Farewell To A Blog About A Dog

After Matty’s death, I thought that I might continue this blog with the adventures of her companion Poppy; but the sad truth is that my heart isn’t in it, and so I am bringing A Spaniel Moment to a close. Thank you for reading it and following it. In the immediate future my new novel, ‘Fox’, is going to take up most of my time, so you may find me blogging about that on http://www.tomorrowsbooks.com and elsewhere. Farewell; Matty will live on in our hearts.


Requiem For A Spaniel

In memory of Matty, 2000-2015

I didn’t think we’d get here quite so soon.
I thought there were a few more streets to go, but no:
just the question of a parking meter close to the vet’s door.
A journey we have made too many times before,
and now will make no more.

She made me welcome to the house at once:
before I married her mistress, became a permanent fixture,
she told me I was part of the family, beguiled me with that mixture
of adagio softness, beauty, joie de vivre
and such good nature as the dogless
struggle to conceive.

Try to forget her decline; remember
her glossy, rumbustious prime:
dark paw prints left in the silver dew as she raced across the lawn –
a star-chasing, floppy-eared goddess of the dawn;
her little sneezes of joy;
wild games with a wild boy;
leaps from nowhere into your lap;
crescendos of yelp and yap
excavating a dune
or badger’s lair –
in tune
with all the magical scents laid bare
by that restless, questing nose.
We miss her bounding through the bracken;
we miss her in repose.

Ten days after her death, we travelled to Italy.
Our tiny hire-car grumped and harrumphed, struggling to reach
the lofty Umbrian hill towns, each
endowed with saints’ lives and Annunciations
to catch the breath and cast in pale relief
our hasty cyber-age preoccupations,
reconfiguring our grasp of grief.

Unfailingly, the animals in these pictures distract us from the people –
even the angels with their tawny-feathered, perfectly folded wings:
a terrier dancing to crude, pig’s-bladder bagpipes;
a docile, fascinated ox upstaging the Three Kings;
and in St Francis’s basilica at Assisi
those birds, those listening birds,
waiting in orderly rows to hear
heaven-sent words
too fine for human ear.

What arrogance it seems to think that we
have something that our spaniel lacked in her simplicity:
that what Church Fathers named the soul resides
only in us, and all besides
blossoms and dies and yields up to the grave
the love that it inspired, the affection that it gave.

And so, among the pilgrims’ dense, T-shirted throng,
Stranger, in your kindness, offer up a prayer
for a small black dog whose presence was a song
carried on the wakening summer’s air,
whose loss our untuned hearts can hardly bear.

Matty And The Hydrotherapist

‘Did the acupuncturist do Matty any good?’ you will be wondering after my last post. The answer is an emphatic yes. After the first two sessions we were sceptical: although the treatment got her back on her feet in the short term, the benefits only seemed to last for a day or two. But, we were told, it often takes three sessions for the healing to take full effect, and this proved to be the case. Since then she has been able to walk – and even occasionally jump – without keeling over.

The vet had mentioned that she might also benefit from hydrotherapy – not just physically, but mentally. And since her compulsion to squeeze herself into the tightest and most uncomfortable spaces is now quite alarming, I took her off to Dogtown – a hydrotherapy centre on the Acton/Chiswick border – for a remedial dip.

‘What’s wrong with her?’ asked the cheerful young woman who greeted us. Her name was Katie and she was wearing a wetsuit.

‘Well…’ As I embarked on the sad catalogue of Matty’s ailments, it occurred to me that I might be on a fool’s errand. But Katie was undeterred. ‘We’ll see what we can do,’ she said, and set about hosing Matty down gently with warm water.

This was the prelude to a more serious soaking. We were in a tiled room dominated by a high-sided pool some eight feet long and four feet wide with a ramp up one side. Matty was strapped into a yellow lifejacket with a handle on the back, so that she could be supported from both above and below; then she and Katie took to the water. An inflatable collar was added to stop her head going under. She could easily have passed for an extra in Thunderball.

Matty is generally rather keen on water, so I thought that she would find the experience a treat – I imagined her paddling up and down the pool with the ease of a duckbilled platypus. But it was not be: ‘I don’t think this is working,’ said Katie after a few minutes.

Matty, she told me, was very weak, and the exertion required to get any benefit from the therapy was beyond her. On top of that, she seemed to find the whole business stressful, and the angle she had to keep her neck at was obviously uncomfortable. So she was returned to dry land and dried off.

It was all very disappointing; but I was grateful to Katie for her honesty, and should Poppy ever be prescribed hydrotherapy I would head back to Dogtown. (The first session, incidentally, is free.) Predictably, when we got home Matty seemed frightfully bucked up by her outing, and charged around in high excitement, obviously expecting some reward for enduring such an undignified ordeal.

‘I think some sardines would be appropriate,’ her look seemed to say.

How could I refuse?

Matty And The Acupuncturist

When I was first trying to get into journalism, I was invited for an interview at Vogue. Naïvely, I arrived precisely on time, only to be handed a form which took ten minutes to fill in. The personnel manager then refused to see me on the grounds that I was ten minutes late – which is one reason I ended up as deputy editor of a rival magazine.

I was reminded of this incident last week, when I took Matty to see an acupuncturist. Her hind legs had started to give way, and though an acquaintance had suggested osteopathy, our vet thought that acupuncture would be better. But when we arrived, one of those dratted forms awaited us, containing no fewer than 160 questions. True, most of them required only ticks or one-word answers, but Matty doesn’t like vets’ surgeries at the best of times, and by the end of this preliminary she was pretty fed up.

The acupuncturist, when we eventually got to see him, was a likeable fellow, who told me that his own elderly dog had mental problems similar to Matty’s. He had been practising homeopathy for 30 years, and had been a regular vet for ten years before that. I learnt that the acupuncture points for dogs are the same as for humans, but the process is much quicker, because dogs have a much higher metabolism than we do. (Among other things, their body temperature is three degrees higher than ours.) So instead of half an hour, ten minutes will do.

This was all very interesting, but I was acutely aware of the fact that we were paying £180 for the consultation. ‘Cut to the chase!’ I muttered under my breath. ‘Get the needles out!’ At last he did so, deftly inserting ten of them – five on either side of her spine. Matty didn’t much enjoy the process, but once they were in she stopped complaining – and the next day she showed a marked improvement. She wasn’t entirely steady on her feet, but she toppled over much less frequently. Whether this actually makes her more cheerful is something that remains to be seen.

I was told that a follow-up session would cost £90. Alternatively, the vet could do a telephone consultation for £45. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I was tempted to say: ‘this dog is stone deaf!’ But I let the moment pass.

Who Would Matty Vote For?

As the General Election approaches, I find myself wondering which party would get the canine vote if it existed. Let’s consider the options.

  • Conservative Dogs are creatures of habit, which suggests an adherence to the status quo, and a food bank would be their idea of heaven. But as a senior citizen, Matty would worry about cuts to the NHS and social services.
  • Labour Ed Miliband’s supposed resemblance to Wallace in the Wallace and Gromit cartoons is a strong recommendation as far as dogs are concerned. They are losing sleep, however, about the prospect of the mansion tax being applied to their kennels.
  • Liberal Democrats Unfortunately Nick Clegg is perceived as a lame duck, and is therefore likely to be eaten for breakfast.
  • UKIP The introduction of pet passports was a hugely exciting development for dogs – so distancing Britain from Europe would not play well with them. Nor would they have much sympathy for politicians so intolerant of French poodles and German shepherds.
  • SNP A party which gives Scotties a disproportionate say in the running of the country would have the seat ripped out of its trousers by bulldogs and Irish wolfhounds.
  • Green Party Dogs feel an instinctive liking for any human who is obviously in tune with the natural world. But a lot of Greens are vegetarians, and therefore have to be regarded with suspicion.
  • DUP Unionism was long synonymous with a man in a dog collar, the late Dr Ian Paisley. Without him the party will find animal votes hard to attract.
  • Sinn Fein Gerry Adams’s muckers refuse to take any of the seats they win. Our four-legged friends have little time for a dog in a manger.

A Spaniel Moment’s Prediction 

A hung Parliament – preferably Aberdeen Angus, hung for 28 days and served on the bone.

Pop’s Tail

This is Matty’s kennelmate, Pop. As you can see, she is not a dog like other dogs. In fact, she bears a remarkable resemblance to a character out of Dr Seuss.

Pop is above all an enthusiast. As a fellow traveller at Penrith Station remarked, ‘If I had a pound for every time that dog wags its tail, I’d be a rich man.’ She is also very friendly, particularly if she thinks you have food about your person, and is likely to jump into your lap in Scooby-Doo-like fashion. Her pedigree claims that she is a pure-bred Cocker spaniel, but her eccentric behaviour suggests that a springer gene may have infiltrated the blood line. Actually, judging from the shagginess of her coat, there could be some sheep or bear in there as well.

No great claims can be made for her intellect. She is a gung-ho chaser of tennis balls, but has not worked out that she needs to watch their flight in order to intercept them. Instead, she will gallop off in the general direction of where she thinks the ball might go, and is then very surprised when it doesn’t arrive.

We bought Pop as a puppy four years ago, partly in the hope of perking up Matty, then aged ten. To begin with, Matty was distinctly cheesed off, but she eventually softened, and is now only bad-tempered towards Pop at meals (see the Dinner Time post below). Pop, for her part, puts up with Matty’s crabbiness and becomes deeply jealous if any other dogs show an interest in her elderly companion. Her solution is to bounce up and down, barking as loudly as she can to monopolise Matty’s attention; but as Matty is deaf, this generally serves only to attract other dogs, making the whole process counter-productive. Occasionally, though, the bouncing has an effect, and the two will go careering off together – and for a precious moment Matty looks once more like the fun-loving animal she used to be.