Dog Ends: An Epidogalogue

Hector is one year old and his birthday passed without ceremony. No, I did not bake him a lamb and chicken-liver birthday cake with an oxo-cube frosting and a tripe stick for a ‘candle’. No, I did not take him shopping in Animal House in South Street with my credit card. I didn’t even get him a bone. And for reasons mostly pertaining to the August traffic, we missed the birthday gathering of his litter, hosted by his breeder, Jazz, for a celebratory walkies in the New Forest.

Hector’s Uncle Murphy was there, and his sister Lexy, his brothers Buster and Samuel, and a cousin Tony (or was that the owner?), Jacob, Miriam. Apparently they all ran up to each other without a single stand-off and started licking each others ears – ah! – before the cow-pat rolling that stood in for musical chairs. Oh, how I wished we had been there.

Actually, Hector was suffering from a mysterious bout of fish-breath that day, so I couldn’t have privately celebrated his superiority to his siblings to the extent that I had competitively imagined that I might. We stayed in. I did sing Happy Birthday to him. And I went through all his puppy photos and marveled at how he has grown and how inseparably devoted we have become.

When I was in my twenties I had a vague premonition that my love life would follow the trajectory of Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd, and that after the dashing unfaithful bastard and the stiff-necked father figure and all manner of difficulties, shenanigans and heartbreak, I would end up with Alan Bates, Best Friends Reunited, cosy by the fireside, going, “me fer thee and thee fer me” and all that. Little did I know that my Gabriel Oak would turn out to be a Hector.

I am not alone. Most mornings, on the dog-path, a group of us gather at the crossroads by the bridge; Celia and her dogs Patsy and Floyd (once owned by his namesake the great chef himself), and Ivy with her rescue dog Chance (‘we gave him a chance and took a chance on him’), and Carol with Chewbacca (Chewy) and her new puppy Yoda, Helen, our esteemed professional dog walker with her own dog Freddie, and more, converging from each corner of Askers Meadow like the chorus in a musical or a gaggle of Spanish women meeting to do their laundry at the town fountain. Some are widowed, most are single and we gabble on about the weather and our ailments, united by little but our attachment to the dogs who are milling around patiently by our feet. Man’s best friend? Oh yes, but these days, if we’re anything to go by, they are mostly Women’s.

Hector is indeed the best friend I have ever had. I don’t waste mental space and time on persistent and ungracious speculations about whether he is suffering from an undiagnosed personality disorder. He doesn’t gossip about my disorders with the other dogs. I can tell him to bugger off without hurting or offending him. Or I can tell him he’s “the boofest of boofs” without him feigning gagging noises and saying “pass the sick bag”. In other words, we love each other without any of the tribulations and disappointments of human friendships.

But I am getting a little bored of writing about us now. What’s new? Stop Press! Breaking News! He cocked his leg on a bucket full of flowers in Mum’s utility room. He’s started scavenging from the kitchen rubbish bin. Last week I wacked him on the nose for chasing chickens. When the doorbell rings, or even when I sneeze, he jumps on top of me as if to shield my body with his own – “Don’t worry, Mr. Mannering, I’ve got you covered…”

But apart from that it’s ‘same old same old’; every morning at precisely 7.30 Hector stands beside the bed and stares at me and I stare studiedly into the middle distance until he wins. Every evening at precisely 7.30 Hector stands in front of me with the orange frisbee in his mouth and stares at me until he wins. And in between those brackets of the day…

You see? The time has come, I think, to gracefully bow-wow out. And I don’t like endings so without a ceremony I will say it: this is the end of the log of the first year of the dog orginally named Milo Justice Junior, better known as Hector, sired by Longcopse Bertie, born to Regorlian Galaxy on the 17th of August 2013 and living happily ever after in the town of Bridport with his grateful owner Gill.

Dear readers, thank you. Can I go now? Woof! epidogalogue 014

Bad Hair Days

bad hair days 010The word ‘grooming’ has acquired increasingly distasteful undertones of late but my own distaste for the word goes further back, to a time when being ‘well-groomed’ was practically the highest compliment a man could pay to a woman and not one I particularly wanted paid to me. My Dad tried to get me to be well-groomed with a mixture of bullying and flattery; “you’ve got a bloody good pair of pins, I don’t know why you don’t want to show them off”, and so on. I didn’t wear lipstick until I was forty and then, with perverse poetic justice, I fell in love with a man who wanted me trussed up in pencil skirts and seamed stockings every day of the week.

Little wonder, then, that when the puppy nurse began her little lecture on Grooming, my eyes glazed over and I had to suppress the impulse to hum a loud crazed tune with my fingers in my ears. Clean Hector’s teeth? I don’t think so. (Chewing bones will surely see to that). Clipping toenails? (He is not a lap dog!) Cleaning out his ears once a week? (Are you kidding?) The only concession I made to grooming was the tender ritual of wiping sleepy-dust and grass seeds out of the corners of his eyes, and a quick run of a brush through his coat when I remembered. A lick and a promise, as they used to say.

The other thing – and how laughable it seems now – is that I was so besotted with puppy Hector that when he didn’t moult for the first few months, I persuaded myself, egotistically, that I had lucked out with an extra special, unique, one-off, no-shedding Labrador. Ha!

For months now there has been hair, hair, everywhere. There’s a permanent slick of it, like the line of crushed black seaweed you sometimes get along the beach, along the carpet underneath the edges of the sofas and the armchairs. It silts up corners, floats like dust-motes in the air. I find it in my dinner, in my mouth, my trousers, on my toothbrush, stuck to walls, top-dressing all the skirting boards, woven like a kind of scratchy tweed into every piece of soft furnishing material in the house, and even on the highest tread of the spiral staircase up which Hector has never ever trod. “How did it get there?” is my constant wondering refrain. It is, without a doubt, the worst thing about having a dog, and, like the pain of childbirth, people do not warn you.

I bought a Furminator. ‘Brush for ten to twenty minutes’, said the instructions. Ten to twenty minutes! Even two minutes made my shoulder seize up. And it tore at Hector’s skin like a combine harvester. I was harvesting at least half a carrier bag of hair a day. The very sight of its vicious little teeth made him cower like Bill Sykes’s cur. And still the hair kept coming.

So now I’ve given up and given in. Pull back the duvet on the spare bed where I take my coffee in the mornings, work, read, watch films on my iPad, and where Hector is allowed, and the once white sheet is black with hair and jumping with grit. Occasionally I hoover it. Occasionally I squish a piece of grit with my thumbnail just to make sure it is not a flea. Mostly I just live with it.

What the hell! Hector swims most days so at least it’s clean hair. Should I change the sheet today? No. It will be just as bad again by tomorrow. Will my cleaner Maggie leave me in disgust? No. She was quite put out when I mentioned it. “It’ll take more than that to get rid of me!”, she said, the doughty girl. But let’s see, in four years time when I have done my Masters in the Quentin Crisp School of Housework.

Once, when I had left home and moved into my own flat, Mum came to visit and, spotting a vase of dead flowers on the mantelpiece, suggested in a worried voice that I might be “slipping”. Mum, there’s no doubt now, I’ve slipped: irredeemably, sartorially (big white cheap cotton knickers, note, potential boyfriends), and domestically.

I’ve realised, too, that I can trace the genesis of my descent to the time when, as a child, I was taken to visit some aristocratic friends of my parents in a Scottish castle. I had imagined there’d be chandeliers, mile long highly polished banqueting tables, liveried footmen and the like. But we were ushered into a cosy room with a roaring fire, a pile of muddy wellies in the corner, and three old sagging sofas practically upholstered in dogs and so begrimed and chewed and hairy that it was impossible to guess from which Clan of Chintz the family came. Something shifted seismically in my understanding of class and ‘classy. (You mean there is no inviolable moral imperative to keep a clean house?) These people were obviously too posh to push the dogs off the couch and I remember thinking, right then, ‘I would like to live like this’.

And so, it seems, I am. If any BBC documentary maker wishes to cast me as a member of a go-back-in-time reality show set in a medieval hovel, be my guest. I have become immune to squalor. And unless (hint hint) Mum buys me the latest Dyson with the Groom Tool Vacuum Assisted Dog Groomer, that’s the way it’s going to stay.

I wonder if I could sell the hair on E-bay?

After Glastonbury

Scan 12Hector is almost fully grown so I suppose it is time to ‘let go’, so to speak. I thought I had let Joe go when he went to his first Glastonbury, aged sixteen, but I didn’t manage an entirely clean break. I was very jealous – because I had run away from boarding school to attend the first ever Glastonbury myself – and I kept ringing him on his mobile asking irritating questions like “have you seen Leonard Cohen yet?” (“Duh! Who?”)

Seven years on, Joe is taller, hairier, a graduate, and, it has to be said, he has lost the golden peachy bloom of his youth. He likes Leonard Cohen now. And after Glastonbury this year, he not only thought it appropriate to discuss with me, in academic detail, “the illegal substance choices of my generation” but he also thanked me for washing his sleeping bag AND he volunteered to take Hector for a walk.

But do I trust him with Hector? Not quite. I fussed. “Now. Take some bikkies in case you need to bribe him to come, and use the poo bags, it is anti-social not to, and don’t let him off the lead near the road or let him pull because I am still training him and…” I even texted him anxiously two hours later to say, “usually feed H at 4.30 so don’t be too late back”.

My fears were well-founded because Joe is obviously not completely grown up yet. Firstly, when I called him, he thought it was a hoot to tell me that Hector had run off the edge of the cliff. Then, when Hector presumably began to cramp his style on the beach, he called me; “Mu-um. Can you come and pick Hector up? My friends have just arrived and…” Yes? Hector is requiring you to put him before yourself? And now, when I am in the middle of preparing dinner, you want me to negotiate the inch-wide lanes to Eype, in my unwieldy Romahome, at a time when everybody else is coming the other way? How about, “put your feet up, Mother, and I’ll bring you a takeaway”.

But how grown up am I? My own generation wanted to die before we got old and now we are refusing to grow old before we die. And that is why, I suppose, I am rattling around the country in a campervan still hoping that something really exciting is going to happen to me, and with all the same longings that I felt as a teenage girl walking towards a row of ‘yobbos’ sitting on a wall.

Four days after the end of Glastonbury festival, Hector and I were, coincidentally, in Glastonbury town itself. Glastonbury has not grown up at all. Every single shop is still called something like ‘The Magyk Cauldron of Light’. And when my circus clown friend Robert and I walked Hector up The Tor, we met a musician called Dragon, a purveyor of Celtic Space Folk, who gave us a Breton tune on his mandolin and told us, with ecstatic optimism, about an imminent shift in consciousness in The Universe. Not before time, I’d say.

Anyway, we were going to a gig. The very word ‘gig’ echoes down the years since 1968 in my Father’s Lady Bracknell tones, repeating, “going to a ‘gig’?”, as if I had invented the word. And now I rather empathise with his bewilderment.

Robert’s son’s reggae band were playing in a pub. The music was so monotonous that I soon found myself in the back yard where I was offered a joint by a raddled woman of my own age called Hawthorne. When I wove back into the black hole of the back room, I sat down next to a bearded young man, with the white naked torso of a shop mannequin tucked under one arm, who asked me if I knew anyone whose demons were getting the better of them. “Yes,” I said. “Me. What on earth am I doing here?”

On reflection, I realise that the honest answer to my own question is that somewhere below conscious intent I actually imagined I might Meet Someone. Honestly! Grow up, Gill!

As for Hector, he is growing up at seven times the annual rate that I am. He is already slowing down and showing signs of a more mature attitude to the sound of the doorbell, the sight of moving sheep and the temptations of cow-shit. I must admit that part of me wants him to be an old dog who doesn’t need so much exercise, who is, perhaps, even a little crippled, happy to lie on the sofa being couch-potatoey with me.

The morning after the gig in Glastonbury we went to a caff for breakfast. (We’d had a rough night in the Avalon Campsite which is owned by a bitter and officious blonde who used to run a fairground and who locked the main gate at 10.45pm, giving me, fortuitously, an excuse to leave the pub before the end). And I was delighted to notice that the menu offered The Executive Breakfast: ‘Coffee, fag and an aspirin. £15. You exec types can afford it’. As the retro-hippie in the queue before me said as he was handed his own breakfast (an enormous slice of retro-Victoria Sponge), “Hey! Legenderry!”

But reader, I chose the healthy option. Then, before we left for home, in my capacity as a responsible dog owner, I put Hector before my profound distaste for climbing hills and took him for another run up The Tor. We chased around and around the summit like Ian McMerlin whipping up a vortex for a spell. Now, how grown up was that?

Going Swimmingly

You heard it here first: swimming with dogs is the new Swimming With Dolphins. Well, you know what it’s like these days. People go swimming or running or whatever, as they have done for millenia, and suddenly it’s Wild Swimming and Wild Running and there are books and websites and hundreds of people converging on secret beauty spots and ruining everything.

Not that Hector gives a toss. There were twenty dogs sploshing around in Hampstead Ponds last time we went to London and Hector picked up an ear infection that cost me fifty quids in anti-biotic ear drops from the vets but I’m sure he thought it was worth it.

For months, when he was younger, all he dared to do was paddle, but he soon got into his stride and the first time I noticed that he was actually swimming it brought a lump to my throat. I was so proud of him, I was like a parent at a sports day; “Come on, Hector, you can do it”, as he struggled across The Asker with a jumbo-sized log in his mouth.swimming 008

Doggy-paddle is such an effortfull and inefficient stroke that any man or beast who’s doing it looks as if they are swimming for their lives against a strong tide, whether they are or not. And there is something so touchingly earnest and determined about a swimming dog.

Hector, with his long head and his sleek wet slick-back hair, looks like a seal when he is swimming. Breathing through his nose he makes this soft puff-puffing sound. When his feet find a solid bank again he wags his tail, sweeping it across the surface of the water, slapping at it like a newly landed fish. And when he shakes the water off it’s like a Mexican wave rippling through his body from head to tail, leaving him sprightly with joy. I could watch him doing it all day.

‘Watch’ being the operative word until this week. Due to climate, temperature and time of year, I have been reluctantly confined to the banks and shores in a stick-throwing capacity.

There is quite an art to stick-throwing. A stick that is too short, thin, or light will not go far enough. It will also fail to make enough of an alerting splash so Hector ends up dipping his head under the water cormorant-style or swimming in circles looking for it, frantic and inconsolable, like someone who has failed to save a drowning child. If it is too long or fat or heavy, however, there’s the risk of clonking him on the head with it as he follows its trajectory towards the expected point of entry.

A two stick policy is also essential if you are to avoid your dog dancing tauntingly around you while you shout at him; “for Christ’s sakes, how can I throw the bloody stick for you if you won’t drop it first, you stupid animal?” (It is at times like these that I question my fond assumptions about Hector’s intellectual genius).

I was warned off swimming with him. “No!”, people said, “he will lacerate your bare flesh with his claws”. But for the last week we have been swimming every morning at Eype beach and we have only had one minor Incident. I was swimming with Rose, and as she was basking on her back with the toes of her Crocks pointing skywards, Hector (understandably) mistook her footwear for two of those indestructible rubber dog-toys, Kongs, and I had to emit a loud “Jaws!” cry to save her feet from being Retrieved.

But generally, in the sea, Hector has turned out to be the perfect gentledog. With the extra buoyancy of salt, there is no need for furious paddling and he glides serenely up and down the bay, weaving circles and figures of eight around me, keeping a respectful distance.

swimming 020This morning there was no-one else around. The sea was very still. The sky a cornflower blue. No sound except the wheeling birds and nothing but dear Hector’s head between me and the far horizon. Puff puff puff, we went…

So. You can forget the toy boys, face-lifts, trekking in Nepal: swimming with dogs is my Rejuve de Jour. I feel like a nine year old again. If the summer continues like this I may get back to three, two, one. And then what? Puff. I will disappear completely, merged, at one with the primordial soup – or ‘The Drink’ as my father used to call it…

Hang on! I think I have hit upon some great new insight into my addictive personality. Crikey! Yes, I remember; as a child I used to want to drink the whole sea. It was like a painfully intense thirst… for Everything. A kind of homesick feeling for the future.

Well, well. This is something to meditate upon as I’m crawling out towards the shores of my second childhood. How glad I am that Hector is doggy-paddling along.

A Dog’s Days In Wales

wales 019Our camping trips seem to be falling into a bit of a pattern. The first day is glorious. (This is The Life!). The second day it pours (What am I doing?). The third day I have almost had enough but the potential shame of giving up so early drives me through days three and four and on five we are home-sweet-home feeling valiant and relieved. Well, me that is. Hector would have a whole different story to tell.

Camping, for humans, is perverse. I have realised that I enjoy it chiefly because the most banal of routine domestic tasks become imbued with a revitalised significance directly in proportion to the difficulty of achieving them. Cleaning one’s teeth in a field with a plastic mug of river water, for example; “Oh, I’m so resourceful and free-spirited, look at me spitting on the mossy stones and wiping my mouth with the sleeve of my PJ’s, I really must learn the names of all these birds when I get home”, and bingo, I am having a this-is-the-life moment.

Dogs, being generally un-jaded, do not have to force themselves through such ridiculous hoops. For Hector, every moment of his life is a this-is-the-life moment. Which means that he is the perfect travelling companion. Whatever we did last week – sleeping overnight in a beach car-park and being woken at 6am by a Farmer’s Market being constructed all around us in a storm, for instance – Hector’s attitude was, “Oh! This is what is happening now, is it? OK. Fine with me”.wales 010

For Hector, of course, five days in Wales meant a welcome upgrade from the two shortish walks a day plus umpteen hours watching my eyes travelling across the iPad. Four rivers, three beaches, one estuary, two large gardens, six small towns, a boathouse, meadows, forests, pubs, two new doggy friends, (Bilbo and Mattie), and a load of unaccustomed treats. In a caff in New Quay he was allowed a whole rasher of back bacon and half a sausage left on the next table, and at The Ship in Llangrannog, lamb-shank fat and six new potatoes. I actually heard a small boy saying, “Daddy, that dog is too happy”.

I was happy too. Wales, I discovered, is not full of people who hate the English and speak in Welsh just to annoy you. It is very pretty, very friendly, with less traffic, and reassuringly, just like in the south-west, every village seems to have a Blues/Cajun/Appalachian music festival with wonderful locally-tailored band names like Bronwen Shag.

And as I collect eavesdroppings like other people collect shells, Hector’s silent non-yattering companionship was just the ticket. My favourite of the holiday was a publican telling a customer that there were no Fish Specials on the chalk-board because, “our fisherman is also the local policeman and he’s on nights, see?” Closely followed by the General Stores proprietor who, when asked if there were any newspapers left, replied enigmatically, “All gone. It’s that kind of a day, isn’t it”.

But the absolute highlight of the holiday was a very noisy one. For a couple of nights we stayed with Christa and Roger who Rose and I met in Spain last year. And thereby hangs a tale. They were dog-sitting in Spain for a friend. And when we all went out for a meal the two dogs followed our car. Hours later, we spotted them sitting patiently by the town boundary sign, and even though it was dark they recognised the car, got up, wagged their tails and loped behind us all the way back home. I was so impressed and moved that it was then, I think, that the desire to get a dog of my own began to crystallise.

Anyway, Christa and Roger live in the deep dark woods by a river, (with a yurt for hire on Airbnb) with Mattie and Bilbo who, being very old, suffer from an apparently vet-recognised condition called Random Barking. Christa, Roger and I, being quite old, had our own form of random barking ie. late-night drunken acapella singing in the back of their Transit, Isabel, after closing time in Llangrannog, when we howled practically the entire oevre of The Beatles, in harmony.

wales 008Back at their house, two nights later, Roger lit the sauna by the river. And as we sweated, we continued baying; all ten verses of ‘There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Lisa’ and many more old favourites whilst Hector waited patiently outside to join us in our periodic dashes, naked and shrieking, into the cold brown rushing waters. I don’t know quite who barked the most but as I said to Hector, “this is SERIOUSLY The Life!”, to which he might have replied “I told you”, it was that magical.

On our final night we camped at the Penpont estate near Brecon (maze, walled garden, orchard, dovecote, rhododendrons, firepits, wicker sculptures, swimming hole by the River Usk). Hector and I were the only ones there. Why? The others had listened to the weather report.

The next morning there was a terrific pre-dawn thunderstorm that had Hector bouncing off Margery’s walls as if he’d been flipped around the inside of a pinball machine. And such torrential rain! I couldn’t even get out for a pee. So that was that. Without even making coffee (unheard of) I stowed things away, drove off, with my Wellingtons (it turned out) on the wrong feet, and didn’t stop until we’d crossed The Severn bridge.

We were back in Bridport by ten am. And when that same evening (sunny), sitting outside The Tiger, Hector was offered a whole packet of pork scratchings by a dog-soppy drunken youth, I declined on Hector’s behalf and told him, “We are not on holiday now, you know…”

The thing is, since we’ve been back, Hector seems to expect more from a day than I had previously led him to believe was possible. He stands and stares at me. “What? What?”, I cry. But I know. We’re obviously going to have to do all this again…

A Fanny Festival

fannys meadow 013When I bought Margery Romahome I naively imagined that Hector and I would now be able to go to lots of lovely festivals. But no. Dogs, it seems, are rarely allowed. Apparently they used to be tolerated at Glastonbury but then they started roaming in packs at night, barking, fighting and scavenging, followed by hoardes of stumbling cider-heads calling, “Scrumpy! Come ‘ere ya bastard…” and that had to be that.

So it did seem magically serendipitous when a Facebook message alerted me to Fanny’s Meadow Festival in Martock where dogs-on-leads were welcome. On Friday, at noon, we cruised into a setting fit for a Midsummer Night’s Dream; the River Parrett winding lazily through field upon field of buttercups and purple clover, past the little clumps of face-painted faery children, to the sound of whistling kettles and Borage-blue-eyed young men making plangent music on tin drums. ‘Twas ever thus. And happily there were lots of us oldies, the inventors of such gatherings, comparing the comforts of their van conversions and suffering from stove-and-awning-envy.

We settled in. Within three hours of arriving I had eaten my entire weekend’s ration of chocolate and Halva and looked at my watch a hundred times. Hector, dutifully on-the-lead, had been attacked by four aggressive off-the-lead dogs who seemed to belong to the crusty techies busy with the PA and drinking too much river-coloured home-brewed beer to notice. But it was a glorious evening. Hector swam, and I forgave him for swiping three rashers of crispy bacon from right under my nose.

fannys meadow 017Predictably, however, we woke on Saturday to pouring rain that lasted for the next 24 hours. I attempted to practice a Zen-like equanimity, with the mantra, “It is only water. Mud is only earth…” but the duvet got so damp we were forced to abandon books and bonios for frequent forays to the main arenas.

On one of these expeditions Hector and I found ourselves in the Henry’s Beard food tent, sitting on a tiny square of sodden coconut matting, comforting ourselves with a large slice of cake whilst listening to an acoustic duo fronted by a chubby girl in striped Alice-in-Wonderland tights and denim shorts singing a song with the lyric, “I want to live but I must die…”

It was then we noticed, attached to a woman wearing what looked like a 1950’s swim-cap with large pink rubber flowers around the rim, there was a fashionable Poodle-spoodle-doodle in a tight-fitting bright pink waterproof four-legged onesie with a zip up the backside and a hole for her tail. How we laughed! But the whole ensemble was so grossly incongruous (in a split-crotch-panty kind of way) that I persuaded Hector (forcefully, with a hand over his eyes) that she was not his type and we progressed across the flattened plain for an Indian Head Massage.

Well. In the evening, we were just in the middle of sharing a delicious chilli with home-grown broad beans provided by my camp neighbours, Clive and Jane, and peacefully listening to the Niagra splash of Clive periodically relieving the awning of its watery load, when we heard a loud insistent barking.

On and on it went. We decided to investigate. And what did we find? Only the Poodle, locked in a dark shed, tethered to a pallett, without a bowl of food or water, looking as miserable and shame-faced as you would expect an abandoned dog to look when it’s owner had obviously gone to so much trouble and expense to make it win the best dressed dog-in-the-manger award.

Most of the gathering clan around our camp fire balked at actively interfering, but Jane, who clearly has Somerset Warrior genes, had no such qualms and off she marched through the waist high wet cow parsley saying, “I am going to liberate that dog”. Having done so, off she strode to the main tent where she ferretted out it’s owner who was getting trashed at the front of the stage and tore her off a dozen strips.

“I told her, ‘you’re not fit to own a dog'”, reported Jane triumphantly. To which the owner apparently retorted, lamely, (but possibly in the only way one can retort to a patently just accusation), “well that is your opinion”. “Can you believe it?” Jane said, “she’s a yoga teacher too!” Ho! Way to go with your spirituality, boho-yoga-chic-lite-fashion-victim!

But it was nice not to be the one in trouble with the dog. That very morn I had been ticking myself off for using Hector as a child substitute, (worrying if he was going to be grumpy all day after an unusually late night bopping in a tent). But maybe, after all, it is a good thing. At least I made sure he was sleeping before creeping out for the frantic Klezmerish antics of The Destroyers on the final night.

I didn’t stay long. I preferred it in my van, all cosy with a nightcap, Hector, and the music I am used to on my Iphone.

We left on Sunday morning for a blessed shower and a non-composting inside bog. But thank you, Pan, for giving me the hippie bug again because clearly the gods were smiling on us; first a doggy-friendly festival on our doorstep, then an exciting schadenfreuden-laden dog-themed drama to report. I think it is a sign; we’re on the right path for us this summer. West Wales, here we come. And next time I will pack more chocolate.

Oh, it was fun. I hardly checked my watch at all…

Procrastinations

lewesdon hill 027Margery Romahome – who used to be called Margaret (after Thatcher), then Marguerita because she belonged to a Chilean, and now Margery after Mum, Nana, and the old lady I used to read to – is a Wendy house on wheels and Hector and I have had hours of fun playing in her already. She is full of little cubby-holes and there are two high, deep, shelf compartments which run from end to end. Yes, one side for Hector and one for me, whoopee!

In his bit Hector now has: tripe sticks, bone-shaped biccy treats, three brand new tennis balls, ball-hurler, Furminator, retracting lead and choking lead and gypsy rope lead, Squirelly (who now smells like an armpit), wet wipes, flea comb, poo bags, tick remover, portable water-bottle/bowl, and a few tins of sardines in case of a no-fresh-meat emergency. (Very Enid Blyton!)

In mine: scissors, matches, notebook, biros, torch, umbrella, radio, binoculars, tea-lights, tea-light holders, reading glasses, Iphone charger, Marmite, First Aid, bunting, loo roll and a trowel for morning business in the woods. Truly, I can think of few satisfactions in life that come close to this kind of nest building activity.

But, naturally, the perfection of the moment of complete preparedness is immediately corrupted by reality. First off, three or four times this last week I’ve had the impulse to give Hector a biccy treat or a game of ball only to remember that all his equipment is in Margery who is parked three streets away.

And then … well, we haven’t actually slept in her yet. We have experimented with Making A Cup of Tea, but only in the carpark. And even that did not go smoothly. The gas turned out to be On when I thought it was Off so when I turned it to what I thought was On it was Off and I had to flirt with the man from Central Motors and give him money for a pint to conduct humiliating -“ooh, I’m such a girl!” – investigations.

I tried to dog-proof the upholstery too. The seats, fore and aft, are covered in vile beige-brown chintzy swirls like armchairs in a tired old people’s home. I covered the back ones in green velvet curtains from the loft and, on the passenger seat, I draped a red, suitably retro looking tartan rug which I tried and failed to anchor with the prongs of the head-rest. Everything slipped to the floor as soon as Hector jumped in. Soon there were muddy, re-sale-deal-breaking paw prints everywhere and, at that stage, all we’d done was to go to Lewesden and Langdon Hill for a couple of bluebell walks.

Our first proper driving excursion was to Mum’s to show off Margery and to confirm my role as ‘completely bonkers’ in the sibling hierarchy. It was a very retro driving experience. Unlocking the doors feels like opening a cash box. There is no central locking and no power steering and you have to count to 15 before turning the ignition in order to warm up the engine. But we got going at last and were soon tootling happily along at 50mph listening to Van Morrison cassettes from the dark ages, with Hector nobly riding shot-gun beside me. Yee-Har!

Unfortunately, the passenger seat proved too small for Hector to lie down on, even when he curled himself into the shape of a Danish Pastry. He climbed into the back and reclined, regally, like Cleopatra, on the banquettes, sometimes right behind me with his head resting on the top of mine which was very heart-warming but it must have looked, to oncoming traffic, as if I was wearing a strange Davy Crocketty road-kill hat.

And, as Hector tried out every possible lounging position in the back, by the time we reached Exeter, the cushions had eased their way down into the central foot-well thus obscuring the window in the back door that makes parking possible. Of course, this also obscured the terrifyingly visible tailgatery of all the drivers angrily crawling up the hills at 20mph behind me, so that was a bonus. But I was pretty much of a nervous wreck by the time we arrived.

We still haven’t slept in her. And yesterday I received an email from PhileasDogg.com’s Jane who has published a book of dog-welcoming hotels and B and B’s, many of which provide special dog throws for the chairs and beds, and complementary bowls of haggis on arrival, and menus of charming dog-walks in the regions and all manner of other dog-centred delights. I simply cannot bear to work out how many nights I could have afforded in these luxurious establishments for the money I spent on Margery.

We still haven’t slept in her. And the comforts of home and my lovely bed grow more desirable by the day; the local walks where I know I can let Hector off the lead; the rivers Brit and Asker, two minutes from my door, with their easy places to get in and out; the glorious finery of a Dorset May … I just don’t want to go away.

But go we must, if only to spite those friends who have laughed with a decidedly dark edge to their affection at my “enthusiasms”. Who knows, maybe the trip will finally teach me the lesson of contentment with the things I already have.

First, however, I still need to play with heating and the water-pump, the fridge, the hook-up cable and the Porta-Potti…

On The Road Again

lewesdon hill 029Hello dogalogue friends, we are back (and thank you Simon for giving me a little push). My tests were all clear. I am on day 24 of the super re-energising trendy Nothing-Nice diet (no alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, chocolate, meat, fish, dairy, sex or added sugar). Hector has put on about three kilos and he’s learnt to bark and swim. We are as fresh as daisies and hot to trot.

Which is a good thing because, frankly, I was running out of things to write about. My Mum got away with saying it out loud: “do you think it’s because…perhaps…you know… the novelty of Hector might have worn off a bit?” What? No! But yes. But no, it’s just that at the beginning he was a bit of a Project. And for the first six months he changed, he blossomed, daily. And now…well, he’s just a dog. Adored. But. He eats. He sleeps…

Someone suggested, oddly, that I could “throw him in the river”. That was before he learnt to swim. But even so, ‘dog thrown in river so owner could blog about it’ may indeed resemble the kind of non-story that shivers our timbers down here in the land of The Bridport News but it’s not exactly going to excite anyone except the RSPCA, is it?

margery 002So, the upshot is, I’ve bought an ancient motorhome and we’re going on the road. It’s going to be Travels With Hector, Dogalogue Part Two. And it came about because, in the last few weeks, I’ve done a lot of Visiting and I have not experienced so much guest-paranoia or anxious creeping about since the time I went to my best friend Janey’s 18th birthday party and was caught by her mother (Lady Hayter Hames of Chagford, Devon), naked, drunk, disorientated and on all fours, traversing the pitch-black landing of her stately pile trying to find the door of the room in which she’d prophylactically billetted my boyfriend.

Visiting, plus a dog, is the best possible way to experience the heroic politeness and hypocrisy of ones friends. When Hector tramples all over the flowerbeds, jumps on the sofa, shakes puddle-mud all over the fresh laundry, eats the cat food and generally causes mayhem, our dear hosts, one and all, persist in saying, “don’t worry about it! Really. It’s fine. I wish I had that energy! I was going to have that sofa re-upholstered anyway”, albeit, I notice, with an increasing lack of conviction and the occasionally leaked deep sigh.

As the culpable guest I twist myself into agonies of apology and self-deprecation: “he’ll calm down in a minute, honestly, he’s just so pleased to see you. And he’s still a puppy. I would leave him in the car but it’s a bit hot, no? And he might feel abandoned. Yes, I know, don’t say it, I am one neurotic doggy-mama! What have I done? Don’t answer! Is there somewhere I can stow this enormous bag of bones, ha ha?” It’s very stressful.

Even at Mum’s where he is one of the family and allowed on the sofa it isn’t much easier. Mum doesn’t sleep well and Hector’s very early morning routine of peeing and breakfast is a logistical nightmare involving three flights of stairs, a balcony and a self-slamming pantry door. Years of eavesdropping have endowed me with precise knowledge of every creaking floorboard in the house but try teaching that to a beast with four feet and clicky toenails. I might be the only dog owner in England trying to get her dog to obey the command, “Tiptoe, for fucks sake!”

So, as you can imagine, I have been feeling a little despondent about the summer. What shall we do? Where shall we go? Why am I feeling ever so slightly sick? Oh yes, I know. It’s because for the two years prior to getting Hector in which I successfully talked myself out of getting him, I used to say, “this is the first time in thirty years I have been free. Why the hell would I want to tie myself down with a bloody dog?” And now I’ve gorn and done it.

Well, we’ve got the Romahome now and we’re off to explore Wales in a couple of weeks. Just him and me. Yes, free. And if I hadn’t been watching Hinterland I might be looking forward to it more than I am, what with all those spooky reservoirs, bleak quarries, black water, brooding men and murderers and mountains… what am I thinking? Don’t answer…

Luckily Hector is immune to such nervous flights of fancy. He is, as always, a constant source of inspiration and courage. And he can bark. So, let’s hope the whole adventure gives us something to write home about.

And not: ‘Pensioner, 61, with suspiciously hoarse Labrador, found crying in the back of a 1992 Citroen surrounded by sheep’.

Duvet Days

A lot of wood - but where are the trees?

A lot of wood – but where are the trees?

Hector and I are unwell. We are languishing. And it is at times like these that I find myself envying middle class Victorian women who, for all the oppressions they had to bear, did have the culturally sanctioned option of ‘taking to their beds’, where they were allowed to lie, for decades at a time, sipping cups of beef tea with no more precise a diagnosis than ‘nervous prostration’.

That’s what I have got. I have been nervously prostrated by a bit of Everything; it’s a seasonal transitiony thing, a fear of impending mammogram thing, a ‘what’s it all about Alfie’ thing, not to mention writing this blog which often feels like standing in the dark on the cliff-edge of the universe lobbing all my spinning plates Greek-restaurant-style into a big black hole – minus the satisfying and cathartic smash at the bottom.

I have also had a sort-of intimate proposal, gently suggested and graciously (I hope) declined, which has nevertheless opened gaping fissures in the foundations of Peace Of Mind Towers in East Street. A wild hoolie of suppressed emotion is now whistling through the cracks. Wizened old demons are scratching underneath the floorboards, flapping round the lightbulbs, blundering into windowpanes. If it wasn’t for Series Three of Nurse Jackie and Fish Fingers (can I really manage ten?) I don’t know where I would be.

As for Hector. On Sunday we went for a long walk at Hinkhams Farm with Pete and Marion and their large Dalmatian puppy Lily. Two Grannies and a Grandpa ploughing across the churned earth of the Marshwood Vale with two powerful, seemingly inexhaustable Canine Retirement Enhancers, locked together in play-fight combat, barreling around the field and felling us, one after the other, with whoomfing blows to the backs of the knees. “Bloody dogs!” we grumbled.

Anyway, Hector must also have eaten about three pounds of various kinds of animal excrement. Literally full of shit, or (help) worse, he lay listlessly all evening in his crate, coughing, retching, gagging, snuffling, snorting and occasionally throwing up. Sometimes he dragged himself up the stairs and slipped around my legs like a cat before laying his heavy head in my lap. Every half hour I dragged myself downstairs and crawled waist-deep into the mouth of his dog-cave to commiserate. We were just not ourselves.

Of course I googled it. Asking Google questions is therapeutic in its own right. It is like sending a little S.O.S in Morse code; ‘Dog.sick.call.vet?’; ‘white yellow frothy vomit?’; ‘Symptoms bloat?’. And before you know it, reassured, you’re back down to ‘How to make Kale crisps?’ and ‘When to plant aubretia?’.

But that was Sunday night and on Monday there was no change. I boiled some plain white rice, dragged Hector to the river to eat some grass, took some Vitamin D3 and an Epsom Salt bath, and we took to our beds again.

On Tuesday the only thing I really absolutely had to do was to empty the compost bucket. I didn’t even manage that.’Will the world end if, for once, I put potato peelings in the general rubbish bag?’ Fuck it!

Then, on Tuesday night, when Hector was snoring so loudly that I got up to google ‘something obstructing dog’s airways?’, this appalling thought just pinged into my mind like an email alert: if something happens to Hector you won’t have to write dogalogue this week…

Gill Capper, what are you like?

Well, I’ll tell you what I’m like. When I saw, the other day, that a man had been taken to hospital with head injuries because he was hit, in the high winds, by an NHS sign that read, ‘Are You Feeling Under The Weather?’, I laughed like a drain.

You see? We need a break. It is Thursday and time to ‘gather’. Hector is better. (“Get Off, Hector!”) I am better-ish. And so, dear dogalogue friends and followers, Hector and I are googling ‘Spa Holiday Pets Welcome?’

And we may be some time…

Anthropowhadyamacallit

Hector in the hammock pretending to be human

Hector in the hammock pretending to be human

‘Anthropomorphism’ is a very difficult word to pronounce, so I hope nobody tackles me on the subject after the cocktail hour. Or anytime at all really, because people get very heated on the subject. When your dog has polished off a stolen six-pack of eggs and he’s slinking around refusing to meet your eye and you say, “Ah! He knows he’s been a naughty boy”, they will yell at you.

These Anthropodeniers – and yes, it is a word – don’t credit animals with any inner life at all. “He’s not feeling guilty,” they cry, getting redder and redder in the face. “Guilt and shame are ‘higher complex emotions’. He is simply frightened of being punished. It’s a learned response from the last time you went ape-shit”. etc etc.

Well OK, I get what they are saying. It’s very easy to ascribe emotions to our dogs that they probably don’t have. I was wondering, only today, whether Hector was bored, when it occurred to me that probably he doesn’t get bored (like me) at all. He’s more like a laptop that has gone into standby/screensaver mode; with a kind of instinctual pragmatism he goes to ‘sleep’ until booted up into instant bright alertness by a word like ‘walkies’ or the sound of a fridge door being opened.

But if I imagine he is bored, I’m going to take him out and throw him a stick. If I imagine he is lonely, stuck in his crate while I am at a party, I am going to make my excuses and leave. So my anthropomorphism, even if it is ‘bad science’ or sentimentalism, is also a kind of empathy and it works in Hector’s favour.

Sometimes I watch Hector twitching and yelping in his sleep and of course I speculate about the fields of his dreams and the creatures he might be chasing or fighting there. Who wouldn’t? You’d have to be practically inhuman not to project your human-ness onto your animal.

There are limits, of course. A friend of a friend has a Pug and they go to Pug parties, apparently, where the dogs are bibbed and tuckered up as cheeky Bellhops, Nurses, Petit Matelots. So far, thank goodness, I have resisted such loopiness.

Which is not to say I haven’t been tempted. I wanted to put Hector in a Pork Pie hat to illustrate my last post. (I didn’t mention the word out loud in case he got his hopes up.) I couldn’t find one. And when I see black Labs with red paisley neckerchiefs I always think “nice!” – until the inevitable associations impinge. ie. men with a taste for single malts, with garages full of vintage cars, with ancient Nortons that they want to take you on the back of… No-oo!

I suppose, the truth is, I feel a little guilty about it all. (She says – exercising her often regrettable capacity for ‘higher complex emotion’.) Week after week, putting thoughts into Hector’s mind, and words into his mouth, turning him into a ‘character’, roping him into the vacated roles of partners, dead or gone, and children, scattered. I do feel as if I am sinning, somehow, against the purity and integrity of his animal essence.

In my defence, I blame my pedigree. I have been bred on a diet of Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows, Beatrix Potter, Mickey Mouse and Animal Farm.

And Hector is still a mystery to me. (“What’s your horoscope, Hector?”, “Hey, I’m a Labrador, I’m biddable, affectionate and loyal.”)

That’s why I’m guided, ultimately, by his tail. Upbeat, down-beat, no-beat, drooping, wagging, round and around like a Catherine Wheel when he meets a favourite doggy friend or Huw. Does that mean he is happy as we know it? Or simply animally excited?

“Are you happy, Hector?”
“Woof”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that, as your Dad used to say when he was losing an arguement, ‘it’s semantics, just semantics…'”
“OK. In that case, shall we bury this bone of contention and head down to the beach?”
“Woof woof”
“Sorted”