This is a blog inspired by the acquisition of a new puppy (Simon, a Dobermann, born 15/11/2010). However, since even I don't really believe the emotional life of a puppy can sustain a blog indefinitely, I'm combining such reflections as Simon's progress gives rise to with my other indulgence, books. So this will be about books and dogs, in particular books about dogs, and dogs in books. There'll also be plenty of photos of Simon.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ball Drive

I was told recently, as a compliment, that Simon has 'good ball drive'. This, it seems, is not to be confused with ball sense (which I have always regretted not having more of: it seems to yield such disproportionate rewards to its possessors): it is not really a skill at all, just a maniacal determination to chase any ball in sight or smell. This is what it looks like in action:

The other two ball-driven dogs, by the way, are Balu the Vislu and Dusty the Weimaraner, park acquaintances of Simon's, and they're all waiting for Andy, Balu and Dusty's owner, to let fly with the ball. As he duly did:

The ball is in there somewhere (remember those spot-the-ball competitions in newspapers?), but Simon is not really chasing the ball as much as the other dog. So perhaps he isn't really ball-driven?
Perhaps. But then there is the Yellow Ball, which in fact made its first appearance on this blog some time ago, as one of the items in Simon's cornucopia of toys. It is, alas, one of the few surviving  items, the others having been systematically chewed to pieces; but even it has not escaped intact. The original concept  behind the Yellow Ball (who thinks up dog toys anyway?) was thoughtful: the ball had a little adjustable hatch through which one could fill the ball with pellets or other treats; by regulating the aperture one could then control the release of pebbles; the dog, the theory ran, would discover that by rolling the ball he could release pebbles, and would thus remain happily occupied for hours while you got on with writing your novel or baking your cake. In practice, the dog, or Simon in this instance, got impatient with the gradual-release principle and chewed off the little hatch, thus releasing all the pebbles at once and rendering the ball useless for its intended purpose. But this was just the start of the fun for Simon. The gaping hole where the hatch used to be now provides him with a handy grip on the otherwise somewhat rebarbative ball:

Actually, it would seem from this picture that Simon no longer needs the gaping hole (the flat bit on the right), and has mastered the art of gripping the ball by the spikes. This may all be part of Ball Drive. But the really charming thing about the yellow ball, as far as Simon is concerned, is that he can ram it into my back while I'm crouching at my computer, the handy spikes driven into my flesh then serving to goad me into throwing the ball  as far away as I can -- at times, in desperation, into the pool. The point about Ball Drive is that it is not a Directionless Drive; it must drive something or someone somewhere, if only to distraction. It's an overrated accomplishment, I'd say, but then, I don't have it; I'm just the one driven.
As far as I know, there isn't much in literature about Ball Drive (although I haven't read Victor Matfield's recently-appeared memoir; it may be all about Ball Drive). Well, there is, of course, John Berryman's

The Ball Poem

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball,
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over--there it is in the water!
No use to say 'O there are other balls':
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight,
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

I would not want to trivialise the poem by finding parallels between the grief-shaken boy and Simon, but 'as he stands, rigid, trembling' certainly admirably describes Simon's waiting for  the throw of the ball -- not, though, the 'epistemology of loss'  as much as the anticipation of -- what? What is it that drives ball drive? What does Simon expect at the end of the chase?
So, unexpectedly, we end up in the realm of philosophy again. Because who is it that Simon reminds us of in his tireless chasing after a ball that is repeatedly flung out of his reach for him to pursue all over again? Why, Sisyphus of course, rolling his rock uphill eternally, only to have it roll back down again.  And now we see what Camus meant, in The Myth of Sisyphus, when he said 'We must imagine Sisyphus happy': Sisyphus had ball drive.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Discipline and Punish

I used that heading really only to smuggle a book title into this blog, since I don't think there'll be many other books  mentioned this time round. But since I mentioned it, here it is, being perused, or at any rate sniffed,  by Simon.
I  can't claim to have done much more than sniff at Foucault in a long career of literary study, much of it coinciding with a veritable explosion of interest in Foucault. One of the minor joys of retirement is that I no longer feel I have to have read Foucault (as for wanting to read Foucault, I don't think even Foucault can imagine that), along with Lacan, Derrida, and all the French genuises. (Who was it who said that when the emperor needs new clothes he shops in Paris?)
So this blog is not about Foucault. It is about discipline, though not about punish.
As a responsible dog owner, I know that a trained dog is a happy dog, and, slightly more convincingly, that a trained dog alienates fewer people than an untrained dog (there are of course people who are alienated by dogs, whether trained or not, but they deserve neither our concern nor our even our time). I decided to invest in a trainer, not because I think a trainer knows magic tricks I can't pick up from books, but as a discipline (that word again) for myself. I know I am unlikely to keep up a training routine unless I have a structure in place to do so, and twice a week seemed like a manageable structure.
Somebody recommended Ivan (not his real name), so I phoned Ivan. He explained that he came to your house, and didn't use 'bribes', only plenty of praise. This seemed good, and I enrolled Simon for the obligatory 3-month course (at R900 a month, not a snip). Ivan sounded mildly surprised when I said I wanted to be part of the training; I suspect that since his Unique Selling Point is that he does home visits, he attracts clients who are only too happy to have their dogs trained for them while they do something more constructive like watching telly. I can't quite see the point of having a dog that's been trained to obey a stranger, but there's a lot of dog training I don't see the point of.
Ivan duly arrived in his Toyota bakkie. Ensconced (the OED tells me a sconce is a 'small fortification', which is accurate enough, except I'm talking BIG fortification) in the passenger seat was Ivan's daughter Ivana (not her real name), who filled so much of the cab that I wondered how Ivan could get to to the controls. She remained in position for the whole of the first lesson, chewing gum and fiddling with her mobile. In the back of the bakkie was Xolani (not his real name), who emerged only when called upon to do so, about which more later. In later classes, Ivana emerged from time to time to take Ivan's place; Simon seemed if not fascinated then at least interested; in all his months of socialisation he had never come across a human being occupying quite so much open space. 
Ivan elected to have the training sessions on the plot of open ground in front of my house. This was probably a good idea, since that is more like Real Life than my lawn, and Real Life is what Simon has to learn to deal with. Real Life and Discipline.
Since I have now dug up my old copy of Discipline and Punish, I checked what Foucault has to say on the subject of discipline. Of course, he has in mind soldiers and prisoners rather than dogs (imagine Foucault as a dog trainer: the Barbara Woodhouse of Social Science), but discipline is discipline, and, according to Michel, 'In the first instance, discipline proceeds from the distribution of individuals in space.' 
So Ivan and I set about distributing Simon in space. Mainly we tried to distribute him in a sitting position, and get him to remain in that position when told to do so. But from the start Ivan and Simon did not click, as we say. (Clicker training is a whole different ball game, as it were, heavily dependent on 'bribes', or treats as they are called by proponents of the method.) When told to sit, Simon would consider his options, scan the surrounding territory, and if nothing presented itself to his indifferent gaze, would sit down in a kind of limp slump, for which I would be told to praise him lavishly. He seemed not particularly gratified at my praise. When told to 'stay' (I am here  telescoping various classes into one), he would stay only if there was absolutely nothing else to do; more often, he would start digging a hole or peeing against a tree. As for the 'recall': this involves first getting your dog to stay, then calling him to you excitedly while gesturing frantically (Foucault talks of the correlation of the body and the gesture, in this instance Simon's body with my gesture.) The theory is that the dog, having been straining at the invisible leash of your 'stay' command, will now joyfully run towards you, ready to perform your every wish. In practice, Simon either lay down and went to sleep, or turned around and trotted off to look for a pine cone.
In short, Simon was as bored with the classes as I was, only not  as good as I at hiding his boredom. I could see that Ivan was getting rather short of patience with both of us, and he started almost wistfully telling me about his days of training Dobermanns for the police, the unspoken subtext being that there were alternative methods of training which might not come amiss in stubborn cases. As Foucault says: 'In discipline, punishment is only one element of a double system: gratification-punishment. And it is this system that operates in the  process of training and correction.' And though Ivan wasn't exactly saying it, I could see that he felt we'd had enough of gratification; had he but known it, he was right in there with Foucault. When Simon wouldn't 'down' when told to do so, Ivan instructed me to step on his lead and force him down, which produced an undignified wrestling match, with Simon eventually rolling over on his back and biting the lead.
One of Ivan's party tricks was Food Refusal. For this we needed Xolani; indeed Food Refusal was Xolani's raison d'etre. He'd clamber out from the back of the bakkie armed with a little packet of meat. Ivan would arm himself with a two-litre Coke bottle filled with pebbles. The trick was for Xolani to offer Simon some meat; if Simon made to accept it, Ivan would throw the Coke bottle at him with an almighty clatter of pebbles. This scared the hell out of Simon, but he managed to swallow the meat anyway, until he became so terrified of the Coke bottle that he ran away as soon as Xolani appeared. This, of course, is known as Aversion Therapy, and I'm afraid that what it taught Simon an aversion to was not the meat. Ivan, though, seemed to find the outcome satisfactory. Xolani remained completely impassive, as he was through every meeting; I preferred not to wonder what he was thinking.
The crunch came one day with the Choke Collar. Now, I'd told Ivan from the start that I wouldn't use a choke collar. Years ago, in the dark days of dog training. I'd taken my first dog, Henry, rest his saintly soul, to what then passed for obedience training: now known as the Yank and Stomp Method, usually executed by formidable British women in sensible shoes and no-nonsense manners, Barbara Woodhouse clones one and all. The basic move in Yank and Stomp is .. well, yank and stomp. You yell 'HEEL!" and yank the choke chain so hard that the dog leaps to attention or is jerekd into an upright position, you then stomp off, and if the dog is sufficiently intimidated he'll follow, fearing another yank. I stopped going to these classes when Henry, who was the soul of gentleness, growled at me, as he had every right to do.
Anyway. So I said to Ivan that I had trouble getting Simon to walk on lead. Aha, he said, and called Xolani forth from the back of the bakkie with a collar. This I immediately assumed to be a choke chain, and I said I didn't want to use it. Ivan explained that it wasn't actually a choke chain. I said then why use it, since Simon is wearing a perfectly good collar, and I want to know how to walk him with that. I can see that I must have struck Ivan as obstinate, and he had probably had enough of both me and Simon by then. 'Well, then,' he said, 'train your own bloody dog.' And he left, with Ivana impassively chewing gum in the passenger seat and Xolani glumly peering out of the back of the bakkie, and Simon and I ran home as if released from prison.
And now? I'm taking Simon to a group class on a beautiful farm near here, run by a wonderful trainer called Amanda (her real name), who thinks Simon is wonderful. Here he is bribed into more or less doing my bidding; the point, though, is that the atmosphere is such that it doesn't seem to matter over-much one way or the other, in spite of which Simon does seem to be learning something.  This is his 'Sit-stay':

And that collar? I have a suspicion it's indistinguishable from the one that Ivan produced. But if that was what it took to liberate me and Simon from that depressing bakkie-load, I don't care too much. Must be one of the few times that a collar actually served as an instrument of liberation. I wonder what Foucault would have made of that.

Monday, July 25, 2011

He came to stay

As I write, and if airlines perform according to schedule, Charlie's owners are arriving at Cape Town International after a holiday of slightly more than five weeks -- during which Charlie has been keeping Simon company and me occupied. I may have mentioned before that Charlie and Simon struck up a friendship in the park -- if  charging up and down trying to up-end each other can be called a friendship (as I suppose it can: after all, some rugby players are friends -- or are they? I don't know enough rugby players).

I was not quite sure whether a meeting in the park  constituted grounds for cohabitation, but on balance thought that canine incompatibility manifested itself more promptly and unmistakably than the human equivalent -- in short, if dogs are  going to have a dogfight, they have it when they meet rather than after a year of marriage. So Charlie came to stay.
The stay has been, I suppose, harmonious -- and if I hesitate over that word, it's not because there was discord, but because harmonious may suggest something easier on the ear than Charlie and Simon's accord. In short, it's been noisy, muddy, bumptious and generally untranquil -- but hey, tranquility is for pensioners, not young dogs. Besides, they did have their tranquil moments.

In short, the visit has been a success -- unlike the one I stole the title of this posting from, the one Simone de Beauvoir drew on for her revenge novel called She Came to Stay. I must confess that I haven't read the book -- I have an aversion to de Beauvoir and Sartre both, on account of their shabby treatment of Camus, who has been my intellectual hero ever since he was everybody's intellectual hero (except Simone and Jean-Paul's, of course).
This is the Googlebooks synopsis:
Set in Paris on the eve of World War II and sizzling with love, anger, and revenge, She Came to Stay explores the changes wrought in the soul of a woman and a city soon to fall. Although Françoise considers her relationship with Pierre an open one, she falls prey to jealousy when the gamine Xavière catches his attention. The moody young woman from the countryside pries her way between Françoise and Pierre, playing up to each one and deviously pulling them apart, until the only way out of the triangle is destruction. "Behind the sympathy there is curiosity. . . . A writer whose tears for her characters freeze as they drop." -- Sunday London Times
What the synopsis does not tell us is that the novel is based on the real life menage a trois that de Beauvoir and Sartre attempted with a real-life gamine -- or really a menage a quatre, since Xaviere seems to be a composite of the sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz. Be that as it may, She Came to Stay was de Beauvoir's act of revenge, and in it she deals with Xaviere as no doubt she wished she could deal with Olga.. So much for The Consolations of Philosophy.
This is a far cry from Charlie and Simon, who have no philosophy and no notion of revenge. As Raymond Gaita says in The Philosopher's Dog,

about his dog Gypsy, 'I am ...certain that when she lies on her mat or sits at the front door gazing out to sea, she is not thinking of her sins or the problems of philosophy.'
The one thing that the philosopher can be sure of, in other words, is that his dog is not a philosopher. But philosophy being philosophy, not all philosophers share this certainty.:

In this novel, the uncertainty arises because a philosopher called Quincas Borba has a dog called Quincas Borba. This predictably leads to some heavy ontological speculation -- culminating in this one, at book's end, when both philosopher and dog are dead, the dog dying after the philosopher:
 ...seeing that the dog's death is recounted in a special chapter, you will probably ask me whether it is he or his late namesake who gives this book its title, and why one rather than another -- a question pregnant with questions that would take us far.
A question pregnant with questions ... there is, of course, the famous Chinese philosopher who dreamt he was a butterfly, and was never certain ever after that he was not a butterfly dreaming he was a philosopher. Perhaps Gypsy is a philosopher with a dog called Raymond?
But for everyday purposes, I am tolerably sure that Simon is not a philosopher (though I wouldn't vouch for Charlie: that dark-brown gaze of his is either profoundly meditative or extremely dim). One thing I am sure of, and that will have to be the moral of this blog: If you're going to have a menage a trois, do it with a couple of dogs rather than a couple of philosophers.   Ask Xaviere.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Simon in Disgraceland

The invitation, as I mentioned in my last blog, said 'Dogs welcome.' The occasion was a J.M. Coetzee Festival in Richmond in the Great Karoo. Suppressing a slight scepticism as to the potential festiveness of an occasion dedicated to J.M. Coetzee, I accepted the invitation, packed my case and all Simon's paraphernalia (which took up most of the space in the car), and collected my friend Andre, who had kindly agreed to come along to help manage Simon. Not that Simon required much managing, at least at first. He lay in the back of the car very contentedly for the  duration of the seven hours plus that the trip took, with occasional pit stops. So everything was fine -- until we got to the guest house. The landlady had been warned of Simon's imminent arrival, and seemed grimly reconciled to his presence. Simon, however, took some persuading to get into the room; it is possible that it was the particular shade of pink that the room was draped in that scared him (I don't as a rule have much pink about at home), or perhaps the plethora of artificial flowers; either way, he balked, and had to be more or less dragged into the room. Once there, he made his dissatisfaction very clear:
(The tin, by the way, contained Simon's food). Despite Andre's valiant efforts to subdue Simon, we decided that, in the light of his destructive abilities as demonstrated in the previous blog, we should lock all pillows in the cupboard and all blankets in the bathroom. Even then, we felt that that it was unsafe to leave him unattended in this particular room, so he went with us for lunch at Die Vet Muis -- a restaurant I can recommend to anyone stopping over in Richmond, by the way: avoid the Wimpy on the N1, take the turnoff into Richmond itself, and there you'll find Die Vet Muis, serving excellent venison pie with pumpkin fritters for R55. Another plus from our point of view, was that they had tables on the stoep, so there was no problem with the fact that we had a largish Dobermann with us.
I had naively assumed that we'd be able to leave Simon in the room while we attended the Coetzee sessions, but for reasons sketched above we decided against this. So for the first afternoon, I attended the sessions, while Andre baby-sat Simon. It was clear, though, that this would not really be practicable for the all-day sessions on Saturday  -- even if Simon could tolerate being cooped up in a guest house bedroom for a whole day, Andre couldn't.  So we decided that Simon would go along to Disgraceland, as the festival was called:
Yes, I know, it looks like the town jail, with J.M. Coetzee as the Wanted man. The venue was in fact a bit more benign than this looks. Here's another shot:

And this was where we spent Saturday, listening to papers on Coetzee. I can't claim that Simon was an attentive audience, but I will say that he was very well-behaved, sitting quite still in the front row, only occasionally gnawing at his chew-bone rather audibly. I thought it only appropriate that a Coetzee festival should contain at least one live dog, as an implicit corrective to the Disgraceland perspective. This would have been a better story if Simon had more dramatically manifested  his resistance to that perspective, but I was only too grateful for his docility. I'll do it again, but next time check out the guest house colour scheme in advance.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The dog that lived happily ever after

One of the great pleasures of last weekend's Franschhoek Literary Festival was listening to and talking to Justin Cartwright, whose new novel, Other People's Money, I referred to in my last blog. One of the things he said, very much in passing, was that what most people seem to remember of  his heart-wrenching novel White Lightning, is Piet the Baboon; and yet, he said, Piet had been a bit of an afterthought, not part of the original conception. Moral: as all actors know, never share a stage with an animal. And, I might add, you allow the animal to die at your own peril. (What, after all, is it that most people remember of Disgrace? But I'm keeping Disgrace for a whole blog to itself).  I experienced something of the same thing with my first novel, The Children's Day.
The novel was semi-autobiographical. though I took very many liberties with my own history. One incident that was based on actuality was the tale of Dumbo, the protagonist's dog. I meted out to Dumbo the fate of the real-life Dumbo: found playing with a meerkat, he was suspected of having contracted  rabies, and duly destroyed. I'm putting very baldly what most people seem to have found the most affecting part of the novel. One reader told me that she was never going to read another of my novels: 'I'm sick of reading of dogs being put down.' (This was soon after Disgrace devastated its readers.)
Having learnt my lesson (which seems to be, if you have a dog in your book, allow it to live; though heaven knows, literature and children's literature in particular is crawling, as it were, with dead dogs), I took a much more upbeat line in my next novel, The Reluctant Passenger
This dog clearly is a survivor. In fact, the dog in the shopping trolley doesn't actually appear as a character in the novel: he is more in the line of a ruling metaphor. Here is the relevant passage, narrated by my rather thin-blooded central character, Nicholas (I had a Dobermann called Nicholas at the time). He is here talking about his inability to finish Middlemarch:
My friend Gerhard says my attention span is adjusted to the sonnet rather than to the nineteenth-century novel, but I don't seem to find poetry very interesting either: there's such a lot of unassimilated emotion around for so little reason, as far as I can see. Gerhard says the point of the sonnet is exactly that it tidies up the emotion, but I'm not sure that uncontrollable passion succumbs that easily to a few quatrains and a rhyming couplet. I once saw a man transporting his Rottweiler through a No Dogs Allowed area: the beast was clearly well trained, and stayed put, but you could see that all it really wanted to do was chew the wheels off all the trolleys in the universe. That's the sonnet. 
So the Rottweiler in the shopping trolley encapsulates the novel's central concern with the tension between passion and constraint, in broader terms between nature and art. (He is also one of the reluctant passengers in the novel, but that's another branch of the metaphor.) There is, though, a real dog in the book. He is a bull mastiff called Tornado and he belongs to Nicholas's neighbours. Nicholas doesn't really like Tornado because, as he says, he can't meet the emotional expectations of a dog. But in a complicated run of events, Tornado actually saves Nicholas from a would-be hijacker, and so he feels a grudging kind of gratitude to the beast. Thus, when the neighbours  decide to move to Perth for the health and safety of their new baby, Tornado is in jeopardy: if they can't find a home for him, he'll have to be put down. This is where I made amends to Dumbo and Nicholas made amends to Tornado: he adopts Tornado and they live happily ever after. Well, as far as one can tell. (This is one of the differences between my novel and Disgrace.)
Would that all dogs were so lucky. Catching up on Justin Carwright's earlier novels, I came across his very funny but rather poignant  'American' novel:
Cartwright's protagonist is in fact a Brit who grew up in the US, and has been asked to deliver the address at a reunion of his old school in America. He consents, on condition that he can make satisfactory arrangements for his dachshund Herbie. Now this warmed my heart; I complained in an earlier blog that even the great Henry James commits the cardinal sin of introducing a dog in the early reaches of The Portrait of a Lady and then forgetting all about it. Not so Cartwright: he knows that we're watching out for Herbie, and that he'd better keep us informed. In the event ... well, read the book, but hell, did it have to end like that?
If you look carefully, by the way, you'll see that the cover of Leading the Cheers looks rather mangled. That is because Simon, fed up with my retreating behind a book so soon after returning from three days in Franschhoek, grabbed the book and mauled it, thus unwittingly also avenging poor Herbie.
And yes, you'll want to know what happened to Simon while I was doing the Literary Festival. Well, he was well looked after by two house-sitters. He seems, though, to have felt the need to express his feelings in a tangible manner:
That was once a pillow. Tornado rides again. Passion triumphs over restraint.
There is another literary festival next weekend, this time in Richmond in the Great Karoo. I was invited to attend with this intriguing rider : 'Dogs welcome.' I shall take the invitation at its word and take Simon to his first books event. It seems appropriate that the festival is mainly about J.M. Coetzee, with particular attention to Disgrace. Simon will no doubt make a contribution. Watch this space.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why bankers don't have dogs.

I wouldn't say this to just anybody, but given the likely readership of this blog, I feel safe in confessing that my way of keeping my interest sharp and perceptions clear in an art gallery is to count the dogs. Once you've noticed one dog, you're amazed to discover how many there are, and in what disparate genres of painting, from the earliest religious paintings through to cubism (no dogs in abstract expressionism, but not much else either). Of course, all that this demonstrates (or, more precisely, illustrates), is that the mutual reliance of dog and human is not a recent fad (though some breeds of dogs, of course, are distinctly faddish): it is a simple feature of everyday life through the ages. This, then, would also be why so many books contain dogs: books, especially realist novels, are taken to reflect life, and dogs have become a part of human life.
This being so, it's interesting to come across a book that, though entirely realist in every other way, has (almost) no dogs in it:
I might in fact not have noticed the absence of dogs (it's not altogether my sole literary criterion), had the author not drawn our attention to. At one point in the novel, Julian and Nigel, two bankers up to no good (the whole novel is a pretty devastating indictment of bankers and all their works), are sitting in Julian's garden plotting their way out of a tight spot that they've landed in entirely through their own malfeasance:
Two people are out exercising their dogs. As they pass Julian and Nigel, sitting wrapped against the early chill at a table under the mulberry tree -- just coming into leaf -- they wave cheerily. Dog people, Julian thinks, have an idealised vision of a world in which everybody is matey and loves animals and likes a chat.
Dog people, the implication is, are a bit simple-minded, really -- exactly the sort of people that would entrust their money to the  likes of Julian and Nigel, and be left the poorer and possibly the wiser for it. Bankers like Julian and Nigel, on the other hand, are too savvy to trust anybody: their only relation with trust is to exploit it. And what creature more trusting than a dog? But the problem, from the banker's point of view, is that a dog's trust is totally unexploitable: dumb creatures that they are, they have no money to invest. So what's the point, really, of a dog? Except,of course, in keeping dog people's idealised vision of the world intact for long enough for Julian and Nigel to cash in on it. Other people's dogs may yet lead to other people's money.

In that  other world, then, where everybody is matey (in fact, in the park, where dog people go to be matey and have a chat) Simon met Charlie, the Golden retriever. They got on so well that Charlie's owner brought him over to visit Simon at home. The visit was a great success:

 Yes, I know it looks like nature red in tooth and claw rather than a play date, but in fact no blood was drawn. It was a fair fight -- until Charlie discovered the remains of Simon's chew bone and appropriated it:

Possession, Charlie seems to be saying, is nine-tenths of the law. As for Simon:
Moral: Thou shalt not entrust thy money nor thy bone to a plausible stranger.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Another literary quiz: in which novel does Skulker feature? (You'll gather that he's a dog.)

Okay, here are Skulker's five minutes of fame. The speaker is telling how he and a friend peered through a window and saw two howling children inside:
... and in the middle of the table sat a little dog, shaking its paw and yelping, which, from their mutual accusations, we understood they had nearly pulled in two between them. The idiots! That was their pleasure! to quarrel who should hold a heap of warm hair, and each begin to cry because both, after struggling to get it, refused to take it. We laughed outright at the petted things, we did despise them! 
No, the heap of warm hair is not yet Skulker. But the laughter of the two outsiders looking in alerts the children inside, who start screaming for their mamma  and papa, and soon the family bulldog is let loose upon them, and grabs one of the intruders by the ankle:
'The devil had seized her ankle, Nelly; I heard his abominable snorting. She did not yell out -- no! She would have scorned to do it, if she had been spitted on the horns of a mad cow. I did, though: I vociferated curses enough to annihilate any fiend in Christendom, and I got a stone and thrust it between his jaws, and tried with all my might to cram it down his throat. A beast of a servant came up with a lantern, at last, shouting --
     "Keep fast. Skulker, keep fast!"
     He changed his note, however, when he saw Skulker's game. The dog was throttled off, his huge, purple tongue hanging half a foot out of his mouth, and his pendant lips  streaming with bloody slaver.'
Yes, the speaker is, of course, the young Heathcliff looking in, with Catherine Earnshaw, on the young Lintons. And the Lintons keep dogs as pets and as protectors of their property, Thrushcross Grange. The interesting thing here is that although the   trespassers are seen as a threat, all the violence is inside the house: the children tearing their dog apart, the 'beast' of a servant, the slavering dog. And on discovering that Skulker's prey is a little girl, accompanied by a boy, Mr Linton, who is a magistrate, says: 'Don't be afraid, it is but a boy -- yet the villain scowls so plainly in his face, would it not be a kindness to the country to hang him at once, before he shows his nature in acts, as well as features?'
So Skulker, the law and the gallows are there to ensure that the Grange remains inviolate. In the event, Heathcliff is not hanged, and he duly goes on to show his nature in acts, as well as features. In order to gain power over the Lintons, he woos Isabella, she of  the heap of warm fur, and elopes with her. As he gloatingly describes it:
She cannot accuse me of showing a bit of deceitful softness. The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog [...] But no brutality disgusted her -- I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury!
So the little dog, rather than Heathcliff, gets hanged. One of the things that make Wuthering Heights such an unusual novel is that we can't really take sides here: yes, Heathcliff is clearly a monster, but is that worse than the pallid complicity of the infatuated Isabella? Is hanging the little dog worse than pulling it apart in a contest?  (Ideally, of course, one would do neither, but Emily Bronte does not do the middle ground).
But, although  Heathcliif may hang dogs, he prefers them to humans. When he has at last taken possession of Wuthering Heights, the place is overrun with them, and when the hapless Lockwood pays his courtesy call, he finds a pointer bitch with a litter of puppies in the kitchen:
I took a seat at the end of the hearthstone opposite that towards which my landlord advanced, and filled up an interval by attempting to caress the canine mother, who had left her nursery, and was sneaking wolfishly to the back of my legs, her lip curled up, and her white teeth watering for a snatch.
My caress provoked a long, guttural gnarl.
'You'd better let the dog alone,' growled Mr Heathcliff, in unison, checking fiercer demonstrations with a punch of the foot. 'She's not accustomed to be spoiled -- not kept for a pet.'
 The child is father to the man. But once again, where are our sympathies really here? Not, I think, with the effete Lockwood, who has just in the previous paragraph told us how he humiliated a young woman by making eyes at her and then, when she responded, 'shrunk icily into [him]self, like a snail.'
Wolf or snail? Pet or predator?
Here is Simon at my hearthstone, attacking one of my guests. Note how the timid advances of the guest unleash the slavering beast beneath the skin:

Or perhaps Simon just prefers women:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Liquorice and Lost Ground

Here is Liquorice:

And here is Lost Ground:

Liquorice is the aptly-named shiny black Labrador belonging to my neighbours. During my Year Without a Dog, I got into the habit of taking Liquorice for walks, a habit that, now that Simon has arrived, I am still observing. Liquorice is, like most Labradors, angelically mild and infallibly gentle. So that when I came to write my latest novel, Lost Ground (published last week by Jonathan Ball, now available at all good bookstores, or, failing that, at -- and that was the commercial break), and needed a sympathetic, supportive canine presence, Liquorice came to mind, and I borrowed him for my novel. He is the only character in a novel of mine whose name I did not change to forestall a libel suit -- or no, there was Dumbo, in my first novel, about whom more in a later blog. Liquourice, it must be said, is not a plot mover; he is there, as I said, purely to provide sympathy and support. There are, however, two other dogs in the novel, and they do actually have a part to play in the plot. There is Cedric, the Maltese, who is The Dog That Did Not Bark in the Night; and then there is Kerneels, an amiable mongrel, whose role in the plot I can't divulge without spoiling the story. Oh, yes, and at one point there is a cameo appearance of 'an elderly gentleman with a doddery Dobermann.' That was my Hitchcock moment, written while my lamented Nicholas was still alive, though, yes, doddery.
It has occurred to me that, not surprisingly, all my novels feature at least one dog somewhere, some of them quite prominently. Future blogs will be dedicated to these sharers or my fictional space. Simon will be taking a back seat, I suppose, though I will usually manage to smuggle in a photo or two. Here, for instance, is Simon with Liquorice:
The little girls in the background, by the way, are about to have their tentacled balloon snatched. (See the previous blog.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

... nor thy neighbour's tentacled balloon.

I know this is neither original nor profound, but what is about other people's toys that makes them so much more attractive than our own? The Lord in His Wisdom knew all about it, and tried (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to put an end to it once and for all in the Tenth of the Ten Commandments: 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.' (Incidentally, what a fascinating hierarchy of desire, starting with the neighbour's house and ending with his ass).
Simon has been provided with a veritable cornucopia of toys:

(The cornucopia is in fact an Edgebaston wine box.)
You'd think Simon would be satisfied. But what happens? The neighbour comes to visit (well, neighbours, but I'm sure the Lord had a kind of collective neighbour in mind):

( The neighbour's dog, by the way, is a black Labrador called Liquorice, who will soon figure in this blog.) The neighbour's little daughter has recently acquired a new toy, which I can only describe as a balloon with tentacles, one of those ingenious inventions made possible by technological advance attendant upon the Space Race. Simon, whose attention is normally exclusively focused on poor long-suffering Liquorice, sees the tentacled balloon, and immediately covets it. For a Dobermann, as for King David of old (I'm thinking of Bathsheba, I think) to covet is to grab:

So Simon ends up looking like one of the Things from Where the Wild Things Are, and a little girl ends up in tears -- as, mutatis mutandis, the Lord warned would happen, although I think He intended for the covetor rather than the covetee to be smited (ungrammatical, but smitten sounds inappropriate).
BUT enter Space Age Technology: the tentacled balloon miraculously survives twenty minutes in the Jaws of Hell, and after a merry chase, is restored, gob-covered but otherwise unharmed, to its rightful owner.
Moral: what's a bit of coveting between neighbours?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Situations and relationships

On occasion, this blog will become ruminative, which is a slightly more winy (not whiny) version of reflective.
This rumination, with no literature to back it up, is occasioned by my realisation that, whereas hitherto I've had the situation of a new puppy in a new home, which lots of books had lots to say about, I now have on my hands a relationship, which is to say a highly individuated (I think the word is from Hopkins, or even Duns Scotus, otherwise it would sound insufferably psychobabble) puppy growing into a dog and needing to make it clear all the way to me. Situations are static, relationships are dynamic. We are beyond what the books can tell us; we are at the coalface of raw interaction. This, I imagine, is what parents feel when their kid moves off beyond the margins and boundaries of Dr Spock into the wild uncharted area of teenagehood. It's terra incognita, it's Where the Wild Things Are. The testing of the boundaries is, of course, tiresome, but then one realises that it's exactly proportionate to a growing sense of interdependence. In short, Simon is being bloody impossible because he's realising that  for better or for worse he's stuck with me for the time being (and alas for him, unlike most teenagers, for the rest of his or my natural life.)
Is this a lament? By no means. Of course the puppy stage, which mainly required cuddling, was wonderful. But who wouldn't rather have a relationship than a situation?

After that, the photos are bound to seem arbitrary. Photographically, my relationship so far has meant I take the photos and he poses for them.  A bit like Diane Arbus and Susan Sontag , if you really think about it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bunchie and Diogenes: How to Deal with Dogs in Books

Here's a literary quiz: in which two novels do Bunchie and Diogenes respectively appear?
Okay, you've peeked:

So which dog is in which novel?
Give up? Okay, here's Bunchie:

His face was turned towards the house, but his eyes were bent musingly on the lawn; so that he had been an object of observation to a person who had just made her appearance in the ample doorway for some moments before he perceived her. His attention was called to her by the conduct of his dog, who had suddenly darted forward with a little volley of shrill barks, in which the note of welcome, however, was more sensible than that of defiance. The person in question was a young lady, who seemed immediately to interpret the greeting of the small beast. He advanced with great rapidity and stood at her feet, looking up and barking hard; whereupon, without hesitation , she stooped and caught him in her hands, holding him face to face while he continued his quick chatter. His master now had had time to follow and to see that Bunchie's new friend was a tall girl in a black dress, who at first sight looked pretty. 
The girl spoke to Ralph, smiling, while she still held up the terrier. 'Is this your little dog, sir?'
'He was mine a moment ago; but you've suddenly acquired a remarkable air of property in him.'
'Couldn't we share him?' asked the girl. 'He's such a perfect little darling.'
Ralph looked at her a moment; she was unexpectedly pretty. 'You may have him altogether.'

I suppose we must forgive Ralph Touchett, who is one of James's most appealing characters, for giving away his dog to the first pretty girl who offers (although George Eliot would have visited the direst punishment upon his head for such superficiality). But I find it hard to forgive James for creating this 'perfect little darling', and then relegating him to the limbo of literary dogs that disappear. Bunchie just vanishes from the tale, and Isabel Archer, for all her air of property, doesn't seem to miss him. One can almost feel that she deserves Gilbert Osmond, who of course does not have a dog.
At which point, let me digress from my topic, to glance at a blackguard who does keep dogs  : the unspeakable Grandcourt in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. He is generally assumed to have been the model for James's Gilbert Osmond, and there certainly is a family resemblance. Grandcourt, however, does keep dogs. Here he is with his toady and sycophant, a man called Lush:
Mr Grandcourt had drawn his chair aside so as to face the lawn, and, with his left leg over another chair, and his right elbow on the table, was smoking a large cigar, while his companion was still eating. The dogs -- half-a-dozen of various kinds were moving lazily in and out, or taking attitudes of brief attention -- gave a vacillating preference first to one gentleman, then the other; being dogs in such good circumstances that they could play at hunger, and liked to be served with delicacies which they declined to put into their mouths; all except Fetch, the beautiful liver-coloured water-spaniel, which sat with its fore-paws  firmly planted and its expressive brown face turned upward, watching Grandcourt with unshaken constancy. He held in his lap a tiny Maltese dog with a tiny silver collar and bell, and when he had a hand unused by cigar or coffee-cup, it rested on this small parcel of animal warmth. I fear that Fetch was jealous, and wounded that her master gave her no word or look; at last it seemed that she could bear this neglect no longer, and she gently put her large silky paw on her master's leg. Grandcourt looked at her with unchanged face for half a minute, and then took the trouble to lay down his cigar while he lifted the unimpassioned Fluff close to his chin and gave it caressing pats, all the while gravely watching Fetch, who, poor thing, whimpered interruptedly, as if trying to repress that sign of discontent, and at last rested her head beside the appealing paw, looking up with piteous beseeching. [...]'Turn out that brute, will you?' said Grandcourt to Lush, without raising his voice or looking at him ...
Would you marry this man?Poor Gwendolen Harleth does. Read Daniel Deronda.

But that, as I said, was a digression. Diogenes, then, is a large, friendly dog who befriends little Paul Dombey at school. When Paul dies, Diogenes is given to Florence Dombey, his lonely sister. This is his arrival:
But though Diogenes was as ridiculous a dog as one would meet with on a summer's day; a blundering, ill-favoured, clumsy, bullet-headed dog, continually acting on a wrong idea that there was an enemy in the neighbourhood, whom it was meritorious to bark at; and though he was far from good-tempered, and certainly was not clever, and had hair all over his eyes, and a comic nose, and an inconsistent tail, and a gruff voice; he was dearer to Florence, in virtue of that parting remembrance of him [by her brother Paul on his deathbed] and that request that he might be taken care of, than the most valuable and beautiful of his kind.
Florence Dombey is clearly a less fickle type than Isabel Archer. And yet, when Dickens came to write his happy ending, HE FORGOT ALL ABOUT DIOGENES.  But fortunately he remembered in time (I think he was travelling  on the Continent at the time), when the novel was being serialised, and wrote to his publisher instructing him to include Diogenes in the curtain-call. So now Dombey and Son  ends like this (it's not quite the last paragraph, but close enough):
Autumn days are shining, and on the sea-beach there are often a young lady, and a white-haired gentleman. With them, or near them, are two children: boy and girl. And an old dog is generally in their company. 

My point is really only one that Dickens, the great crowd-pleaser,  instinctively realised: every dog-lover reading Dombey and Son will want to know what happened to Diogenes. James forgot that lesson, and The Portrait of a Lady is a flawed masterpiece as a result. It's called closure, and Dickens knew all about it. So did Mark Twain. Here is a funeral scene from Huckleberry Finn:
Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait -- you couldn't hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn't seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, "Don't you worry -- just depend on me." Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people's heads. So he glided along, and the powwow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker's back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided and glided around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people's heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, "He had a rat!" Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don't cost nothing, and it's just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn't no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.
As Huck says, it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. And a little thing like that  don't cost nothing -- so tell us what happened to the dog.
Which is a good excuse to bring you up to date on Simon. He has, of course, been growing. He's got into the habit of raiding my wastepaper bin. I don't know if he just misjudged his angle, or whether his head had overnight grown by a crucial millimeter, but this is how he ended up yesterday:

And what happened to the dog? Well, Dickens's advice to story-tellers was: 'Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.' So watch this space.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

We All Lose Our Charms in the End

A good friend, a mature and sensible woman, writes to me that she is 'aghast' to see that Simon has lost his puppy cuteness and has become a long-legged teenager. 'Stop feeding him!' she entreats.

Well, yes, I can see that those legs have rather got ahead of the rest of the body. And already, when Simon goes to the park, he's getting fewer cuddles and coos. It would seem, according to Hal Herzog's invaluable Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, that this is normal -- sad, but normal. Someone with more research grants than they could sensibly spend did a test:
University of California  at Santa Barbara researchers were interested in changes in the attractiveness of a golden retriever puppy named Goldie as she matured. Over a five-month period, they took Goldie to a highly traveled spot on campus where she would sit for an hour with her 'owner' (actually an assistant in the study), while the researchers tallied the number of passersby who came over to pet or play with her. Goldie's ability to seduce strangers decreased precipitously  as she transitioned from puppy to adult. Her drop in popularity was especially steep among women. When Goldie was at her cutest, women were twice as likely as men to chat her up. But by the end of the study, the number of women who stopped to stroke her head and say hi had dropped 95%, and the sex difference had completely disappeared.
Alas, poor Goldie. And alas anybody (over, say twenty-four) who makes a habit of seducing strangers. Of course, the study only proved what we know, which is  that, well, in the words of the song, we all lose our charms in the end. Also, in the words of another song, la donna e mobile.
There's a poem by Robert Frost that is (tangentially) related to the topic. It's called
The Span of Life
The old dog barks backward without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
Of course, as always with Frost, it's the human perspective that interests him: the poem is not really about the dog's span of life, but about the speaker's -- or rather, it's about the interaction between the two spans. I can remember what the dog can't because I have a longer span -- but that doesn't mean that my span is unlimited. There's a theory that all sorrow is in effect a mourning for our own death, that we find tragedies sad because we see in them an image of all mortality, which is to say our own. It's beautifully expressed by G.M Hopkins in his poem
Spring and Fall
(To a young child) 
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh,
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had no nor mind expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Well, poor Margaret, having that lot dumped on her.  And poor readers of this blog, ending up with the gloomy topics again. The photographs will  have to make up for the verbal content. Here's Simon with Thomas (his junior by all of five days), a Belgian Shepherd who came to call. It's what Sylvia Plath called, admittedly thinking of a human baby, 'A common-sense/ Thumbs-down on the dodo's mode' ( a thumbs-down this blog is sorely in need of):

 And no, you needn't remind me of what happened to Sylvia Plath.