A Measure of Living

It’s 6:00 am on a February morning.  The air is chill as I slip out from beneath warm blankets.  Ice has formed inside the window pane of my bedroom and I scrape it away to peer into the darkness at the frosted world beyond.  It is 1960.  I am fourteen years old.  

Outside our front door lies a bundle of newspapers, dropped by the newsagent’s van.   I will take them in, sort them on the kitchen table into an order to fit into my canvas bag, then I will take the bicycle from the back shed and set off on my ‘round’ of the country lanes that I cover every morning.

I don’t remember how many customers I had.  They were farmers for the most part, and villagers whose working hub was the nearby town.  Few travelled far, in those days.  As a rule they were tolerant, kind people who suffered their news in wet and dilapidated condition on rainy days with little complaint.  The canvas bag did its best, but it rarely succeeded in keeping the Daily Mails and The Times, the Mirrors or the Manchester Guardians completely dry.   I hated wet Sundays.  Sunday ‘papers were so heavy with supplements and extras I sometimes had to make two runs to spread the weight.

Dogs persist in my memories of those days – more, perhaps, than people.  Ralph was a Border Collie who helped drive his master’s cow herd to milking about the time I came past.  His method for asserting his authority was to leap up and swing on the tail of the rearmost cow.  Heavy with milk, the matron would half-heartedly flail a backward foot, but she never really seemed to mind.   When he wasn’t working he sat on the wall next to the road.  Ralph expected to be petted.

The architect at the end of the road owned a Great Dane:  the dog knew I regarded him with sufficient terror (he stood nearly as tall as I) to employ avoidance tactics whenever possible –  there was a long path to negotiate before his owner’s letter-box, and he looked forward to my daily visits with enthusiasm.  I was his favourite game.  Picture my young self, if you will, anxiously peering over the front gate to make sure the coast, as it were, was clear.  Picture the Great Dane hiding behind a rose bush of generous dimensions, watching as I stole stealthily up the path, slipped his master’s newspaper through the letterbox, and turned to beat my fast retreat, at which point he would stroll almost casually out onto the path, cutting off my route to safety.  Our eyes would meet.  I swear by the curl of his lip he was laughing. That dog had the deepest, most spine-chilling bark I have heard before or since.  I called him Baskerville; I don’t recall his real name.

Puttie was a Highland Terrier, a ‘Westie’.  Puttie’s owner, a nice comfortable lady, taught him to come to the front gate and collect his mistress’s ‘paper.  She accompanied him the first time to reassure me that Puttie knew what to do and it was all right to lean over and give him the rolled-up ‘paper.

“Are you sure?”  I asked her.

“Yes, certain, dear.  He’s very clever, you know.”

So I did.  I leaned over and delivered the newspaper into his jaws.  Puttie received it with enthusiasm, thereafter proving he was also very fast on his feet.   Seconds later, after he had disappeared behind the house, there came the first sounds of shredding.

“I expect he’s just taken it inside,” his owner explained, although she didn’t sound convinced.

That was an exercise never to be repeated.  I was told subsequently by nice lady’s son that Puttie not only took the newspaper indoors, but scattered bits of it around every room in the house.  He also defended it with vigour, while it still had entity, resisting any attempt to take it from him.

My ‘paper round paid me, as I recall, fourteen shillings a week.  It filled the two hours before our school bus came to take us over the hills to the local seat of learning.  It kept my own personal wolf from the door in the winter months, became a chore in summer when there was farm work to be done – potato raising, fruit picking, harvesting, in the evenings.  By and large they were good days, when a ‘child’ of twelve, thirteen or fourteen could ride the hay wain home, pitch straw with forks or (my favourite) ride the sled behind the bailer.  Farmers were mean paymasters, but we learned to work for our living.  We were respectful, a little fearful, and we were strong.

Then, in Britain, some might say the downward spiral began.  One day in a town called Minehead a beat bobby sought to discipline a miscreant teen by giving him a clip behind the ear.  In those days that kind of correction was common enough, I had been on the receiving end of a stout policeman’s severity once or twice myself.   It was simple, it was effective, and nobody died.  It nipped a thousand potential lives of crime in the bud.  The parents of that boy sued the police and won.  The beat bobby was a beat bobby no more, the constabulary paid up, thereby setting a precedent from which have sprung countless opportunist law suits, ranks of ambulance-chasing lawyers and a Health and Safety culture with which every former bastion of authority must ingratiate itself for fear of damage claims and destroyed careers.  

No more the hay wain rides, the thrusting of bales from the sled.  Even paper rounds are suspect now, and besides, those who might have earned from them are too busy throwing bricks at policemen, intimidating their teachers, or roving the streets in gangs.    You might disagree with me, in fact I’m pretty sure most of my fellow bloggers will, when I suggest that whenever we try to subvert the natural order of things by law we make them worse.   In the cocoon of my modern life I do occasionally reflect in this fashion.  Today I decided to share.

Featured Image by Sergey Mikeev from Unsplash

Image of Great Dane by Keenan Barber from Unsplash

West Highland Terrier by Sharon Tay from Unsplash

See the Tree, How Big it’s Grown…

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Honey (Labrador; blonde, too fat) exhibits all the cool intelligence of her breed.   Wide brown eyes, folds of extra flesh that cushion her head as she sleeps, a judgmental poise that speaks of wisdom as old as time.  She surveys her territory from her French windows with an imperious air, where her growl of warning causes the boldest heart to flutter.  She does not merely understand the word ‘cat’, she can spell it; just as she knows three words for ‘walk’.   She is 34 kilos of muscular objectivity.  Any intruder would be entirely justified in vacating her space with all possible expedition – or, if you prefer, running like hell.

“Is the dog all right?”  Our postman asks nervously, as Honey shows him a mouthful of teeth.  He has read the sign at the gate:  ‘Intruders may be gnawed.’

Never have appearances been so deceptive.

Confronted by a stranger male of our species Honey reacts like a garrulous gander; head borne low, eyes wary, throat vibrating with guttural sounds of danger – but just like the gander she utters her threats whilst walking backwards, and if her immediate pack members are present she will hide behind their legs.  In such situations I have sometimes wondered if she were moved to carry out those muttered menaces she would bit my leg rather than that of the intruder – a sort of assault by proxy:  fortunately, however, although she has no love of men she has never been moved to bite.   Ever.

Females evoke suspicion, though hostility is rare.  Children provide amusement, for the most part, as long as they do not tease her.  She is selective in those she likes and those she does not, whether of our species or hers.  She will not tolerate the ritual bottom-sniffing that is expected by other dogs she meets.  She detests small-talk.

She likes:

Investigative walking,

Chasing (birds, cats, anything that will run away)

Tummy rubs

Back scratches

Moisturizing Creams (which she licks, BTW.   Honey doesn’t moisturize, personally).

 

She dislikes:

Wearing a lead that is unfashionable

Wearing a lead at all

Confronting anything (birds, cats) that will NOT run away

Floor tiles (She skids on them and they terrify her).

Postmen.

It is five years since Honey interviewed us in some depth and decided she would agree to be part of our family.  She was a rescue dog;  by which I mean we rescued her former owners from her.  There was no written contract – Honey mapped out the terms of our agreement by her actions, and obedience is not a word that applies to Honey.  She is not entirely disobedient; she will respond if lacking better things to do, generally subject to negotiation.  She will not, for example, abandon a really interesting scent in the cause of ‘coming to heel’, or return indoors on rainy days, at least until she has swum in a minimum of two polluted ditches to load up her claws with mud.   Nor will she consent to visit anywhere resembling a veterinary surgery, allow clandestine attempts to cut claws, or agree to have reeking flanks washed after rolling in a particularly interesting odor.

The areas where response is possible, and therefore our House Rules, have developed and modified over the years of her stay.  There are many, so I will limit myself to a few examples:

‘Bed’ – she will go to bed if commanded.  (‘Bed’ consists of the most comfortable chair or settee in any given room, whether or not it is already occupied).

‘Game’ – this consists of ‘rough-housing’ and allows Honey the opportunity to practice on her Pack Leader the moves (and wounds) she would like to apply to the Postman, if she had the courage.   The throwing of balls or Frisbees as a ‘game’ is not recognised.     She is happy to chase or catch a ball, with the object only of acquiring the ball.  Apart from a certain squeaky rubber item which has become her lifelong companion, all toys are for trade.   If Honey presents either of her pack members with a toy she makes it plain she wants something in return.

‘Treats’.   She can hear the opening of the appropriate cupboard door for one of these (usually a chew) from approximately half a mile away in a gale. ‘ Treats’ are an entitlement, not a bargaining chip.  They are awardable upon set occasions, like the end of a walk, or returning from garden ablutions before bed.

‘Walks’.  Walk times are prompted by the closing music of certain television programs, or when anyone passes within ten feet of her lead, which hangs in the hall.  The route for a walk is determined by Honey, who will pick her desired program for the day.  Attempts to vie with this are subject to refusal.   The whole exercise ceremony is complex, and takes account of such things as clothing worn, weather, and the possibility of a ride in the car.

‘Daily Schedules’.  These must be rigorously observed:  Honey rises at 7:00am, acknowledging the right of the male Pack Leader to have his first coffee of the day in peace.   Bedtime is midnight at the latest, when the dominant female retires.  (Female Pack Leader’s status is constantly questioned, and this issue often results in argument.  If FPL fails to keep to designated bedtime, Honey will tend to retire by herself).

‘Meals’.  Meal times are 7:00am and 5:15pm, with a special exception for Tuesdays when cooked fish is on the menu, which she is happy to eat as soon as possible, often straight from the pan if the cook turns her back.  At the moment food approval ratings are high, but it is incumbent upon the Pack Leader to vary her diet from time to time.   Honey has a special look of disappointment she reserves for a choice that has been badly made, together with the final sanction she may return the dish with interest ten minutes later on the best rug.

In return for our consent to honor these basic conditions she has formed a deep attachment to us; a devotion a little like stalking.   In practical terms this means we must survive the rest of her lifetime without stepping backwards, knowing that to do so will mean falling over Honey.  It also means she feels free to follow her Natural Retrieval Instinct Part One, which consists of bringing back any box or packaging we throw away.  She seems never to have achieved a Pass Grade in Natural Retrieval Instinct Part Two; delivery of the retrieved object in good condition to her owner.  Instead she tears the object, symbolically, a few times, before losing interest.

The fierceness issue; that deep bass voice which could give such an able rendition of ‘Old Man River’ (if she knew the words) has never withstood any logical test.  An early morning outburst occurs as she erupts from the door into the front garden, although there is rarely any threat at that hour.   Thereafter she will sit on guard at the gate, ready to bark a warning at – well, not everybody, as it happens.  Uniforms generally evoke a savage-sounding response, otherwise we can only conclude that her vocal warnings imply a judgement of character.

So here we are, Honey’s pack, five years on.  I won’t pretend they have been easy years:  the words ‘Dog Pound’ have been uttered more than once, and by her reception of him, I judge she has never quite forgiven our son for bringing her to us.  But she has condescended to share some of her time with us, to deliver her verdict upon other dogs she meets and for that, I suppose, we must be grateful.    Otherwise please do not stint in your sympathy:  we are truly worthy of pity.

A Taste of Honey

Inspired by a chance visit to http://mylifewithwieners.wordpress.com/  which cast some very interesting light upon the political philosophy of Dachshunds.

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Honey

 

Anyway, there’s this dog.

Let me state clearly at the start I did not want another dog.  I was dead-set against pet ownership.  I wanted a peaceful, tranquil old age.

I blame my son.

Of all people, he should know I am a soft target where animals in distress are concerned. So if he knew of a young Golden Labrador that was being neglected, kept in an open concrete yard and irregularly fed, he should have kept the tale to himself.  He should not have told me.  Above all, he should not have asked my wife and I if we could take the dog.

Enter Honey.

Well, perhaps ‘enter’ is the wrong word.  I tend to prefer alternatives, like ‘invade’ or ‘irrupt’.  Rather less of an êpêe, much more like a broadsword. 

We have always had rescue dogs, so problems, usually baggage from cruel memories, are not new to us.  When Honey leapt from the back of my son’s car that morning our arms and our hearts were open.  By sunset we had begun to wonder whether it was Honey we were rescuing, or her former owners.

I don’t even like the name.  I told her that – just after she ate a hole in the full-length curtains and before, if I recall correctly, she destroyed my first pair of slippers.  But when a dog has issues, you shouldn’t change her given name because it may upset her.  And you wouldn’t like Honey when she gets upset.

I believed myself to be an experienced dog owner (I will avoid the term dog lover because it raises certain unsavory connotations) so in my first encounter with Honey a short, awkward period of familiarization between canine and master, then some moderate training to produce a devoted servant, was what I had come to expect. This did not entirely match Honey’s expectations of our relationship. 

Alpha male?  You? 

Throughout an intense series of back garden sessions Honey instructed me in her own higher values.   Commands were not unwelcome, but neither were they for slavish obedience.  They were open to question, subject to negotiation.  For instance, she would not come to me just because I called her.  There had to be a reason, and if she had a better one she would pursue that and come later, when she had finished.   Food tips, clickers, tins with pebbles were to no avail.  She was always ready to accept food, but only on her terms.  Any sharp rattling noise was sort of scary, but also kind of amusing.  She would be happy to play with such devices, of course, but not reward them with a conditioned response.  I came to understand quite quickly that she had never heard of Pavlov.

Now, some four years later Honey has a brilliant understanding of the English language.  Her vocabulary of at least two hundred words includes such direct terms as ‘walk’, the more subtle W-A-L-K, or the downright obscure ‘perambulate’.  She knows words such as ‘post’ or its derivative ‘postman’, ‘letter’, ‘dinner’, ‘dish’, ‘liver’, ‘biscuit’ – the list is endless.  Notable exclusions are: ‘sit’, ‘wait’, ‘come’, and that keystone of the dog training world ‘heel’.

There are people, most of whom are our relatives, Honey does not like; and although more an expression of reserve than overtly aggressive, her continuous low growling can disrupt the natural flow of conversation.  She harbors a special loathing for my sons, whom she probably blames for bringing her here. Total strangers she takes to her heart readily.  She has never actually offered violence to anyone, notwithstanding the list of dogs she would cheerfully disembowel: even the elderly lady she knocked over recognized her innocence, once the blood had been mopped up, on the basis of a rather over-enthusiastic attempt to be friends.

After four years we have learned, my wife and I.  We are really quite obedient, all things considered.   As long as the food rules are observed, the walk routines kept, all is well.   Honey is fiercely protective of us, would never willingly leave our side no matter what the provocation (In making this statement I except cats, which she hates).  She will guard our house, bring us the post in the morning (and sometimes the postman if we leave the door open) whilst looking after us in a hundred other ways as our kind, understanding friend.  In exchange, we accept her occupation of the most comfortable chairs in the house, as well as her comprehensive facial washes every time we stoop low enough for our reward. 

She understands everything.  Everything.

She is watching me now.  Just sitting, watching. 

All things considered, I’m glad we offered Honey a home:  thankful, too, she allows us to stay here with her.    I will be sure to get this post up this evening, but I know she will insist upon reading it first.  And even as I close, she is reaching for the blue pencil…….