Working Cocker Spaniels
Besotted is too feeble a word to describe my brother-in-law’s bottomless love of his cocker spaniel, Macintosh. But since I’ve scoured my vocabulary without success for an alternative that conveys the full force of his feelings, it will just have to serve.
So besotted is David Urquhart that he has burst into print for the first time in his 62 years, writing and illustrating a children’s book about his best friend. His mini-masterpiece, Macintosh Working Cocker, was published only last month by a small local firm in his neighbouring county of Worcestershire.
As you see, the timing could hardly be more fortuitous — and if I didn’t know Davey better, I would suspect him of having had inside knowledge of this week’s news, which has suddenly made the cocker the most fashionable and talked-about breed in the English-speaking world.
I mean, of course, the revelation in yesterday’s paper that in December the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge acquired a male cocker puppy, which they have been settling in at their rented farmhouse in North Wales. (I shall address the state secrecy surrounding the animal’s name in a moment.)
But there are several reasons why I acquit my brother-in-law — to be strictly accurate, he’s not mine but my wife’s, since he’s married to one of her four sisters — of seeking to cash in on the royal connection.
One is that I can’t see how he could possibly have known about it. Another is that in all the 32 years I’ve been married to his sister-in-law, I’ve never known him to make an astute commercial decision.
But the most compelling is that you have only to glance at the book (and reading it from cover to cover will take you less than five minutes) to realise that his only motives for writing it were pure love of his cocker and a compulsive desire to declare that love to the world.
To him, Macintosh is as powerful and irresistible a muse as the Dark Lady was to Shakespeare when he was writing his sonnets. The dedication alone, with its bracketed hint of self-reproach, is enough to tell you that this is the work of an incurable dog person: ‘To Bimbo, Snake, Punch, Wallace and Otis (who have never had a story written about them).’
More from Tom Utley for the Daily Mail...
Now, I haven’t been brave enough to ask my sister-in-law what she thinks about her husband dedicating his first published work to five dead dogs. As far as I’m aware, she has never had a story written about her, either. Nor have their four children or their grandchildren.
But I suppose that after nearly 40 years of marriage, she’s had to get used to the idea that while she and her brood may be his favourite people in all the world, there’s a part of a true dog-lover’s heart for which no mere biped will ever be able to compete — least of all, it seems, if the competition is a cocker. Duke, Duchess, beware. Before readers part with their £4.50, I should warn them not to expect great artwork from Davey’s book — a point which he acknowledges on the title page: ‘Written and (poorly) illustrated by David Urquhart’. And when I say that the amateurishness of the drawings adds to rather than detracts from the book’s charm, it may be that my judgment is clouded by my affection for the author.
But charming it certainly is, as it charts Davey’s early difficulties in training Macintosh — ‘ “He won’t make a gun dog, ” said Mr D, “but we love him and he’s a smashing family pet” ’ — before building up to a triumphant climax at which you can feel the author’s heart fair bursting with pride. But I mustn’t give the ending away. Enough to warn the sentimentally inclined to have a hanky ready.
At this point, I’m going to alienate many readers by admitting that I’m not at all a dog person myself — and this is in spite of (or perhaps partly because of) the fact that I’m the owner of a 13-year-old Jack Russell cross.
Believe me, I’ve tried to love dear, dim Matilda (no Uggie she). And anyone who is worried may rest assured that my wife loves her more than enough for both of us.
But I wish she wouldn’t bark so much in the garden. I find taking her for walks much less a pleasure than a chore, made all the more exasperating by her unvarying initial refusal to budge from the sofa (I thought dogs were supposed to like walks). And where others see undying devotion in her eyes, I see only reproach.
But there are moments when even I understand something of the uniquely powerful bond that can exist between a man and his dog.
I sensed it the other day, as I was performing my grim duty of trudging round Dulwich Park with Matilda. I took a diversion from our habitual route to visit the crime-scene where metal thieves had made off with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture. (‘The people who stole this had no consciences and no soul, ’ a Dulwich mummy told her five-year-old, in a most Dulwich-mummy-like way).
I envy my brother-in-law his bond with his labrador, left, and cocker spaniel, right (stock photos)
Anyway, Matilda didn’t notice I’d gone off-piste — her eyes are not what they were — and she continued along our usual path. I can’t have been out of her sight for more than three minutes. But when she found me again she greeted me as if I’d been away for a year, her tail thrashing wildly and her rear quarters writhing from side to side, like a jack-knifing lorry on ice, in her ecstasy at our reunion.
It’s at moments like these that I envy the Daveys of this world, whose bonds with their dogs are constant and true.
I think of his black labrador Otis, one of the five who never had a story written about them. He used to roam round the Gloucestershire fields on the pull, until the foot and mouth outbreak meant he had to stay indoors. To keep him in the house, all Davey had to do was put his suitcase in the hallway, knowing that Otis wouldn’t stray for weeks, while he feared his master might be going somewhere without him.
Or I think of Major, the family Alsatian of my wife’s childhood, who used to arrive unaccompanied at the school gates every afternoon to escort her and her four sisters home. How blissful it must be to have a faithful friendship like that.
But here’s the difference: I remember Matilda’s birthday only because it falls on the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. If I were a proper dog person, I would remember the date of the princess’s death only because it fell on Matilda’s birthday.
Which brings me circuitously back to the unfathomable mystery of why the Cambridges are keeping their cocker’s name secret, instead of trumpeting it to the world, like Davey.
‘He is a private pet and they do not want his name to be made public, ’ says a Palace spokesman. At first, I thought this was plain bonkers, or even a little sinister, with its hint of superinjunctions.
Dull: The Queen called her first corgi Susan. Here's hoping Kate and Wills have come up with a more interesting name
But the more I think about it, the more I realise how different and difficult everything is for them — and that an ill-chosen name for a royal dog could even precipitate the collapse of the monarchy.
What if they’ve called the beast Cameron, Miliband or Clegg? What if he’s Adolf, Goebbels or Mao? What if it’s something insufferably twee, like Sir Roy Strong’s cat, the Reverend Wenceslas Muff? Or, God forbid, what if they’ve idiotically named him after Guy Gibson’s black labrador?
Indeed, whatever they’ve called him —unless it’s something as ineffably dull as the Queen’s first corgi, Susan — somebody, somewhere is bound to be offended.
But if their royal highnesses will take my advice, if only to silence the fevered speculation, they’ll volunteer the information that the nation is burning to know.
After all, it’s bound to slip out one day. And whatever the risks, they cannot surely be greater than the danger that their cocker puppy will run off with one or the other of their hearts.