Monday, 17 October 2011

Better take your insulin shot now - I'm writing about basset hounds!

Not Gussie
I’ve always  looked at Brian Sewell through different eyes since reading an article about his dog mania. He has owned sixteen in all, and usually has five on the go at any one time. For the last 50 years he has never bought a dog, preferring to give shelter to strays. It hard to read about the fruity-toned art critic’s penchant for abandoned pooches – and his borderline-deranged devotion to them - without misting up. (And, yes, I know Hitler was keen on dogs – but I doubt he was quite this keen).

Similarly, I always felt a certain kinship with the writer Leslie Thomas after reading the obituary he wrote for his basset, Furlong, thirty years ago – which, astonishingly, I’ve just found online. (Don’t read this in a public place – if you hate dogs, the article will make you vomit, and if you’re like me, you’ll have to pretend to be suffering from a heavy cold.)

Gorgeous Gussie Varon Vandal
The only dog I’ve ever owned (well, our family did) died just over 30 years ago, and I’ve missed her more than I can say. One of the keenest - and most awful - memories is carrying her lifeless body down the stairs of the block of flats where my mother lived to place her in the boot of our vet's car. The vet sent a hand-written note to us a few days later, expressing his sympathy, and assuring us that she hadn't suffered too much at the end. Maybe they all do that when you lose a pet, or maybe it was because we were all in floods of tears - whatever, I was enormously touched by his kindness.

Every time I visit a park or a beach or a common I will invariably, at some stage, think of my basset hound, and how much she would have enjoyed these surroundings – ineffectually chasing squirrels and pigeons, seemingly intent on giving every blade of grass the nasal once-over, sniffing the occasional passing bum-hole, sampling the foliage just in case it turned out to be food, and – yes – occasionally finding a large pile of crap to roll about on (maybe she just enjoyed the long baths that inevitably followed).

Beaches always brought out a mad streak in her – she’d thunder straight down to the water, do a sharp turn, and race on her short, powerful legs along the shallows, barking joyously, her unfeasibly long ear-flaps windmilling.  To this day the sight of other dogs doing the same always makes me laugh with pleasure. And, since her death, I haven’t been for a walk on Wimbledon Common – something I do three or four times a year – without being aware of the lack of her busy, amiable, courteous presence: I even miss the exasperation of looking back to discover her cemented to a spot several hundred yards away, big black conk throbbing with delight as she fully explored every facet of some particularly juicy stench (bassets are scent hounds, bred to hunt rabbits).

Gussie, advertising star
The great thing about these hounds is that they possess the cuteness of many small dogs, while actually being proper, full-sized dogs - they just have short legs. Back in the 1960s, when my mother bought Gussie (her full name was Gorgeous Gussie Varon Vandal – the all-time champion basset, one Fredwell Varon Vandal, was her grand-dad) many people were doing the same, mainly because of the Hush Puppies advertising in which they featured. Many new owners, on discovering that they hadn’t bought a toy dog, one of those irritatingly yappy little fluff-balls we’re all supposed to go “ah!” over, but which most of us would secretly like to kick up the arse, would ditch the poor things, and they’d end up at Battersea Dogs Home.

It goes on to this day.

I saw a stunning tan-and-white basset sitting patiently by her owner’s chair outside a pub as we were strolling by the river at Chiswick one evening a while back, and stopped to make a fuss. Her name was Walnut (the dog, that is – I didn’t catch the owner’s name), and, like all bassets (and, believe it or not, Staffordshire bull terriers) she had a charmingly affectionate but uncloying nature. I suggested that, being so extraordinarily beautiful (none of the glaucous, droopy eyes, enormous head and overly-stunted legs of many modern bassets) and having such unusual colouring, she must have cost a fortune. “Not a penny,” her proud owner replied. “Battersea Dogs Home!”

What kind of monstrous shit would abandon such a gorgeous, evidently loveable dog, I wondered. Some cretin who discovered that Walnut (or whatever her name had once been – Smoochie-woochie, probably) - ate quite a lot and needed regular exercise and could exhibit a stubborn streak when thwarted? Bastard!

Gussie, faded but not forgotten
The basset, despite being knee-high to a grasshopper and resembling a dignified clown, is, I repeat, very much a real dog. When Gussie was about nine months old we lost her in Richmond Park. After an hour of tears and panic and bellowing her name and alerting the rangers, we returned disconsolately to the car park to discover her sitting by our Triumph Herald, looking vaguely aggrieved: in that moment I realised that an animal had joined our family, not a cute plaything. Show her a rabbit hole and she’d be down it like a… well, like a rabbit, actually. And hearing her doing that primeval, hound-dog thing of howling at the full moon always made the hairs rise on the back of my neck. And I’ve seen her chew the face off an over-friendly Great Dane: she had heart, that girl.

I realised while I was transferring several hundred old posts over to my new blog at the weekend that I’ve never written approvingly of dogs during the past two years, and have only mentioned Gussie once. And I’ve never owned another dog since Gussie. The writing thing is because I find it hard to admit how much I miss her, I suppose. And I don’t like the idea of owning a dog in London, even with the parks and green spaces around here: Gussie spent her last few years in a small flat in the heart of the city - and that must have been a shock after Wimbledon Common. I’ve always intended waiting till we retired to Cornwall before buying another dog – but we may never do that, and I’ll admit I have the craving to own another pooch powerful bad at the moment…

Maybe I’m just too cowardly to risk losing something as precious to me as that hound was.

Whether or not I end up owning another dog or not, I know that, if it turns out there is an afterlife  in which we somehow retain our earthly identities, I'll be looking out for Gussie. I wonder if she's still stepping on her ears, and whether there's a moon to howl at. And I wonder if she'll remember me.

I hope the insulin shot worked!


  1. Is this the man who dared sneer at me because I confessed that I burst into tears while watching the death scene in "Marley" or Hachi keeping a vigil for Richard Gere at the railway station? Or even Willy vaulting over the sea wall and disappearing into the vasty deep? Double standards.

  2. Don't worry - I sneer at myself as well!

  3. Another Brian Sewell article, Evening Standard, 11 October 2001:


    How long have you lived in London? All my life - I'm 70. I was born in Kensington.

    Where do you live and why? Wimbledon. I moved from Kensington two years ago, partly because of my heart - I've had a quadruple bypass and I've got a pacemaker - and partly for the sake of my three dogs.

    If you could change one thing about your street, what would it be? I'd get people to walk and not use their cars. I never meet anybody on the street. In Wimbledon, everybody could die and nobody would know about it.


    When and where did you last get drunk? In 1968. I went to Frankfurt with a bunch of ne'er-do-wells to play rugby. I was a hooker. After the match we went to a Spanish restaurant. I was in a shocking state - vomit all over the place. Never again.


    I was a hooker? Brian Sewell? Now I'll believe anything.

    Not many people know this but one night just after he moved in, opposite my friends L&D, there was a power cut. L&D are lighting the candles when there's a knock on the door and there's their new neighbour, Mr Sewell, saying "is there a power cut or am I going blind?".