Saturday, 22 April 2017

Butterfly Lions

I met my first Pekingese dog at some point during the seventies. We were living on Sweet Knowle Farm in rural Warwickshire and I must have been about five or six, maybe younger. We already had a couple of regular dogs - Keeper and Tina. Keeper was a black and white mongrel vaguely approximating something in the direction of a sheep dog whom my mother brought home as a stray whilst still living with her parents. Tina was a black, woolly poodle and she was blind, or was blind by the time I was old enough to form memories of such things. One or maybe both of these dogs were still around when the first Pekingese arrived. Some couple, friends of the family, were separating and needed to find homes for their dogs, an Alsatian and a Pekingese. We took the Pekingese. I recall entering the front room and looking across to see what resembled Dougal from The Magic Roundabout looking back at me from the sofa. I don't think I'd realised there could be such animals in the real world. I liked him immediately.

'This is Jolly,' my mother explained.

He was small, at least compared to regular dogs, with a flat face of dark bristles and big soulful eyes. He seemed like a hairier bulldog of some kind, but somehow more refined. He growled a little, and seemed initially wary of me, showing the whites of his eyes; but eventually he sniffed my hand and whatever objections he may have harboured seemed settled. Then inevitably I put my face too close to his and he bit me, because everyone has been bitten by a dog at some point as a child, usually a family pet leaving the mark that eventually prompts the question, what's that on your face? Now it was my turn, although I can't remember where Jolly bit me and he left no scar. Amazingly I was at least old enough to understand how it had been my fault and why there wasn't much point in getting angry with a dog who, after all, was in a strange place and had every right to be a bit jumpy.

He came with a pedigree, my mother explained, and his full name was Jolly Boy of Jancy - something like a secret identity, so it seemed to me. My dad occasionally referred to him as Jolly Bean because there was supposedly something of a resemblance to Judge Roy Bean, the nineteenth century Texan Justice of the Peace. Pekes are one of the oldest dog breeds in the world, and one branch of mythology attributes their genesis to what happens when a butterfly and a lion decide to make a go of it.

Perhaps because of it seeming like we had a canine celebrity in our midst, my mother began to take an interest in the breed, and in dog breeding in general. Through the pages of Our Dogs magazine we met a professional dog breeder resident at Shenstone Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, a woman we knew as Queenie Mould. I dimly recall our driving to Birmingham to visit her. She was elderly with white hair and spectacles, but she seemed to like me and she laughed a lot. Our first visit was probably to buy a second Peke, a small female named Lucy, also known as Papanya Ni Sun although my spelling may be wrong. I surmise that I may have taken a shine to another of her dogs, a small, excitable female with a reddish coat, being as I vaguely remember feeling disgruntled that we weren't taking this other dog home with us; and I surmise that this was probably the first of at least two visits because I recall Queenie presenting me with a tin of Peek Freans biscuits and telling me that the small reddish dog with whom I had struck up a friendship had bought them for me - a sequence suggesting that the visit I recall amalgamates two separate trips. I had my doubts as to whether the dog had really purchased the biscuits, but I appreciated the thought nevertheless.

Lucy was small and cute, enough so to qualify as what is termed a sleeve dog after the oriental practice of carrying Pekes around in the voluminous sleeves of one's silken robe so as to keep your arms warm. Apparently she was also too small to have puppies, and the couple she birthed were born dead. Pansy, whose pedigree name I forget, came along a year or so later. She was a little more robust than Lucy with a silky reddish coat and somehow reminded me of Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek - which was something to do with the look in her eye. Pansy had a ton of puppies, the father being Queenie's Mr. Redcoat of Kenghe, who was something of a celebrity in the Pekingese world and who had won numerous awards and fathered many, many children. This I found out only recently. At the time I may not even have been old enough to be aware of a father's role in the process of reproduction and may simply have assumed that lady dogs just kicked out a pile of puppies whenever the mood took them. Pansy managed seven, although one was born dead, another two didn't last very long, and a fourth made it to the end of the week. This left us with Bosie, Clunk and Enoch, here listed vaguely in order of size. Bosie - named after Oscar Wilde's very close friend - was a ball of grey fluff with giant paws and a beetle-browed face so black you could hardly make out his features; Clunk, presumably named after the glossolalia-prone aerialist inventor from Catch the Pigeon was like Bosie but smaller; and Enoch was the little black one with something to prove. He was also my favourite. I seem to recall him being named after Enoch Powell, which I think was something to do with my dad's sense of humour. Enoch Powell had spent a lot of time warning the public about people with black faces coming over here and taking our jobs. I don't think our family liked Enoch Powell very much, and my dad's record collection at least seemed to support this hypothesis. Bosie and Clunk were respectively also called Wimpstone Wind Song and Wimpstone Wind Chimes in reference to the village nearest to the farm on which we were living, although I'm not aware of either of them having been entered in dog shows.

Clunk and Enoch eventually went to hypothetically good homes, leaving us with just four, Keeper and Tina having long since departed to sniff celestial bottoms on the farm in the sky. My mother took Pansy to a couple of shows, but I don't think she won anything.

Pekes are small, but they're a handful when you have four of them, and taking them for walks was always an adventure. Gormless visitors occasionally stood bewildered and smiling, our garden gate held open as all four Pekes shot out, down the road and off into the fields, requiring that we chase after them. Their short legs and rolling gait made them easy to catch but it was still exhausting. Their short legs also made it difficult for them to get down stairs, so occasionally we came home to a worryingly empty house, see that the hall door was open and there would be four forlorn faces gazing down at us from the upstairs landing, all trapped and no lesson learned from the last time it happened.

Having grown up with Pekes, I still experience a thrill of excitement when I encounter one, and sometimes I remember my manners and talk to the owner as well, sharing certain details of the above by way of explanation. I still don't know what I think about dog shows or dog breeding, and Pekes are prone to respiratory problems and trouble with their eyes, but then the four I knew certainly seemed to live happy, healthy lives regardless of the received wisdom. Even looking at the photos of them now will occasionally bring a tear to my eye, because I grew up with them, and they made the sort of memories which tend to imprint quite deeply on childhood. It doesn't seem like they can really be gone, but I suppose the important thing is - as I've probably said before - that they were here at all, and I had the good fortune to be in the same picture.

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