Philip Hensher

The shame of Ian, the lockdown pup


The park we go to every day is Victorian – large, full of mock landscapes and extravagantly diverse settings, lakes, woodlands, formal gardens and tiny wildernesses. We went on a guided tour of Buckingham Palace’s gardens three years ago, and afterwards my husband said: ‘Well, it was very nice. But Battersea Park is nicer.’ Above all, it’s capacious – of different tribes, who only very occasionally meet.

The woman owner was clasping her hands, and pink with shame. ‘Ian? Ian? Ian, why won’t you listen?’

It was a Sunday morning, and the anglers were in place in their sullen portable canvas caves, backs to the world, staring at the water. The lake isn’t their personal fiefdom, though; dogs are fascinated by it. Mine  will sniff at it, but never plunge in. The unfamiliar dog now running away from its owner, however, was a plunger, and after a moment’s giddy, poised anticipation at the brink, was in.

It was one of those hybrid, kipper-coloured breeds – created for maximum big-eyed fluffiness with results of uncertain intelligence, biddability and daftness. Its owners, a youngish professional couple bustling up in its wake, were calling faintly after it with no result. ‘Ian? Ian? Oh, Ian, stop – please stop, won’t you?’ The polite appeal was not registering. The dog had seen a bunch of Battersea’s fattest ducks, and was in the water, swimming furiously after what might, in his dreams, turn out to be dinner.

My dog Greta is a very ladylike schnauzer, and stood leadlessly gazing at this bad behaviour with open disapproval. Ian’s swimming technique was doughty, and the opposite of the famous description of a swan’s style; the furious effort below the surface was matched by a joyous flailing of the head, neck, ears and tongue above it. His speed was precisely matched to the ducks’, but ten feet behind.

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