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Posted on 18 Feb 2020 in Non-Fiction |

PETER J CONRADI A Dictionary of Interesting and Important Dogs. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Not just for dog-lovers, this miscellany contains canine tales from literature and history. 

First, a confession. I am not particularly fond of dogs. So, when this book was sent to me for review I was unenthusiastic and expected it to be just another collection of cute tales for dog-lovers. I was wrong.

Opening the book at random, I was surprised to find a fascinating tale of a missing hiker and his faithful dog Foxie, who survived for three months beside his dead body, possibly by eating it. Of course not everyone believed this. Wordsworth wrote the poem ‘Fidelity’ in which he attributed Foxie’s survival to ‘divine sustenance or “love divine”’. But Wordsworth apparently failed to notice that Foxie was a bitch and referred to her throughout the poem as ‘he’.

Like the story of Foxie, other entries in this ‘dictionary’ discuss literary figures, provide poetic references and poems, and consider the merits of particular arguments about dogs.

Did Shakespeare dislike dogs or not? Professor Stephen Greenblatt claims that Shakespeare was fond of ‘using dogs as shorthand for something base’ and his work is full of dog insults – ‘whoreson dog’, ‘hell-hound’, ‘slave, soulless villain, dog’, and Richard III is that ‘bloody dog’:

… for horses, rabbits, even snails, …Shakespeare felt deep, inward understanding, but with dogs his imagination curdled.

 On the other hand, a Victorian writer remarked that Shakespeare’s description of hounds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (IV, i) shows that he was both a fine ‘judge of dogs and an out-of-doors sportsman’.

Darwin, Virginia Woolf, Freud, Dickens, Karl Marx, plus a number of much less well-known people, all appear in this book either as dog-lovers or people with a special interest (good or bad) in dogs.

Freud’s dog, it seems, attended consultations as a comfort dog but indicated exactly when a session should end by ‘yawning and wandering about’. Dickens once punished his dog for running home ahead of him by dosing it with castor oil. And essayist Thomas Carlyle tolerated his wife’s beloved dog, Nero, but deemed him to be ‘of small merit, and little or no training’.

Among other dogs in this book we learn more about Tintin’s dog, Pongo; Nana from Peter Pan; Cerberus; Ulysses’ dog, Argos; Laika, the first dog in space; Nipper, the dog listening to his master’s voice on a phonograph whose portrait eventually became the trademark for HMV records; Judy, the POW dog who was ‘buried in her RAF jacket with her various campaign medals’; and the role of dogs in making Amundsen the first man to get to the South Pole.

Not all of the dog stories here are comfortable reading. Especially the one about the two Swedish women who, after seeing caged research animals in the Pasteur Institute in Paris, enrolled as medical students in London and witnessed medical demonstration-experiments on dogs. In 1903, ‘against legal advice – they published their anti-vivisection diary’. Legal proceedings for slander ensued but the case was widely publicised and there was widespread protest. Mark Twain wrote the emotive anti-vivisection story ‘The Dog’s Tale’. And a bronze statue of a small brown dog, commissioned by the World League Against Vivisection, was erected in London’s Battersea Park with a damning inscription, It immediately became the focus of marches and riots. One protest by a thousand London medical students, who were determined to destroy it, had a police escort ‘and, briefly, a busker with bagpipes’. For a time, Battersea Council employed six policemen a day to protect it, but arguments about it continued and it was briefly removed in 1910.

Over 75 years later, on 12 December 1985, the present memorial to the Brown Dog was unveiled in Battersea Park behind the Pump House… mounted on a five-foot high plinth.

More debate ensued and the present position of the statue is in a secluded spot between the Old English Garden and the Buddhist stupa.

To balance this, there are some delightful poems. Herbert Asquith wrote about his ‘Hairy Dog’; Dorothy Parker penned a ‘Verse for a Certain Dog’:

Lancelike your courage, gleaming swift and strong

Yours the white rapture of a winged soul

Yours is a spirit like a Mayday song,

(God help you if you break the goldfish bowl!)

I especially like Cecil Day Lewis’s wonderfully descriptive ‘Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park’, which he ends by comparing the dogs’ ‘shepherding of the unruly’ to his own poetic task of ‘controlled woolgathering’.

Perhaps as proof that this is not just a book full of cute, lovable mutts and uncontrollable dogs (and owners), there is a page headed ‘Recipes for cooking and eating dog’. Those who flinch at this title may be comforted to know that no actual recipe is included.

Peter J. Conradi A Dictionary of Interesting and Important Dogs Faber 2020 HB 224pp $24.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (//ann.skea.com/) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy A Dictionary of Interesting and Important Dogs from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here, and from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.