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Mad about the dog

Features | December 2016

Gardeners’ World presenter Nigel, the golden retriever, with Monty Don, his owner

Nigel, the golden retriever, is the star of Gardeners’ World, while Frances Wilson is in thrall to her poodle, Daphne. Meanwhile, there’s a new slew of canine biographies, in line with a grand British tradition

We all know Nigel. He’s that good-natured blonde chap who presents Gardeners’ World along with his partner, Monty Don. While Nigel hovers around looking manly, flashing his smile and posing for the camera, Monty, underdog that he is, puts in the graft. Nigel has a Twitter account, a Wikipedia entry and a fanbase of thousands. Every week the postman brings him sackfuls of packages, mostly from adoring women. What is the secret of his success? Monty Don puts it down to natural charisma. ‘The nearest comparison to Nigel I can make’, says Don, ‘is President Bill Clinton’. 

The comparison is startling, not because Nigel is a golden retriever but because Clinton is American. There has never been a more solid English Tory than Nige, with his love of tradition, afternoon naps, muddy wellies and damp ball games. Nigel’s type has passed through our minor public schools for generations; not that he would have been, Don concedes, ‘a scholarship boy’. His charm is precisely his absence of intellect; Nigel radiates instead ‘a kind of existential innocence based upon a combination of absolute trust and limited brainpower’. Gromit to Monty Don’s Wallace, Nigel is one of us , a reliable ‘good egg’ who can, as a parlour trick, balance a bone on his nose. And, unlike Clinton, he would never cheat on his wife. 

Canine biographies are an English eccentricity, and Monty Don’s Nigel: My Family and Other Dogs, is the latest in the breed. Included in the list of our national doggerel is Virginia Woolf’s Flush, her life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, which begins, as the biographies of the great have always done, with a boast about pedigree: ‘It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity’. There is also My Dog Tulip, J R Ackerley’s account of his love for his German shepherd (who was actually called Queenie but, Ackerley being famously gay, was advised by his publishers to change the name). Andrew O’Hagan continued the tradition in The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe, which gives us 1950s Hollywood through the eyes of Norma Jean’s Maltese terrier, a gift from Frank Sinatra. Born in a Scottish croft, Maf combines his interest in Trotsky (dogs, Maf believes, are instinctive socialists) with the snobbishness of the parvenu. ‘A great relative of mine’, he boasts, ‘was famous as the boon companion to Mary, Queen of Scots; another one gained the ravenous affections of Marie Antoinette.’ Maf, who would certainly have been a scholarship boy, can quote Aristotle and Plutarch, and has a nose for celebrity. 

It’s the celebrity dogs that interest me, probably because the first dogs I ever loved were Shep and Petra, the presenters of Blue Peter along with John Noakes and Peter Purves. How I longed to own a TV dog. Like stage mums and tennis dads, all dog owners believe we have a major personality on our hands. India Knight, in The Goodness of Dogs, says that dogs make us better people but they also make us insufferable. We boast about our dogs’ achievements in a way we never would about those of our hardworking children. ‘They say that certain film stars “stick to the lens”’, says Don about Nigel, ‘always being the most interesting, attractive thing in a shot. Nigel is just like that.’ Again, ‘All puppies are sweet. That is their default position. But no puppy was ever sweeter than Nigel.’ Well actually, Monty Don, you should have seen my Daphne. And, boy, does she stick to the lens. 

Daphne was a recovery puppy as opposed to a rescue dog. Dogs, I have learned, are either one or the other: you rescue them or they rescue you. I didn’t much want rescuing by Daphne, but my daughter was in hospital and it was assumed by the nurses on her ward that every child, once discharged, would return home to a dog. ‘Have you got your recovery puppy yet?’ the duty nurse, armed with her clipboard, asked in her crisp voice, ready to tick it off on her checklist. Freshly made bed: check. Food in the cupboard: check. Recovery puppy: check. To avoid a visit from the social workers, I quickly purchased Daphne. 

The only dog I had ever known in real life was a friend’s poodle, so I opted for a black miniature poodle. She matched my coat and the cat; I hadn’t thought much beyond that. I had no idea, for example, that I wouldn’t be able to leave the room without causing Daphne to weep; that she would weep when I went to the loo, she would weep when I was in the bath, she would weep while I worked, while I talked, while I slept. When I left the house, she would stand on a chair, paws on the windowsill, nose pressed to the window, doggy breath forming a cloud of misery on the glass, tears coursing down her cheeks. The only times Daphne didn’t weep were when I was holding her or walking her. So, to get some sleep, I brought her into the bed, which resulted in marital discord. No man, I now know, wants to sleep with a non-human, while all women do. Witness Leda and the Swan, Pasiphaë and the bull, the Princess and the Frog, Beauty and the Beast. 

I learned other useful things too. For example, that you should talk to your dog, but only, as the legendary sheepdog trainer J M Wilson explains, if your talk makes sense. A dog’s command of language may be limited, argues Vicki Hearne in Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name, but his respect for language is as deep as that of any poet. The dog trainer Donald McCaig agrees. The communication between dog and owner, says McCaig, ‘is so subtle, dense, and satisfying that I have known great trainers whose ordinary speech has atrophied’.

So Daphne has language. But does she have a soul? Not according to Pliny the Elder, for whom the presence of a face predicates the existence of a soul. Dogs, like other animals, have heads but not faces. The early photographs of Daphne concurred with Pliny’s theories. She looked like a black smudge, one of those Victorian daguerreotypes of ectoplasm. Posted on a website called Borrow My Doggy, one of these was picked up by a loving couple who said that Daphne looked like the essence of soul. Through Borrow My Doggy, Daphne now has friends of her own and my dog days are over. 

Daphne has, in addition, become a celebrity. In her own time she has developed a face and perfected a range of ‘attitudes’ as Lady Hamilton called them. Emma Hamilton’s impersonations of classic figures, such as Medea or Cleopatra, made her famous as a drawing room entertainer. While she stood on a make-shift stage, attired in a sheet and striking poses, the audience had to guess who her ladyship was pretending to be. 

Lady Hamilton's impersonations of classic figures

Daphne’s talent outstrips that of Lady Hamilton. In a reversal of anthropomorphism, she turns human beings into dogs. Top of the repertoire are her impersonations of Diana, Princess of Wales, Hercule Poirot, Brad Pitt and Young Whitney Houston. She’s rubbish at Bill Clinton though, and is still practising her Marilyn. 





Some of Daphne’s best impersonations: as displayed above, Diana, Princess of Wales, Hercule Poirot, Brad Pitt and Whitney Houston.

This story was from December 2016 issue. Subscribe Now