Along with Jeff Bezos and the Chinese Communist Party, the real winners of the past year have been dogs. You might have noticed more of the animals on your daily permitted travels, and it’s not just your imagination — under the loneliness and despair of lockdown, huge numbers of people have got dogs. There is even a dog in the White House again — two in fact, Major and Champ — after four years of the notoriously caninephobic Trump. And of those tens of thousands of new dog owners, many — especially when lockdown is over — will realise they have made a terrible mistake. I speak from experience.
The dog issue in our family had been a growing controversy for some time, but I had never expected it to become a real one. I refused every plea. We have three children in a not-very-big flat, so compact that all of them were in the same room for a while. Why on earth would I want yet another living creature to look after? More responsibility? More reasons to be woken up in the night?
But then, just once, when I had had maybe slightly too much to drink, I said it would be fine and maybe it was even a good idea. By the time I came to my senses and relented, it was too late: the wheels were in motion, like the build-up to war. There was no stopping it.
I’m not a natural dog person. I grew up in Zone 2, in a flat, and for 11 years we had a cat, Suzie — who I wasn’t wild about, if I’m honest. My only experience of looking after a dog was occasionally taking my father-in-law’s elderly Dalmatian for a walk on Hampstead Heath. We had a few miserable strolls in the rain during which Jasper would crouch down and deliver an almighty deposit out of his grotesque canine digestive system, a monstrous Mordor of a place filled with sulphur and God-knows-what toxins. Jasper would then wait there, giving me a look as if to say, “well it’s not going to pick itself up, is it?” And on we would go.
Alas Jasper is now in the great hall feasting with his ancestors, and my wife’s extended family — many of whom live nearby — longed for a replacement. They’re dog people: they crave the companionship and the love the animal gives you, the dog-chat about dog things, even the dog smell. It leaves me cold.
My wife started browsing those websites where they advertise homeless animals from the Mediterranean and former Soviet bloc, who are then shipped away from their hellish existence on the streets of Kiev or Chișinău and taken in by families in Remain-voting areas of southern England. Our future pet had been found along with her five siblings just outside Lisbon, orphaned after the horrendous forest fires of summer 2018. They were lucky: all six of them ended up being flown over to England, where they found homes somewhere between Crouch End and Bristol.
I must have been busy writing my book while all this happening. All I remember is, later, returning from the cinema to find this small animal in our flat. It looked more like a fox than anything, although it is apparently some sort of lurcher — a common type found on the streets of Lisbon.
My children were instantly delighted, and from a utilitarian point of view the dog has made our house far happier. Everyone else is about 20% happier; I’m about 50% less happy. So it’s a big win for the West family.
The dog and I immediately didn’t hit it off. The animals are perceptive, I suppose, and “Twiggy” (no particular reason for the name) soon learned that I am the lone canine-sceptic in the house and that I don’t want to be licked, don’t appreciate barking and am especially not too fond of stepping in urine on the floor first thing in the morning. It’s not that I wish the dog any ill, I just don’t want it anywhere near me.
As I have children and pretty much everyone loves children, I sort of assumed people were the same with pets. In fact, I’d say about one in five people really dislike dogs, and get angry or scared if you let yours go near them. If you go out with your baby to the park or shops, you often receive smiles or compliments. You’re certainly not going to get abuse from random strangers. With a dog, you do.
It’s often by other dog owners, to be honest. Twiggy is some sort of sighthound, so she’s designed to run after anything vaguely resembling a rabbit. That includes cats and smaller dogs, and Hampstead Heath is full of these delicate little fluffballs that get scared whenever even a medium-sized dog chases them. And their owners end up shouting at us. It’s like having some adolescent tearaway.
Twiggy reserves special animosity for cats, and for the poor creature living next door to us life has all of a sudden changed dramatically. In our gloriously happy pre-Twiggy days, I used to occasionally stroke this perfectly harmless animal as I walked the kids to school, the cat basking in its good fortune in life: a nice quiet suburban road in north London; free food; adoring humans; absolutely nothing to worry about. And then a dog moves in next door.
Every day Twiggy howls and screams at this cat, which runs off in terror. Perhaps the most stressful thing about Twiggy is that noise she makes. It is truly horrendous, like the screaming of the damned in hell. It genuinely shakes me to the core. So God knows what the cat must think.
But as bad as all this animal violence is, I find the dog-chats with dog-people even worse — the stilted, three-minute pauses while people compare breeds and characteristics and personalities and say “oh, they’re so loyal, aren’t they?” But they’re all loyal, I want to laugh, they’re programmed that way! You don’t get dogs cynically manoeuvring around their master like they’re scheming courtiers in Renaissance Italy, do you?
At the end of the day, once work and house drudgery are all done, I like to read on the sofa. This is my precious space where I can relax, and I’m quite particular about hoovering the carpet and ensuring the place is clean. Even with children, I’d managed to win the battle.
Well, that all went. If I wanted to sit down on my sofa, there would be animal bones all over the floor, like someone had emptied a KFC rubbish bin on my carpet, alongside ripped up furry toys, pencils, bits of wood and chewed up tennis balls. (She has got better since, in fairness).
I’m not anti-animal, I just don’t get the rewards other people enjoy. I don’t want a creature that follows me around all day, or licks me, or wants its tummy stroked. The only quality I want in a sycophant is someone who praises my writing. I just want a pet that says “great piece today, Ed”, “love your book, Ed” and “you’re so much better than [much more successful journalist], Ed”; I don’t want one that tries to sniff my crotch after it’s just eaten some vomit off the pavement.
I would like this to be one of those stories where we actually learn to love each other. But sometimes there are no happy endings, only extended periods of begrudging tolerance and acceptance.
Ed West’s Tory Boy: Memoirs of the Last Conservative is now available in paperback