‘This isn’t a mental institute, it’s a dog kennel.’ Adolfo Bioy Casares
I’m a recent convert to the aimless joys of dog walking. I borrow a dog so the pleasures are more acute. Face it: a man walking alone in the woods looks like a potential suicide or a sexual predator. Bring a dog and you prove you have another purpose.
As past-times go, it’s fairly low key. Wander wherever you choose, or where the dog will choose to follow. Take a music player to provide ambience. You toss a ball, the dog runs out to catch it. If you’re lucky, it brings the ball back. You can lose whole afternoons in this way. Places you might normally pass by become essential, and you develop an intimacy with obscure tracks into the landscape. A meadow underneath the Wiltshire hills. A banal creek outside a small Hampshire town. Finsbury Park.
‘Lost from sight where planting and cleared scrub
Give on the ride, a plantation to the right
Opposite, unmanaged coppice bolting skywards
But her bell heard, its tinkling travelled ahead’
Andrew Crozier, Free Running Bitch
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about dogs over the years. They even represented something of an idée fixe for a while, poor things. At one stage, I found myself to be most definitely anti-dog. I mistrusted them for their servility, the way the wildness had been trained out of them but lay unpredictably under the surface, their impulse for freedom chained to a front porch. Notebooks from those days are cluttered with dog associations from my reading; bit by bit, in whatever way, these contributed to my first novel. A dog quote from another writer (Elizabeth Bowen, or Thomas Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy) became a touchstone, a shibboleth. I’m still not sure what everyone is doing with all those dog asides, but they contribute to a hidden, high-pitched code, which only a few tune into. Go looking for dog references, and you gather from the ground a hidden genre.
‘As soon as children go/ Dogs come in.’ Edward Dorn
Day by day, you get older and find yourself ditching your youthful delusions. I’m not sure when my attitude to dogs shifted, but somewhere along the line I became a devoted dog lover. Partly, perhaps, it has something to do with the anxiety involved in watching my daughter grow up. Dogs certainly satisfy the need to provide. But there’s another impulse as work, I think, and probably it’s to do with that route into the landscape. My life has been marked by a vague, perpetual longing for somewhere else. I longed for America, and when living there, became fascinated with an idea of home. In the country, I dreamed of the city. In the city, for a while at least, I dreamed of the country.
These days, I’m pretty much confirmed as a city dweller. I accept the expense and the aggression; I make patterns through its spaces through practiced routines. The instinct to move from the city to return to the rural, the hopelessness of that dream: it all becomes focused on those walks with a dog. Probably, I’m cursed by hiraeth, that melancholy attitude of my Welsh heritage, which is partly mood, partly myth. One day, perhaps, I’ll leave the city, and live a life of quiet, consumerist repose, like Thoreau with a Netflix account. And I’ll probably be walking a dog.
‘Do you ever examine the gullies of the English countryside? Under the twigs, under the dead leaves, you’ll find tennis balls, blackened. Girls threw them for their dogs, or children, for each other, they rolled into the gully. They are lost there, given up for dead, centuries old.’
Harold Pinter, No Man’s Land.