, already drenched, with a tragic look on her face, as if to say: You see? You see what happens?

We carry on with the walk.

And actually, it’s okay. Bad weather always looks worse when you’re snug and warm indoors. The rain takes pity on us and eases a little. The dogs give a couple of shakes, magically transforming their fur into primitive anoraks, and they trot along happily enough. One benefit of the bad weather is that there aren’t too many other people out, so it’s a clear run through the housing estate to the fields out back. All the horses of The Hole in the Hedge gang are out, standing as motionless and menacing and dripping as life-size model horses in the rain, so it’s easy to pick a route that’s equidistant from each and make it through to the fenced field the far side. I let the dogs off, and they tear around after each other through the saturated grass. I even have time to take a photograph – or try to. There are two crows perched on the top branch of a tall, dead tree. I figure it’ll be a moody shot to catch them as they fly off, so I wait at the bottom of the tree with my phone held up over my head. And wait. And wait.

And I might be wrong – and I definitely can’t promise to stand up in court and testify about this – but I think I’m right in saying, one of them slips a little black phone out from under its wing, and takes a photo of me.

Chapter 17: Ice Age Stanley

Evolution of a Bark – a frozen cave bear – Werner Herzog – the life and habits of the Pleistocene Cave Bear described – dogs from wolves – what’s a Smilodon got to smile about? – Stanley’s good deed – and the treat he wins – domestic chores finally done

However annoying Stanley’s barking is – and, for the record, I have to say that really he doesn’t bark all that much – twenty thousand years ago we’d have been very glad of his bark indeed. In fact, we’d probably have kept him for that very purpose, along with his comedy walk, his empathetic expression, his crazy fur, his lolloping good humour and the rest of it.

The only reason I mention any of this is because on the news the other day I saw that some reindeer herders in northern Siberia had come across the carcass of a frozen cave bear. It was incredible. The whole bear, right there, emerging from the thawing permafrost with a terrifying snarl on its lips. (Mind you, I’m the same. If I don’t get the full forty thousand I’m a real grouch).

I remember seeing a documentary by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet caves in southern France. Apart from the fantastic animal paintings they’d found there, and the handprints of the artists who’d made them some thirty thousand years ago, I remember Herzog talking about the skull of cave bear. It had been put up on a plinth of rock, very much like an altar. And there were claw marks in the cave, too, where other bears had come to make their own contribution to the murals, or maybe to protest about their friend being made into a god. It’s hard to know from this distance – which is a point Herzog makes using an albino crocodile (you have to see the film).

Anyway, apparently these cave bears grew to quite a size – eleven feet or more when they stood up and waved their paws about, which they must’ve done a lot, especially when you accidentally went into the wrong cave, looking for a nice place to do some painting in, or living, coming to that. And then of course, the cave bear was omnivorous, which meant that although a pawful of berries or a scooched salmon or two would be more than welcome, a nice, fresh, screaming human would’ve been a particular treat.

Seeing how enormous the fangs on that icy bear were, I can imagine having a barky dog around to let you know if one was sneaking up would’ve been very handy indeed.

The theory is, of course, that dogs are domesticated wolves. They reckon it happened about fourteen thousand years ago, because there’s direct fossil evidence of dogs being buried with their owners. It may be that wolves started hanging round human camps, intrigued by the noise and the light and the delicious cooking smells. And I can corroborate this theory anecdotally, based on Stanley’s intense interest in the slightest sound of cupboards being opened in the kitchen – although cupboards didn’t appear in the fossil record until quite recently, of course. The humans may well have encouraged these feral but inquisitive animals, tempting them with scraps, laughing at them when they fell asleep and twitched as if they were still hunting or something. And after a few generations, maybe some of these wolf-dogs started tagging along on the hunt, and earned rewards for flushing out deer, or corralling aurochs, and generally making the whole thing more of a day out.

And then or course, there were the bears. And the saber-toothed tigers. Which, to be honest, I never did get. I mean – why would you need teeth like that, except maybe to impress? But at what cost to your table manners?

(I just Googled that. Apparently saber-toothed tigers weren’t actually tigers and were more properly called Smilodon. A Smilodon had teeth specially adapted to ambush big prey like bison and camels, biting them in a special way that scientists can’t agree on, except to say it wasn’t all that pleasant. Which makes the name Smilodon seem darkly ironic.)

I think Stanley would’ve been in his element, twenty thousand years ago. The earth was still frozen in the last great ice age. Woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths were hulking about. There were packs of wolves chasing down giant elk through the snowy forests. In fact, everything was giant, so Stanley would’ve fitted right in, especially his ears. I can imagine him, sleeping towards the front of the cave, twitching happily on his pelt, lulled by the flickering embers of the fire – until he suddenly sits straight up and starts barking, the dreadful hoooof-hooooofing echoing around the cave, and everyone groaning and stirring, swearing and cussing like flint-knappers, throwing quern stones and mammoth shoes and eagle bone flutes at him, until someone has the grace to realise that actually, he’s just saved them all from a particular savage cave bear, who’d been tippy-clawing up the slope in an effort to claim back its home. And then Stanley gets a great deal of cuddles and fuss, and a Pleistocene treat, being his favourite – the femur of a Moa (very low fat, high in magnesium, great for healthy teeth and bones and shiny coat, the only drawback being it’s so big you can’t pick it up). And the cave bear would grouch away along the glacier line, and trip, and get more completely frozen than those vegetarian burgers you have absolutely no memory of buying, and which only emerge twenty thousand years later when you finally get round to defrosting the fridge.

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.

Chapter 15: Stanley, Queen of Egypt

Too doggone hot – Water shortages – Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra – sleepy foals – An exciting new movie about a Poacher and his Lurcher – Are you the farmer? – One man and his gigantic hound

Heatwave. Except – it goes on so long it’s not so much a wave as a full-on, thermal flood, transforming the country from a chilly European outpost to a hard, blue Mediterranean wannabe. And of course, the trouble is, because we’re mostly used to shivering indoors in our coats, or tapping snails from our wellies, or bailing out river water with saucepans, we’re not really set up for it. The endless torrents that fell over winter disappear overnight. The taps start to run thin, and you suddenly you find yourself queuing at the local football ground to score a few bottles of water.

It’s so hot, we can only walk Stanley early in the morning. He runs around for about five minutes then spends the rest of the time dowsing for springs. His ludicrous white fur coat must be a burden, but he’s very fashion conscious and refuses to strip down to his furry undies like the rest of us. When we get back, Kath puts a wet tea towel over his head and takes a picture, holding it up against one of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. And I have to say, there’s a definite likeness. Although on balance I think Liz beats Stan by a nose.

Mostly he spends his time sprawled out flat in front of the fan, or under a tree in the garden, or on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor, panting steadily and determinedly with a noise like a woodsman sawing logs. We keep his water bowl topped up. He struggles, but puts on a brave face, exactly like Cleopatra, smiling mysteriously from her basket as she watches the pyramids go up in the garden.

And like Stan, the Hole in the Hedge gang are hot and sleepy, too. They’ve had a few foals (I’m too stupid with heat to Google the collective noun – a ninny? a cuteness?) and although sometimes they chase and kick each other to no great purpose, and generally leap about, sneaking up on their parents round the blackberry thickets, most of the time they’re stretched out on their sides, flicking their tails at a constant bothering of flies.

Stan ignores them – which is progress. Not so long ago he’d have looked at them with alarm, barking like they were monstrous creatures with iron paws who’d been spawned from the very earth (I have to say I agree with him on that one). Now, he yawns and carries on, pulling on the lead, keen to get into the next field, which is much more secure, free of horses, and just right for a mad and uncoordinated long-legged lurcher to throw himself around in.

He does his usual thing, which is a combination of sniffing, running, jogging, jumping, leaping, nosing about, standing still with ears lifted, standing still with leg lifted, and original combinations of the above. We thought at first he’d be an awesome rabbiter. Although I have to admit much of that was based on how he looked. I mean, if I was casting a film about a poacher and his dog (set in the early nineteenth century, where the poacher gets tricked into joining the British army, and finds himself fighting in the Peninsular War, where his poaching skills come in very handy, but he gets wounded, and thrown in prison, and he’s pretty much had it, when a mysterious old woman charms the guards and bribes them with pawful of hard biscuits, and they let her in to tend to the wounded, and then she throws off her shawls, and it’s the lurcher, who gives a disgusting cough and vomits up the key he lifted off the guards, and they all escape, and after many adventures – none of which involving horses – end up back in the old Sussex pub they started out from, struggling to make a living selling rabbit skins and old blogposts) – well, then, I’m confident Stanley would get a callback. I don’t think his rabbiting skills are all that, though. When he sees one he freezes, and only runs after it when he’s confident it’s made it at least halfway down the hole.

Whether it’s the heat, or whether it’s the excellent training we’ve been putting him through, courtesy of Adina, I don’t know, but this time on the walk Stanley seems remarkably calm and well-behaved. He doesn’t bark at the horses. He comes back when I call. He notes the presence of another dog on the other side of the field but doesn’t launch himself over there. All-in-all, he’s pretty damned good.

I see one of the regular walkers the far side of the main field. It’s a guy I try to keep clear of, to be honest. An elderly guy, a farmer type, squashed down firmly into his boots by the flat of his cap. The kind of farmer who lost his license for unspecified misdemeanors. Who has a Suzuki Jimny with a pheasant feather on the dash and a bumper sticker that says: Keep your bullshit in Westminster. He’s got a pack of Jack Russells that he seems, by the sound of it, to hate. They’re a torment to him. You can hear him cursing at them as he blunders through the kissing gate. You’d think to hear him he was leading a pack of hyenas. Actually, they seem pretty good (from a distance). They trot ahead of him, happily sniffing around, enjoying the early morning air whilst he curses and growls behind them. Once I saw him throw his walking stick in their direction – which seemed pointless, because it only made them trot further on ahead, and meant he had to go and pick up his stick, which didn’t improve his mood any. The point is, Stanley didn’t even respond to them, which is a miracle out of scriptures.

The most miraculous moment comes a little later, though. We’re halfway through the twitten – a nerve-stretching alleyway at the end of the walk – because once you’re committed to it, there’s no turning back. We’re approaching the main road. Suddenly, a man walks past with the most enormous dog I’ve ever seen. I’d say Munsterlander but I’m not sure that’s even a thing. It’s big anyway, bigger than the horses, bigger than the man, and certainly bigger than Stanley. I reach for the treat bag, my heart dropping because I know only a dart from a ranger at the wildlife park could stop Stanley barking now. He doesn’t, though. All that happens is his mouth drops open, his eyes widen and he tenses up. But he doesn’t make a sound.

‘Morning!’ says the man, striding on.

‘Morning!’ I say.

‘Lovely day!’ he says.

‘Hot!’ I say.

And that’s it. They’re gone.

Stan gives himself a little shake. I’m so shocked I eat the dog treat I’d taken out of the bag.

‘Come on, Stan,’ I say, screwing up my face.

And holding his tail in neutral, happy alignment, he follows.

Chapter 14: Summer of Love

Better at Not Barking – St Adina – A Nightmare Scenario – Foley Suggestion – Shakespearean Caution – Love and The MOD – Love means never having to come back till you’re lassoed

paw print

Stanley’s getting better at not barking.

There. I’ve said it. It’s out there. I’ve had the t-shirt printed and everything.

There is a slight rider, though. He’s getting better at not barking but he’s no angel.

‘He barks when he feels afraid. When he’s uncomfortable in situation,’ Adina says, gently circling her fingers in the crazy wig of hair between his ears. Stanley’s eyes spiral in ecstasy. ‘The important thing is to show he can trust you to take care of situation for him. Then he can relax, and not worry about it. So. If you find yourself in situation, make sure you take Stanley a little further off. Yes? Put distance between you and whatever it is. And if that’s not possible, simply walk away in the other direction. Isn’t that right, Stanley? Hmm?’

And my memory might be a little hazy, but I’m pretty sure he nodded once, emphatically, before meekly accepting the tripe stick she passes down to him like a novice priest receiving the sacrament.

Quite why Stanley is afraid of the Golden Retriever that comes running towards him over the field is a mystery. Even from here you can tell it’s no danger to anyone. It couldn’t look more obviously friendly if it had huge, squeaky paws and a flashing bow tie (although, having written that, I’ll probably have nightmares). I think the issue isn’t the thing itself – a buffoonish dog running towards us straight out of clown dog school, the light entertainment between the Afghans on Horseback and the French Bulldogs on the flying trapeze – but the way in which he appears, which is suddenly, from a thicket of trees just to the right of the path. It’s like being ambushed by a giant tongue.

Luckily, Stan was on the lead at that point – only because there was a hole in the hedge that he’d run through after some rabbits the other day, and it was a job to get him back. As soon as he sees the Retriever he rears up on the lead and barks his bark. It’s such a rich and devastating sound. I’m sure they could use it as a sound effect in the next Jurassic Park movie. The scene where the velociraptor gets croup.

But here’s the thing. If I was a dog running happily over to meet another dog, and that other dog made a noise like that, I’d take it as a sign maybe I should exercise caution, and hang back a little, at least until someone wearing a bomb disposal suit went over first and made sure the scene was safe. But this particular dog is so filled with love for all things, so totally and open-heartedly devoted to finding pleasure in the world, and lapping it up, like a giant, golden bee rushing from moment to moment siphoning up the nectar (and there’s another nightmare I’ll be having later), it takes absolutely no notice, but rushes up to us regardless. I’m tempted to let Stanley off the lead, because I know that by hauling on the lead like this it’s only making him worse – but I think of that Shakespeare quote: Let slip the dogs of war. So I don’t. I look around for the owner. I see a woman in the distance, waving a lead in the air and calling Maisy or Daisy or something, without the least effect. I try walking off purposefully in the other direction. Which would be fine, if Maisy or Daisy (I’ll call her MOD for short) stayed put and didn’t follow. But of course she follows, because whereas Stanley has a darkly nuanced vocabulary of emotions, influenced by his nine long years of abuse, MOD has one mood setting, which is LOVE. Dialled up to eleven.

I feel bad for everyone, particularly MOD. Looking at her, though, I’m not sure it’ll set her back all that much. She is the epitome of Golden Retriever, the essential article, stuffed full of golden things, Affection and Love and Goodness and Forgiveness and I don’t know what, hurrying about the world, retrieving wonders.

I give up trying to walk away, because apparently it doesn’t matter that Stanley has transformed into a huffing and puffing troll swinging a spiky club and threatening bloody vengeance, MOD trails happily in our wake like a hippy at a festival strewing flowers left and right and sticking a few in her hair.

‘I’m so sorry about that!’ says MODs owner, catching up at last and lassoing the Retriever. ‘She’s not the best dog in the world at coming back, especially when she’s having such a lovely time.’

‘That’s okay!’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about Stanley. He’s a good dog, really, but he still has a bit of a barking problem.’

‘Oh dear!’ says the woman, smiling down at Stanley – although her smile doesn’t seem quite as unconditional as the Retriever’s.

‘He’s getting better though,’ I tell her.

hippy

Chapter 15: Lunch at the Bitch Cafe

Dog Heaven – Too Many James Bond Films – What Dogs Do on the Beach (other than that) – Tide Brutality – A Useful List of Cross-Breeds – What the N in RNLI Really Stands For – An Idea for Curing Arachnophobia (you’re welcome) – Two Guys & an Essex Port – Wall of Fame – Collies Getting Smaller – Food Order Getting Cold

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We walk along the beach heading for a seaside cafe we’ve heard is dog-friendly. We keep Stanley on the lead, because there’s just too much going on, too much distraction. This whole resort seems to be some kind of dog heaven and we feel like we’re among our people. For some reason it makes me think of friends of ours who became obsessive triathletes. They bought a timeshare on an apartment in a training resort at Lanzarote. Which I have to say made me feel a little uneasy when they showed us pictures. Long lines of super-fit athletes, exercising in unison in the early morning sun. Scientists in white coats, smiling approvingly, taking measurements from a balcony, announcing the best times over the tannoy, calling people forward, travelling with them in electric buggies to the lab at the heart of the volcano. Guards up on gantries, a rocket, yadda yadda. You’ve seen the film. Anyway, plots to rule the world aside, timeshare can really tie you down.

There are dogs everywhere, leaping off the dunes, splashing through the shallows left by the retreating tide, careening round the windbreaks, surfing, kayaking and whatnot. Stan had a busy time running around out on the flats this morning, so he’s happy enough on the lead, and anyway, he seems to know we’re heading in the direction of food. We stride along the damp, compact sand of the strandline, along by heaps of broken shells and things, washed-up jellyfish drying out in the sun. A dead white crab waggling in the shallows, belly up. It’s like every time the tide goes out there’s a mass extinction event. But there’s such a stack of all these things I can only think there’s plenty more where that came from. The gulls and terns seem happy about the situation, piping and swooping exultingly overhead.

We hear the cafe before we see it. A great mass of noise, a Tower of Babel, except more like a Tower of Tables, with at least half a dozen hyperactive dogs per table.

Dogs, dogs, dogs. It’s the dress code at the Beach Cafe. You have to have one to eat. Don’t worry if you don’t, though. There’s a retired chihuahua behind the counter you can use, like an old tie in a fancy restaurant.

Dogs, dogs, dogs. Dogs of every variety. Sheep dogs, sausage dogs, GSPs, ESPs (bred to know where you’ve hidden the treats); surfer dogs; instadogs posing with an espresso and a French novel; border collies & collies from further inland; poodles, labradoodles, cockalabs, labacockercollies, cockatiels. There’s even a rare labarridor (a labrador born in the corridor). The cafe is right next door to the lifeboat station, which is a nice touch and makes it feel safer. I imagine when the klaxon sounds, six Newfoundlands throw down their forks and leap across the forecourt into an inflatable.

We approach the cafe with a thrill of anxiety. It may have been my imagination, but the great hubbub stops as we approach, thirty pairs of dark dog eyes snapping in our direction, thirty tongues doing an anticipatory smack of the muzzle as we head up the slope to see if there are any tables free. For a dog that sometimes has issues barking at other dogs, Stanley seems remarkably subdued. Maybe his usual responses have been overwhelmed. A bit like curing a fear of spiders by walking into a spider convention where everyone’s dressed as a spider and then shuffling into a little cinema draped in spiderweb to watch a film about spiders. Although having read that back to myself, I’m not so sure it’d work.

Amazingly there is a table free, way over to the left of the place, with a candy-striped awning and plenty of shade. The girls settle-in, Stanley slumps down under the table, and I go inside to place our order.

The queue takes an age to move. I can’t figure out if the two guys in front of me know each other or not. They’re dressed almost identically, in sandals, khaki shorts, polo shirts and baseball caps. The only difference is the colour of the shirts, and the fact whilst one guy is tall and drawn out, the other is a foot or so shorter and kind of squashed looking, with a belly so perfectly round you’d think he was carrying another guy in there, and so on, like a blokey matryoshka. The tall guy is talking at great length about Tilbury docks, the fabulous resources they have there, the tonnage, the history and so on. The short guy gives just enough in the way of Hmms and Okays and Reallys? to keep the whole thing going, but I can tell his heart’s not in it. He seems more interested in the cake display than a major international shipping facility just outside of London.

There’s a Wall of Fame just inside the cafe. You can email the cafe a picture of your dog and if it looks crazy enough they’ll pin it up (taking down the ones that are starting to look a bit dog-eared.) It’s an impressive collection – a hundred crazy hounds, blurry head shots of every dog that’s ever been slipped a corner of fried toast or the end of a sausage from the plate of the wonderful all-day breakfast.

Back outside, Kath is talking to the woman at the next table who has two little black and white dogs lying up against her legs like furry slippers.
‘They’re actually Bordoodles,’ the woman says. ‘Border Collies crossed with poodles. To make them smaller and more manageable.’
‘They’re gorgeous!’ says Kath.
‘And they know it!’ says the woman, leaning down to fuss them between the ears. ‘Don’t you? Hey? Don’t you?’
‘Number Thirty-Seven!’ shouts a guy holding two plates of food.

And I have to fight my way through a pack of wolves to get to it.

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Chapter 14: To the Coast

A stop off – Meeting Amelia – A Good Long Stretch – Groomers’ Perks & Quirks – Gender Identity – Queen Victoria vs. Gladstone – Mean Bones and How to Spot Them – Rescues take Patiencepaw print

En route to the coast for a short break we take a detour to see my mum. The whole visit gets quite a build up. Mum’s keen to meet Stan, but she’s a little anxious, too. She’s been reading the blog and knows he can be a handful. She’s worried he won’t get along with her dog, Amelia, a miniature Schnauzer with a big personality, a dog who’s taken on such mythic proportions since mum got her a few years ago, I wouldn’t be surprised to be met at the door by a particularly hairy woman in a peaked cap, holding out a paw, demanding to see our papers.

We make it to mum’s in good time. The girls have made brownies and cinnamon biscuits, so we take them out into the garden to have them with mugs of tea, sitting under the porch awning when it starts to rain a little. Stanley stretches out on the grass, sighing theatrically, extending his legs like his paws are on invisible strings and there’s about another three feet of leg in there somewhere. He’s been cooped up in the car for hours, apart from a brief stop for coffee and a comfort break. Somehow we’d ended up in a dodgy tributary of the motorway services, the car park of an abandoned motel, pulling up next to a pile of soft toys fly-tipped on the verge, like some other family were forced to off-load all sentiment to have any hope of completing their trip. But I don’t believe in omens. Just coffee.

Amelia keeps a close watch on him from behind mum’s recliner.

‘The woman who grooms Amelia is so good,’ says mum. ‘She’s won competitions. Even taught grooming. But she only charges twenty five quid, which I have to say is pretty reasonable. Don’t you?’
‘Sounds about right.’
‘Stanley would cost more because he’s bigger. Does he shed?’
‘Yeah – he does. Especially in the summer.’
‘Amelia doesn’t shed. I couldn’t have a dog that sheds. Because of the asthma. Is she a lurcher?’
‘He. Stanley’s a male lurcher.’
‘But she’s got such long legs.’
‘He. He’s a he. Yeah – a lot of them do. Depends what he’s crossed with. Maybe a gantry crane.’
‘More like a labrador.’
‘Yeah. Probably.’

Between you and me, though, I have to say, despite the groomer having won the Nobel prize for grooming or something, Amelia looks a little bottom heavy, a thick frill running all the way around the middle. When she walks it kicks up like a Victorian crinoline skirt. With that grumpy and beetling frown on her face, she even looks a bit like Queen Victoria, hurrying across the croquet lawn to take a swing at Gladstone with a mallet.

‘Amelia is so friendly with other dogs,’ says mum. ‘She’s a bit put out she can’t just go up to Stanley and be friends.’
‘It’s not Amelia, though, mum – it’s Stan. He’s had nine years of neglect, don’t forget. His legs were so deconditioned he could barely walk for fifteen minutes at a stretch. Who knows what he’s been through? It’s not surprising he’s got a few issues.’
‘I don’t understand why people mistreat dogs like that,’ she says, taking a swallow of tea. Then after a pause – ‘But I did think they might get on. I thought they could be friends. Amelia seems very wary of Stanley. Do you think he’d hurt her?’
‘It’s best to be on the safe side,’ I say. ‘He’s had a long drive in the car, he’s on another dog’s patch. There’s a chance he might get a bit scratchy.’
‘Well I don’t understand it,’ says mum. ‘Amelia is so good with other dogs.’
‘It’s like I say – it’s not her, it’s him.’
‘I mean – she does bark a lot, but she hasn’t got a mean bone in her body. They can see she doesn’t mean any harm.’
‘Best be safe, though.’
‘How old is she?’
‘He. Stanley’s a he.’
‘Sorry. All dogs are bitches to me. How old is he?’
‘Nine.’
‘Nine!’ she says. ‘Ah.’ Then after staring out across the garden awhile, says: ‘Shame, though. I did hope they might get along.’

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Chapter 13: On the couch

How Stanley sleeps – Adina’s Advice – Anger Management for Therapists – Three Reasons – Biscuit being one of them – Sigmund Stanley

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Stanley needs counselling.

Especially if it’s old school psychotherapy, in a studious, book-stuffed room, with a palm in a jardiniere and a great big leather ottoman. Stan would look amazing, sprawled out on the ottoman, his paws dangling over the sides in that dejected way he has, his goatish head pointing straight down at the parquet flooring. He sleeps like that in his basket and it can’t be comfortable. He reminds me of that painting, The Death of Chatterton, the poor poet hanging half in, half out of his bed after an overdose of laudanum. Although in Stanley’s case, it’d be tripe sticks.

The fact is, not only do I not understand Stanley, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand himself.

‘Don’t worry. It will take time,’ Adina said, circling her fingers hypnotically through his crazy white fur. ‘Stanley has been through very bad situation. It will come out slowly. You must be patient with him.’ And my memory might be wrong about this, but I think he raised his eyebrows to look straight at me, making sure I was getting it all down.

I can totally imagine Adina as a psychotherapist, in a tweed jacket and monocle, one leg crooked over the other, a notepad on her lap, nodding gently and empathetically. Although – before you say anything – I do realise this is ridiculously out of date re. psychotherapy, and goes some way to explaining why I’m not working in mental health. Or in the movies as a casting director, come to that.

If Stanley DID go to see a psychotherapist, it’d be interesting to see how long they kept their temper. I suppose it would depend if they put a throw on the ottoman first, to protect the fine leather from his scuffing great paws. No sooner had they done that, Stanley would leap up and start fussing, dredging and worrying at it, so intently you’d think he was digging for water rather than rearranging soft furnishings. The psychotherapist would be waiting in their armchair, making a note maybe, sighing, cleaning their monocle or whatever. Sighing some more. Then eventually they’d slam the pad down on the floor, jump up, and after saying : ‘Oh for goodness sake!’ or worse, stride over, straighten the throw again, stroke his head and help him settle (which he’d accept with a heart-melting look from his big black eyes). ‘There, Stanley! Now perhaps we can begin the session!’ And by the time the psychotherapist had made it back to their armchair, Stanley would have produced his squeaky chipmunk from who knows where, and the therapist would curse and throw their pad down again.

Here are three reasons I think Stanley could benefit from psychotherapy:

1. Sometimes he acts as if his paws don’t belong to him, or they’re being worked by someone remotely, someone with a grudge. He’ll make himself jump doing the simplest things, like scratching his ears, or walking. The dog shelter didn’t tell us much about where he came from, other than the fact he shared the house with a psychotic little terrier called Biscuit, who – judging by the way he looked us up and down through the bars – was a cross between a Garibaldi and a ginger nut. Who knows how far Biscuit got into Stanley’s head in those early days. It’s unthinkable. The dog needed exorcising, not exercising.

2. Stanley sleeps with his paws over his ears. Now and again he’ll give a disappointed sigh, the sort of noise you might make if you’d applied for annual leave but got turned down because there were too many people off that week. Administrative annoyance, in other words. Nothing too bad. He’d probably tut if he could.

3. Stanley lies down in the worst possible places, stretching his long legs out in front of him, then resting his head on his legs and flicking his eyes about as if he’s just waiting for someone to tread on his tail or fall backwards over him with a tray of ice cream and spoons. Maybe it’s his way of proving to himself – and to anyone who cares enough to witness – that yes, here’s another terrible household, with people who don’t give a damn about causing significant injury to a poor old lurcher, and hadn’t he been expecting just exactly this sort of thing all along? (But maybe that’s not his motivation. Maybe it’s just that he wants to get as close as possible to the food – but hey, I’m not a therapist).

Of course, another reading of the whole scenario is that I’m the one who needs the counselling. And I’m fully prepared to admit that may be the case. Who wouldn’t benefit from six months, once a week? Only – it’d be just my luck to be lying on that ottoman, reaching some kind of epiphany, then glancing over to the armchair only to see Stanley sitting there, in a tweed jacket, monocle, with a pad on his hairy knee, nodding sadly and smiling with his two good teeth.

‘Well!’ he’d say. ‘I think we’re making excellent progress!’ Then he’d scratch his ear with his pen, and yelp.

 

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Chapter 12: The Hole-in-the-Hedge gang

A horse called Onion, or something – A simple hack across the moor – Butch C. & Co. – The Wild Bunch – Stanley & why foals like him – Bushwhacked (again)

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I don’t understand horses.

Not that I’m particularly good with dogs (as this diary proves), but horses? I can’t read them. I certainly can’t RIDE them. I got up on one, once. A narcoleptic piece of furniture called Onion or Blanche or Rasputin or something. Anyway, it was enormous and old and sprouting with hair, so lacking in enthusiasm you could have offered it a carrot the size of an oak tree and it would’ve curled its lip – something it seemed to do a lot, exposing teeth so horribly blockish and yellow the only thing I could imagine it eating was a bucket of hardcore. I did my best to be friendly, reaching out to stroke the nozzle or whatever it’s called and say encouraging things, but it just turned and stared at me as if I was just the latest damned thing to walk in the yard. All this happened a few years ago and I’m not quite sure but I think I was lowered onto it by crane. We set off for a hack across Dartmoor. Not the most comfortable ride, like throwing your leg over a chest of drawers with a piece of string to guide it. Every few steps Onion would stop to tear at some meagre clumps of grass by the side of the lane. The grass was terrible. He knew it. I knew it. He was only doing it to make a point. And anyway, he probably thought there was a good chance I might slide off into a ravine, and he’d be led back to the paddock to make room for the emergency services. I held on, though, my knees up by ears, hip bones snapping like an old pretzel. I was determined not to be beaten and somehow made it to the end of the ride. But he had the last laugh. When we got back to the farm I had to be dragged off sideways. I could only walk by wobbling from side to side like a model cowboy, with a fixed, plastic grin of pleasure.

All this is to say that, like Stanley, I was wary of the Hole-in-the-Hedge gang.

No-one seems to know who owns the horses that live in the fields to the north-east of the village. I’ve certainly never seen anybody tending them. (Is that what you do with horses? Tend?) No horse boxes or bales of hay. No vets striding across the field in white coats and green wellies, waving big syringes. (Seriously – I’ve no idea). There used to be a group of three adults. Two completely brown, one a sort of unfinished brown and white. The brown and white one was the leader. For the sake of argument, let’s call him Butch Cassidy. Butch would step out from behind a tree and come right up to you, giving a peremptory nod of his head, as if to say Hands Up before he frisked you for treats. The others always hung back a little, sniggering and nudging each other, in that psycho-subordinate way you often see in cliché gangs of this nature.

Recently there have been some younger additions to the gang. A couple of frisky teenage horses on legs they’ve improvised out of clothes props and bed springs. Let’s call them The Wild Bunch. They seem to spend their time either horsing around or lying in stupefied heaps. You have to admire their commitment, if nothing else. When The Wild Bunch are crazy, they’re completely crazy, leaping and kicking and chasing each other in circles like teenagers in stolen cars pulling doughnuts in a supermarket car park.

Their favourite thing, though, is sneaking up on Stanley.

Maybe they just want Stanley in their gang. They like his anti-establishment stance, his wild, apocalyptic, who-gives-a-damn look. A punk hybrid of sheep, goat and cartoon wolf. They probably see gunslinger potential in his lope.

Whatever the reason, whenever we walk over those fields, and however far away The Wild Bunch happen to be when we go through the gate, they always look up, and then disappear, and then suddenly reappear, lunging enthusiastically out of a thicket, or swinging in on ropes, ears and nostrils flaring, hooves flexing provocatively over their holsters.

Stanley always barks, of course. Not anything extended. More like swearing. And I really can’t blame him, because I’m swearing, too. But there’s not much to be done but walk on calmly as if being bushwhacked by a couple of psychopathic foals is perfectly routine and normal and nothing to worry about and oh, look! A treat!

And we run smack dab into Butch, who’s planted himself further along the path.
It was all a distraction. We fell for it, goddamn it.
Butch gives me the nod.
‘You, there! The guy with the Mad Max kinda sheep!’ he seems to say. ‘Stop right where you are and turn out your pockets.’

Horses, eh?horses