Matthew Parris

What a demented dog teaches us about life

What a demented dog teaches us about life
Text settings

I met the late Darcy ten years ago, and wrote about him. I was 59 and he was 12. I was a Times columnist, and he was an Australian sheepdog. ‘Kelpies’ they call them: black and tan, in build and temper not unlike our border collies, energetic, intelligent, irrepressible but trainable, and occasionally neurotic. Darcy was not neurotic except in one pitiable respect, and I shall come to that. I studied him and wrote about him, but in the decade since have come to understand more deeply what his condition teaches about my own, and human, nature. I wrote about this dog as an oddity. I now see that Darcy was an illustration, not an aberration: an illustration of what can go wrong in the circuitry of the brain.

Here is Darcy’s story. The loving family whose pet he was had a weekend place in the Australian bush, isolated and wild. On Darcy’s first visit as a puppy he saw, on the other side of their fence, a dead sheep. The encounter stirred something atavistic within his kelpie soul. Fascinated, he kept rushing at the fence, yapping; and for the entire weekend nothing but force could tear him away. Next time he visited, the carcass had been cleared and there was no trace of it, but he made a beeline for the exact place, and started rushing the fence again, and barking.

This was to continue for the rest of his 14-year life. My friends tried everything: they took him to the far side of the fence but this seemed only to confuse and agitate him more — he wanted to be on the wrong side, rushing the fence, barking and snapping his teeth. This he would do all day, every day, from the moment of his arrival, unless restrained. He would do it until his paws bled, and the patch of ground he paced was worn down to its rock base. Fully grown, he could scale the fence easily but he didn’t. One place, one perspective was what he craved, focused on a fiction. My friends kept bringing him into the house and, obedient, he would slink behind them — but return to the fence as soon as backs were turned. He could relax only if tied up. Untied, he seemed conscious of a terrible Sisyphean duty from which there was no release. My friends sensed that on one level his obsessive duties made him miserable; but on another they became a driving purpose for life.

Back in Sydney he seemed able to shake off the dark side, put aside his ovine neurosis and romp happily in the parks. But there was forever in his mental landscape a place, a fence and a memory to return to. His owners, the Australian columnist Richard Glover and his partner, the playwright Debra Oswald, learned to manage but never resolve the problem. Richard wrote about Darcy for the Sydney Morning Herald, whose readers became familiar with the soap opera of a dog obsessed, so that by the time he died he was widely known and loved.

I, meanwhile, have never forgotten Darcy, and will never forget his problem. In milder form that problem, I’ve come to see, is also mine, and yours, and to some degree every human being’s.

I’ve written on these pages about Brexit and the way it’s driving me mad. Ten years ago, with horrible prescience, I ended my Times column about Darcy by remarking that when his life was over, an amused providence ‘may reincarnate him as a Euro-sceptic MP. Then for decades he can leap up and down on the green leather benches snapping his jaws and barking at Brussels.’

But I never guessed that it would happen to me, too, an ardent Remainer, snarling, snapping, barking and leaping at an imaginary fence on the other side of which I seem to see, like Banquo’s ghost, the apotheosis of Leave. Half the people I know languish, wretched but unyielding, on one side or the other of this fence. We long for release but not, somehow, escape.

And now the Darcy syndrome has struck again, this time on a small, parochial, yet for me intense scale. I shall not trouble you with the issue. It is honestly of absolutely no consequence. But some people I know have done some other people I know a minor injustice, and for some weird reason I just cannot expel it from my mind. In the real world I made my position clear and have since refused to return to it: I can’t stand it when other people keep stirring, so I won’t fall into the sin of agitation. There would be no point. I absolutely know that. Or the rational part of my brain knows it.

But in idle moments — rather like that tiresome melody you just can’t get out of your head, repeating and repeating — I keep returning in my imagination to my version of Darcy’s fence. I bark my disapproval. I imagine the response and then phrase my response to the response. I compose in my imagination tiny dramas in which the other side are hoist with their own petard, and savour the schadenfreude. I imagine circumstances in which the tables would be turned.

I even work out the phrasing of the things I’d then say: painstakingly courteous, restrained, taking care not to gloat or sound remotely vindictive. Or perhaps I would say nothing, seeming to rise above it, allowing my silence to speak my reproach? I have spent scores of hours at sleepless times in the reaches of the night, churning, threshing, reviewing imagined developments of this story as I star in my own drama as a caped crusader against petty injustice. Yet all along knowing — never for a second doubting — that this is silly, unimportant and, anyway, water under the bridge.

Can a kelpie know the same? Would canine self-awareness have softened his punishment? Or sharpened the pain? Rest in peace, Darcy. I understand, now.