Barking mad

To paraphrase Oscar: “Some people come to resemble their pets, that is their tragedy some people don’t come to resemble their pets, that is theirs.” I think in this context of the German woman I have met twice now walking her Leonbergers down the road near Clapham Junction where the boys and I wait to get the bus on the way back from school. The woman is frowsty with a leonine head of pink, dyed hair, thick round the middle – she’s only 5ft 2in, or thereabouts, and must weigh getting on for 10 stone – and as for the dogs… well, they’re not called Leonbergers for nothing. This is the nearest thing you get to lion that’s still canine. Their dotty owner – who snapped “Leonberger!” at me, when I asked what breed they were (as if it were entirely obvious) – must have to go out with a shovel to pick up their dung.

How much more appealing is the equally dotty woman I’ve encountered by night in Battersea Park, her white perm flaring around her pretty face, her retrousse nose questing the night air. Around her ankles bounce five creatures that closely resemble Japanese Manga comic creatures, or vaguely canine Teletubbies. They are, it transpires, Bichon Frisees, and she loves them to bits. Loves them so much, that when she told me her husband had said he’d leave her if she got any more, I detected a distinct froideur in her tone. This is one fellow who may come home one night to discover that the dogs have eaten his dinner, his house, and half of his income for the foreseeable future.

I swore that I wouldn’t become one of those dog owners who anthropomorphise their pets, and attribute to them all sorts of qualities they manifestly don’t possess, the sort of Jilly Cooperesque twerp who puts up monuments to the animals who died in two world wars, incised with the words “They Had No Choice”. Of course they had no fucking choice – and they had no say in your bloody memorial either. But then there’s Maglorian, my Jack Russell, who isn’t so much a dog as … a furry baby. There was a piece in The Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago saying that people who sleep with their pets in the bed are laying themselves open to diseases however, at the end it was conceded that you’re far more likely to contract something nasty from your kids.

Same diff’ chez Self, where dogs, children, whatever – they all end up in the big duvet tent. No doubt much like the home life of our dear new London Mayor. Still, dogs have it over children in all sorts of other ways: they don’t ask continuous – and impossible-to-answer – questions they never grow up and, better still, they really like going for walks.

But this being confessed, I have a ruthless streak when it comes to Maglorian. I had him up that vet to get his balls scythed off as soon as I could. I wanted him docile, I wanted him to be a homebody, I favoured the idea that he would become a superb counter-tenor barker, as against him shtupping every little waggle-tailed slapper in the neighbourhood. Also, it means that when he goes after balls in the park – which he does all the time, under the signal delusion that he can play football – it means I can quip: “He wants your ball … because he hasn’t got any of his own.”

Ah, park life. I thought I’d done it to death, I thought I’d covered the pondfront, what with working in parks for the Greater London Council in my twenties, followed by nearly two decades of having children under eight. How wrong I was with Maglorian to be walked three times a day the intensity of my relationship with parks – and their habitues – has deepened inexorably. And where there are parks, there are other dog owners, which in our part of sarf’ London means owners of huge savage-looking dogs with studded collars, straining on the end of their leashes while some character with tattoos/gold teeth/gold bracelets/gold necklace/ sidearm (delete where appropriate) says, “Back! Fang/Blood/Bruvver (also delete where appropriate) – and frankly, such is the ire that these playlets of male impotence masked by canine potency induce in me, that I’d happily put the Staffordshire Bull Terrier/Bullmastiff cross’s owner to sleep.

Until, that is, you begin talking to the buggers, and they turn out to be perfectly mellow fellows, with nothing but sweet, cuddly, loveable things to say about their furry babies: “Nah, nah, mate – ‘e’s not a fightin’ dog, ‘e’s great wiv kids – blinding, really.” Blinding indeed, and bark-stripping as well – the trees in the local park look as if an incendiary bomb has been let off in the vicinity, a nice conceit, given that before the Blitz this open space was covered in terraces.

The only question is, is it the man who’s taught the dog its parenting skills, or vice versa? Oscar would know.

24.05.08

To see Ralph Steadman’s accompanying artwork, go here