A Small Dog Saved My Life Bel Mooney A story of survival, transformation and love.In a beautiful and powerful memoir which mixes honest, personal revelation with literature, history, and inspirational self-help, Bel Mooney tells the story of her rescue dog, Bonnie, who in turn rescued Bel when her world fell apart with the all-too public break-up of her 35-year marriage. SMALL DOGS CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE really is a story of survival, and also one of love.This is an account of six years in Bel's life, from when she first acquired Bonnie from a rescue home, through Bel’s years of personal heartbreak and disappointment, and on to the happiness which she has now found in a new marriage and a new life, with the Maltese at her side all the way. This is a book about transformation and change, about picking yourself up and attacking life in the way that a small dog will go for the postman's trousers - and about celebrating life, much as your canine companion will always celebrate your return, even from the shortest trip.Beautifully engaging, entertaining, full of personal anecdotes and deeply moving, SMALL DOGS CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE will take the reader on an inspirational walk with one very small but very remarkable dog - a dog who became a symbolfor all that is best about dogs, and about we humans too.Bel Mooney is a journalist with almost forty years' experience. Well-loved by millions for her advice columns, first for the Times and now in the Daily Mail, as well as countless programmes for radio and television, Bel takes the reader on a journey of discovery, in which she finds herself transformed into a dog-lover by one small and lively bundle of white fur, as well as telling her own gripping story. Bel Mooney A Small Dog Saved My Life A Story of Survival For Gaynor and Ernie (and Bertie too) I worry. I have to because nobody else does. Some strange car comes up the driveway – They go right on talking. They trust, I don’t. Threat crosses my nose Twenty times a day. No wonder I bark and menace, Who knows who it could be at the door ’Specially in these times. Arthur Miller, ‘Lola’s Lament’ How to resist nothingness? What power Preserves what once was, if memory does not last? For I remember little. I remember so very little. Indeed, moments restored would mean the Last Judgement That is adjourned from day to day, by Mercy perhaps. Czeslaw Milosz, ‘On Parting With My Wife, Janina’ You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend. I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures To the end and far past the end. If this is my end, I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours. Robinson Jeffers, ‘The Housedog’s Grave’ Contents Epigraph Introduction One: Finding Two: Losing Three: Moving Four: Rebuilding Five: Growing Six: Understanding Seven: Seeking Epilogue Acknowledgements About the Author Praise Credits Copyright About the Publisher INTRODUCTION What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Address, Republican National Committee, USA, 31 January 1958 When I look in the mirror I see quite a small person: not tall and quite slight. My skin bruises easily and as I grow older I notice more and more weaknesses, from wrinkles to stiff limbs to hair that is no longer thick and beautiful, as it once was. This is, of course, all inevitable. I can do no more about it than I can change all the experiences, good and ill, which have shaped the mind and spirit within this vulnerable, mortal frame. In this respect I am exactly like you, the über-reader I always imagine as a friend when writing. We can (men and women alike) anoint ourselves with unguents in an attempt to keep time at bay but the most useful exercise for the soul is to square up to your life, no matter how much it terrifies you, and try to make sense of it. That is the true business of self-preservation and it is what I try to do in this book – in the hope that this small, individual journey, one woman’s personal experience of love, loss and survival, may (quite simply) be useful. Most of us have endured, or will endure, pain in our lives. If this book has any message it is that recovery and salvation can come from the most unexpected sources, and that largeness of spirit will most equip you for your personal fight. Working in my study one summer day, writing the journalism which pays the bills but wondering if I would ever return to fiction and slightly desperate for something – anything – to break that block, I flexed a bare left foot which touched my Maltese dog, Bonnie. She sleeps on a small blue bed, patterned with roses, which sits beneath my home-made work surface. All day she waits for attention, rising to follow me wherever I go in the house, longing for the moment when, feeling guilty, I at last suggest a short walk. At which point she leaps up, races up the stairs from the basement and scrabbles wildly at the front door, like a prisoner incarcerated in the Bastille who hears the liberators outside and screams, ‘I’m here! Save me!’ On that day in 2008 I suddenly realized how great a part my dog had played in my own salvation, and that I wanted to write about that process. I was encouraged by the experience of an artist I admire very much, David Hockney, whose paintings and drawings of his two dachshunds, Boodgie and Stanley, show the pets curled on cushions, lapping water, rolling on their backs. You don’t have to be a lover of small dogs to be delighted by these works, and yet they should not be underestimated, despite their simplicity. What looks like a set of speedily executed images of two faintly absurd, brown sausage dogs adds up to an idiosyncratic statement about love. In the introduction to Dog Days (the 1998 book which collects this work) Hockney writes, ‘I make no apologies for the apparent subject matter. These two dear little creatures are my friends. They are intelligent, loving, comical and often bored. They watch me work; I notice the warm shapes they make together, their sadness and their delights.’ What does he mean by ‘apparent subject matter’? He’s painting his funny tubular dogs, isn’t he? End of story. Yet not so. In an online interview the artist explained, ‘I think the real reason I did them was as a way of dealing with the recent deaths of a number of my friends … I was feeling very down. And I started painting the dogs and realized this was a marvellous subject for me at this time, because they were little innocent creatures like us, and they didn’t know about much. It was just a marvellous, loving subject.’ Asked (mad question!) if the dogs had any sense they were the subject of Hockney portraits, the artist replied, ‘The dogs think nothing of them really. They’d just as soon pee on them. They don’t care about art since they’re simply on to higher things – the source of art, which is love. That’s what the paintings are about – love, really.’ So, on an unconscious quest to deal with loss and celebrate love, one of the most popular artists of our time stayed at home and ‘saw the nearest things to me, which was two little dogs on cushions’. Similarly, on my own quest to understand how love can survive even an ending, how a marriage can go on reverberating even after divorce and how the process of reinvention in a human life reflects the very movement of the universe and must be embraced, I stayed at home and stroked the nearest thing to me, which was a tiny white dog with a feathery tail who needs me as much as I need her. I had so much to learn from the force of devotion within that minuscule frame. Dogs are patient with us; they have little choice. They continue with their dogged work of saving our lives, even if we don’t know it’s happening. Long before my foot reached out to rub her soft white fur that day, my lapdog was asking me to regard her as Muse. She was demanding proper attention, as well as instinctive affection. She was saying, ‘I’m here!’ And it worked. Since then my ‘animal companion’ (as the modern phrase insists, implying equality rather than ownership) has inspired my ‘Bonnie’ series of six books for children, which stars a small white dog from a rescue home who, as the saga progresses, helps to cheer and restore one unsure, unhappy boy and his family. Now she is the beginning, middle and end of this book’s story too – and, like Hockney, ‘I make no apologies for the apparent subject matter.’ I am writing about what happened to me between 2002 and 2009, using my dog as a way into a painful story, and a way out of it too. During that time my marriage ended and life was turned on its head. What do dogs know about marriage? Probably a lot – because they are in tune to our feelings and it’s hard to hide things from your dog. As I get older I want to share more, hide less. That’s why I’m willing to invite others to come along on a walk with my pet, in the hope that the activity might act as ‘therapy’ for them, as it has for me. Dogs are good at therapy – so mine will help me tell this story of a love (affair). Or, rather, a tale of many loves. It’s not easy to embark on anything resembling autobiography, although bookshops are flooded with usually ghosted ‘celebrity’ tomes and there seems to exist an avid readership for the recollections of (say) a footballer or his wife who are not yet 30. Too often that sort of thing is little more than an extension of newspaper or magazine gossip. What is written will be inevitably full of half-truths and blurred ‘fact’ as the celebrity dictates the view he or she wishes to present. Even the finest biography will be hampered by unknowing. If the biographer feels impelled to smooth over instead of flay (and much flaying goes on these days, both in books and column inches, which I doubt adds to the greater good), how much more will the writer of a personal memoir feel the need to evade? As I was working on this book I was entertained (as well as appalled) to read a prominent newspaper diary item about my work in progress which shrieked ‘Revelation!’ – although not in so few words. The journalist predicted that I would be blowing the lid off relationships within my ex-husband’s family, and so on. Now I ask you, why would I want to do that? I agree with the nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle that in writing biography sympathy must be the motivating force. I have no aptitude for slashing and burning, and am glad to say that I shall go happily to my grave never having learnt the arts of war. A partial life is a slice of reality – a taste which leaves us wanting more. The multifaceted art of memoir suggests that even a few months within a life, when something extraordinary happened, can offer a story of almost mythic power. In the ‘new’ life writing (a fascinating topic now, especially in the United States) the freedoms of fiction have been introduced into autobiography and obliqueness is allowed. The writer can say, in effect: ‘This is what happened that summer, and afterwards. It’s not the whole story by any means, because much must remain private. Still, I offer this as an act of mediation. If it happened to you, this might help you survive. This might well stand between you and your nightmare.’ That is what I am trying to do in this book – although not without knowledge of the pitfalls. At the end of 2003 I encountered a successful woman writer who had read in the newspapers about the end of my 35-year-long marriage. ‘I hope you’re going to write a book about it!’ she said with glee. I shook my head. ‘But you must!’ she went on. ‘Tell it like it was! And if you don’t want to write it as a true story, just turn it into a novel. People will know it’s the truth. You’ll do really well.’ When I protested that I hated the idea, she asked, ‘But why shouldn’t you?’ Maybe her counsel made commercial sense, but her avidity drove me further towards reticence. There is enough personal misery swilling around the shelves of bookshops without me adding to the woe, I thought. After all, any celebrity autobiography nowadays is required to take us on a turbulent ride from trouble to trouble – dodgy parents, colon cancer, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse and the rest. The non-celebrity stories deal in poverty, ill-treatment, sickness and perversion to a degree that would astound even Dickens, who knew about the seamier sides of life. A publishing bandwagon rolls along fuelled by pain and suffering, with the word ‘misery’ going together with ‘memoir’ – like ‘love and marriage’ or ‘horse and carriage’. Happy lives, it seems, don’t make good ‘stories’. But some of the stuff published is not so much gut wrenching as stomach churning. So this is not a misery memoir. No, this is a happiness memoir, although it deals with unhappiness and recovery. It is just one portion of the narrative of a few years in my life and in the life of one other significant person – the man I married in 1968. Other people close to us have been left out; I do not intend to embarrass either his second wife or my second husband, or indeed to reveal what members of our respective families said, thought or did. Still, since I told that person that I had no intention of writing about the dramatic break-up of my first marriage, things have changed – although my rejection of the notion of ‘telling it like it was’ is the same. For there is always more than one Truth. Because the experience and its aftermath would not go away, I found myself keeping a ‘quarry’ notebook for the novel which will remain unwritten, as well as my essential diaries and notebooks, and realized that my own process of learning from them would go on. In the end the impulse to write became like a geyser inside. The aim must always be to find meaning in what happened, for what else can a writer do? I have to agree with the screenwriter Nora Ephron who was taught by her writer parents unapologetically to view her own life as a resource. So, yes, a memoir of happiness of sorts, because the good times and the bad are indivisible in my memory and roll on forever in the mind’s eye like a magic lantern show, or (to be more up-to-date) what Joan Didion calls ‘a digital editing system on which … I … show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now … the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines’. Writing about the deaths (within days) of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter, Quintana, Didion explains (in The Year of Magical Thinking) that the book is her attempt to make sense of the period that followed the deaths, which forced her to reconsider so many of her ideas about life, luck, marriage and grief. Like Joan Didion I was forced to confront not physical death but a different sort of bereavement: the end of a way of life I had thought (somewhat smugly) would continue into a cosy old age. The shattering of that conviction made me confront a myriad of other certainties and set me upon a strange path through the woods – which led, after a while, to the decision to write this book. ‘No,’ I said to people during that process, ‘I’m not writing an autobiography – I’m writing a book about dogs.’ The oddness of that statement was enough to stop questions. It came to me one day that all the qualities we associate with dogs, from fidelity to a sense of fun, are ones I admire most in human beings. I also know that small dogs display those qualities in a concentrated form – pure devotion distilled to fill the miniature vessel. Of course, anthropomorphism is dangerous. It pleases us to attribute virtues to canine creatures, who have no moral sense, and when the decision was taken to erect a magnificent monument in central London to all animals killed in war, I remember thinking it feeble-minded to use words like ‘loyalty’ and ‘heroism’ and ‘courage’ about creatures who had no knowledge of such abstracts. There’s a famous Second World War story about an American war dog called Chips who was led ashore by his master, Private John R. Rowell, when his outfit landed at a spot known as Blue Beach, on Sicily’s southern coast. They were advancing on the enemy lines in darkness, when they came under machine-gun fire from a pillbox which had been disguised as a peasant’s hut. The troops flung themselves to the ground, but the dog charged the machine-gun nest, despite the stream of bullets. Private Rowell said, ‘There was an awful lot of noise and the firing stopped. Then I saw one Italian soldier come out of the door with Chips at his throat. I called him off before he could kill the man. Three others followed, holding their hands above their heads.’ I doubt Chips was a titchy Maltese, a Yorkshire terrier or a papillon, although a feisty little Jack Russell might have done some damage, despite his size. Still, the issue is: can you call a dog ‘brave’? Was a contemporary writer accurate to assert that ‘this American war dog single-handed and at great risk to his own life eliminated an enemy machinegun position and saved the lives of many of his comrades’? Even the most passionate dog lover must admit that the soldier who acts does so in full knowledge of the consequences, carrying within his heart and mind images of parents, wife or girlfriend, children – and risking life despite all. But the dog does not. Men and women act from courage; animals merely act. Is that true? I do not know – and nowadays I don’t really care. In her profound work Animals and Why They Matter the philosopher Mary Midgely points out that ‘a flood of new and fascinating information about animals’ in recent years has educated people who mentally place animal welfare ‘at the end of the queue’. She states her belief in ‘the vast range of sentient life, of the richness and variety found in even the simplest creatures’, and believes it irrelevant that a dog’s experience is very different from our own. Philosophers and writers alike have long suggested the idea of the dog as (yes) a moral teacher. This is not fanciful. Anyone who has (for example) studied the psychology of serial killers will recognize the ‘flies to wanton boys’ argument behind Kant’s words: ‘He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men … The more we come into contact with animals, and observe their behaviour, the more we love them, for we see how great is their care of their young.’ Once I was an ignorant young woman who professed dislike of these animals. Now in my sixties, the more I read about dogs and learn what an influence they have had on their owners and the more I love my own small example of the genus, the more I understand Franz Kafka’s statement: ‘All knowledge, the totality of all questions and answers, is contained within the dog.’ This story asks questions and offers some answers about change and how we can deal with it, in order to survive. It is also about dogs in history, art and literature, dogs as therapy, dogs as everything they can be to humans, helping us in the process of living. The narrative is aided by those diaries and notebooks which were such a catharsis and by a few extracts from my published journalism. I choose to tell this slice of a life discursively, because I have never trodden a straight path and love the side turning which leads to a hidden shrine. During a long career which began in 1970 I have worn many hats – reporter, profile writer, columnist, children’s author, commentator on women’s issues, travel writer, critic, radio and television presenter, novelist – but it is my latest incarnation which provided the final driving impetus to write this book. In 2005, rebuilding my life, I became – quite by accident, as I will explain – an advice columnist on first one, then another national newspaper. The truth is that, although I have loved all aspects of my working life, I find this the most significantly useful role I have ever played, apart from those of wife, mother, daughter and friend. But the work causes me much sorrow too. So many letters, so much heartbreak, all transferred and carried within me, with none of the safeguards in place for the qualified psychotherapist. This has opened my eyes, in a way impossible before, to the pain caused by the end of love and the destruction of marriage, although the two do not necessarily go together. Oh, I know about the other forms of loss as well. When widows or widowers write to me from their depths of grief and loneliness, it is very hard to know what to say. Death has to be faced, but no such glib statement of the truth of existence is any use to those in mourning. Still, I do my best. I have never been afraid of writing about bereavement. It’s easier than addressing vindictiveness, selfishness and despair. How do you advise people who are dealing with the end of love, or (especially) the ‘death’ of a long marriage? What resources can be drawn on to cope with the loss of all you were and all you think you might have gone on to be, with that person at your side? How do we make ourselves whole again? The entirely unexpected end of my long marriage confronted me with those questions, and I bring some of the knowledge gained to my job and to this book. Some people will think that all should remain private but I have never been able to shut myself away, and remain unconvinced that battening down the hatches is useful. For one thing, the act of remembering halts the rush of time, as well as being profoundly healing. Seamus Heaney expresses this idea in Changes: ‘Remember this. It will be good for you to retrace this path when you have grown away and stand at last at the very centre of the empty city.’ Second, I know it is helpful to share stories. My work as an advice columnist has proved to me without doubt that there is valuable consolation for others in telling how it was for you. To hell with privacy, I say – though not with reticence. We need each other’s stories, all of us, just as I need my small dog. We have to be courageous, just as my dog is brave, no matter how small. We can learn from each other and go on learning, as I have learnt from her. The poet and naturalist David Whyte perfectly encapsulates the motivation behind this evocation of life and dogs: To be human Is to become visible While carrying What is hidden As a gift to others. One FINDING There is much to learn from these dogs. And we must learn these things over and over. Amy Hempel I never knew where she came from and will never know. The central mystery will always be there when I look at her, reminding me that my mirror offers a similar puzzle: who are you? It is a Zen question, the one Gauguin must have been thinking when he painted Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, every vibrant brushstroke telling us that the answer can never be known and the central mystery has to be accepted in your journey towards the end. All this I knew. But the coming of my little dog was to herald a deeper awareness: that we cannot know what will happen to us. Not ever. Yet I have always needed to control things. Spontaneity makes me uneasy. I like to know the history of a house, the provenance of a picture, the origin of a quotation, because such knowledge is a hedge against chaos. I plot and plan. My books are arranged alphabetically or (depending on the subject) chronologically, and my shoes and gloves have to be ordered according to the spectrum. Years ago, having children presented me with a philosophical shock to match the physical and emotional pain, because those outcomes I could not control. A stillborn son and a very sick daughter served only to increase my need for form and structure. Retreating within the four walls of the life I planned was the only security. This was Home. Everything therein could be organized, a perfect bastion created to face down the imperfections in the world outside. Then, quite unexpectedly, there came from nowhere the smallest dog. She pitter-pattered into my life before I could think but, had I stopped to consider, she certainly would not have been let in. These are the moments when the universe smiles and plays a trick. You get up one morning with no inkling that the day will bring a life-changing moment. The face of a future lover seen across a room, a sudden stumble which leaves you with a black eye, a phone call which will seem to leave your career in tatters, at least for a while. There can be no knowing what will pop out from under the lid of the scary jack-in-a-box – so be ready for it all (I advise people), because then you won’t be surprised. But Bonnie surprised me. She slipped in under the radar. My permanent high-alert system must have short-circuited, leaving me wide open. The small dog arrived with the unstoppable force of a Sherman tank, changing things for ever. You should always share things with the people you love, and make decisions together, but I decided on this tiny creature on impulse. I told no one – not even the most beloved of my heart – that a ‘toy’ dog, an animal fit only for laps and satin cushions, would come to live on our farm. What did I think when I first saw her – apart from the obvious, ‘Ahh, how can a dog be so small?’ As I said, I did not think at all. But looking back, with fanciful hindsight, surely I knew she was destined to share my life. Hers was the face of the lover seen across a room – the new person, the One. How could I have known that this dog spoke to an urgent need I had not identified, whilst her mixture of vulnerability and toughness would prove an exact match for my own? Bonnie the abandoned creature was to become my saviour during my own time of abandonment; she who was so small taught me most of what I was to learn about largeness of spirit. The lessons carried within the soul of my little dog go on and on. But that is to jump ahead … This is how it happened. On 13 June 2002 I drove to Bath’s Royal United Hospital for a meeting of the art committee. Our task was to cheer the corridors of the hospital with artworks, and to commission an original work of sculpture with funds from the National Lottery to ‘animate the aerial space’. I liked that phrase; it would be a sort of hanging, flying creation in the atrium. It might distract patients afraid of this part of their life journey, reinvigorate families who face so much waiting and generally cheer up everyone who passed that way, from the consultant to the cleaner. My own life is enriched by art every day; naturally I agree that hospitals should be too. So I said I would join the committee, and give time and enthusiasm to the ‘unnecessary’ decoration of a necessary place. But I dislike meetings; my claustrophobia kicks in within minutes and I want to leave, do a runner, get the hell out of the ‘good works’ and go home to a glass of wine and Al Green blasting loudly in the kitchen. I feel a fraud: a ‘public’ figure who is really somebody disreputable, who wants to hang out and do nothing. Yet the desire to flee fights with my need to give something back – for if you lead a life full of blessings you need to keep them topped up. This is karma: the meals on wheels of a good life. That day it was taking me nearer to my soulmate dog. The committee met in the hospital’s charity office and we were all sitting around waiting to start when the door opened and Lisa (one of the younger committee members) came in, holding something in her hand. Because of the table, I couldn’t see properly; she came further into the room and I realized it was a dog lead. With something on the end of it. I craned my head and glimpsed a flurry of white. It was the smallest dog I had ever seen. Lisa was the head of fundraising for the RSPCA’s Bath Cats and Dogs Home. Strangely, J and I had been there for the first time ever, just two days earlier. We went to recover his beautiful Labrador Billie, my fiftieth birthday present to the husband who had everything else and therefore needed a dog. Here I must explain that I was never a dog lover – not as a child when my grandmother got a snappy corgi called Whiskey, nor at any other time in my life. Yet when J and I first met in our second year at University College London and went to visit his mother, I was entranced by his way with the family Labradors, Bill and Ben. That was the end of 1967; I was 21 and in love and all was new. Everything that the 23-year-old philosophy student did entranced me: the way he hunched his shoulders in his navy pea coat, strode out in his green corduroys and whistled to those sleek black animals, his voice dipping and elongating their names – ‘Biiiiill-eee! Bennn-eee!’ – with musical authority. I was awkward and nervous as I stroked their velvety ears, making up to the dogs because I wanted to impress him – the cleverest, funniest, sexiest, most grown-up man I’d ever met. Those ‘real’ dogs seemed an extension of his capability. But I was incapable of seeing the point of his mother’s precious little dachshund. Twenty-seven years later, in January 1994, I knew that if I chose to buy him a black Labrador for his July birthday I would have to learn to look after a dog, for the first time in my life. It was a serious decision, for since J was away a lot, the main care would fall to me. And so I, who had resolutely set my face against our son Daniel’s pleas for a dog all through his school days, finally capitulated to the reality of dog hairs, dog smells and tins of disgusting mush. I chose Billie (named by me after Billie Holliday. A control freak will even name a man’s birthday dog) and liked her, but I didn’t know how to love her. Naturally J was delighted by the surprise, and equally happy when, 18 months later, I gave him Sam, a scruffy Border collie, for Christmas. Anyone might think that I had turned myself into a dog lover, but it wasn’t true. I liked them, but that’s not enough for dogs. They aren’t satisfied with being liked. I was a dog minder, that’s all. This is partly a story of home, for dogs know their place in the pack, and the pack needs its lair, its fastness, its refuge. In 1995 we had moved to our farm, J’s dream home, in about 60 rough acres of pasture which we would farm organically. It was a mile down a track, just outside Bath’s city boundary, and hung on the edge of a valley like Wuthering Heights, with winter weather to suit. J briefly employed a girl to exercise his horses and one day, somehow when she was riding with the dogs near the road, Sam came home with her but Billie did not. Nor did she come for supper. She was missing. This was June 2002. In the warm night, pierced by the sharp cries of foxes, J roamed the fields with a torch, calling her name, fearing her stolen – for Billie-of-the-velvet-ears was a beautiful bitch. He was in despair. The next day I wrote a round robin letter, got into the car and posted my note through every letter-box within a radius of about half a mile. An hour later the telephone rang and a couple living up on the main road along the top of Lansdown (the ridge which saw one of the decisive battles in the Civil War) told me they had found a collarless black Labrador on the main road and called the dog warden. Billie was safe. We left the house at a run and went to the RSPCA home to collect her. One of the many glorious things about dogs is that you need no proof of ownership – not really. Of course the microchip is a failsafe – but the point is, your dog knows you. When she was brought from her holding pen, Billie’s face showed relief and joy to match our own. This is something non-doggy people do not understand: the expressiveness of the canine countenance. Dogs’ faces change, just like their barks and body language; they may not be as evolved as our primate cousins but human love serves to ‘humanize’ them in the most expressive way. Holding tightly to her lead, we saw rows of cages and heard the mournful sounds of dogs wanting to be found homes – a desire of which they could not possibly be cognizant, in the sense that we know, all too painfully sometimes, our own innermost wishes and needs. Nevertheless the desperate wanting was there in those barks and yelps, in the lolling tongues and mournful eyes of the homeless dogs, the pets who were not petted, the working dogs with no jobs. The dogs who wanted to be known as much as Billie knew us. ‘Let’s have a quick look,’ I said to J. We wandered about, but it was too sad. ‘Let’s go home,’ J said. So we did. Sam welcomed Billie with bounds of joy and lolloping tongue, snuffling his welcome. Even the cats, Django, Ella, Thelonius (Theo for short) and Louis, looked faintly pleased, because cats like the world over which they rule to be complete. Then, just two days later, Lisa is entering that office with a dog on a lead, but not just any dog. My dog. ‘I have never seen such a small dog,’ I said. ‘What on earth is it?’ ‘I think she’s a shih-tzu’, Lisa replied. ‘She’s in the dogs’ home. I’m keeping her with me tonight – that’s why she’s here, because I’ll go home after the meeting. These very small dogs get quite distressed in the home overnight and so if one comes in all of us take turns.’ My first assumption was that the small white dog was lost, as Billie had just been lost, but that was not the case. Lisa explained, ‘She was abandoned – left tied to a tree in Henrietta Park.’ Henrietta Park is a pleasant patch of green but very central in the city, and I simply could not believe anyone could abandon such a small dog in a place where – who knows? – drunken oafs might make a football of her. ‘Impossible,’ I said. ‘No way! Somebody must have had to rush off for a dental appointment or something, and forgotten her for a while.’ Lisa explained that it had happened two days before, and nobody had telephoned, and if the dog remained unclaimed in seven days’ time, ‘We’ll be looking for a new home for her.’ By now I had the anonymous shih-tzu on my lap, but she was eager to get off. She wriggled and looked for safety in the person who had brought her, but I was overwhelmed by a need for her to settle down – to like me. This was the magical moment of rescue. ‘I’ll give her a home,’ I said. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Quite sure.’ Looking back, I know that moments of rescue cut two ways. I gave no thought to the muddy farm (no place for a white lapdog), or the cats (one of which, Django, scourge of rats and rabbits, was certainly bigger than this miniature mutt), or to J, a lover of ‘proper’ dogs. Real dogs. Big dogs. Couples should discuss decisions together – I knew that. But in that second of saying ‘I’ll give her a home’ – that spontaneous, expansive welcoming of the small white dog – I knew instinctively that the personal pronoun was all that mattered. This was to be my dog. If I were to mention the idea to my husband, son, daughter, parents or friends they would all shake heads, suck teeth, remind me of hideous yapping tendencies and say it was a Bad Idea. They would talk me out of it, and this small dog would be taken by somebody else, who couldn’t possibly (I was sure) give her as good a home as I would. So I would stay silent. This was nobody else’s business. I who had never had a dog of my own because I had never wanted a dog of my own was transformed, in that instant, into a lady with a lapdog. I knew Chekhov’s story ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, described by Vladimir Nabokov as ‘one of the greatest stories ever written’. This tale of an adulterous love affair tells us much about human beings – but once I grew to know and love my dog I felt it showed less insight into women and dogs than I had thought. Before I am accused of trivializing a great work of literature because it lacks dog knowledge, I should point out that the mighty art critic John Ruskin was no different when he wrote, ‘My pleasure in the entire Odyssey is diminished because Ulysses gives not a word of kindness nor of regret to Argus’ – the faithful dog who recognizes him after 20 years. Chekhov tells how a chance love affair takes possession of two people and changes them against their will. The story closes with them far apart and rarely able to meet. Gurov and Anna are both married. He works in a bank in Moscow, Anna lives in a dead provincial town near St Petersburg. Each has gone on a stolen holiday to Yalta, a fashionable Crimean resort notorious for its casual love affairs. Gurov is an experienced 40-year-old philanderer with a stern wife; Anna is married to a dull provincial civil servant, ten years older than she. The opening sentence of the story dryly establishes the holiday gossip which leads to Gurov’s interest: ‘People said that a new person had appeared on the sea front: a lady with a little dog.’ The dog is key to Anna’s identity; wherever she goes ‘a white Pomeranian trotted after her’. The dog is clearly inseparable from his mistress. Gurov’s hunting instinct is aroused. One day he sees Anna sitting near him in an open-air restaurant. Her dog growls and he shakes his finger at it. Blushing, she says, ‘He doesn’t bite.’ Gurov asks if he may give the dog a bone … and so the affair begins. But here is also where the problems start for the lover of small dogs. A week later Anna and Gurov kiss and make love. But where is that Pomeranian? That’s what I want to know. The affair goes on – lunches, dinners, carriage drives, evening walks, bedroom intimacy – with no mention of the creature who was so inseparable from his mistress, ‘the lady with the little dog’. No dog. For all his great knowledge of human nature Chekhov understands little about ladies and their little dogs, or more specifically, the protective and possessive nature of the Pomeranian tribe. The dog would have been ever present. Those growls would certainly not have ceased, especially when this strange man became intimate with the human being the dog loved. Small dogs do not give themselves as easily as women. Easily bored Gurov would likely have been irritated by the yapping and surely suffered a nip. As a real-life lady with a lapdog, I know this. The dog could not have been written out of the narrative so easily by a man who understood. Small dogs keep loneliness at bay for women on their own. Small dogs take you out along the promenade, because you must think of your dog, no matter how you are feeling. That Pomeranian would surely have consoled Anna when she reached out a hand in the night to curl her fingers in soft white fur, wondering perhaps if any man was worth so much pain. Or any affair. Bonnie too was to growl at men. So great was her natural hostility to the faint whiff of testosterone, we speculated that it must have been a man who had tied her to that tree, or an unscrupulous puppy breeder who had decided her back legs were a touch too long for breed ‘standard’, or an unpleasant son whose elderly mother had succumbed to dementia and couldn’t be bothered with her pet. The novelist in me made up stories, but never convincingly, since my imagination quailed at the image of anybody tying this vulnerable young dog to a tree and walking away. I pictured the small creature straining to follow, then being choked back by the lead. Or was it a rope? I never discovered the details. Men she might not like, yet she was never hostile to J. He was in London on 20 June when I was telephoned by the rescue home and told that nobody had come forward and so the dog could be mine. I should explain that it is policy to make a home visit to be sure that the putative owner is responsible and the place is suitable – but Lisa knew our home, knew us well, and so there was no need. In the time between ‘finding’ my dog and collecting her I had researched and discovered the ‘shih-tzu’ was in fact a Maltese, and had already named her Bonnie, after Bonnie Raitt, the singer whose music I always played in my car. This habit of naming animals after musicians (Sam was Sam Cooke, Billie, Billie Holiday) was a foible of mine; it gave cohesion to the menagerie. I left the house at a run, went to the supermarket for unfamiliar small-dog food and straight to the home to collect her, paying them a goodly sum for the privilege. They estimated her age at six months but, other than saying she was in good condition when found, still knew nothing about where she had come from. Bonnie would never give up her secrets; I looked into her jet-button eyes and wondered who she might be missing, what kind of house she knew, what damage had been done to her. Those who study dog psychology and behaviour know that dogs from rescue homes frequently display separation anxiety – but at the time I didn’t know this. Bonnie and I were only just setting out on our journey together. She was still my secret, not mentioned to anyone – neither daughter and confidante Kitty, nor close family friend Robin, a photographer who rented the cottage next door to our farmhouse (and with whom I occasionally worked on assignment), nor my parents – and certainly not the husband. I knew he would not want this silly scrap of a creature, and therefore need only know the fait accompli. But he was out when I called with the news, leaving me to recount my triumph to a disbelieving daughter, who was then living in our London house. ‘You? You’ve got a little dog? No!’ A day later came J’s voice on the phone – cool and faintly accusatory. ‘What’s this about a little dog? It hasn’t got a bow in its hair, has it?’ ‘Not yet,’ I replied. He did not sound pleased. Two days later J arrived home after his Sunday political programme on ITV, arriving at the farm after the two-hour drive from London, glad to be home. As always, Billie and Sam raced to meet his car – and right from the beginning Bonnie raced everywhere with the big dogs, who regarded her with puzzled amusement. With no practice, she became part of the welcome committee. Seeing her, J dropped on his knees in his Italian suit and, as the Labrador and collie pranced around their master, held out his arms to the small dog, who covered his face with licks. That, you see, is the point about true dog lovers – those in touch with the canine spirit. They can retain no sizeist prejudice when they realize that, although the eyes are tiny and the tail is an apology for a silk whisk, the potential for devotion which characterizes proto-dog abounds in the toy. J adored her – and it took just one week of us attempting to put her to bed in the ‘dog room’ with the other dogs and the four cats, one week of hearing her jump out through the dog flap into the darkness rich with smells of foxes, badgers, owls, stoats, rats, before she wangled her way on to our bed. And this is where comfort dogs belong. Do you believe in signs? I do, for Billie going missing and taking us to the RSPCA home was one such. And less than a month before I first saw my small dog I had met two others, who had fascinated me. For some years I had been presenting a yearly series on BBC Radio 4 called Devout Sceptics, which took the form of a one-to-one interview about faith and doubt, a searching conversation between me and someone well known in fields of literature, politics, science and ideas. In May 2002, with my producer and friend Malcolm Love, I had been in California, to interview Dr Pamela Connolly in Los Angeles, Amy Tan in San Francisco and Isabel Allende in San Rafael. On 24 May we were up early to fly from LAX to San Francisco. Coming in to land I felt that old lifting of the heart with excitement, not just caused by the eternal promise and threat of travel, but because I love the United States and always feel truly myself there. We took a cab to the Holiday Inn on Van Ness and California, and checked in, but had no time to change, because our appointment with Amy Tan loomed. I was looking forward to the interview; I loved Tan’s novels and anticipated a good conversation about God and destiny. Having looked up our destination, in the smart, leafy Presidio area of the city, Malcolm suggested that on such a fine morning it would be good to walk there. I agreed, but neither of us remembered that San Francisco is up hill and down dale – with the result that when we arrived at the address I was flustered and sweaty, which state seemed to increase as Tan’s PA showed us into the huge, elegant condominium, furnished thickly with oriental furniture and fine objets which made you afraid to move. There was a crescendo of yapping from one corner; at the sight of us two miniature Yorkshire terriers created a tiny commotion behind a 10-inch barrier which penned them in. I gaped at the dogs – at that time, the smallest I had ever met. But they made me feel better, for when Amy Tan herself glided into the room, astonishingly beautiful in green pleated silk and soft leather ankle boots, I was able to disguise my discomfiture at being less than elegant by fussing over her pets. This much I knew – all people like to have their pets fussed over. What I did not realize was that Bubba and Lilly were far more than dogs to Amy. We settled down for the interview and Malcolm fitted out microphones, noting with approval how quiet the condo was, the acoustic deadened by thick carpets, drapes and all that furniture. The little Yorkies nestled on her lap and Tan’s slim fingers played with their ears as Malcolm took a sound level. Then he stopped. ‘Er … Amy … I’m picking up noise from the dogs.’ ‘Oh really? Doing what?’ ‘Licking your hands – and snuffling. Er … do you think they could wait in another room while we do this?’ There was one of those moments of silence when the temperature drops a fraction and you know, as an interviewer, that this faux pas could spoil things. I caught the corner of Malcolm’s gaze, knowing how much he (a man of great sensitivity, especially to women) wished he could recall the impertinent suggestion. Then Amy Tan said coolly, ‘The dogs have to stay. The dogs are essential.’ ‘Of course they are!’ I cried. Malcolm backtracked. ‘Yes, I absolutely understand … Uh … but maybe they don’t have to lick your hands?’ Pause. ‘Sure.’ The novelist kept her hands out of reach of her pets’ pink tongues, and the dogs settled down to sleep amidst the folds of her green silk, except for the occasional moment when I would intercept a beady gaze asking me what the hell I was doing there. Or perhaps sourcing that slight odour of perspiration. They yapped once during the next hour, but the interview was going so well by then it didn’t matter. And when it was over Tan (more relaxed now) told me how she hates to travel in Europe since she can’t take her dogs, how she loathes being in hotel rooms alone and how she dreads the thought of anything happening to her beloved pets. Her words intensified my impression of fragility wrapped in self-contained eccentricity. As Malcolm and I walked to the restaurant she had recommended for lunch, I delivered myself – solemnly and with a certain degree of patronizing pity – of the opinion that those ‘teacup’ Yorkies were surrogate children for Amy Tan and her husband, Louis. Oh, statement of the obvious! What did I know? In the same way, years before when we were young, I had found some pathos in the fact that J’s elderly aunts, who lived together, posted birthday cards to each other signed from their toy poodles, Lavinia and Amanda-Jane. Later I would shake my head in disbelief on reading, in a magazine profile, that the novelist Jilly Cooper kept a picture of her dead mongrel in a locket. I was smug in my refusal to acknowledge true value in that level of affection for an animal. How fitting it was that hubris would arrive on my horizon shaped as a small dog. Malcolm was to tease me a few weeks later, when he was editing out those yaps and one or two small dog breaths for the finished programme, and I had already fallen in love with Bonnie. He laughed that the day in San Francisco had turned me into an aspirational copycat who realized that real literary ladies must have dogs. I huffed and puffed at the joke against myself – still resisting the notion that I could be perceived as one of those women with a handbag dog. What matters is how profoundly I’ve come to understand what it meant to Amy Tan to have those comforting dogs on her lap as talismans and as inspiration. And now it is I who, with no irony, describe myself as my dog’s ‘Mummy’. She is as necessary to me now as Amy Tan’s two were to her, and just as restricting of the impulse to travel, or even go to restaurants. I send cards from her and expect them back. Just three weeks after the encounter with Amy Tan and her dogs my diary entry reads, ‘I adore Bonnie. She has transformed everything.’ But even then I could not have known that the real transformation would be a work in progress. The dog would make me take myself less seriously – changing me into a foolish woman who would later buy a cushion saying ‘Dogs Leave Paw Prints on your Heart’ in Minnesota; a petit point of a Maltese in Portland, Maine, as well as a lobster-patterned macintosh, lead and collar set; a Navajo jacket and turquoise suede collar and lead complete with silver conchos in Santa Fe; a pink outfit in Brussels; a red set in Cape Town; cool Harley-Davidson accessories in Rapid City, South Dakota; ‘bling’ sparkles from a shop in Nice; and more. Not to mention purple mock-croc from an internet site for her bridesmaid’s outfit … but that was much later. Small-dog madness, I was to discover, is a worldwide phenomenon. I concentrate on the trivial deliberately. These are necessarily small steps towards the big jump into that unknown which Bonnie brought with her but which was to drag me, too, into a pit of unknowing. Smallness, I began to discover, fills some people with an irrational hatred, when they see a chihuahua, a Pekinese, a Yorkshire terrier, a Japanese chin, a shih-tzu, a pug. ‘What’s that?’ asked a young man I know when I took Bonnie to his parents’ house for lunch. Not to be outdone, his father joined in, suggesting with gentle mockery that Bonnie was ‘not a proper dog’. ‘Is the wren any less of a bird because he’s small?’ I demanded, drawing myself up to my full height (without heels) of 5 feet 3 inches. ‘Aren’t we allowed to tease you over your dog?’ he asked, dryly. I made a measured so-so movement with my hand and the subject was dropped. One day in Bath a pierced and tattooed man in his late twenties said loudly to his big dog, who was pulling menacingly on its string towards Bonnie, ‘Leave it! It’s not a dog, it’s a rat on a lead!’ I was filled with a protective fury which took me by surprise. This new feeling was one of many signs that I too had entered into an ancient transaction, known to all owners of small dogs throughout the centuries. What else is this but an example of Darwinian survival? Survival, of course, will gradually unfold as the subject of this book – and so it is fitting to introduce it here, in the destiny of the small dog. Of course Bonnie, like all canines large and small, is descended from wolves and somewhere – way, way back in her genetic blueprint – a part of her soul is roaming the forests and hills, filling the night with mournful howls to others of her kind. But I admit there is little of that behavioural memory evident in the animated powder puff on my lap. Now I am her kind, the leader of her small pack, and it is I to whom she calls, in those unmistakably shrill tones. She knows I will hear, swoop, soothe, hold fast. Out there in the wild the small dog would certainly perish, and therefore it has evolved an effective method of survival: being loveable. The transaction says, ‘I will adore you and, in exchange, you – my very own human – will protect me. Where you go I shall go, when you are full of sorrow I shall comfort you, and in return you will be my shield against the world.’ Or, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it when she fell in love with her small spaniel, Flush, who became her consolation and saviour: ‘He & I are inseparable companions, and I have vowed him my perpetual society in exchange for his devotion.’ Those who dislike small dogs on principle sometimes ask, ‘What are they for?’ The acutely intelligent Border collie is bred to herd sheep and when not trained to do so it will neurotically round up anything it can, as if to be deprived of your function is to lose identity. Working dogs have a purpose. The veterinarian Bruce Fogle explains that the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) has the same number of chromosomes as the wolf, 78, and that over eons different canine cultures emerged. There were hunting dogs, herding dogs, guard dogs and, later, breeds to ‘flush, point, corner, retrieve, or sit quietly on satin cushions’. Later Fogle asserts that the chihuahua ‘was bred to act as a hot water bottle’, which contains some truth – and yet I suspect that two references to cushions in his book The Mind of the Dog indicate a man whose love of dogs grows in proportion to their size. Many men proclaim a dislike of small dogs. Is the opposite of a proper dog a fake dog? Or might it be an ‘improper’ dog, carrying with it a sense of scented, snuggling, sensual, stroking intimacy, such as would make any man jealous? In the sixteenth century a clergyman named William Harrison included in his Description of England a satirical assault on women and lapdogs: They are little and prettie, proper and fine, and sought out far and neere to satisfie the nice delicacie of daintie dames, and wanton womens willes; instruments of follie to plaie and dallie withal, in trifling away the treasure of time, to withdraw their minds from more commendable exercises, and to content their corrupt concupiscences with vain disport, a sillie poore shift to shun their irksome idleness. These Sybariticall puppies, the smaller they be the better they are accepted, the more pleasure they provoke, as meet plaiefellows for minsing mistresses to beare in their bosoms, to keep companie in their chambers, to succour with sleepe in bed, and nourish with meet at bord, to lie in their laps, and lick their lips as they lie in their wagons and couches. I wondered, from the tone of this, if the Canon of Windsor’s wife had taken up with a toy spaniel. In fact, I find he was plagiarizing a scientific work published seven years earlier by John Caius, MD, court physician to Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I and President of the Royal College of Physicians. Our Western concept of breeds was first recorded in his Short Treatise of English Dogges in 1570. In this useful work I meet Bonnie: There is, beside those which wee have already delivered, another sort of gentle dogge in this our Englishe soyle … the Dogges of this kind doth Callimachus call Melitoeos, of the Island Melita, in the sea of Sicily, (which this day is named Malta, an Island in deede famous and reoumed …) where this kind of dogges had their principall beginning. He continues, ‘These dogges are little, pretty, proper, and fine …’ and so on, although the magnificent phrase ‘Sybariticall puppies’ is the Revd Harrison’s own. Dr Caius goes on to make a perceptive point about lapdogs, which I would not have been able to understand in 2002, when Bonnie was so new, as I do now. Criticizing a female tendency to delight in dogs more than in children, he guesses at mitigating circumstances: ‘But this abuse peradventure reigneth where there hath bene long lack of issue, or else where barrenness is the best blossom of bewty.’ The small dog as child substitute? Of course – for there are many ways to save a life, and this is one to which I shall return. That summer we took Bonnie to stay on our new boat, a Puget Sound cabin cruiser which was moored at Dittisham, on the river Dart in Devon. J bought the dog a tiny ‘pet float’ and each morning he would rise early, dress her in her red life jacket and row to the shore so that she could relieve herself. My lack of rowing skills was a good excuse, but in truth, he never once complained. I would stand on deck and watch him, remembering our honeymoon in that very village (so cold in February 1968, while this July gave us the hottest day of the year) and loving the fact that he was so at home on the water which scared me, a non-swimmer. By now he loved my dog; why else would he have agreed that she should come on holiday while Billie and Sam and all the cats remained behind on the farm, taken care of by my father? The dog came everywhere with us and when, after a few days, I developed an inexplicable pain in my right arm, my daughter suggested it must be a repetitive strain injury, caused by clutching Bonnie so tightly. Of course. Bonnie was sitting between us as J and I heard Devout Sceptics broadcast at 9.00 a.m. on Radio 4, Amy Tan’s voice filling the cabin as the waves made their soft slapping sound against the blue hull and J listening with his characteristic intensity. I imagined those tiny Yorkies on her knee, her long fingers held carefully out of reach of their tongues, as she talked about her belief that there is a benevolent spirit in the world, larger than any individual. ‘That works with the concept of a god,’ she said – and went on to link it with the idea of, not so much forgiveness in the Christian sense of the word, but compassion. Her voice was quietly firm as she told me that her aim was to learn about ‘this notion of compassion’, about empathy with her fellow human beings – which she defined as ‘another way of saying Love’. She added that of course you cannot measure love – it cannot be scientifically proven, no more than the idea of an afterlife. Yet she could say, ‘Yes, I believe this,’ because she finds ‘intuitive emotional truth’ in the idea each day of her life and in the writing of her novels. As I re-read her words today (the interview was printed in my book, Devout Sceptics) I realize how much Amy Tan’s philosophy informs my own life, and that the meeting with her and her small dogs was significant in more ways than one. Everything that has happened to me since Bonnie arrived from nowhere has at once tested and confirmed it. What’s more, the entirely serious lessons my little dog has taught me confirm her optimism. There is no doubt in my mind what small dogs are ‘for’. But it was still so new. My diary entries record the process of dog intoxication – for that is indeed what it was. As the American genius Amy Hempel wrote in her short story collection The Dog in the Marriage, ‘… you don’t just love the dogs, you fall in love with them.’ In the summer of 2002 I wrote in my diary: 27 June – Bonnie has transformed things. She is so sweet I want her to be with me all the time. 3 July – I find it hard to concentrate on the novel because I spend too much time fussing over Bonnie. 23 July – Bonnie continues to delight me. It is a strange feeling – to love a dog. Bonnie fitted easily into the Devon part of our life, although some of the old friends teased the lady with the lapdog. I suppose I can understand, because it was so unexpected to see me in that role; nevertheless we must all allow people to change. And I had changed. Instead of being impatient on the boat and feeling marooned I relaxed, strolling with the dog and gazing at the water, soothed by the ceaseless pinging of rigging in the breeze. Looking back, that summer seems idyllic. Robin had rumbled into the village on his Harley-Davidson, and joined us on the boat. Our son Daniel arrived, tense but liberated at the end of a long relationship. Kitty’s boyfriend left early and she was upset. We spent time with the grandparents, I cooked meals in the boat’s small galley, J took care of Bonnie’s needs … and so family life went. From the time they were babies our children had loved that village, the scene of our many shared family holidays, not to mention our honeymoon. The weather was hot, but a sudden squall disrupted J’s birthday celebrations on the last day of July. No drinks on the boat for family and friends, but dinner in the local café for a pile of us. My diary records, ‘The wine flowed and the noise rose and Bonnie sat on my lap and I thought how lucky we are to have all these talented, interesting and deeply kind Devon friends. It was a fabulous night.’ On another evening we joined friends for a beach barbecue. Suddenly fireworks from a celebration up the river filled the sky with falling flowers and stars and ‘illuminated the evanescence of it all’. The year 2002 marked the jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen. The country which had in March confounded all republicans by mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother joined in celebration of the fifty-year reign of her daughter. J and I had watched the London procession on television. We are both monarchists: my grandmother cleaned houses for a living and served lunches in a girls’ school, yet the Royal Family was part of her sense of identity, like her quiet belief in God and love of her family. She liked to show me pictures of the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne, cutting them out of the Daily Mirror. She liked the smart woollen coats with velvet collars and buttons worn by the children of the upper classes. In contrast, J’s father, Richard Dimbleby, was an icon for my grandparents’ and parents’ generation: the most famous broadcaster the country had ever known, revered by the public first for his fearless war reporting, for his shocking, shattering dispatch as the first journalist into Belsen, and then for his commentaries on great events (the funerals of George VI, Sir Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy and the coronation of Elizabeth II) when the poetic dignity of his spoken prose expressed the deepest feelings of the majority of British people. When I first met the philosophy student (two years after his father had died) and told my parents I was dating ‘Richard Dimbleby’s son’ they were awestruck. It was hard for me to believe too. From different worlds we came, J and I, meeting in the second year of our respective courses and marrying after just three months, so much in love there was nothing else to do. It was just like fireworks – and naturally the years of married life would whoosh, crackle and bang too, sometimes so dangerously. Yet those first flames still had the power to warm, and the showers of stars still hung in the sky, even if sometimes behind clouds. In 1994 he had published his much-admired biography of the Prince of Wales, a considerable achievement which came not without stress – largely due to the fact that J’s simultaneous two-hour documentary about the Prince on ITV had included a short admission of adultery. The world seemed to go mad. J, a political journalist who was initially dubious about taking on the Royal project, knew that he had to ask the Prince about the state of his marriage to Princess Diana and his relationship with the then Camilla Parker-Bowles. He felt that the boil of sleazy gossip and tittle-tattle had to be lanced – and so, under firm but gentle questioning, the Prince revealed to the watching millions that once his marriage to Diana had irretrievably broken down he had started a relationship with Camilla. He would have been damned if he hadn’t but was damned for telling the truth. At the same time, many people said that J ought not to have asked the question, although had he not he would have been pilloried for failing to do his journalistic job. It was an exhausting time. Side by side we faced it all down but, seasoned journalists as we both are, we were unprepared for the tabloid feeding frenzy and the level of vitriol that was unleashed upon the heir to the throne – a much-misunderstood man whom J called in the closing words of his biography ‘an individual of singular distinction and virtue’. I recall J standing in our garden or sitting in the library at the farm doing endless interviews with CNN, ABC, Sky, etc. and for a while it seemed as if he was almost the only one who would analyse and interpret not just the Prince of Wales but the British monarchy to the rest of the world. Although he did it with cool insight it was not a role he relished – not at all – but it was to be repeated after that terrible day at the end of August 1997 when Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris with her lover, Dodi Fayed. Looking back, the era of his biography and TV documentary seems oddly innocent. It is astonishing to remember that the Prince of Wales had wished to protect his estranged wife by not revealing all the detailed information J had in fact discreetly accumulated about Diana and her many problems. A few years later a slurry of cheap, gossipy books, prurient television programmes and mean memoirs by seedy staff would ensure no compassion or respect whatsoever for the dead Princess or for her living sons and ex-husband. Britain was turning into a pit bull of a nation. The Prince loves dogs and in J’s documentary one of his two Jack Russells appeared, jumping about in a Land-Rover as Jack Russells will, and being told in no uncertain terms, ‘Get down, Tigger!’ Tigger had puppies; one went to Camilla Parker-Bowles and the Prince kept another, which he called Roo but Prince William renamed Pooh. In April 1995 Pooh vanished at Balmoral. This became an instant news story, the animal-loving British public responding with all the interest a beloved lost dog deserves. Jilly Cooper wrote a heartfelt piece about ‘poor little Pooh’ in the Daily Mirror, while the Daily Mail ran photos of the dog captioned ‘Pooh: loved and lost by a prince’. The Jack Russell had been on a walk with her owner and her mother, when she ran off into the woods. Charles’s whistles brought no response, and a three-day search by estate workers was fruitless. Neither an advertisement in the local paper nor the Daily Mail’s offer of a good reward brought forth anyone who had seen the dog. As a heartbroken Prince headed back to London on 21 April there was no shortage of theories about Pooh’s fate. Some suggested that the dog had become stuck in a rabbit hole, as Jack Russells will, while a psychic asserted that she had ‘a very clear picture’ of Pooh stuck in a sewer. The News of the World gleefully theorized that she was devoured by a feral cat dubbed the Beast of Balmoral. Such a fuss about a dog. Yet the true dog lover – the person I was metamorphosing into in 2002 – understands it. Once you love a dog you cannot bear the thought of losing your pet and you will torment yourself imagining your dog being kidnapped, or dying. No wonder the Prince of Wales put up a memorial to Tigger at Highgrove, when, in 2002, his beloved dog had to be euthanized because of old age. That same year, Bonnie accidentally went to Highgrove and met the heir to the throne. For most human beings this would have been exciting, but it was quite an event for a nobody, a dog from nowhere who, just months earlier, had been left tied to a tree – a progression surely worthy of Eliza Doolittle. Yet like Eliza, she took it in her small stride. Needless to say she had a royal welcome. For centuries the Royal Family has embraced dogs as their favoured pets. Formal portraits from the seventeenth century onwards show kings, queens and their children happily posing with their beloved animals, from pugs to greyhounds, King Charles spaniels to corgis. Although we associate the British aristocracy with hunting dogs, big dogs with a serious role in life, the Royal Family has always loved smaller hounds too. Some pets have even merited their own portraits, and (as in many households) were considered members of the family. Photographs from the Royal Collection prove how much dogs were valued. A photograph of Queen Victoria’s son, the Duke of York, shows him with his pug and is full of a playful humanity we can all recognize. The dog is wrapped in a greatcoat and its royal owner has tied a handkerchief around its head. The dog looks at the camera, the Prince looks down at the dog, full of mirth. In 1854 the total cost of photographing the dogs in the Royal Kennels and mounting the prints in a special handsome album came to £25 19s. – the equivalent of around £1,650 today. When Queen Victoria’s beloved collie Noble died at Balmoral in 1887, he was buried in the grounds of the castle and given his own gravestone, which reads: Noble by name by nature noble too Faithful companion sympathetic true His remains are interred here. A terrier named Caesar belonging to Edward VII was given even greater status when, having outlived the King, he walked behind His Majesty’s coffin in the funeral procession. Elizabeth II favours the corgi. The breed was introduced to the Royal Family by her father, George VI, in 1933, when he bought a corgi called Dookie from a local kennels. The animal proved popular with his daughters, so a second corgi was acquired, called Jane, who had puppies, two of which, Crackers and Carol, were kept. For her eighteenth birthday, the Queen was given a corgi named Susan from whom numerous successive dogs were bred. Some corgis were mated with dachshunds (most notably Pipkin, who belonged to Princess Margaret) to create ‘dorgis’. The Queen’s corgis travel with her to the Royal residences, and Her Majesty looks after them herself as much as possible. Other members of the Royal Family own dogs of various breeds. The Duchess of Cornwall owns two Jack Russell terriers, Tosca and Rosie. The day Bonnie went to a Royal residence the country was tossed by storms, with gales of up to 90 mph which screamed around our farm on the hill. Branches cracked from the beech wood and the trees groaned as if in agony. In my diary I wrote, ‘I feel overwhelmed by all I have to do, but Bonnie is such a consolation’, but on that day it was hard to walk out with the three dogs and not be blown sideways by the power of the gale. Looking at Bonnie you would have thought she could be blown away, like a tuft of thistledown. Earlier in the week we had been at the Booker Prize dinner, to see the outsider Yann Martel awarded the plum for The Life of Pi and to mingle with peers and swap gossip. When at such events I always feel two people: one at home within the glitz, the literary glamour, but the other detached, wanting to be at home – especially once the Maltese came to stay. The diary captures this feeling, recording, rather than a desire to be in London, ‘I want to be home to see Bonnie. The little dog ties me to the farm emotionally more than ever.’ I also wrote, ‘Home, home, home’, with no explanation, as if the repetition of what gave me security would fix it for ever. Now I see that scribble as a litany of faith. It was the only faith that possessed me completely. On Sunday night J and I were due at Highgrove for dinner, and our friend and neighbour Robin offered to drive us. The journey is only 35 minutes’ drive from where we lived, yet it would have been less than convivial for J to refuse a glass or three of wine, and even less wise to exit past the policemen having done so. So we left the dogs and barrelled along past fallen trees to arrive at the handsome Georgian house, just outside Tetbury, in Gloucestershire. I loved going there. The house is not overly grand; nor does it have an intimidating atmosphere. From the hats, boots and baskets at the entrance to the comfortable furniture which sometimes bears the marks of dogs (I remember an old chintz that had been shredded and was waiting repair) Highgrove is a genuine home, full of family photographs and treasured mementos. Camilla was driving herself from her own home, and was late. The Prince fixed us drinks from the trolley, and as always I sensed a hunger within him to talk to someone like J about the issues he cares about: agriculture, the environment, education and so on. As on many previous visits he seemed strangely lonely: a good man marooned in a difficult role, frequently misunderstood and feeling it too keenly for his own good. At last Camilla blew in like a gust from a rather more robust world. My diary observed: ‘She is warm and full of mirth – rejoicing that the Panorama programme about her is on TV tonight but she doesn’t have to watch it because she is with us!’ While the men talked about serious things she and I perched on the leather fender and smoked a cheeky cigarette, puffing the smoke up the chimney as we chatted. It was a good evening – and when the time came for Robin to pick us up, we were surprised to see Bonnie scamper into the room. With advance warning from the gate the staff had opened the front door and in she went – small dogs do not stand on ceremony. Robin told us later he hadn’t had the heart to leave her behind, since she made such a pathetic fuss as he put on his coat. Astonished by her size (very small compared to a Jack Russell) the Prince and Camilla gave her maximum attention and were fascinated by her story of abandonment and rescue. Camilla’s elderly, almost-blind terrier smelt the sweet young female and noticeably perked up, chasing her about. Bonnie responded flirtatiously and, vastly entertained, the Prince roared his contagious, bellowing laugh of which Falstaff would have been proud. On the way home J and I agreed how much we liked ‘doggy’ people. At last I was including myself in their number. The Royal Family’s traditional affection for dogs might well be an antidote to the fuss that surrounds them. The Prince of Wales is, to his dog, just an owner, a human companion who offers treats and strokes and is always ready to stride out into the indescribably thrilling grass and trees. The dog is always there, always loyal. He will not sell his memoirs; nor will he bite the hand that feeds him. There are no complications; the dog does not have to say ‘sir’ or bow, and yet he will obey. I can imagine the Prince striding over the countryside he loves and telling a dog everything, knowing that whatever he says will never get back to the newspapers, nor be captured by any paparazzo’s telephoto lens. I would be telling lies if I told you that at this stage in my life I looked at my small white lapdog and saw in her a teacher. Yet I should have done, for the lessons were already beginning. For example, one day I hit her – for the first and last time. It was not a savage blow. The big dogs would not have noticed such a swat and the cats would have easily avoided it. But a padded envelope arrived containing a copy of my latest children’s book – the first off the press. It is always an exciting moment for an author – that pause of satisfaction when you hold the fruit of your labour in your hand, look at it, admire your own name and think, I made this. That day I had put the book down on the futon in my study, gone to make coffee and returned to find that the young dog (less than one year old after all) was chewing the corner of my new book. And so I picked it up, swatted her and yelled, ‘No!’ I did not know (neophyte that I was) that ‘No!’ is the cruellest word you can shout at a dog, even if sometimes you must. Nor could I have predicted that she would shrink back, raise just one paw as if for protection and shiver with terror. The lesson I learnt that day, as I cried with remorse and bent to cuddle her, was how quickly she could forgive. She licked me as if to say she was sorry, it was all her fault, it was all right, I shouldn’t upset myself any more, all was well. There were no sulks. The tiny creature was bigger than I could have been – and I was astonished. Much has always been written about the fidelity of the dog, and yet this quality of forgiveness should not be underestimated. Saturday 12 October was beautiful. The sun glittered on the pond, where water spurted into the air from the spring swollen with autumn rain. The trees in the beech wood had crisped to russet, and the silver birch by the pond was weeping gold, like a metamorphosed princess in myth. J and Robin decided to go logging on our land, ready for winter. The big dogs raced, because they liked nothing else than to be down in the rough fields, smelling rabbits, foxes and badgers and rolling in mud. As always, the cats glided around on the perimeter of the action. But I had to leave the gang and drive the one hour to Cheltenham to take part in a discussion on marriage at the Literature Festival. As I backed my car from the car port I saw J scoop Bonnie up, then turn with her in his arms to tramp down to where the tractor waited in a gilded landscape. I had contributed to a short book called Maybe I Do: Marriage and Commitment in Singleton Society, published by the Institute of Ideas. Over the years, as a prolific journalist, I have written many thousands of words on this subject, and in 1989 I compiled an anthology of poetry and prose about marriage. It had started as a silver wedding present for J, but ended by being published and dedicated to him. We had perfected a double act: reading a selection from the book at festivals and for charity. I liked being married and saw (as I still do) the institution as the bedrock of society – although with no illusions about how difficult it is. ‘The greatest test of character any of us will have to face,’ was how I described it in my anthology introduction. Now a group of us were gathering to discuss marriage before a sold-out audience in the Town Hall in Cheltenham: the novelist Fay Weldon, journalist and novelist Yvonne Roberts, radical journalist Jennie Bristow, Claire Fox from the Institute of Ideas (my publisher) and me. It was a good, wide-ranging discussion and as usual I was the most conventional of all the speakers, banging a drum for what I truly believe in: the importance of stable marriage to the upbringing of children. That is, when it works. My chapter in the book was called ‘For the Sake of the Children’ and ended with these words – which sum up the essence of my platform contribution: Of course marriages go wrong, but I do not believe anybody has the right to put their own needs/feelings/wants before those of their children. Most of us could have skipped out of our marriages at some time or other, in pursuit of romance – by which I mean, fresh sex. ‘Staying together for the sake of the children’ became a much derided mantra, but I see it as a potential source of good. Who knows – by putting Self on the back burner, many a married couple may find they weather the storms and ease themselves into the best of friendships, to share old age together, in married love. Now I regret the trite cynicism of that phrase ‘fresh sex’ but admit that the last sentence is pure autobiography, not theory. It was where I thought we both were, what I most wanted. That night we went to a dinner party near Bath. Beautiful converted barn decorated with impeccable taste. Schubert floating through the scented air. Logs roaring in the wood burner. Excellent champagne, cold and biscuity in tall glasses. So many people; we didn’t know them all. Such a buzz. Conversation about the arts amongst (mostly) practitioners. Delicious food cooked and served by our perfectionist writer-hostess and free-flowing wine to match its quality. The long, long table, lined with merry faces, as the laughter rose to the ceiling. How many such evenings had we enjoyed, by the autumn of 2002? How many people had we met, talked to, flirted with, become friends with, forgotten in time? Both social beings, J and I always enjoyed gatherings where conversation was sparkling yet unstuffy – and this one was one of the best. He was sitting at the opposite end of the long table, between our hostess and a blonde woman whom I had not noticed during the pre-dinner drinks. I did not even notice her face in the candlelight; she was too far away. And why indeed would I notice? J and I had come too far together to fret that the person next to one or other of us at dinner might come to mean something. Yes indeed, the moments do come when the universe smiles and plays a trick. Yes indeed, you get up one morning with no inkling that the day will bring a life-changing moment. The face of a future lover seen across a room, a sudden stumble which leaves you with a black eye … There can indeed be no knowing what will pop out from under the lid of the scary jack-in-a-box, to shake the foundations of the world you know. As we drove home, exchanging details of conversations and swapping gossip and opinion as we always did, J told me about his neighbour at dinner. He liked her a lot but was, he confessed, slightly bothered because it turned out she was a very well-known opera singer, just making her mark on the international stage, and yet he had not heard of her. Nor had I. Her name was Susan Chilcott. Two LOSING It is late last night the dog was speaking of you; The snipe was speaking of you in the deep marsh. It is you are the lonely bird through the woods; And that you may be without a mate until you find me. Lady Gregory, ‘Poets and Dreamers’ (translating eighth-century Irish) Our farm was J’s dream from childhood, an echo of his happy family home with its barns and entourage of animals – to which ours bore a strange resemblance. An old, low, sprawling building protected from the worst winds by being tucked into a dip in the land, like the space a dog makes when it turns round and round to scoop out its bed. A house with barns and stables, a settlement whose ancient stones would become imprinted with our story, to add to all those it had known over three centuries. A home that could be created in our own image – the dank inner courtyard brought into the house, glazed and turned into an atrium, its weight supported by Bath stone corbels which we had beautifully carved by an artist-craftsman in situ to my master design. They represented the four seasons, four elements, literary themes and so on. We wanted our house to be a work of art as well as to contain our collection. But it needed to be made bigger, for we had moved there (following J’s dream of farming organically) from a large rectory in a pretty village a few miles away and the existing farmhouse was too small for our needs. So a long, dilapidated animal shed at right angles to the main house was renovated to form a study for me, a spectacular double-height sitting room with windows on three sides and (best of all) a low, peaceful library with two window seats overlooking the valley. Across from the house was a small building which became a cottage for Robin (when he was around, as he worked a lot abroad) and our son Daniel, and (later) for J’s groom and her family. There would be extra rooms for us over there too, and across the yard was the huge barn which would become, in time, a games room. We loved to have a house full of friends and family. At New Year for instance: space was necessary. The place was unusual and extraordinary, with a 145-degree view that was miraculous when the valley was full of mist but the surrounding hills and farms rose above it, like ships on a foaming sea. I find it almost impossible to describe the magical atmosphere of the home J and I created, or its wild beauty. The summer we moved there (1994) had been the hottest in decades and the whole valley crisped to golden brown. These were the classic dog days of summer, when Sirius burned brightly in the night sky. This is the Dog Star, the faithful creature at the heels of Orion, the brightest star in Canis Major and called Canicula (little dog) by the Romans. Strangely, native American peoples associated it with dogs too – the Cherokee seeing it as a guardian of the ‘Path of Souls’, the Blackfoot calling it ‘Dogface’ and the Alaskan Inuit naming it ‘Moon Dog’. Yes, it was right that the brightest star in the firmament should hang in the sultry night sky above our new home. But in the Iliad Homer describes this frozen firework as ‘an evil portent, bringing heat/And fevers to suffering humanity’. That was to prove right. We celebrated the two stages of the huge building project with parties for the carpenters, stonemasons, electricians and labourers who became as familiar as friends and gained nutty tans working shirtless on the site. But by the end of that first winter we had learned the measure of the place; the wind howled about the house like the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff and the north-facing position meant that frost and ice would remain in pockets and corners for weeks. Our flock of Lleyn sheep huddled below the library windows, coughing and grumbling under the ancient stone walls, just a couple of metres from my books. At night the brief, harsh yelps of foxes and screech owls would shatter the bitter air. Upper Langridge Farm justified its reputation as ‘the coldest farm for miles around’ – as a neighbour had helpfully mentioned while we were moving in and I was wondering what on earth we were doing. I had wept to leave our previous home, where the children had grown up and where the fifteen years had been (for the most part) contented. For a long time I would have a recurring dream of letting myself into the old, beloved rectory, walking through rooms that were empty and just as I had left them, then creeping into the attic to hide – for ever. J and I were brave with each other, but at times I knew even he wondered if we had done the right thing. We made mistakes with the building, which was cold, cold, cold. The wind howled not just around it but through it. Poet Michael Longley captured both the good and the bad in these lines: No insulation – A house full of draughts, Visitors, friends: Its warmth escaping – The snow on our roof The first to melt. The unlit yard was slate black. One night, having driven my daughter to a friend’s (as the mothers of teenagers must), I stopped halfway down the track to the farm – because nobody was at home and I could not face its dark emptiness. I was starting to cry when, suddenly, I was startled by a flash of white and a muffled thud of paws. A badger charged across the rough track in front of my stationary car, and away into the darkness. Excited, I took it as a positive sign and went home. The isolation could render your heart speechless in the face of the night and its sounds. This is not a fear of marauders, you must understand – although friends would ask me, ‘Don’t you get spooked – alone here?’ It is the silence that underlies the harsh chatter of rooks in the susurrating stand of trees, as well as the sense of generations of struggle imprinted on the stones of that windy hillside. It is the exposure to such an immensity of sky you cannot but be brought face to face with your own inadequacy. And mortality. The strangest truth was this: in all the years J and I lived at the farm I (who had previously written five novels, many more children’s books and liked to paint and make things) found it impossible to create. Once the home itself was made, just living there and running our lives took almost all my reserves of energy. Feng shui practitioners would say the chi – the energy – could not stay in a house like that because the front door and the back door were exactly aligned. Whoosh – it goes, whirling through, and taking a part of your soul with it. Tractors. Hedge planting. Infected sheep. Cows getting out. People coming and going. Black ice matching the hole of the farm finances. Feed delivered by lumbering lorries. Lambing in a May frost. The track so bumpy taxis refused to come down and so it had to be made up properly, at more cost. The troughs frozen. Poisonous ragwort. Fences breaking. Running out of oil. The fox leaving two headless chickens on the track. A kitchen garden carved out of the hillside at great cost. Dead sheep. Ah, but on summer days, the light would spill over the creamy stone floors of our hall and atrium and the homestead had a Mediterranean air and everybody who came would breathe in the scent of thyme planted in the courtyard, exclaiming with admiration at what we had created for ourselves. There was a meadow called the Aldermoor where grew about twenty varieties of wild flower. The house appeared in magazines. J said it was his favourite place in the whole world and everyone who visited saw why – even if they might not have chosen to live on the windy hill. You have to allow places to change you, or else you will never settle, let alone be happy. I confess (broken-hearted over the move from my dream house, our rectory) that I was puzzled that my husband should become so obsessed with the need to farm, at a time when farming was not in good health. Yet that need was rooted deep in his childhood. Despite myself I understood, even if I lacked sympathy. Not only had he been a champion show-jumper in his teens, but he had studied agriculture, worked on the Royal Farm at Windsor Castle, broken and trained champion horses professionally – and that all before going to University College London to read philosophy where (a brilliant student and student editor who took on the college authorities with late-sixties radicalism) he was to write a dissertation on ‘Base and Superstructure in Marx’. There followed a distinguished career during which he reported from all over the world, made history in Ethiopia, risked his life working under cover in Pinochet’s Chile, saw terrible sights and interviewed leaders, made countless documentary series (this in the much-lamented golden era of British television), wrote books, did sterling work for various charities … But through it all he never lost his yearning for a real country life: the deep desire to plant hedges, husband good soil, stride out on land that is your own. Whenever I welcomed him back home to the farm from London, where he would have been interviewing politicians for his eponymous weekly television programme, he would throw off his suit to pull on old clothes and stride to the sheds to help with the lambing, like a true Renaissance man. When he bought a horse (then two, then three) and was still (in his fifties) able to vault straight up without even putting a foot in the stirrup, I knew that the most accomplished gaucho in Argentina would nod approval at his prowess. Women like men who straddle more than one world. Gradually I became tougher, although my brother-in-law once said I was the least likely farmer’s wife he had ever seen. I bought rubber boots – but rarely wore them. Learned to layer big sweaters over thick skirts. Even once drove the huge, ancient Land-Rover in the snow, because otherwise I would have been marooned. Alone on the farm (as I so often was), I learned independence. Once, with a coat over my nightdress, I even rounded up the escaped cows who were destroying the garden, placing Billie and Sam like troops on the flank and advancing fearlessly, shouting ‘Garn!’ and thwacking with my stick, driving them up to the barn, so that when the stockman and his wife arrived at last I was in charge. J was immensely (and disbelievingly) proud of me. The story of how the urban writer tamed the herd went up and down the valley. ‘Field-cred’ I called it. One spring morning, not a year after we had moved, I experienced the epiphany which leads – in a way I can now see but could not possibly have known then – me back to the subject of this book. It was late April and I was alone. The light woke me very early and from the window I glimpsed a morning of such limpid perfection it was impossible to remain indoors. I dressed quickly, afraid to miss the glitter of the dew, and released Billie and Sam from the laundry room where they had their beds. No need for leads. Out into the watery gold of the day with the dogs bounding and snapping at the air in exhilaration. I walked past the well, across the wide circle of gravel, past the handsome barn and thence right into the fields. And then I saw them. The Herefords were crowding near the fence, their chestnut flanks gleaming in the sunlight as they bent their creamy topknots to tug at the grass. There is a sweetness about cows I had never noticed before: their gentle, wary eyes in big white moon faces. That heavy, grassy smell and the rhythmic, chomping sounds they make, between low, faintly protesting moos. Because it was still chilly their breaths came out in little clouds, like ectoplasm hanging in the air – the whispering spirits of their beefy herd. What had they witnessed since the seventeenth century, those pedigree Herefords, what breed memory looked out through those rolling eyes? They ruminated and inspected me. I leaned on the fence and looked back and we were not afraid of each other. The air waited. And it was with a sudden leap of the spirit that I said aloud, ‘Good morning, girls. You’re looking so beautiful this morning! Aren’t you gorgeous?’ To speak to them like that, to acknowledge their presence as I would a fellow human and admire their individual, curly-topped, four-square magnificence, was to put us on a level. To take my part in the wholeness of things. I now realize that it was at that precise point that I allowed myself to be affected by the genius loci – the spirit of the place. And it was the animals – rather than the trees or the distant sweep of the land, or the astonishing sense of worship I felt before the first primroses and the swathes of cowslips – which eased my heart finally into love. It was my humility before the universal beauty of which the animals were a part. In making me see the truth of their existence as on a par with my own within the greater Whole they were exerting a moral power over me which I had never experienced before. This is not what you feel when you look at an animal in a zoo, even though you might marvel at the size of the giraffe or the intricacy of the markings on a snake. Nor is it what you feel when you take the lid off a tin and allow dried food to rattle down into your big dog’s metal bowl, smiling fondly as he gobbles his supper. You may come near the sensation, though, when you watch your cat unfold its limbs and stretch – and realize that not in any universe could you ever hope to move with such indifferent grace. I was learning from the cows. The joy they gave me, in that brief exchange of looks and breaths that crystalline morning, when the brevity of the sunlight, the dew and all our lives, human and animal, made me catch my breath, was something I would never forget. It was as sustainable as J’s method of farming. It set me on a journey. Lolloping Billie and Sam were on it too, but it was Bonnie who would – in a future I could not have then predicted – be the truest companion. One of my favourite writers is Edith Wharton – she who, in late middle age, would so annoy her friends by the fuss she made over ‘the damned Pekingese’. Her first biographer, Percy Lubbock, wrote: ‘There is always a dog or two about Edith in her home, a small dog of the yapping kind, a still smaller of the fidgeting and whining breed – dogs that had to be called, caressed …’ But writing an autobiography in her seventies Edith Wharton recalled the walk with her father in 1865 (when she was four), down Fifth Avenue in Manhatten, when a friend of her father’s gave her a spitz-type puppy she called Foxy, the first of her cohorts of little dogs. Near the end of her life, after an unhappy marriage but a brilliant career, when many people she loved had died and many dogs too, Wharton located the beginning of her imaginative awareness: ‘The owning of my first dog made me into a conscious, sentient person, fiercely possessive, anxiously watchful, and woke in me that long ache of pity for animals, and for all inarticulate beings, which nothing has ever stilled.’ The first couple of months of 2003 were (as always for J and me) extremely busy. What made us like that – both driving ourselves hard, always taking on extra projects, charity work and so on – and therefore unable to find much peace on our farm? The too-easy psychological answer might be that he was ever striving to emulate a famous father as well as an older brother who was himself a distinguished broadcaster. Yet the Protestant work ethic played an important role, over and above family history. I always thought that the last words of The Woodlanders summed J up, Marty South’s passionate elegy over the grave of her beloved Giles Winterborne: ‘… you was a good man, and did good things!’ Doing good things demands time and energy. As for me, I was always striving to prove myself (girl from humble background makes good etc.) yet always worrying that I would be found out: the achievement of a distinguished degree, the marriage, the beautiful homes, the successful journalistic career, the careful glamour, the books, the programmes, the immense jollity of the parties we gave – all of it discounted when I was found out to be a fraud. To keep fear and boredom at bay, to prove myself as a multitasking, perfectionist alpha female, I – like so many women – took on too much. I also had to keep up with my husband. Had I not done so over the years of his success as an international reporter, writer and political journalist, I would have gone under. The key to our marriage was the meeting of minds in friendship. For all the flaws (what union does not have them?) I do not know what better can be said. The pond was thickly iced, with a dusting of snow on top. In January and February 2003 I was struggling with the book of my radio series, Devout Sceptics, re-reading Daniel Deronda (because it was time to), brooding over structural problems in my sixth novel, The Invasion of Sand, taking on the chairmanship of a £2.2 million appeal to build a new children’s theatre in Bath, moving our daughter into her first London flat and supporting her through the intimidating start of her new job at the London Evening Standard and arranging all the detail of a 30-minute programme for Radio 4 to mark the 100th anniversary of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Kitty and I were writing a joint article for the Daily Mail, J was off to Iraq to interview the Prime Minister amidst ominous rumblings from the United States and in my diary I wrote, ‘The world is such a terrible place at the moment – a cloud over all things.’ Yet amidst all that, the diary also records consolations: 11 January: Bonnie and I return in the frost-bound midnight to the empty farmhouse. Her companionship is so precious to me, so essential now. Who would have thought that I would become so dependent on a little dog? 13 January: It’s good to have J here again – so much cleverer than I could ever be – to sound ideas off. What would I be without him? This afternoon we go to the pet shop with Bonnie for new dog beds and the expedition is fun. We eat sausages, read and doze by the fire. 20 January: … so good to be home again with Bonnie. She represents home now. 2 February: … coming back home to be welcomed by an ecstatic, wriggling little dog. Bonnie always cheered me, always inspired closeness and took both of us away from work. The day before our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary was a normal Saturday, and so I listened to my husband on the radio, took the three dogs up through our wood for a walk and felt a great surge of happiness in the still, cold air. It was strange, I thought, to be happy when the news was full of the looming war in Iraq, but the sunlight glittered on a hard frost and I took my little dog to be groomed, and picked her up later, a fresh-smelling shorn lamb. How can one suppress natural joy? It was there every day in Bonnie’s behaviour: the irrepressible nowness of each second, the perpetual readiness for action and adventure, even if that was only chasing a leaf. Each parting would be marked by the reproachful eyes and the drooping tail, even though she had two big dogs to stay with. I would return from shopping, one hour later, to be met with such an effusion of joy, such a frolicsome licking, that there was nothing to do but laugh. On our anniversary, 23 February, J returned from presenting his usual Sunday television programme and presented me with his gift: a fine, chunky necklace of antique coral, since the thirty-fifth is the coral anniversary. In an imaginative touch he had also entered the bookmakers Joe Coral (for the first ever time) and placed a bet that Liverpool (my home team) would win their next away football match. He handed me the betting slip – and we laughed. That night we went to our favourite restaurant (not the grandest in Bath, but we ate out rarely, preferring to be in our blue and yellow kitchen) and my diary records: ‘We ate well and drank better and talked best of all. Perfection. As I say so often, I am so lucky.’ There it is. Liverpool did not win. As I explained in the Introduction, writing a memoir is to offer just a slice of a life, a section of truth – like a sample taken by an archaeologist, full of priceless shards which remain, nevertheless, mere parts, fragments shored against ruin. Sometimes when my dog is snoozing on my knee I trace her ribs with my fingertips, each one in turn, imagining the fragility of her skeleton laid in earth. Yet nowadays the computer can reassemble a whole head from fragments of bone, an image of what once was (a centuries-dead face reconstructed) turning and turning in cyberspace to awe us. So my dog’s DNA will lie for ever in earth and so will mine and therefore the essence of what is true is unassailable. That is how I feel about that last anniversary. Whatever went before, and no matter what was to come after, what happened that day and is condensed into those few words, remains The Truth. Yet in the end only he and I know that truth; therefore what is presented to the world remains as shards. J was the Chairman of the Bath International Music Festival and worked tirelessly to promote it. It was he who had taken me to my first big classical concert at the Festival Hall in 1968, although in my late teens I did begin a small collection of budget classical LPs. When we met he was rather entertained that I could be so admiring of his piano playing, since I knew so little about technique. When I was 30 a friend took me for the first time to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and my tears at the end of La Bohème began a craze for opera which took me to some of the great opera houses of the world and led me to study the famous Kobbé guide so that I knew all the stories. Yet by 2003 I had grown tired of the form, and returned to jazz and blues as my cooking music of choice, as well as classic pop tracks (‘Leader of the Pack’ etc.), cajun, country, not to mention urban grooves like Fishbelly Black. Our musical tastes had slightly diverged, although we shared a love of chamber music. I remain unsure of exactly how it came about but this is what I know. Just after our anniversary J had been asked to interview Susan Chilcott where she lived, in a village called Blagdon, not far from Bath and Bristol. The article was to appear in the local evening paper, its purpose to promote the long-established Mid-Somerset Festival, invaluable for its encouragement of young performers each March. Later it was to amaze people that somebody as well known as J should agree to write for a local paper; at the time I hardly knew this was happening because I was planning a trip to Milwaukee as well as starting work on a public lecture at Bath University on the subject of pornography. Still, had it registered on my radar I would have attributed it to his good will. And I do know for certain that there was nothing suspicious about the meeting – on one level. Yet they had liked each other enormously at that dinner party four months before, and she told a mutual friend (I heard later) that she was excited to see him again. In her case, I should probably have felt the same. Over the years she must have sat next to any number of self-centred men at dinner – you know the ones – who never ask a question yet, puffed up with needy masculine ego, assume you will uncover every achievement and interest in their lives. Sitting next to J she would have dazzled but been enchanted too, since he, the consummate interviewer, would always be sure to find out what made the most humble person tick, let alone a beautiful soprano. He went to Blagdon that day. They fell in love. How can I know what happened? The novelist in me could write the scene and invest it with heady tension. But I never asked how it all came about, and speculation is irrelevant. What’s more, in the days following I noticed no change. Our life was hurtling on in its normal way, and I had no inkling of any undercurrent tugging my husband into deeper water. But just as one reads a novel, listens to music or looks at a great painting differently once you know the circumstances of its composition or future, so it is impossible to look back without seeing clouds mass over our farm, our life. So now I see everything we did after 23 February in the light of what was to come. Evenings with friends in London during which we argued about Iraq; me interviewing Ben Okri at the Bath Literature Festival; our children visiting for weekends to tell us how their jobs were progressing; one special evening when J and I ate caviar (a gift from a friend), blinis and sour cream helped down by shots of bison grass vodka, followed by pot-roasted pheasant and mashed potato with good red wine and then home-made rhubarb crumble and my own ice cream – all by candlelight in front of a crackling dining-room fire. Good times, all – yet now overshadowed. My own days were made gloomy by work on my lecture for Bath University. Despite the laisse-faire attitude of so many of my peers, my attitude to pornography and the insidious ‘pornogrification’ of society – a subject I’d visited often in journalism – has remained constant over the years: I detested it for reasons that went beyond feminism and perhaps might be called humanist. And now the cruel hydra of internet porn is indestructible. I investigated, read – and became depressed. The dark world I uncovered revolted me even more than I expected. With hindsight it was a mistake to take it on; the task made me withdrawn, and perhaps less observant of what was going on in J’s life than I might otherwise have been. A diary entry is very telling: 20 March: The farm is bathed in sunlight but I proceeded to make myself miserable by doing a trawl of porn sites to see what can be accessed freely and easily. It was far, far worse than expected and as I went on I became so overwhelmed by the scale of the horror that my mouth was dry – and at one point I had to walk out into the garden for air. The birds were singing, the crocuses pale gold in sunlight, and sweet little Bonnie rushed about at my feet – all white, all innocence. Yet not even she could make me feel better. That other world was ‘in’ my computer, ‘in’ the very air that I had breathed in my study. I felt polluted. Everything spoiled by it. The violence, the hatred against women defies description. This wretched lecture is a terrible black burden pressing down on me. Meanwhile J was spending much time in London making extra programmes about the war in Iraq and besides writing the lecture I was planning a trip to Kenya for the charity Plan International, to visit my sponsored child and write about the trip for the London Evening Standard. I was also unwell; not in pain but afflicted by inconvenient female problems which grew worse and worse. And amidst the repetitive exhaustion of my diary I see one entry, laden now with irony. I went to visit a friend who had recently moved to Bath and wrote: ‘What would it be like to be middle aged and alone, your husband having departed? I should realize, perhaps, just how lucky I am.’ Two months later, I was in the Bath Clinic. My womb had gone, but my room was full of flowers. When the anaesthetist came to see me he admired them and I said, ‘Yes, I’m lucky.’ He was tall, middle-aged, South African. He smiled and said, ‘You make your luck.’ In the silence after his departure I wondered if that was true. I had just learned that my husband was in love with somebody else – and yet that was not the worst thing. During the previous weeks he had seemed so weighed down. It was inevitable that he would have to share it with me – because, after all, we shared almost everything. When, after many years, a married couple become linked symbiotically, they may perhaps live as brother-sisterly best friends and soulmates rather than lovers, yet know what the other is thinking, before the thought has formed. As Judith Thurman puts it (writing about Colette), ‘A marriage may be sustained by a deep complicity between two spouses, long after the extinction of desire.’ You are attuned to nuances of mood – unless, that is, you allow work and other preoccupations to blind you. The lecture given, the programmes completed, everything else laid aside because of my physical health and the urgency of the hysterectomy, I became aware again, woke up to the real world. And the horizons all around our home filled with his unhappiness. Dates and details do not matter. The simple truth was this: J and Susan Chilcott had fallen passionately in love, but their affair was not to last long – as such. For only about three months later she discovered that the breast cancer for which she had been treated two years earlier had returned, spread to her liver and would not let her live. The beautiful woman of 40, at the very height of her powers (although perhaps not, since opera singers grow in maturity), with a four-year-old son whom she adored and called the light of her life, had been given her sentence. She could expect perhaps another three months. I lay in my room at the clinic, minus my womb, looking at my flowers, full of sorrow for her, brooding hopelessly on the pitiless inevitability of it. Like J, I wondered how people could believe there is a god. Morphine-induced imaginings chill the soul. I had a dream in that scented room. I am a woman who has lost many children, yet I am outside her, looking on. She goes with my husband to visit a certain church, running through the flowery graveyard as if for refuge. She is drawn to ascend the winding stair into the gallery and her husband follows. Up there is an elaborate monument, covered with dust and spider webs. It is black and grey marble, with skulls beneath. She is looking up and sees that the names of the dead on the tomb are those of her own children, and as she stares in disbelief something is rearing up, a carved figure come to life, arms stretching out towards her. And she is plucked, carried up into the air, then hurled forward over the balustrade, to smash down dead on the floor of the church below. In this short time her husband has been frozen by the stairwell. Now he darts forward to look over the balcony at the corpse lying broken. But even as he looks a form rises by it, a wraith, a personification of malevolence. It looks up; he cannot even cry – struck dumb by what he sees. And then there is a jump cut, as in a movie. A railway station, and a young girl waiting for a train. It chugs in, one of the old-fashioned type with compartments. The girl sees one with a woman in it – with her head shrouded in a scarf – and gets in because she feels safe. Oh no, but I knew – even in the dream, the watcher knew. That spirit would kill other people’s children. Nowhere was safe. (‘Oh Lord,’ I wrote, ‘what was all that about?’) Our beautiful home awaited me, and it was sunny when I returned. Daniel and Kitty came to visit, as well as my parents – who lived near by. Because of the necessity for post-operative quiet I had no difficulty in keeping what I knew from everybody else. I had been looking forward to this time of rest and reading, with Bonnie on my knee playing the role perfected by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Flush, ‘in his eternal place on my bed’. She would be like the little dogs at the feet of the ladies on medieval tombs, eternally vigilant, devotion incarnate. The point is, at this stage I had no doubt whatsoever that what was happening in J’s life would be endured, coped with and survived. My journal records: ‘There is a space inside me, where what we must think of as “womanhood” used to be. The loss of it seems less a source of regret than of celebration. Space in my body. Space in my mind. Space in my life. Vacuums are always filled, aren’t they? So we shall wait and see what flows inwards.’ I did not know that home would never be the same again. Susan Chilcott sang for the last time in public in June 2003, at a concert in Brussels. She was accompanied by her friend, the pianist and Radio 3 presenter Iain Burnside, and the performance was with the actress Fiona Shaw, reading from Shakespeare. Susan wore white linen. She sang (among other things) the Willow aria from Verdi’s Otello, when the doomed Desdemona, full of sorrow, remembers a song from her childhood: The fresh streams ran between the flowery banks, She moaned in her grief, In bitter tears which through her eyelids sprang Her poor heart sought relief. Willow! Willow! Willow! Come sing! Come sing! The green willow shall be my garland. Later her voice would rise in a crescendo as she begged, ‘Ch’io viva ancor, ch’io viva ancor!’ (‘Let me live longer, let me live longer!’) as death, in the form of her husband Othello, stands over her. J was in the audience, with other friends. You would need a heart of granite not to see how unbearably poignant it must have been. The word ‘heartbreaking’ is overused, like ‘tragic’ and ‘hero’. Anyone who watched Susan Chilcott’s last performance, knowing that her life was already ebbing away, must surely have felt a breaking inside. I wrote: I think of her and her son with numbness, because the horror of it is so hard to imagine. As for his feelings … well, my own knowledge of love is so far removed from narrow, tabloid newspaper notions, that I can only empathize. Do we have any choice about these coups de foudre? In this case, I don’t think so. J is permanently upset – how can he not be? I don’t know how he will be able to bear what is coming, but he has made a choice to involve himself and so he has no choice but to endure. Stricken, J asked me if I understood that he would want to spend time with Susan in the three months of life she had left. I told him I did understand. Because I did – and it makes no difference to me that other women might think me mad. This was not something cheap or clandestine; he was going away from me (and I was regaining strength daily, with enormous reserves of inner fortitude, built up over the years) to take care of somebody very special whose strength was waning. Take care of her son too. I wrote: I cannot begrudge a dying woman the love of my husband. Can we choose who we love? To stand in a bookshop is to stand in the midst of a great, tumultuous, seething, writhing, coiling, heaving mass of complex human emotions, and to be deafened by the screams of passion and pain. Who am I to tell them all – all those writers and their creations – that they are wrong? I suppose my sadness is chiefly because I wish J and I could have been all-in-all to each other and yet – after that first intensity of passion – it was never to be. I wonder why? He is still the person I most like to talk to, and whose various roles in life I find the most fascinating. Looking back at us in our youth, falling in love, making a home, doing finals, starting our careers, I marvel at the sheer courage of it all. Yet that swash-buckling love stepped sideways and lost itself among the alleyways of other people, other lives, self-indulgence, guilt. And then we never quite managed to find the way back. The other day I was pierced by a pang that Dan and Kitty will never again live at home with me. Today this farm feels so empty … and yet, truthfully, I am all right. I will get through this. I know that J would not normally be here today, yet he would be here in spirit – but today he is not even here in spirit. But my little dog is at my feet. I reach forward and stroke her. I hear the fountain – and birds. I must begin to make again. Bovine, I had watched him descend the stairs with a packed bag. What would have happened had I thrown myself down, clung to his leg, begged him not to go? I will never know because I didn’t do so. ‘I am dumb from human dignity’ wrote Yeats, and I know what that means. Yes, I am proud – but perhaps foolish too. Later I began an unfinished novel like this: She gave her husband away. It wasn’t that she didn’t want him any more. Oh no, at that point she wanted him maybe more than she’d ever done before. But perhaps that was contrary of her – acting the child who clutches at an old toy because a friend suddenly wants to play with it, but gives it up all the same, in the end. Maybe if she’d clutched a little more fiercely it wouldn’t have turned out as it did. But I watched as blank passivity slid over her, and the woman who had been so deliciously bad in her past embraced a perverse form of sainthood. She became the kind of person friends described as ‘so good’, with that slight shake of the head which indicates disquiet, calling into question their own selfishness, but also her common humanity. Good behaviour can sometimes seem intolerable, since we wish others to rage against the dying of the light, as we would ourselves. I shook my head as she – so generously, so calmly – gave her husband away, and then turned to me as if to ask ‘Why did this happen?’, those great eyes filling, that generous mouth folded into a moue of sadness. You could strike a woman like that. You could shake her until the teeth rattled, and all her features fell apart, that beauty destroyed forever, with all the rest. But I was her friend and that defined my role – to witness all, to allow all, until the moment they both fell into the pit, at which point I would stretch out my hand to help. Sometimes it is easier to tell a story in the third person. Yet I find these days I no longer want to make up characters (except for children) when each day, through my work as an advice columnist, I deal with reality and have to try to tell it as it is. When we were both young journalists J used to ask me if I ever thought of writing a novel. He thought it the way I should go. Excited as I was then by filing reports from every corner of Britain for magazines and newspapers, I said I had no wish to. Why would you want to make it up? I asked him. But he was to encourage me, patiently over the years, to write fiction. Without him, I doubt I would ever have done so. Without him, I doubt I will again. On 20 June my parents came to lunch to celebrate my mother’s birthday and the ‘official birthday’ of Bonnie, who had come to live with us on that day a year earlier. Lunch was outside in the courtyard, under the cream umbrella. I tied ribbons on Mum’s chair, on Bonnie’s basket, round her neck. J’s absence was unremarked because it was unremarkable. He was a busy man. The dog’s presence made it all much easier. By focusing on her and the meal I could deflect any anxiety my perceptive mother must have felt, looking at my face. Here I reach the limit of what I can write about that summer. So much must remain unrecorded, although I will never forget. Too painful to recall the hope we shared that after it was over (it was not possible to utter the brutal words ‘After she is dead’) we could put it all back together. J and I had been through much in our long marriage but we recognized that this earthquake was truly terrifying, like nothing before. I wondered if, afterwards, we would find we had moved on a ratchet, making it impossible to go back. Can you go back? I asked myself if I would be able to live with a perfect ghost – my husband forever haunted by that amazing voice, like a mariner tied to a mast still hearing the fatal sirens’ song. I wondered – when I finally told our children and the three of us talked obsessively about the subject, raging over bottles of white wine late into the night as moths slammed at the kitchen window – if I could recover the man I had known. Susan Chilcott died in J’s arms on 4 September. The obituaries were unanimous. The Independent noted: ‘Her death came three months after she made her operatic debut at the Royal Opera House, in which her “radiant” and “glorious” performance outshone even that of her co-star, Placido Domingo.’ The Guardian said: Susan Chilcott, who has died of cancer aged 40, was one of the most compelling and intense English operatic stars to emerge in the last decade, with a wonderfully fresh, attractive and open personality and a rare commitment to her work. Her career was so distressingly short that too little of her best work has been captured on DVD or CD. But her singing had a purity and a forceful dramatic impact that made her a formidable operatic actor. Her last role on stage was Jenufa, which she sang in English for Welsh National Opera last March, with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting … Sadly, when the run ended, Chilcott was too ill to record the work with Mackerras, as he had wanted. Her last performance, in Brussels in June, was … with the pianist Iain Burnside and actor Fiona Shaw – and she was singing better than ever. Chilcott made an indelible impression on those who saw and heard her, or worked with her. On the day of her funeral at Wells Cathedral hundreds of people gathered to pay their respects. By this stage I had begun to feel enraged that – in the eyes of all those people – J was ‘allowed’ the role of widower. In fact Susan was married to her manager, although they were not living as man and wife and he was not the father of her son. But what do such details matter? I had packed my own bag, said goodbye to the dogs and cats, felt the (increasing) pang at leaving Bonnie – and was off to Heathrow. At the very hour of her funeral I was high above the Atlantic, en route for my beloved United States. I had work to do, but also needed to escape. Snapshots in a family photograph album can come unstuck in time – adrift from captions which identify person, time and place. Will future generations know who they were, those faces caught faking smiles? Will any of it survive? Knowing all, remembering all, I can still only bear to offer small fragments of what Philip Larkin calls ‘a past that now no one can share’. In Point Reyes, Marin County, somebody has altered a sign on a wall from ‘No Parking’ to ‘No Barking’ and my laughter is over the top, hysterical. But when, not long afterwards, I see scrawled on a post overlooking San Francisco, ‘I almost died here – but no such luck,’ I become ridiculously upset. The view from the Marin Headlands – the Golden Gate Bridge, dwarfed sailboats, white caps on sparkling water – is perfect, and yet I feel my head is crumbling. I talk obsessively about Bonnie to anyone who will listen (mercifully, Americans like dogs), miss her dreadfully and note, ‘Who would have thought I would be so dependent on her?’ Pulling out her photograph to show to our lovely, kind niece, who shares a house with friends in Oakland, I think of Amy Tan and my last visit, when none of this misery could have been dreamt of. The point is, in talking about my love for my dog I’m really talking about my love of home, of J – just as Elizabeth Barrett Browning used Flush as displacement. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/bel-mooney/a-small-dog-saved-my-life/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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