Gentlemen prefer dogs

Andrew O’Hagan

  • The Dogs by Laura Thompson
    Chatto, 254 pp, £9.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 7011 3872 6

A relative of mine, a white-haired Capuchin friar now working on a mission in Zambia, spent the early days of his vocation at St Bonaventure’s, a strict residence a mile or so out of Cork city. There was no drinking, of course, and no cigarettes or newspapers either. When not doing the do – working and praying and partaking of the holy sacraments – the good Reverend Brother would now and then make for the flat roof of the house, from where he enjoyed a decent view of the greyhound racing taking place in a park over the way. By then, despite his local upbringing, the dogs must have seemed otherworldly to him, enticingly alien. And as those nameless, sleek bodies scampered around the track – carrying with them the variously-priced hopes of those secular specks whooping and hollering from the terraces – I can imagine him wondering, high on his priory rooftop, at what manner of life was passing, unhindered, before him.

The majority of Irish greyhounds are lifted out of Ireland – bound for the stadia of Britain and Florida – long before they’ve had any chance to leave an imprint on life, present or passing. People, these days, don’t go to the dogs in anything like the numbers they used to (though it still claims to be the second most popular spectator sport in Britain). Track racing was preceded by coursing, a rural blood-sport (still going), in which greyhounds chase a live hare over an open field. For the Irish, coursing is a gambling game; for the English, it’s all for the fun of the chase, the thrill of the kill. Laura Thompson jumps on this point in order to take the first of many boring swipes at what used to be called the upper orders. In England, she tells us, coursing is part of the world of the English country gentleman, who

is rarely a gambling man, because gambling, however foolish it may be, has a point to it, and the English country gentleman prefers to do things that have no point. The English race as a whole loves the apparently pointless ... The English worship things whose appeal mystifies those who are not English: cups of tea, rain throughout Wimbledon pubs ... the things that he does have no point beyond simply the doing of them: an attitude towards life which entails living in an eternal present and believing that past and future will always be identical.

This annoying, class-mongering, shamrock-waving mystification in the face of a cup of tea makes it hard to settle into Thompson’s book, even for those with an interest in her proposed subject. More often than not, she’s off skywriting her hatred of the middle and upper classes, who are not ‘real dog people’, when the best of what she has to say emerges from a plain recollection of the lore of the Dogs, and of the power of the sport in her life.

The modern version of greyhound racing started at the Belle Vue Stadium in Manchester, late in July 1926; the winning dog being a little thing with half a tail, a dog called Mistley, who romped in at odds of 6/1. By 1945, there were 50 million visits a year to British tracks; the number has since declined to just over four million. Dog racing, shady and dodgy though its reputation is, has always appealed to something more than the punter’s wish to score a quick financial gain. It appeals to a certain sort of imagination. Even more than, say, snooker or poker or darts – which, in the end, are games – dog-racing is a sport invested with unknowable aspiration and a stout belief in the chance of something better. The mythical truth is that one goes to the Dogs lured by the promise of some thing or some place from which there is no coming back. Big success at the track, brought about by consistent fine judgment and a heap of good luck, has long been imagined to bring you to another – altogether other – life.

Its image, up until the Sixties, rested on some such recognition: on a notion of the Dogs representing a sort of honest-to-goodness, salf-of-the-earth, diamond-geezer type of striving. And it was, in its time, the site of a very British sense of community – of fair-mindedness, earnest wishing and loads of May The Best Man Win. It was a funny, foggy little idea of community which probably never existed in real time, but was a very definite territory in the mind – a place where Ealing comedies could unfold, where the Krays could become heroes and where the outcome of a race could look like the thing to change all things. Among the clichés of working-class life in these islands, few have gone more frequently around the turntable than the one about the proverbial man with a dog (or heavy backer with an eye for the right dog) who ran into a hoopla of success and made it across to the Other Place. Boxing was perceived as the Big Way Out for the singular boy with the power in his gloves, but greyhound racing was another way – a sweatless way – if only you could harness your plotting and wishing to the physical performance of the right dog.

In the Thirties and Forties, as never after, the Dogs, on account of all this wishing and wanting and imagining, retained a kind of grandeur, a little big-time glamour – the sheen of nice frocks, the glint of trophies – which has never attached itself to other mass gambling pursuits like the football pools (unless, of course, you’re talking about a strictly Page Three sort of glamour).

In a side-chapel of the Natural History Museum, next door to a cheeky-looking orangutan and a white-handed gibbon, there’s a glass cabinet flooded with light. Behind the glass stands the flawlessly stuffed body of Mick the Miller, ‘the most famous greyhound this century’, who has been so encased since 1938. Mick was a great winner, the people’s favourite, a dog who carried his day like no other and like no other could today. There have been faster dogs since, souped-up dynamos with better track records, but this dog alone stands for the time, long vanished, when greyhounds could be national heroes. And he still looks bright, as if he’s about to step off his turquoise plinth, his brindle coat gleaming as if groomed only this morning. Flanagan and Allen took a firm second billing to Mick the Miller in a Gaumont-British picture of 1934, The Wild Boy, in which the famous dog is fussed over by ladies in fox-furs and considered by tubby men with monocles. The right man loses the right girl, and they both lose sight of the heroic dog, in the midst of a romp in which each of them is fought over by sundry cheapskates and suitors, conmen and clowns – resplendent in cloth caps and bowlers – who aim to prevent the girl from getting her man and her man from getting his dog. Of course, in the usual way of English comedy, they all get each other in the end.

The film, in its shadowy, flickering way, reveals the heaving, cheering sway of the nowdemolished White City Stadium on the day of the Derby; the dark suits and long gowns, the flowers and costume jewellery; the prizes, the patter and the tumble of urban life in London between the wars. And down the centre sprints something called the national dog – head down, torso at full stretch – as if heading unstoppably not after some phoney hare but after some prospective new world, some version of the future waiting just around the next bend.

Laura Thompson does well to pay tribute to the world of Mick the Miller. A child who wanted to grow up to be a greyhound trainer, she has an adult love for greyhounds born of a fascination with a dead past, the past of a father who owned dogs and a mother who dressed up to receive a trophy from Zsa Zsa Gabor. The magic of the Dogs has, she would have you believe, given pattern and proportion to her life. Through her father – whom she clearly adores – she has seen into the heart of a different time, and she yearns for it. If that were all, all would be well. But every other page, she falls into some sort of reverie, or swoon, during which the White City becomes the Emerald City, and like the listless Dorothy in Kansas, she scans the sky yearning for a world she can’t quite conceive of – a different kind of home, somewhere over the M40 – where bluebirds fly, or dogs don’t die:

This world lives now inside my head, and my mind blinks almost every day when I see a smaller, duller life around me: people with the faces of incurious voyeurs; people listening to the robot’s roar of a Walkman; people choosing the video they will watch that night; people watching MTV in pubs; people drooping and shuffling round leisure centres; people dawdling round minimarts, or service stations ... thin, gutless evenings that will never yields memories.

Must everything yield ‘memories’? The problem with lovers of animals is that they are seldom lovers, or even likers, of people. It is possible to pay tribute to a vanishing world without snootily writing off the present one; and in any case, the memories of those who, in their day, drooped and shuffled around leisure centre and minimarts may in the end prove as interesting as her portrait of a world gone off. This is a memoir of childhood which retains the simplicity and ruthlessness of a child’s view of the adult world. Thompson’s sense of a fading past becomes a springboard to a series of silly, deluded tributes to the ‘working man’, to ‘real men’, to ‘young East End and Essex people’, to nameless old men ‘puffing on a soggy Woodbine, faces pinched and quenched by life’; the sort of man ‘who walked the Northern streets with his delicate whippet at his side’.

Changes are on the way that will make the business of gambling on horses and dogs – make the manner in which most punters experience racing – a whole lot different. Government restrictions on licensed bookmakers are to be lifted: windows displays will no longer be boarded-up but will be open, inviting, allowing for maximum advertisement; televisions inside the shop (the size of which has been limited to thirty inches) will be as big as the owner wishes; and other services, including the sale of drinks and food, will be allowed as never before. The traditional bookies – usually musty, plastic dens; walls plastered with bits of newspaper and carpets thick with pink betting slips – are set to go.

You don’t see much trace of the old ways at greyhound stadia these days. On a Saturday night in Walthamstow, under neon and flashing lights welcoming you to the ‘Stow’, you might see a few lary old buffers in camel coats and fingerless gloves, still talking the talk, though mainly to each other. The new punters are young, casual, less in love with the dogs and more in love with the money. But when the lights dim, and the bell goes to signal the dying seconds before the off, I’m sure there’s as much excitement and stirring hope as there ever was. Bets are mostly placed with electronic tote machines, rap music crackles up between races, and those who care to keep their eyes on the future (betting on dogs, Thompson says, is a way of ‘buying the future’) can do so at the usual 15-minute intervals.

The sport’s under pressure to improve its conduct. Pictures have been shown on British TV of greyhounds being blooded – owners encouraging their voracity by throwing them live hares on the end of a rope; and a trainer, David Haywood, has reported animals being fed amphetamines, cocaine, dexedrine and angel-dust before races. Word is out of recent approaches made to trainers by bookmarkers, offering money to ‘slow’ a dog – doping is still a considerable problem – and the officiating body seems unable to keep control. Then there are allegations of cruelty and vivisection, and harrowing evidence of the extermination of dud pups and retired racers. Those who live by the sport may, you feel, have more to talk about than how sickened they are by poncey yuppies pissing about the stadium on corporate nights-out. As for the glory of the past, that is one bright dog that’ll never stop running.