Hating dogs

Julian Barnes

  • Words on the Air by John Sparrow
    Collins, 163 pp, £7.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 00 216876 6

In October 1971 the Italian Government made one of its ritual announcements that it had raised enough money to save Venice, by protecting it from pollution and installing a new sewage system. Simultaneously, John Sparrow was also turning his attention to the plight of the stricken city. In one of his major letters to the Times, the then Warden of All Souls addressed the urgent question of Venetian dogshit. He noted with regret the inadequacy of the local decree which insisted that dogs ‘when out of doors … shall be muzzled – but (alas!) at one end only’. The enforced wearing of a second, matching retro-muzzle was clearly one solution, but even this, the Warden implied, might not be the end of the matter. He balefully remarked on the way the dogs ‘fight and philander in no very decorous manner up and down the calli in every quarter of the town … Even the most pacific and the least libidinous cannot but contribute their quota of defilement that makes even the shortest of walks in Venice today a hazardous and unsavoury experience.’ Sparrow, unlike the Rome government, declined to trifle with a mere new sewage system for the offending canines; nor, as he might have done, did he argue for the development of an Integrated Triple Muzzle. His recommendation was absolute: ‘a very simple legislative measure, providing for the absolute exclusion from Venice of the dog … to put out of action once and for all this disgusting engine of pollution’.

Well! – as the Warden habitually puts it. The picture is pleasingly ironic: Venice saved from the rising waters only to be threatened instead by a descent of dogdump; the Warden of All Souls, a man of refinement and culture, skidding to a halt at the sight of yet another pair of copulating pooches; la Serenissima, besmirched by excrement and lechery, only saved from final depravity by a ruthlessly enforced law. It is, of course, all a joke: but it is also, of course, all entirely serious. Sparrow returns once again to this hobby-dog of his in a radio talk reprinted in Words on the Air. If he were ever appointed dictator, he avers, he would instantly ban all privately-owned dogs in the country: ‘a far-reaching and, in my opinion, an extremely beneficial reform of the law’. No sooner are these stern words out of his mouth, though, than they are smilingly disclaimed: ‘Don’t take me too seriously!’ He only does it to annoy, you see, because he knows it teases.

John Sparrow has been teasing us now for almost fifty years. Often the tease has been intensely serious, effected in the name of high principle: intellect, clarity, order, scholarship, civilisation, excellence. But such guiding ideals are more frequently implied than invoked. The preferred manner is that of indirection. While Mr Sparrow may delight in a guise of bluff, non-specialist plain-speaking, there is irony in his soul. His most unguarded admissions of belief are often found in parentheses, just as his most joyful attacks may be confined to footnotes. Take this early, footnoted blast from Sense and Poetry (1934), in which the muzzle is pointed at Pound but the scattershot takes in Leavis and Eliot as well. The theme is Leavis’s approval of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’:

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