Monday 14 January 2008

Roly. RIP.

This will all sound completely bonkers to anyone who has never owned a dog and to those who can never conceive of an animal being considered as an integral part of a family.

But my dog Roly died suddenly on New Year's Eve and I feel compelled to write about him because I'm possibly still in shock and definitely missing him badly. It's not surprising really as I've spent more daylight hours with him over the past eight years than any other single person.

He was a gorgeous, soppy, stinky dope of a spaniel who was utterly joyful, lifted my spirits, kept me fit and was always game for a walk, a run, a car ride or a cuddle. His sudden absence leaves the house seeming empty, sterile and less of a home. Even the garden and pond look duller.

It was Monday afternoon that I had to give my vet permission to put Rolls to sleep. He suddenly became ill with complicated pancreatitis which, in spite of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, raged in him so strongly there was no pulling back.

So who among you would miss a great big pain-in-the-ass of a dog? The kind of dog who would plunge into the deepest puddle, swim the mankiest pond, gulp down disgusting stuff before you could get to him - then come up to you with the proudest look on his face before doing you the honour of a comprehensive, detritus-spattering shake?

He'd drool on your trousers, ask for a chew, paw your leg to remind you to take him for a walk, even climb ponderously on to your lap to get up close and personal or just lie flat out on the floor snoring loudly.

Some people asked “What kind of dog is he?”

“An English Springer Spaniel.”

“Oh. A bit big for a springer isn't he?”

“Yes but he's from show stock not working lines.”

“Ah” they'd say with doubt in their eyes.

One countryman-type was determined to force the issue.

“He's no springer, my dear. He's a Munsterlander. Definitely too big for a springer.”

After lengthy discussions, we eventually agreed on a runty Munsterlander and he went away happy and satisfied with his superior dog knowledge. It was the quickest way to deal with it. He wasn't going to back down and I wasn't going to get on with the walk unless he received full agreement.

If I was writing, Rolls would be under the desk, snoozing warmly draped over my feet, occasionally expelling some noxious fart. If I laughed he wanted in on the fun and would lick my elbow approvingly. If I wrote for too long, he'd pointedly go to the door to indicate time was running short for walkies.

He liked baths because they were followed by a bull-fight style game with old towels in which he'd leap into the air and try and catch them before they were teasingly snatched away. Being a trophy-winning show dog in his early years who had his day at Crufts, he enjoyed being trimmed and groomed.

Handsome? I thought so. A lovely head, as the judges used to say, well-sprung ribs, legs which were strong in bone with a well-set tail, albeit docked, which showed unquenchable enthusiasm for everything and everyone including the vet. Much more than looks, though, he had a boundlessly joyful personality. Every time I unlocked the front door if he wasn't at my feet bursting to get in, he'd be capering about the hallway and would have to bring the nearest slipper or toy as a greeting.

He was exceptionally expressive; as demanding as toddler. My mother reckoned he could almost talk. As we chatted at the kitchen table, Rolls would demonstrate his best, straightest, most attention-seeking sit, waiting to catch mater's attention with purposeful brown eyes.

We used to wind him up by ignoring him but eventually mum would cave in and ask “So what do you want?” He'd go immediately to the cupboard where the chews were kept and stand with his nose pointedly against the door, tail wagging madly until she relented.

He knew the times of his breakfast and dinner and he knew if we'd forgotten to give him his epilepsy meds. Epilepsy appeared when he was two but it was controlled with meds so his fits usually happened in the night - a tolerable inconvenience.

I took him virtually everywhere with me and he came on most holidays. We walked together on the Malverns, in the Forest of Dean, in the Cotswolds, swam together in the sea in Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, walked and biked on vast windswept beaches and the centre of London where we found an absence of doggy bins near the MI6 building for understandable reasons. He was a model guest in hotels including the Hilton in Leeds where, on the eighth floor, he'd sit waiting for the lift and rise to his feet when the “ping” indicating the doors were about to open.

His literary career was still in its infancy but he managed to be a Featured Blogger here at MyT and his blog about the Tour de France last year earned him a prize, which has to be some kind of bizarre record for a canine.

Away from the keyboard, simply watching him bounding away across the hill or bouncing up into view intermittently in a field of long grass was uniquely life-enhancing.

Against all the best health and safety dog advice, he liked to fetch sticks - the bigger the better. His most ambitious was a small tree about seven feet long complete with branches.

It would take him a while to balance the larger timbers. He'd put the thing down and pick it up again at a different spot a couple of times before getting it dead centre and would trot along head high with his prize as though doing a lap of honour.

Watching him trying to get his tree through the bottom of a stile was a lesson in dogged persistence. There would be a lot of concentrated knocking and bumping and manoevering as he experimented with the best tactic and then suddenly, he'd be racing towards me brandishing his precious tree with undisguised glee.

His neck was strong and he would have been good at carrying game, if he had been bothered. He was essentially a show dog of limited working ability and never got the hang of enthusiastic retrieves or flushing. He didn't move fast enough and had a high boredom threshold when it came to retrieving dummies. He'd do five max and then look as though to say “I've done the same bloody thing five times in a row. Throw it again if you like but just don't expect me to get it.”

He loved to come out with the bikes, trotting along on the extending lead or galloping with the lead bike on cycleways. Passers-by grinned watching Rolls pelting along, tongue bouncing up and down and ears flying back in the wind.

His big problem was a gargantuan appetite sharpened by the epilepsy meds. He'd steal food from anyone anywhere. He raided some family's barbecue last year - fortunately the family were all happily lager-sozzled and laughed heartily. He also burgled two picnic bags in the car on consecutive days while we were at Hay Festival. The first time he got the zip undone and cleared the contents, crunching his way through plastic boxes to get at the goodies. The second time, the zip had been secured, so he simply ate a hole in the side of the picnic bag and dragged stuff out.

Not to be outdone, I drove nearly 50 miles to get a dog-guard with the aim of separating Rolls from the rolls. The nice Halfords man assured me it was suitable for all dogs.

“Even a totally ravenous springer spaniel?”

“For ALL dogs, madam.”

Yeah. It took Roly twenty minutes to dismantle it. We tightened it further. It took him ten minutes, then three minutes as he warmed to the challenge. In the end, it was only a zoo-quality professionally-fitted dog guard which suceeded in protecting us from his appetite.

Roly was larger than life and the best company. That's the trouble. There's so much of him to miss.


Thursday 10 January 2008

Roly's Tour Diary

July 2007

Until yesterday, TV coverage of the Tour was exceptionally tedious. Don't get me wrong, I like proper cycling but that programme they keep watching just can't compared with Dogs with Jobs or Animal Planet. So I was dozing nicely when she suddenly shouted “Someone get that damn dog off the course!”

I glanced up to see some brainless labrador wandering among the riders then Marcus Burghardt ran straight into him.

A very embarrassing incident. That dog was definitely in breach of regulations. It wasn't wearing a number or a helmet and everybody knows you should wear both during a race. What was he even doing there? He'd be a hopeless climber - far too portly (although I suspect he'd have a momentum advantage on the downhills).

I blame the owner. It wasn't lardy-boy's fault that he wandered amiably among the frantic competitors. No doubt he could see that crumb of power bar which I spotted by the opposite kerb.

He wore a sheepish “Ooops sorry mate. Am I in trouble?” look as Burghardt sprawled on the tarmac. Just as well Burghardt wasn't seriously injured.

My extremely mean owner keeps me on a very tight lead at races or if there's food lying about at nose level. You know the sort of thing, dead seagull, horse manure, half-eaten burgen, the odd chip - all very desirable stuff. She's very boring.

No doubt they'll be glued to the box again this evening but I prefer the real thing. I remember the road races. Full days out in the fresh air, food, long walks, stopping for her to hand a bottle or two, a fragment of banana bar if I was lucky and then the joyous greeting at the end.

What cyclist who's just ridden 60-80 miles doesn't welcome an exhuberant springer spaniel reception party? Forget the pecks on the cheek from the dolly girls on the podium - my welcomes much more effusive and the exactly the same if he'd finished 40th or 1st.

I don't get out cycling much these days. The last time we went mountain biking in the Forest, I beat them on the climbs and I don't think it went down too well. The words fat and old spring to mind while I am ripped and in my prime.

Sex and food excepted, there's nothing to compare with the exhilaration of racing alongside the lead bike at full pelt, ears aerodynamically flapping in the wind.

They haven't taken me for some time though, ever since I made the wrong turn at a forest junction and went off with the wrong bike for several miles. The guy had to turn round and take me back to my people. Course, I couldn't explain it had been a sharp left and I was blinded by my ears at the crucial moment.

So cycling expeditions these days are a bit tame - a quick one down the cyclepath to the Farm Market and back AND I still beat her on the uphills, which occasionally has attracted comments from pedestrians.

She keeps talking about wanting to see Chablis and drink Tignes (or was it the other way round?) and I've got my own EU passport now.

I live in hope. I'll show 'em who's boss on those climbs.