Sunday, 18 December 2016

Doggy politics

Since acquiring a Labrador puppy two and half months ago I've had more delightful encounters with fellow dog owners than I can count. Today there were bad encounters. The setting was Shotover Country Park, which could be described without fear of cliché as an oasis of nature in Oxford. It's a frequent destination because we live close by, at the moment, and because it's a perfect dog walking place. Because the puppy (Dora) is still so young we tend to hover around the meadow at the top of Shotover, hoping to meet other other dogs for a bit of playtime before heading back home. Dora  is utterly sociable. She hasn't met any person or dog yet that she doesn't get on with. Today, as daylight was ending in a pretty sunset awash in pink, we came across a small group of three people and two dogs. They turned out to be a woman with a rescued Saluki cross (whom I'd met once before, in pre-puppy days) and a gay couple with a young Whippet. They had  just met too. The dogs got along, the owners got along. All was well until an un-neutered  male Staffie came up one of the hills to the meadow, his owner(s) still invisble. Dora and this Staffie were fine. The Saluki cross not so much: he'd been attacked by a black dog before and as the Staffie was a very dark brindle he took against him and had a go at him. Then the Staffie had a go at the Whippet - so much so that one of its owners had to scoop him up in his arms. The Staffie then started jumping to get at the Whippet, several times, while the Whippet's owners and the other lady tried to deter the Staffie. When things got progressively hairier, I also intervened and shouted down the Staffie's barking, interposing myself between him and the Whippet. It was then that the people accompanying the Staffie finally came into view. The owner appeared to be a young woman. The man holding the Whippet shouted at her - quite aggressively - to keep her dog under control. His tone was not good, needlessly confrontational, as no actual harm had been done. And really it was the Saluki cross who had misbehaved first. The Whippet owner continued making this demand, however. The young woman was coming towards us, as full of attitude as he was full of indignation. His 'de haut en bas' tone made me cringe, but I couldn't suddenly turn against him, and could only hope the young woman would not rise to the bait. At first she just repeated 'it's Shotover,' i.e. her dog had every right to be off the lead. Then, sadly, she did rise to the bait. All sorts of prejudices came pouring out of her, too many to detail here. But, in brief, not only did she dismiss the fact of her Staffie having a go at the Whippet as our 'opinion', she lumped us together - disconnected people, who had only just met  - as upper-class Staffie haters who basically thought they owned the world. True, we were mostly middle-aged, all pale skinned and probably more educated than not. But by virtue of her being young and darker skinned and less educated, she seemed to reason that she herself had every right to assume anything she liked about us, as group or as individuals, and still maintain that we were in the wrong for obviously - to her mind - having prejudices against her and her dog. Now, I like Staffies, and considered getting one. They are lovely with people but maybe not so reliable with other animals, which is why in the end I decided against the breed for the sake of our 13 year-old cat. To be labelled as prejudiced against them was bewildering. And 'upper-class'?? Nowhere near. 'You know nothing about me,' I eventually said to her, 'why are you so prejudiced?' Of course she denied being prejudiced. And still she clung to her sense that it was ok for her to denigrate all of us. And so the peacefulness of Shotover was temporarily shattered.  What I assumed was the unspoken agreement amongst dog owners that class distinctions do not come on walkies was also proved wrong, in this instance. I really wanted to reach out to this young woman. I wanted her to understand she was not under attack (except for the over-excitable holder of the Whippet). But the fierceness of her own sense of entitlement - as someone sinned against - seemed implacable. The only thing I can hope for, now it's all over, is that turning the 'prejudiced' charge against her will have been enough of a novelty to make her think about it a little. How to explain to someone of such entrenched opinion the subtleties of what was actually happening? If only it had been possible to convey to her that the next challenge on this tumultuous outing on Shotover, almost immediately afterwards, was an interesting contrast: the arrival of a pack of seven Italian Spinones, a Pointer and an Irish Setter. These dogs were all allowed to poo everywhere by their owner, a possibly 'upper class' lady walking with a stick, who was too frail, old and slow to deal with one of these big dogs, let alone with nine of them but refused to see it. According to the Saluki lady, who'd often encountered this group before, trying to tell the old lady to pick up after her dogs was a lost cause. Those were bad dog-walking manners too, in fact arguably much worse.Yet, beyond the unfortunate doggy politics,  these two incidents now linger in my mind as lost opportunities for a more meaningful contact between owners. Clearly, both the young woman and the old lady had deeply emotional reasons for having their respective dogs. What stories were there? And indeed, what about us middling-class owners? Maybe next time.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Mark Forsyth, "A Christmas Cornucopia"

Image result for a christmas cornucopia by mark forsyth

An ideal Christmas present for anyone who likes words, humour, history, learning about Christmas traditions  and making sense of life generally. Also excellent as a gift to self, as I can attest. Mark Forsyth is at his genial best, in the same style as previous books The Etymologicon, The Horologicon and The Elements of Eloquence, but here on a specific topic as opposed to a theme. A Christmas Cornucopia is an easy-to-read and entertaining book, steeped through with erudition and wit like a good sozzled pudding, right down to the Glossary, Bibliography and Acknowledgements (if you read those, as some of us do). To be nit-picky, because I am, allow me to point out the following quirks: there is a typo on the back cover (28 March, instead of 25 March); Forsyth surprisingly uses the trendy verb 'double down', which jars a bit; and he mis-pronouns the Holy Spirit as 'it' instead of 'He'. (I'm assuming 'mis-pronouns' is already a legitimate verb, the better to criminalise us with, in secular society, though of course not on this blog.) Having got that out of my system I warmly recommend this writer, at all times, and this particular book at this particular time. It is a bulwark against the ways in which 'Santa snowballs.' (an actual sentence in the book) while its several intriguing references to 'truth', or even 'Truth', subtly point to deeper realities. Go buy!