Read Diary of a Dog-walker Online

Authors: Edward Stourton

Diary of a Dog-walker

About the Book

‘If you are accompanied by a dog you can talk to anyone, and anyone can talk to you – about anything . . .' And they do. Edward Stourton's walks with Kudu, his dog, become an opportunity for wonderfully unlikely encounters, and reflecting on the world from the dog-walker's perspective proves remarkably illuminating. Ed and Kudu's small trips to the park offer up big insights into romantic attachment, honour and heroism, guilt and depression, our sense of duty, beauty and the hard facts of life's pecking order.
Diary of a Dog-Walker
is witty, wise and will be utterly irresistible to any man or woman with a dog.

Contents

Cover

About the Book

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Copyright

Diary of a Dog-Walker:

Time spent following a lead

Edward Stourton

To Fiona, Eleanor and Rosy, the women in Kudu's life

1

Letting a Dog Into Your Life

Diary of a Dog-Walker

Daily Telegraph,
Saturday, 30 May 2009

ONE OF THE
Dog's admirable qualities is an instinct for friends with elegant owners, and it is a glamorous gaggle that gathers around the bandstand on this fine May morning. We are in Battersea Park, across the river from Chelsea, and one or two of the hacking jackets on display are cut with just a little more dash than is strictly necessary for dog-walking.

They are all there – the sniffers and trotters, the sprinters and plodders, the yappers and slobberers, the shaggy and the
soigné
. While they do their doggy
thing about our feet, we, their masters and mistresses (or perhaps their servants?), do ours. We talk. Here, I have discussed everything from high politics in the Middle East to the low points of divorce, from children and jobs through plays, books and exhibitions to holiday homes, the credit crunch, and – of course – canine triumphs and tragedies. This easy-going social intercourse is the great revelation of dog-owning in middle age. If you are accompanied by a dog you can talk to anyone, and anyone can talk to you – about anything.

To get there, you need the capacity for benign amnesia that allows mothers to repeat the pain of childbirth and authors to submit themselves to the racking anxieties of a new book. I once shared my life with a rumbustious Spabrador (a Spaniel/Labrador cross) but even her most searing indiscretions have now been rose-tinted into jolly anecdotes. When she was a puppy my daughter trained her to use a sheet of newspaper as her lavatory: one Sunday morning she jumped on to the bed as I was reading the
Sunday Telegraph
and, before you could say ‘Pavlov', there it was, hot and steaming in the middle of a piece of finely crafted prose from Sir Peregrine Worsthorne (no offence, I am sure, intended).

You also need a post-modernist ability to hold two completely contradictory views simultaneously in your mind. We who make our regular pilgrimage
to Battersea Park know that a dog is just a dog (whatever the park's splendid Buddhist Temple may hint to the contrary), that it will never write a great book or win a Nobel Prize. We know that evolution has taught it the charm that compels our attention to its wants and needs. And yet we allow ourselves to speak and think of dogs as friends, individuals with a full claim on our affections.

The reward is that dog-walking becomes like reading a novel, or watching a play: disbelief is suspended and, for an hour or so, we are given licence to escape ordinary life. Fantasy flourishes, and really quite trivial moments in dog life become a source of wonder to be repeated, discussed, laughed about and even worried over with its human family.

The novel the Dog and I enjoy in Battersea is at the Jane Austen end of the market. He can do a noble profile that would put Mr Darcy to shame. One of his admirers, while skiing in St Moritz, bought him a collar studded with golden cows; it gives him the slightly foppish air of the Alexander Pope dog whose collar carried the legend

‘I am his Highness' Dog at Kew;

Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?'

And I was once approached in the park with an unsolicited proposal of marriage, conditional, of
course, on a full inspection of his pedigree (the lady in question, with a home off the King's Road and a weekend shooting habit, could not have been a more suitable bride, but sadly the pedigrees revealed that his father was her grandfather).

Here, at home in his local park, he has a south-London life that is more
Trainspotting
than
Pride and Prejudice
. Not many of his smart Chelsea friends have looked up from their snuffling to see a heroin addict lowering his trousers in search of a vein that still works. There is a Stockwell swagger to the Dog's style, fancy collar notwithstanding.

His name is Kudu. In the next of these columns I shall introduce him more fully – and explain where he may take us. Then we shall follow his nose.

I was over fifty and a hardened hack, but I was as nervous as hell when I sent in that first column.

I sat down to write it and stared at the cursor at the top of an empty screen. It brought on a terrible failure of nerve. The nice thing about mainstream news journalism is that you do not generally have to work too hard to persuade the audience to engage; if you are reporting a war or a superpower summit, or interviewing a president or a prime minister (I've done six of the last eight British ones, which makes me feel dreadfully old), it is fairly self-evident why the story matters. Could I really persuade people that my daily doings with the dog were a ‘must read' on a Saturday morning?

Because I have worked – mostly – as a broadcaster, I have spent all my professional life ruthlessly excluding any hint of personal opinion from my output; a column, of course, is an entirely personal piece of writing. And while scripting for broadcast means being direct, simple and, above all, linear (lesson number one: a viewer or listener cannot go back to the beginning of the story if they miss something in the way a newspaper reader might), the columnist's art lies in discursive sallies and a judicious seasoning of baroque stylistic curlicues.

So, what a relief it was when the paper thudded on to the mat that Saturday morning and the piece was really there. My wife pointed out unkindly that Kudu's head-shot was rather more flattering than mine, but it was still a milestone moment in my journalistic career.

The column was an accidental child of a rather miserable moment in my professional life. In December 2008 I learnt that I was losing my job as a presenter of Radio 4's
Today
programme. One of the unexpected consequences was the discovery that I was a popular figure with the readers of the
Daily Telegraph
. The newspaper ran a campaign on my behalf and a surprisingly (and very gratifyingly) large number of them wrote in to support it. When the dust had settled, a senior member of the paper's editorial team got in touch to ask whether I would be interested in writing for them on a regular basis.

I felt rather sheepish when I pitched the idea of making Kudu's life the focus for my contributions: it was about the time the paper was beginning its revelations about MPs'
expenses, a story that has had a profound and lasting impact on the character of British politics. Dog-walking seemed a tad trivial by comparison. But, to my great delight, the bigwigs gave the proposal a thumbs-up.

Laurence Sterne's character Tristram Shandy attributes his obsession with the subject of Time to the conversation that took place between his parents at the moment of his conception: ‘
Pray, my dear
, quoth my mother,' he writes in his
Life and Opinions, ‘have you not forgot to wind up the clock? – Good G-!
cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time –
Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?
' Kudu's journalistic future was perhaps sealed in the same way because he was conceived – as a concept, rather than literally – in the course of a longish liquid lunch.

The great journalistic tradition of lunchtime boozing on a heroic scale is almost dead now. In 1979, when I joined ITN as a graduate trainee, the entire staff would abandon the building for the pubs and restaurants of Fitzrovia and Soho. The general reporters only really had to work if they were assigned a story, so they would simply set up camp in a restaurant called the Montebello in Great Portland Street, merrily pouring red wine down their throats until the news desk called on the restaurant phone (no mobiles in those days, of course). If you had a contact to entertain it was Bertorelli's, L'Escargot or the Gay Hussar, and the company paid.

Nowadays we are all far too busy – and, anyway, the culture will not allow it;
Private Eye
's perennial caricature
Lunchtime O'Booze should really be renamed Lunchtime No Booze. Journalists are a good deal healthier as a result, and I, for one, do not have anything like the stamina I had then – much more than a glass at lunch and I need a power nap (actually more of a siesta) to recover. But I regret the passing of the institution. Contacts sometimes told you things over lunch – real stories that no one else knew about. And it was, above all, a chance to discuss ideas, swap gossip and generally ruminate on the World in a relaxed and expansive way. It made journalism – dare I say it? – fun. I was lucky enough to be part of the wonderfully inventive team that got
Channel 4 News
off the ground, and quite a lot of the creative juices that made the programme the institution it is today were released by Charlotte Street pasta and Chianti.

So, on those rare occasions when the chance of a good old-fashioned journalistic lunch pops up, I'm afraid I leap at it. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001 I made several radio series about the impact of that terrible day. The formula was simple: persuade as many as possible of the key political and diplomatic players to talk to us, ask them to tell their stories, and then weave the different accounts together. It worked better than we could have hoped. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we managed to put together both sides of a telephone conversation between senior politicians from different capitals, and the narrative could be compelling. But it was hard pounding, and at the end of each of these epic efforts the exhausted producer, editor and I would go out to lunch together to celebrate.

It was in the course of one of these convivial, very mildly boozy (wimpishly so, by the standards of the 1970s and early 1980s) lunches that our editor mentioned her English Springer Spaniel bitch was pregnant. There was a waiting list for the puppies, but there might – who knew? It depended on the size of the litter – still be a couple that needed homes …

It was one of those moments when a constellation of factors comes propitiously together. I was about to begin a new book, so I knew that for the next six months or so I would be avoiding too many foreign trips. And having been a dog-owner when I wrote my first book, I remembered what useful aids to creativity they can be: when your head feels clogged with facts, a good stomp through greenery can be just what it needs to shake them into a shape that makes sense.

And my life on the
Today
programme seemed settled then. The
Today
working pattern means being in the office when everyone else is at home (I used to leave at three forty a.m. and get home just before ten) and being at home when everyone else is in the office – so the dog would not be left alone for long stretches. Finally (I kept quiet about this one) I rather fancied some male company: at the time, the other members of our household were my wife, my daughter, my stepdaughter and two cats (one male, but he had been neutered, so he didn't quite count); the mix needed gender balancing.

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