I’ve now just about reached that delightful stage in life where you’re no longer exposed to the horrors of other people’s children. This is because my friends’ offspring are mostly either safely away at university or virtually invisible in some far-off room staring at a screen, appearing only briefly to grunt some cursory greeting as they collect their food or drink before retiring once more to their virtual teenworld.
But just when I thought it was safe to go back into the water, I’ve discovered that it isn’t, actually, because my friends have started to replace their vanishing children with something much, much worse: their stupid bloody annoying dogs.
Like children, dogs are the litmus test for all your friends’ worst weaknesses. You think your friends are normal and sensible, with the same values as you — which is why they’re your friends. But when you see them with their children or their dogs, it cruelly, in some cases almost fatally, exposes the irredeemably vast gulf that exists between their way of doing things and yours.
This happened, I remember, with our once bestest of best friends Bob and Livia (names changed to protect the guilty). Being left-wing bohemians, Bob and Livia didn’t believe in fascistic stuff like bedtimes or indeed regular mealtimes. We very much did. Though today I’m about as laissez-faire a dad as you could ever meet, in the early days I was so strict that the Fawn used to call me Dr Mengele. Probably I’d read in some book that routines are important, so I cleaved to them religiously.
And it worked. From impressively early on, our kids were sleeping through the night, leaving the evenings free when we went to stay in the country with Bob and Livia to enjoy some much needed downtime, smoking dope and listening to Portishead and Tricky. At least it would have done had our friends’ (slightly older) kids not been on a completely different time and discipline schedule, ruining everything by going ‘Mu-u-um. Mu-u-um’ and ‘What’s that green stuff you’re putting in that cigarette?’ Eventually the band split. I blame parenting-differences.
Now the same thing is happening with dogs. Take my brother Dick’s lurchers, which he seems to have acquired at least in part to replace the beloved daughter he has lost to Sheffield University. I wouldn’t mind if, like the absent Freya, they were sparkling and delightful company. But they’re not. They have all the charm of feral velociraptors.
The first lurcher — a black-and-white one, called Orca, obviously — was fine until he came under the corrupting influence of his evil companion Lemmy. Lemmy is a growler and a biter. You’ll be sitting next to him on the sofa, chilling in front of the TV, when for no reason he’ll suddenly snap. And instead of going: ‘Bloody hell. It really is about time I got this useless rescue dog put down’, Dick will make amused cooing noises, like it’s some delightful quirk which really everyone should appreciate.
Our dog, by the way, is never allowed on the sofa — let alone, as some people’s grotesquely overindulged pooches are, permitted anywhere near the bedroom. But when you’ve got friends with dogs to stay, it seems the rule is that your house rules must be bent to accommodate their house rules: even if, as was the case with some recent visitors, those rules extend to letting their manky canine specimens wander where they will, pissing all over your carpet.
Obviously I would never embarrass them by naming names. Let us call them Michael and Sarah G., a high-powered couple who may or may not have political and media connections. As it happens, they also have youngish children but the children are no problem: sparky, uber-bright, endlessly entertaining. The dogs, not so much. Yes, it may be that one of them won some kind of prize in Westminster and that the other is an extremely rare and special breed — a Lhasan Yak terrier, or something. But yellow stains on the landing carpet are just as annoying wherever they come from. And they never come from our dog because we keep ours in an outdoor pen all day, where proper working country dogs are supposed to be, not having the run of the house like some Notting Hill lapdog.
Why don’t I put my foot down? Well, where people’s dogs are concerned, you just can’t interfere. It would be like telling them their daughter is ugly or their son stupid or that their parenting skills are non-existent. Worse, even. I’ve still not forgiven our village for failing to award our spaniel the prize for ‘prettiest girl dog’ at the summer fete. Indeed, I might well have torched the village hall in entirely justified protest had not honour been redeemed when she won the prize for ‘waggiest tail’.
Also, especially where my brother Dick is concerned, there’s a degree of background guilt involved. You see, one weekend, he came to stay with a previous lurcher and we went out for a walk. Every new field we entered, Dick would cast about anxiously, looking for hidden dangers that might harm his precious hound — to the point where the tension was almost ruining the fun of the amble.
‘Oh for God’s sake, this is the proper country not your ruddy local park,’ I almost said, but didn’t — which was just as well, given what happened next. The lurcher put up a hare and, as lurchers will, disappeared at warp speed into the twilight.
Next time we saw her, after a long, long search, she was lying panting by the road — her back broken by a car. It was heartbreaking. Since then, with other people’s dogs, as with other people’s children, I’ve always been careful to bite my tongue.