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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (canis ovem)

The Jake's Progress

After several clandestine conversations with people in the know, I obtained a secret phone number, which I rang.

"Hello?" said a tentative voice.

I said the password that would unlock certain savoury secrets, "I want a dog,"

"That is indeed the correct password," said the voice. "Welcome to Adopt-A-Dog."

"I'm glad I got it right," I said, "but technically it's called a passphrase because there's more than one word in it."

"Errmm..." said the voice.

"Though since it has a verb in it, it's actually more like a passclause than a passphrase," I mused.

"But..." said the voice.

"Though since it makes sense as a stand alone object, it probably ought to called a pass-sentence," I said, following my train of thought to its logical conclusion.

"Never mind all that," said the voice. "Tell me what kind of dog you are looking for."

"A grammarian," I said firmly.

"That's a very rare breed," said the voice, "and we don't have any at the moment. Will anything else do?"

"I want a dog who understands that cats are in charge of the universe," I said. "We have two cats and they are not going to take kindly to a dog moving in. So respect for cats is essential. Also we don't want a puppy – we want a grown up dog who knows what's what. And it needs to be a proper dog, not a rat with a fancy hairdo."

"I have just the dog for you," said the voice enthusiastically. "Jake is a huntaway cross who is currently being fostered in a house that is owned by a cat called Shumba. Shumba is a thug, and Jake has quickly learned respect for all the feline race. You can see the training scars on his nose."

"A huntaway?" I asked. "Aren't they normally working dogs on farms?"

"That's what they were originally bred for. But they make lovely pets as well."

"OK," I said. "That sounds good. What's the next step?"

"Here's the phone number of Jake's foster parents," said the voice and it gave me a number which I wrote down. "I'll tell them to expect a call from you."

I rang Jake's foster parents and we agreed a date and time for them to bring Jake round to meet us so that we could see how we were all going to get along with each other.

And that's how we met Jake for the first time.

"Hi," said Jake, wagging his tail and licking my face.

"Hello, Jake," I said. "Sitting over here is Robin. Say hello to her."

"Hello, Robin."

"And the cat on the sofa is called Bess," I said. "Be wary of her. The cat who is nowhere in sight, because he ran away outside as soon as you arrived, is called Harpo. You probably ought to be wary of him as well."

"Hello, Bess," said Jake, and he stretched his head out and sniffed her.

"Piss off!" hissed Bess, and she threatened him with a claw.

"Careful Jake," said Jake's foster mum. "She'll give you a snotty if you get too close. You know what cats do. She's just like Shumba."

"OK. Got it," said Jake and he returned his attention to me. "What are you like at giving tummy rubs?" he asked. He rolled over on his back and his paws became extremely limp-wristed. I gave him a tummy rub and he went into a trance.

"Well, you two seem to like each other," said Jake's foster mum. "Before we let a dog move into a new home, we always like to meet the people and inspect their property, just to make sure that it's suitable for dogs. We look for a secure, fenced area for the dog to run around in which is definitely important for the dog's future happiness. But actually I think it's much more important to see just how the dog reacts to the new people. Dogs can always tell if they are going to be happy or not in a new place, and sometimes when we visit a potential home, the dog just falls asleep without interacting much at all with the people. I'm pleased to see that we don't have any problems like that here. Jake seems quite at home already."

"He's a lovely dog," I said. "What's his background?"

"He's a failed huntaway," said his foster mum. "He's not very good at herding things because he's got the attention span of a gnat – he's always getting distracted by something new. And he's afraid of sheep, which is a big disadvantage when it's your job to herd them. But the farmer put him up for adoption instead of just shooting him because he's got such a lovely temperament."

"So, Jake – you're scared of sheep, are you?" I asked him, and I stopped rubbing his tummy for a moment.

He briefly came round from his trance. "Nasty, woolly horrors," he muttered. "They kick without warning you know. I don't like that. How about you steer your left hand down a bit and start rubbing there?"

I did as instructed. His head fell back and his eyes glazed over as he relapsed into a coma again.

"Well it's beginning to look like a done deal," said Jake's foster mum. "Let's start the administrative processes and get the paperwork out of the way. I should think that he'll be able to move in with you next weekend. How does that sound?"

"Sounds good," I said.

"Yes, indeed," said Robin.

"Oh, goodness me. No! Don't do it!" said a horrified Bess.

"See you next Saturday," said Jake as he trotted off with his foster mum.

We spent the next week stocking up with dog stuff. We bought a kennel and put a cushion in it. We bought a bucket and filled it with water so that he'd always have something to drink. We bought an enormous bag full of dog biscuits for him to eat, and we bought a rope so that we could play tug'o'war with him. We bought dog chews for him to gnaw on, and dog treats to surprise him with when he was extra-specially good.

The next Saturday Jake came back to our house. "Oh, hello," he said. "It's you again."

"We probably ought to make this quick," said his foster mum. "So I'll go back home straight away and leave Jake to make himself comfortable with you."

"Welcome home," I said to Jake. "You live here now."

He shook himself, then he sat down and scratched. "How about we go for a walk?" he asked.

Because I have dogs on my mind, I was overjoyed to find a new novel by Spencer Quinn. Woof is a YA novel about a dog called Bowser and a young girl called Birdie with whom he lives. Together they solve mysteries. Quinn is perhaps best known for his Chet and Bernie detective novels for adults. Woof appears to be his first YA book. Nevertheless he's simply taken the winning formula from his earlier novels and applied it to this book – quite simply, all the stories are narrated in the first person by a dog.

It is clear that Quinn knows his dogs – I've always found the narratives of his novels very convincing, and Woof is no exception. Bowser isn't Chet, but nevertheless he still has the same doggie preoccupations. But of course dogs don't understand the strange things that people do or the strange events that surround them and neither do they understand human motivations, so how is it possible to tell a story from a dog's point of view that simultaneously makes sense on both a human and a doggie level? That's where Spencer Quinn's genius shows itself, for he manages this difficult task perfectly. It seems clear that there will be more Bowser and Birdie adventures in the future, and I am already looking forward to reading them.

The BBC has made a series of programmes derived from Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I've been enjoying them hugely and after watching them, I've gone back to read (or in some cases re-read) the novels from which they derive, so as to compare the two. I must say, the BBC has done their usual magnificent job of translating the novels into a visual drama.

Strong Poison is (I think) the sixth novel in the series, but it's the novel where Lord Wimsey first meets Harriet Vane, who will go on to become the love of his life. The novel opens with a judge summing up the evidence in a murder trial so that the jury can then consider their verdict. Harriet Vane, a writer of detective novels, is accused of using arsenic to poison her ex-lover Philip Boyes. The jury fails to reach a verdict and the judge orders a re-trial. Wimsey, who has been observing proceedings from the public gallery, is not convinced of her guilt. The evidence against her seems overwhelming, but nevertheless, Wimsey sets himself the task of proving her innocence. It is a race against time, for the date of the re-trial is fast approaching.

Strong Poison is not a particularly good novel in terms of plot – the resolution of the mystery involves a very Agatha Christie-like tricky twist in the tail which weakens it somewhat. I also found the first chapter or so of the novel to be a little bit dull in that it consists of page after page of the droning speech of the judge as he sums up the case. Because we have not yet met any of the protagonists, it is rather hard to care about them very much and the judge's speech amounts to little more than a massive infodump.

But once that's out of the way, the novel starts to come alive as Sayers' sparkling prose takes over the tale. There's a strong wit and a depth of literary reference to her prose that is only faintly reflected in the BBC dramatisation. In that sense, the books, with their flashes of irony and delightfully dark humour, are much richer than the programmes. However Sayers' great strength as a writer lies in her handling of dialogue and human interaction and these translate perfectly to the small screen. Pretty much every speech the characters make in the dramatisation is lifted directly from the book. After all, how can you improve on perfection?

Sayers was also noted for the thorough way she researched her material. Reading the novel taught me an awful lot about poisons in general, and arsenic in particular. Anybody looking to poison an enemy should probably treat Strong Poison as the definitive primer on the subject...

Dorothy L. Sayers is often considered to have been the finest of the mystery writers from the golden age of detective fiction that flourished in the decades between the wars. She was unusually erudite – in an age when women struggled to be recognised as the intellectual equals of men, she managed to earn one of the first English degrees ever awarded to a woman by Oxford University. She wrote a brilliant translation of Dante's Divine Comedy (which she regarded as her magnum opus) and her detective novels are full of quotations from the literature of her age. Strong Poison proves, if proof was needed, that in the hands of a master of the craft, even a weak plot can still make a strong novel.

Michael Dobbs began his working life as a political advisor and spin doctor for Margaret Thatcher. When Maggie's star waned, so did his and he turned to a new career as a novelist. Not surprisingly, given his background, his novels are shot through with fascinating minutiae about the inner workings of British politics. His most famous novels are probably the books that make up the House of Cards sequence which were dramatised to massive acclaim in both the UK and America. I cannot think of any other novel that has managed this amazing feat!

My own favourites of his novels are a series of four books that concentrate on Winston Churchill's career just before, during and just after the second world war. They are perhaps the closest that Dobbs has ever come to stories that completely reflect known history and they are utterly fascinating as a result. They are also a gossips delight, for they are full of scandalous details about the private lives of many famous people. Perhaps fortunately for Michael Dobbs, these people are now all dead and therefore they cannot sue him into silence.

Recently Dobbs has been writing a series of thrillers staring one Harry Jones, an ex-SAS soldier who is now a member of parliament. But Jones cannot completely leave his SAS background behind and he often finds himself involved in terrorist threats of one sort or another. The books are very formulaic – something horrible happens (or is about to happen) and Harry is perfectly positioned to rescue the day. Nasty things happen to him along the way, but ultimately he triumphs. So in one very real sense the books are simple melodramas, best used to pass the time on a boring trip. But in another sense, they are an examination of the both the weaknesses and occasional strengths of modern political structures, and Dobbs cleverly explores the behind the scenes implications of attacking them. And along the way he comes up with some niftily audacious near-future terrorist schemes which will quite take your breath away!

Dry Bones is Craig Johnson's eleventh novel about Sheriff Walter Longmire. If you haven't read the other ten novels, this one won't mean much to you. The characters and the relationships between them are just taken as read, and the background that explains them simply isn't there. In other words this is definitely not a stand alone novel. But having said that, if you are familiar with the characters and setting, you will find that this is one of the stronger novels in the series and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But of course, that's mandatory for me now because one of the major characters is a dog. His name is Dog.

Dennis Lehane's novels Live by Night and World Gone By are a dualogy that tell a single long story. You should make sure to read them in their proper order. (There is a very loosely connected prequel to Live by Night which is called The Given Day for those of you who prefer trilogies). The two books chronicle the criminal career of Joe Coughlin who gradually rises from a simple street thug to become a well-respected big wheel in the Mafia. Along the way, the novels paint a dramatic (and sometimes almost incomprehensibly sad) picture of American life as Prohibition gives the gangsters the means and opportunity to become very rich indeed. Prohibition gave them a mechanism to get a lot of influential politicians, lawyers and judges into their clutches and even after Prohibition is repealed, the gangsters don't go away. With the movers and shakers of the country firmly in their pockets, the mob now becomes the éminence grise of American life. But they aren't untouchable. Everyone is expendable and mistakes aren't permitted within their ranks. A gangster's life will often be nasty, brutal and short.

These are dark and dirty books, utterly without any redemptive features at all. And I loved every word of them. There is no Godfather-like romance here. Even The Sopranos are a bunch of wimps in comparison with the ruthless, money-driven and utterly unforgiving gangsters that populate these two books. Dennis Lehane has always been a good novelist – with these two novels he has taken a large step towards becoming a great one.

I had never heard of Mikey Walsh's until I read his autobiography. It's called Gypsy Boy and it tells of his life growing up as a gypsy, a Romany. Like most people, I know little or nothing about gypsies and this seemed like a good opportunity to learn more. I found it utterly horrifying. Mikey Walsh tells of a way of life where might is right. The only law is the law of the fist. Physical violence was an every day occurrence in Mikey's gypsy world – his father forced him to learn bare-knuckle fighting and to witness it and to regularly experience it. Romany life, Mikey tells us, is all about fighting, drinking, and getting money by ripping off the 'gorgios' (non-gypsies). It's a shallow life – almost all gypsies are illiterate since they never go to school, and they have little or nothing that we would recognise as a cultural identity. They don't even appear to have an oral history or tradition. They just live for the moment. They are a closed community, viewing the world in simple black and white as "us" and "them". The only answer they have to every problem and every intrusion into their chosen way of life is to present a united front and to lash out at it.

Mikey was beaten almost every day by his father in a vain attempt to toughen him up. When Mikey lost a fight (which was always) the beatings would be extra savage. He describes in sickening detail how his uncle regularly raped him.

But to Mikey, all this was perfectly normal. He was not treated any differently from any other Romany child. All his childhood friends shared his values and his way of life. He had no basis of comparison and so he found it unthinkable that things could possibly be different. Even after he left that way of life behind and began to make his way in the gorgio world, he still retained a degree of nostalgia for his upbringing. All through the worst of times, he was never completely estranged from his family. His book makes no judgements and no condemnations.

I have long been ambivalent about Neal Stephenson. He has written one utterly brilliant novel (Cryptonomicon) which I've read several times, and a whole slew of other popular and critically acclaimed books, none of which I've been able to finish. But now he's written something which has grabbed my attention like none of his other books ever have. Seveneves is this new novel, and even though I haven't finished reading it yet, but I am absolutely certain that as soon as I finish writing this review I am going to dive back into it and just wallow in the story.

Sometime in the near future something mysterious happens to the moon and it splits into seven fragments that, for the moment at least, continue to orbit about their mutual centre of gravity. However calculations show that the setup is not stable and within two years the moon fragments will crash into the Earth and all life will be destroyed.

The first part of the novel concerns the engineering effort involved in converting the international space station into an ark that may offer some small hope of preserving the human race. Part two describes the final catastrophe that wipes out the biosphere of the Earth. Part three is set 5000 years after the event when the survivors make a tentative return to the motherworld.

So far I am only about half way through the first part of the novel but it has grabbed hold of me and it simply won't let go. I have no doubt at all that this novel is going to be one of the great ones.

The days passed, and we quickly fell into a routine. Jake gets a walk on the lead in the morning and another one in the evening. Round about lunch time we drive to a local park that is very dog friendly, and he gets to run around off the lead. He plays with all the other dogs, chasing them, herding them and barking loudly at them. Then they chase him for a while. Luckily, all this exercise tires him out so that when he's at home he generally just sleeps. On the rare occasions when he's not sleeping, he passes the time by licking his willy, making loud, satisfied slurping noises as he does so.

"Why do you keep doing that?" I asked him one day.

"Because I can lick my willy, but you can't lick yours," said Jake. "I'm trying ever so hard to make you jealous. Licking your own willy is the best way that a dog has for proving his superiority."

Looked at in that light, I had to admit that everything he said made perfect sense. So now I just let him get on with it while I look on and listen. Enviously.

"Why do you have to slurp so loudly when you're doing that?" I asked him. "Sometimes you drown out the sound of the television."

"I slurp loudly to attract your attention, so that you are in no doubt at all as to exactly what's going on" he said. "I also do it for the same reason that you slurp the last drops of your milkshake up through a straw. These things are so much more fun when they are noisy."

Whenever we go for a walk, we always take our cellphones with us so that when Jake discovers a dead body we can call the police straight away. Jake and I are both addicted to detective novels and so we know that almost all murder victims are found by dogs who are being taken for a walk. We haven't found any human bodies so far, but it's early days yet. We have found a dead rabbit and a dead bird, but they had both been corpses for such a long time that most of their interest had vanished, and thankfully they didn't need to be rolled in. I was very grateful for that.

To begin with, Jake wasn't very good when he was walking on the lead. He was so eager to race ahead that he pulled and pulled and pulled, and then he pulled some more. Because he's a very big and very strong dog, I spent most of our first few walks lying face down on the ground being dragged along by an enthusiastic Jake who was super keen to follow a brand new, fascinating smell that he'd just discovered. Every day I came home with grass in my hair and scorch marks on my jacket from the friction. Something would have to be done.

"OK, Jake," I said, "this is how it works. Every time you start pulling we will come to dead halt. And we won't move until you sit down and calm down. Then you get a treat and we start walking again. As long as you walk without pulling everything will be fine. However every time you pull hard, all the fun stops because the walk stops. Of course, as long as you walk nicely, the fun will never end. How about it?"

"I don't know about that," said Jake dubiously. "But you're the leader of the pack, so I suppose we'd better give it a try."

Huntaways have the reputation of being extremely intelligent dogs. It only took two training sessions before Jake got the idea and by our third outing, he was behaving perfectly on the lead. So it seems that the reputation the dogs have for intelligence is very well deserved. Next week I'm going to start teaching him Relativity. The Special Theory, of course, not the General Theory. It's important always to start with the simple stuff.

Although Jake is well aware of the behaviour expected of him, he is a boy and therefore he is not able to multi-task. When something interesting happens, all his training vanishes, and he starts pulling hard on the lead again. "Something interesting" is best defined as "anything at all". Pedestrians passing by need to be chased down and said hello to. Groups of children on their way to and from school have to be herded onto the edge of the footpath furthest from the road. Other dogs have to have their bottoms sniffed. Interesting smells have to be followed as far as they go. And all these things have to be done at maximum speed. So he continues to drag me around on our walks. So far only one jacket has actually burst into flames, but Jake peed on it to put the fire out, so that was all right.

One of the parks where Jake can run off the lead to his heart's content has a lot of streams flowing hither and yon through it. Many of the dogs who run there will happily dive into the water and swim after sticks. Jake, however, is not a swimmer; he's much more of a paddler. He fastens a knotted handkerchief onto his head, rolls up the legs of his trousers, and splashes happily in the shallows. Other dogs call him a wimp, but Jake doesn't care. He's bigger than they are and he can bark louder and longer than they can.

We've been together for several weeks now, and we have a well defined path that we always follow on every walk that we take. I think it's important for a dog to have a settled routine so that he can get used to the way things slowly change from day to day as we walk around our well-trodden tracks. This became very clear to me when, out of boredom, I went round the circuit in the opposite direction one day. Jake wasn't impressed at all. "What's happened?" he complained. "All the smells are upside down!"

"Sorry," I said. "I won't do it again."

And so far I haven't.


Acknowledgements: I'd like to thank Jane Lindskold, whose comments on an early draft of this article gave me the idea for several extra jokes.

Spencer Quinn Woof Scholastic Press
Dorothy L. Sayers Strong Poison Harper
Michael Dobbs The Edge Of Madness Simon and Schuster
Michael Dobbs The Reluctant Hero Simon and Schuster
Michael Dobbs Old Enemies Simon and Schuster
Michael Dobbs A Sentimental Traitor Simon and Schuster
Craig Johnson Dry Bones Viking
Dennis Lehane Live By Night William Morrow
Dennis Lehane World Gone By William Morrow
Mikey Walsh Gypsy Boy Hodder & Stoughton
Neal Stephenson Seveneves William Morrow
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