When is a dog more than a dog? A fair enough question, of course, but don’t expect any grandiosely sentimental bull from me. A dog is always a dog. It’s never a cat or an ironing board or, heaven help us, a politician (though . . . )
Years ago, I had the misfortune to end up in some sort-of resort in the north of Corfu. It was the second week of my holiday and I had ended up there by pure chance. Wanting a break and not really knowing where to go, I had simply booked a flight to Corfu aboard I don’t know which budget airline and arrive at Corfu airport at about 9pm.
When I got my ticket - this was in the mid-eighties and nothing was done online - I was surprised to find that included in the price was one night’s stay at a hotel. At the time I had no idea why, but I later found out that Greece was getting so fed up with smelly hippy types - they did exist, you know - simply flying out to ‘the islands’, then dossing about here and there that it insisted every traveller should have at least one night’s accommodation booked. As usual the airlines found a way around that ‘difficulty’ without spending a penny.
So I arrived at the airport, picked up my luggage, found a taxi and asked him to take me to --- hotel. It turned out the hotel was miles and miles and miles away at the very south of the island and why didn’t he take me to a local bed and breakfast for the night.
‘But,’ I told him, ‘I already have a room booked there and [this was important to me] already paid for.’
‘Oh, never mind that,’ he said, ‘there are plenty of cheap places you can stay tonight and go there tomorrow.’
But I couldn’t see the point. A room had been booked for me and I had already paid for it. Why not got there? So we did.
Corfu is not a big island, but it took us an immensely long time to get there. Eventually we left the roads and drove ever further down this track and that, deeper and deeper into deepest Corfu until we found the hotel. I have no idea when we got there, but it was dark and empty and very much closed. I had no idea what was going on. But I paid my fare, the taxi took off again and I was left wondering what to do next.
Somehow, and at this point, at least 27 years later I really can’t remember all that much but I do remember banging on very door I could find did arouse someone. He was a caretaker and had no idea who I was. No room had been reserved for me, we established, but I could have one.
The following morning, after an awful night plagued by mosquitoes, I came ‘down to breakfast’ to find out that this quite big hotel was not completely closed, despite what appeared to be the case halfway through the night before.
A woman ‘booked me in’ for a week and I discovered that the hotel had just one other guest. He, too, was English, I discovered over the next few days. He was what we Brits called ‘a twitcher’, a bird-watcher and had come to this most remote part of South Corfu to watch birds. He was also an alcoholic. I don’t mean that in any judgmental, and I most certainly am not being judgmental. I am merely describing him as the kind of person I had until then never really encountered.
The hotel was in woods not far up a hill and at the bottom of the hill was a bar/cafe. There might well have been one or two other houses around but I didn’t notice them. I must say that that spot was what I would now cherish, sheer peace and quiet and thus bliss. But for me then, a younger man with a desire for ‘action’ it really was a no-no.
For one week I fell into a certain pattern of sleeping late, getting up, trotting down the hill to the bar, staying there all day doing but reading - it was, I remember well, Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde, drinking beer and otherise doing nothing (‘chilling’). I had lunch at the bar, then later in the afternoon the alcoholic twitcher turned up, we had supper together, drank more, he got a little drunk and bought himself - I remember this distinctly - a litre bottle of white Cinzano to be finished off later that night, then we both staggered up the hill again to our hotel.
In that week there was never one other guest although the hotel had at least 50 rooms. And this was in June.
The twitcher, who had polished off his litre of white Cinzano throughout the night after polishing off as many cans of Carlsberg as I had, was always - or appeared to be always - as sober as a judge the following morning when we met up for a late breakfast. And one day we both went on a minor tourist trip on what was probably a small shrimp fishing boat, although in that matter - do they fish for shrimps off the coast of Corfu? - I am fully prepared to stand corrected.
But for this youngish card who desired ‘more action’ that spot was too quiet, and pissed off with the legerdemain of fictiously booking me into a hotel in the back of beyond I decided to return to Old Blighty (Britain) a week early. I checked out, paid up and got a taxi back to the airport.
There I discovered that I was booked on a flight due to leave the following week and that I couldn’t change that booking, so I headed back into town. (I had, by the way found out from some holiday rep or other at the airport what the usual price was for a taxi ride back into Corfu town, so when my driver tried to charge me four times as much I challenged him and said it should be a lot less. He became furious and in is proud fury declared OK, I would pay NOTHING. I took him by his word. That’s the Greeks for for you, fully prepared, it would seem to cut off their noses to spite their faces and anyone aware of the recent euro difficulties might care to bear his behaviour in mind.
So I had another week to spend in Corfu, and when I asked around where I might visit, I was given the name of a resort in the extreme north of the island. (I have been onto Google maps to try to find its name, but - literally - all the names are Greek to me so I can’t help you out.
I went to the bus station, found the relevant bus and took it north. When I got there I asked around - in English, of course - and rented a room for a week, a bedroom with an adjacent shower.
Where to do dogs come into all this? Well, I shall tell you, but I’ve determined to take the long way around.
The resort was just that: it wasn’t a fishing village which had been expanded or anything like that, it was a purpose-built small resort. And small is the word. It had one main drag along which were the usual restaurants and bars and here and there were hotels, guest houses and apartments. I remember it stank of shit to the nth degree (as, by the way did Corfu Town; I should imagine that its sewerage system was designed and built in the late 19th century and completely unprepared for the masses of tourists which descended upon it from the second half of the 20th century on when those on lower pay were more able to afford foreign travel).
For that week I did very little but follow the pattern of my first week. There were several what we then called ‘discos’, and I remember hooking up with two Brit women, fancying one but being manouevred into bed at my place by the second. It must have been the worst shag of my life, but - I’m nothing if not honest - it was probably ten times as bad for her.
Her friend, the one I had fancied, had instead copped off with a travel rep and, I can’t remember how, we all met the following day when he offered to take us on a tour of the island in his car. We stopped off at a taverna for lunch and at one point in a pretty wide-ranging conversation his woman suddenly asked us both - the male rep and me - whether we were bisexual. I can’t think why. I told her I wasn’t, he said nothing. And writing about it here, almost 30 years later, I’m wondering whether she and he and perhaps her friend with whom I had spent a rather boring night, had put two and two together, arrived at five and were hoping for a rather less conventional sexual encounter. I don’t know. I’ll leave that one with you. If they were, I will have disappointed them.
As I say, my week there consisted of sleeping late, finding a bar for lunch, drinking beer and reading and writing letters describing it all. Bearing in mind that the whole of this small, rather dysfunctional resort smelled of shit, I remember opining that the reason the Brits were so keen on going to Greece was that they they felt unchallenged by the sanitation. (At one point exploring this bloody awful place, I came across a small stream by which quite a few Brits were sunbathing just yards away. The water of this stream was a quite awful opaque light grey and smelled overwhelmingly of shit. Yet none of those sunbathing nearby seem to notice and if they did notice, even worse, were wholly unconcerned.)
But now to dogs.
Like most dead and alive places in the sun this resort had a rather large population of stray dogs. These were, without exception, mangy, thin and appeared disease-ridden. So I was very surprised one evening when sitting in the forecourt of one ‘restaurant’ along the main drag (with two women, that I remember, though I can’t remember who they were or whether they were the two from earlier) to be asked by a passing elderly Brit: ‘Have you seen a dog.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked him. ‘I’ve seen loads.’
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but he’s a lovely dog, you must have seen him.’
He then explained that he and his wife, both dog lovers, had taken a shine to one of the what seemed like several hundreds of stray dog up and down that main drag and were in the habit of feeding it. This dog was, to them, special.
. . .
What brought me to the topic of dogs is our dog, a Jack Russell, rather unimaginatively named by our son Russell. I’ve mentioned him before. Briefly, I was against getting a dog, though not because I don’t like dogs, but because dogs are a responsibility and are, as they say, ‘for life’. My son, who is the nominal ‘owner’, was very enthusiastic and, up to a point, still is. But I dogs, especially Jack Russells, need daily exercise and attention and I wonder just how enthusiastic he will be come the cold, rainy winter days when the dog still needs a walk. That remains to be seen.
I was, as I say and for that reason against our household acquiring a dog, but as I was overruled and as we now have him, I do love him. He is, admittedly, not at all bright and is only interested in being cuddled, running for tennis balls and hanging around at your feet whenever you are eating, to be given whatever scraps might find their way to him, but I am now very fond of him. As is, no doubt, my wife. But she and I have very different views on how a dog should be treated and what freedoms he should have.
I subscribe to what I think is the mainstream view that dogs are outdoor animals who should be allowed out of doors whenever possible. She, on the other hand and to put it both ungallantly and bluntly, would have made a great jailer. We live in the depths of the North Cornwall countryside next to her brother’s beef farm and are surrounded by fields. More pertinently although we are by no means ‘rich’, we are lucky to live in a cottage with, on three sides, reasonably large areas of grassland. But when he is taken out be her ‘to relieve himself’, she always puts him on a lead. I can’t get my head around that.
When I go outside to sit and read and take Russell with me, every few minutes she is shouting out of the window: ‘Where’s Russell, what’s he doing? You’ve got to keep an eye on him!’
Why? He’s a bloody dog. He’s mooching around. That’s what dog’s do.
He was born about seven months ago and so, in human terms, is now a young lad. And that would explain why every time the front door is opened he is out like a shot. He’s not some old fart like me, he’s young and wants to explore. But no, when I’m not around he is kept indoors and watched over. And I can’t stand it. I can’t stand zoos and I can’t stand any animal caged up, whether in fact or metaphorically.
Yes, I think that old codger looking for ‘his dog’ among several thousand mangy straw dogs was a tad twp, but part of me completely understands his affection. And it is that part which sighs every time our Russell is treated like the inmate of a concentration camp (though, as always, I exaggerate a little). But it seems I am waging a losing battle.