I have just had a brush with the law, when Derek, my Battersea Dogs & Cats Home mutt, was the subject of what the American police call an APB, or all-points bulletin.
The Dog Sub Committee of our local garden square had received a report that a jogger “fell heavily when a spaniel went for her ankles”. Though the only thing I had ever previously seen Derek “go for” is a nap, I knew we were banged to rights.
Ownership of Derek has allowed me entry to a little-known subculture comprised of people whose lives are ruled by the state of their dogs’ bladders. Early each morning, we meet in the garden where our dogs exercise themselves by chasing each other pointlessly.
Our group includes a highly successful lawyer, the former bassist in a rock band and an American technology buff who brings her dog, Max, in the mud-resistant equivalent of the hand-knitted sweater of the bullied boy in class. We haven’t seen much recently of Cecil, a beautiful Weimaraner who belongs to an army couple who must have been posted somewhere, but Derek, Lola — a young Labrador — and Friday, a buff-Labrador/Poodle cross, chase each other satisfyingly energetically, while old blind Coco wanders harmlessly around the flowerbeds. The humans stand in the pouring rain waiting anxiously to be dismissed by the bell summoning worshippers to morning prayer in church. It never comes a jot too soon. The Dog Sub Committee’s Lavrentiy Beria asked informers to identify the offending dog.
Since everyone in our sodden little group had seen the jogger trip on Derek, denial would have been futile, even if one had wanted to avoid justice. He’s been let off with a caution, but it was a close call. I can’t work out why it has taken me months to get there, but last week I finally visited the exhibition celebrating one of my favourite Victorian tales of exploration. Death in the Ice at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, tells the story of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 attempt to find a Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia. Arctic exploration was an obsession of the time and his the best-equipped of all those sent from Britain.
Neither of his ships, nor any of his 128 men, was seen again. His devoted wife, Jane, became the second-most famous widow in Victorian Britain, badgering the navy to offer lavish rewards for information, to send search missions, and then organising her own. No bodies were ever recovered, though a shiver of horror shuddered polite breakfast tables at suggestions in the Times that before they died the men had resorted to cannibalism. Long after it was abundantly clear that all the explorers were dead, Lady Jane sat in the upstairs drawing room of the Athenaeum and watched as a memorial statue she had persuaded parliament to build was unveiled in Waterloo Place. She had ensured the plaque read that they had “sacrificed their lives in completing the discovery of the North West Passage. AD1847-8”. In the past few years Canadian missions have discovered the underwater wrecks of both ships.
Their findings don’t prove Lady Franklin’s claim that the men succeeded in finding the Northwest Passage. But her devoted delusions remain impressive. This was, I think, the first Christmas of my life when I failed to get to church: my affection for the Church of England wasn’t strong enough to overcome my intellectual scepticism. Apparently, the Archbishop of Canterbury preached his Christmas Day sermon with an opening reference to Star Wars and how “we are drawn to stories of freedom and purpose”. Anglicans have got used to this sort of embarrassing conceit from their leaders. But as someone who did see the new Star Wars over the holidays, it seems utterly absurd. A bigger confection of hokey, fatuousness and noise it would be hard to imagine. Apart from a batsqueak about vegetarianism, it was devoid of intellectual or moral content, and made Game of Thrones look like Tolstoy. Stick to the virgin birth myth, Archbishop. So, we tremble on the edge of a new year. Few will mourn the passing of 2017. What of the year about to begin? Sensational events are rarely predicted.
So we must content ourselves with anticipating a royal wedding, a royal baby and a remake of Mary Poppins in 2018. If the referendum result is adhered to, it will be Britain’s last full year of membership of the European Union. This is a subject that greatly preoccupies what used to be called the British chattering classes, but seems to leave their equivalents in Cairo, Kabul and Cream Puff Corner, South Australia, strangely mute. I suppose the Australians will still be gloating about winning The Ashes — England’s feebleness ahead of this week’s far too late finding of form another reason not to shed a tear for 2017. Before we get a chance to fail to follow our resolutions, we must somehow survive the backslapping and false bonhomie of the worst night of the year, New Year’s Eve. Revelries at my most numbing if not nightmarish Hogmanay might be roughly as follows.
As midnight approaches, Donald Trump, Theresa May, Robert Mugabe and Angela Merkel link hands to begin “Auld Lang Syne”. Aung San Suu Kyi does not join them, due to the vow of silence she took when the country whose moral touchstone she purports to be started its genocide of the Rohingya people. The vice-chancellor of Bath University, Glynis Breakwell, is taking a very close interest in the proceeds of the raffle held earlier in the evening. Harvey Weinstein hammers fruitlessly on the door in his bathrobe. And who is that red-faced man mixing — and assiduously tasting — the punch? Why, Jean-Claude Juncker, of course. As the rather pompous newscaster Dan Rather used to say in his incomprehensible sign-off: “Courage.”