October 2021 Books Monthly Review of books and stories magazine - on the web since 1998...
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Living with Skipper: sharing our lives with our dogs...

 




Best friend, companion, soulmate...

I always wanted a dog. My first memory of wanting a dog was after reading Enid Blyton's The Rockingdown Mystery, and falling in love with (1) Diana and (2) Loony the madcap spaniel. I didn't know it at the time but Enid was a confirmed dog lover too. But Mum said no. She said that I was too busy with my schoolwork, and that I wouldn't have time to look after a dog, and she certainly didn't have time! If I'm painting a picture of a not-very-nice Mother, nothing could be further from the truth. Mum was a brilliant, loving mum, who loved dogs (see the photo in the right-hand column) and I lived an idyllic life, being brought up in a medium-sized village at the foot of the Cotswolds, in a three-bedroomed villa from the front bedroom of which we could see Cooper's Hill, the hill down which they roll the cheeses on Whit Monday. Loony wasn't my first experience of dogs, real or as characters in children's books. My Uncle John worked part-time in the public house down the road in Hucclecote, and often brought Rego home with him at lunch time, to give him a mid-day walk. Rego was a pub dog - an enormous Alsatian, and I adored him. When I was between two and three years old, I would play with him, sitting under my Gran's dining room table, stroking him, cuddling him, and generally making a fuss of him. That friendship with Rego went on for several years, and as it progressed I became more and more respectful of him and what he was  - a guard dog. I never took him for a walk on my own but often walked back down to the pub with Uncle John when he returned Rego to the pub premises. I wanted a dog of my own from around the age of eight, but it was not to be. Until, in April 1964, I met Wendy, the girl who would become my wife in just under two years' time.

We worked together in the public library in Stevenage New Town, and I met her on my first day in April 1964 when she, like all of us junior library assistants, mucked in to get yesterday's returned books back on the bookshelves in their proper places. Fiction was arranged alphabetically, non-fiction was arranged according to the Dewey Decimal classification system, a fairly daft system that was used by just about every public library at the time (and probably still is). After helping with the shelving, Wendy would go back upstairs to her specialist job of matching readers' obscure requests with stocks in the inter-library lending scheme. Her job was to search various catalogues and indices to first identify the book and then to communicate with other libraries in the scheme (sometimes in Hertfordshire, mostly in other counties and even in university and specialist libraries) and arrange for copies of these rare books to be sent on loan for our readers to borrow. It was a very important job, and I didn't see much of her until much later in the year, in October it was, when she came looking for me in the reference library, where I was working on that day. One of the other female library assistants was with her, and she did the talking. Wendy was very shy (as was I) and she hung back while the others did the talking.

"Wendy was followed home off the bus last night. She was a bit scared. We wondered if you would take her home on the bus tonight and see she gets home safely?" This from Angela, Wendy's best friend at the library.

Of course I agreed readily. It was nice to be asked, and Wendy, although only just sixteen years old at the time, and eighteen months younger than me, who looked as if she should still be at school, was very pretty, with a beautiful smile. Although she was only eighteen months younger than me, I had always thought of myself as much older, I don't know why. Now, looking back, I can remember feeling quite excited to be escorting her home on the bus, and then walking her to her front door. In those days, Monday-Thursday the library stayed open till eight o'clock, and I lived less than a mile from where she lived, and also we both got off the bus at the same stop - the Hyde shopping precinct, (where I lived). I had never ever noticed her getting off the bus where I did, but of course she must have. Anyway, we sat together on the bus, chatting, and at around 8:30pm we got off the bus and walked up Hydean Way to Chertsey Rise, where Wendy lived. I saw her to her door and on impulse, asked if she would like to go for a walk Sunday afternoon - she said yes. I think it was then, when she said "yes" that I knew that she was "the one"...

I duly walked up Hydean Way to meet her, at 2:30pm, as arranged, the following Sunday, and there she was, being dragged along Chertsey Rise towards the junction at the top of the hill, by an enormous brown dog. He was very big and very powerful, and it was all she could do to hold onto him. It was a windy day, but sunny and still warm that September. She shouted something that I didn't catch, and I hurried across the road to where she stood, struggling to hold this huge dog. "I told you to wait for me to come to you," she said anxiously. "He doesn't like strangers!" But she needn't have worried. Butch (pictured above) was the name of Wendy's dog - he was a first cross between an Alsatian and a boxer, and he loved me right from the moment we first met. I asked if I could hold him on the lead, and being very strong after all those years of rowing at school, I was able to hold him much easier than this small slip of a girl. The bond between Wendy and Butch was obvious for all to see. She adored him, and lived for looking after him. He was the most important individual in her life. It turned out we were both the younger siblings of two-parent, two children households, though I didn't meet her family until a few days later. That Sunday we went for a two-hour walk through Aston and Benington and back to Wendy's home in Chertsey Rise. "I'll see you tomorrow at work," I said as we parted, and then realised that without knowing it, we had been holding hands for the last half hour of our first walk together. Seventeen months later, in May 1966, we were married, and Butch was the first of six dogs we have looked after and loved in our 55 years of marriage (as of this year). I never had the Cocker Spaniel I wanted, but the dogs we've shared our homes with have all been brilliant. We loved them all, still do, of course, but our final two doggies (thus far) have brought us the most joy and a hefty measure of heartache and anxiety at the same time. In the following paragraphs you'll learn more about Butch, Chang, Buster, Nipper, Holly (our only girl doggy) and Skipper, and you'll also learn why Skipper and Holly were very, very special dogs. Because he managed to reach his fifteenth birthday, Skipper holds a very special place in our hearts - we lost Holly to lymphoma at the age of eight, and I still talk to her every day, I read my bedtime book (silently, of course) to her at bedtime, she's in the form of a soft toy of a border collie puppy. I won't ever forget her, and like to think that she has gone on to a different, higher plane of existence, and has even moved on to be our guardian angel.

Wendy and I were married on 21st May 1966 in St. Mary's Church Shephall, and after living in Wendy's parents' house for six months our application for a house of our own with Stevenage Development Coroporation was approved and we moved into Warren Avenue on the Chells estate when Wendy was expecting our first child, and we made a new home for Butch. Martin was born the following year, in April, and later that year his first word was "Goggy", which was his way of saying "Doggy". Butch lived to a good age; he loved a game of "pully bitey growlers" as we called it, a game played with socks (sometimes they would be socks we needed to wear and it wasn't really a game, but a vain attempt to get your socks back), and when he passed away, we missed him terribly. Wendy's boss at work bred Shih Tzus, and asked us to look after a puppy (not one of hers, but one that had come to her when the people who were due to have him backed out). This would be, Joyce told us, "just until I can find him a new home." We named him Chang, or rather I named him Chang, and he was adorable. Not what we wanted, but adorable nevertheless, and full of character. Of course, Joyce had conned us into looking after Chang for a while because she believed we needed another dog, and she never actually intended finding another home for him. Naturally, she was right and we fell in love with Chang the day we collected him from her house. But we were determined to get another, larger puppy, and Wendy and Martin, who was by now I think seven years old, went to the local Blue Cross Kennels near Royston one Saturday morning, where a litter of puppies who had been separated from their mother at six weeks were being looked after. I was working that Saturday morning, but when I got home at lunchtime, I found them with this quivering little wreck of a puppy.

Buster turned out to be a Boxer cross, but no one knew what the other half of the cross was. He screamed the house down the first night he was in our home, so I suggested putting him into bed with Chang, and it worked. They hit it off straight away and were inseparable (and quiet) from that moment on. We had many hilarious adventures with Buster and Chang, the latter taking it into his head to squeeze through the fence and walk into next door's kitchen and bark at the lady! Not many photos of them, just this one of Chang, because in the early seventies, photography was a very expensive hobby, and I wasn't earning that much, despite being the librarian at Hawker Siddeley Dynamics and then Records Officer at British Aircraft Corporation. Within a year or so of me joining BAC, both they and Hawker Siddeley merged to become part of the new British Aerospace giant. Life was good even though we were poor. We had Martin, we had our two little dogs - Buster had grown up to become about the same size as a spaniel, and there were plenty of nice walks when we moved back to Chertsey Rise, although this time we were renting our own three-bedroomed house a few yards away from where Wendy's parents and brother lived. Chang got into the habit of picking fights with larger dogs, particularly Alsatians, and then wandering off leaving Buster to sort things out. He was never an aggressive dog, but if he thought his little brother was in danger, he engaged in fights readily and had an amazing success rate of seeing off his opponents, no matter what size they were. Like I said, they were inseparable. Chang was a confirmed opera lover, and always ran into the front room when we were listening to it on the radio or on the record player. He would put his head on one side and sing along with it. His absolute favourite song, though was "Lady Marmalade"!

Both Chang and Buster lived to ripe old ages, although by the time he passed away, a year or so after Buster, Chang was both deaf and mostly blind. By this time we had moved to a new estate at Bragbury End, near to the village of Knebworth, and next to the Roger Harvey Garden Centre on the Hertford Road. By now I was working at the Water Research Centre and we were wondering about getting another dog. In 1991, when our family was complete, with second son Christopher born in 1981 and daughter Samantha born in 1984 (although we were still without a dog), I was made redundant from a very good job with BAe Defence Systems, and we took the opportunity to move to Fakenham in Norfolk. We had taken advantage of the Right to Buy and were now in a position to move anywhere in the country, but settled on Norfolk, hoping eventually to move nearer to the sea, having enjoyed many annual holidays at seaside towns like Sheringham, Hunstanton, Cromer and Wells-Next-The-Sea in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Settled in Fakenham and with an excellent if low-paid job at Bernard Matthews (the turkey man) we were now seriously thinking of getting another dog, and found a litter of border collie cross puppies in a village called Topcroft on the Norfolk-Suffolk border.  In a huge barn there were twenty puppies from two different litters swarming around. Wendy went into the barn and immediately one little pup came to her, and we knew instantly that this was to be our next dog - Nipper. He put his head on one side like the HMV dog, Nipper, and so that was my suggestion for his name and it stuck. He had what looked like a lightning strike on his head, as you can see in the photo above. The people we bought him from (we like to think of it as paying for the privilege of looking after him and taking him into our family) called him Badger, because of his striking markings, but to us he was always Nipper. Nipper was the most loving dog we had had so far, and soon became a firm favourite with the whole family. Again, not many photos of Nipper, because photography was still so expensive - buying a camera was bad enough, and you still had to fork out for film, which was not cheap (unlike today's photography, when you can take brilliant photos on a smart phone!). Today's generation won't understand any of this, because of digital photography and smart phones, but believe me, I had a series of decent cameras, and still struggled to afford film for them! Before moving to Fakenham, I usually managed to save up enough money for a couple of rolls of film when we went on holiday, which was once a year, for a week at the seaside on the east coast of Norfolk or Suffolk.

We had many long years of fun with Nipper, but when his time came, we realised that we had fallen in love with the sheer intelligence of the border collie side of him, and we decided, in 2006, to have another dog come to live with us, and this time it would be a full border collie. In those days, pups for sale were to be found just about everywhere - on notice boards, on for sale boards in supermarkets, even in the for sale adverts in the local newspapers. We found the advert for Skipper in the EDP (Eastern Daily Press) and went to the house where he lived, in Briston, about five miles from Fakenham, in May of that year. The lady of the house had two bitches running around in the back garden, but no sign of the boy pup we'd come to see. She explained that the two girls were a little rough with him, and tended to bully him, and she put them away in a cage before bringing out the boy, whom I had already decided to call Skipper. As you can see from the picture at the top of this page, the one where he's sitting on the paving slabs, he was utterly adorable, with beautiful bright ginger markings and we fell in love with him immediately. I played with his mum, Jade, while Wendy and the lady of the house chatted about money, and Skipper's lineage etc., and reluctantly, we went home and waited the two weeks for him to reach eight weeks, then went to collect him.

Unlike any other dog we've taken into our home, Skipper was in his element. He stomped around our garden in Fakenham, declared himself entirely satisfied with his new surroundings and his new family, and settled in, perfectly happy to have come to live with us. His first task was to reduce the height of all the shrubs in the garden to about six inches, rose bushes included! Apart from that, he was never destructive (Nipper had attempted to destroy a kitchen cabinet, something we managed to discourage him from doing by smearing Vic ointment along the bottom - he never did it again, although he did eat footwear if you left it within his reach).  Within a few days we took Skipper to the vet for his first set of jabs, and Stefan, the vet, told us we had chosen a very special puppy. He couldn't have been more right. Skipper was admired wherever we went. His beautiful markings were spectacular - he was the most gorgeous puppy, and he eventually grew into the most striking tricolour border collie we have ever seen.  Also, he turned out to be one of the biggest BCs anyone had ever seen! He was probably twice the size of the breed standard - a magnificent specimen and loved by everyone he came into contact with.

In September of that year, 2006, we finally had the opportunity to move to Sheringham, and we took it. Our new house is just five minutes from the playing field, six or seven minutes from the cliff walks, ten minutes from the world-famous Beeston Bump, and fifteen minutes from the beach. Skipper was in his element, and again, with more or less all of the neighbours and residents of eastern Sheringham bringing their dogs to the playing field and the cliff walks, and to trail over the bump for the spectacular scenery, everyone got to know us and Skipper, everyone admired and fell in love with him, and he lived the life of Riley. In his early years there were scary moments, like when he wandered off the cliff path over the edge whilst Wendy was out walking him and I was at work. Her heart in her mouth, she rushed to the edge, looked over anxiously and watched in horror as he walked up a narrow path and back onto the cliff path as though nothing had happened. On another occasion, he chased the train. The line ran along the bottom of the playing field, and he loved to chase the train. One day he simply disappeared into the distance. I jogged after him, pausing at the level crossing to make sure he hadn't gone through the gate and onto the line, and five minutes later I found him, sitting in the field that surrounds Beeston church, waiting for me to catch up. It was a huge game to him! Skipper also hated hang gliders, and these hateful people always went out of their way to tease and taunt him by flying low near him. One day he chased them from West Runton up to the top of Beeston Bump, a distance of over a mile, which he covered in just a few minutes. The hang glider "pilots" just laughed but it was really quite dangerous because Skipper could quite easily have plunged over the edge of the bump and into the sea or onto the rocks below. After that, if we saw hang gliders coming from the east, we put Skipper on the lead until they'd gone. The ones that come to Sheringham aren't particularly nice people, I have to say.

During these early years, Skipper broke one of his dew claws twice and had expensive surgery to repair it, twice. Thereafter, it always grew back crooked, like a scythe, and stuck out of his leg at right angles instead of pointing downwards. We had to buy special leather bootees for him to wear so that he didn't worry it. Also by this time we had registered with the Sheringham vets, Miramar, run by Jane and Michaela, two lovely ladies who inevitably fell in love with Skipper and helped us to keep him healthy and fit for the best part of fifteen years. In his later years, Skipper was prone to stomach infections - (we get thousands of visitors to the unsightly and horrendous static caravan parks that are dotted all the way along the AONB) - which he inevitably caught from one of the visiting dogs. But after a jab or two at the vets, he always recovered, usually within a few hours. He would chase a ball thrown from a ball thrower (what a brilliant invention they are!) but he could never be bothered to bring it back.  He never thought about chasing rabbits or squirrels until Holly arrived.

When Skipper was two, we thought it might be nice to get him a companion, and started looking for a tricolour bitch puppy, eventually finding a litter on a local farm. Holly came into our lives in 2008 and immediately became top dog! She completely dominated Skipper, took his toys away from him so that she could play with them, hovered around the kitchen at dinner time to pounce on any dinner that Skipper left - she polished hers off in a couple of minutes, Skipper always ate daintily and slowly, savouring every morsel! Any soft toy bought for Skipper for birthday or Christmas was immediately confiscated and eviscerated by Holly, eyes first, then the nose, and then the stuffing. Together they would chase anything wild that moved - squirrels, rabbits, deer, foxes, sometimes even birds. This was a time of joy and contentment. Our family was complete, we had two gorgeous doggies who liked nothing better than to chase rabbits in the playing field, all over the cliffs and the bump, or to leap into the back of the estate car for a trip to Pretty Corner Woods, where they would disappear for several minutes chasing - but never catching - squirrels... Our intention was always for Holly to have their puppies, but Skipper could never work out what to do, and we didn't have a clue, we simply thought that nature would take its course and Skipper's spectacular genes would be preserved forever in a new generation. Sadly, that never happened.

In 2017, we took Skipper and Holly for their annual vaccinations, it would have been in May, I think. Within a few weeks, Holly was diagnosed with lymphoma, and Skipper with haemangiosarcoma in his eye. Holly became ill quite quickly, and when we took her to the vet she took some blood for a blood test and told us Holly's liver was off the scale, and did we want to say goodbye to her now, today, as she didn't have long, or would we like her to try Holly on steroids to see what happened? Naturally we opted for the latter, and she had another eight good weeks when she was almost back to normal, chasing her ball, chasing rabbits, eating well, looking well, the golf-ball-sized swellings in her throat had disappeared, and we began to hope... but of course her immune system was more or less non-existent by now. She caught a nasty infection, again from the caravan people's dogs and was unable to shake it off. A trip to the vet for an injection of antibiotics failed to perk her up, and by nine o'clock in the evening she was failing rapidly. I took her back to see vet Jane at ten o'clock and sat on the surgery floor with Holly singing lullabies to her while she went to sleep for the very last time. Holly was only eight years old, but she had a profound effect on our lives, and we miss her, still do, terribly. I still talk to Holly, and as I said, when we go to bed each evening, I read my book to her, silently, of course, I tell her I love her and that I will never forget her. She was a gorgeous girl, and I will never forget her, and of course I will always love her. Holly was cheated of long life by the vaccination for leptospira. There is plenty of well-documented scientific evidence online about this - we don't blame our vets, they're only doing what they're supposed to, and until the veterinary profession tells them otherwise, there are thousands upon thousands of dogs who are susceptible to cancer who will catch it from these vaccinations. We were particularly unlucky, with both of our dogs being affected at the same time. But with Holly gone, we needed to concentrate all our attention on our beloved Skipper, who was by now in some danger from the tumour in his eye.

Vet Michaela, examined Skipper's eye and said that she might be able to remove the small tumour that was growing there. She operated once, and got most of it, but it grew back. We asked her to try again, and the second time she again couldn't get all of it, and it grew back again... Finally, in the Autumn of 2017, Michaela told us that unless she removed Skipper's eye, he might die from the tumour, so we gave her the go ahead to do just that. She promised us that he would make a full recovery and would be able to cope just perfectly with only one eye, and we trusted her. In November, we went to collect him from the surgery, not knowing what to expect. He came staggering drunkenly across the reception area to greet us, a huge grin on his face, full of life, and looking like something from a Stephen King novel. For the next twenty-four hours he was mostly asleep, or rather stoned out of his brain on painkillers and anti-inflammatories, but then he woke up, had something to eat and demanded to go for a walk and to play with his ball. If you'll pardon the pun, he never looked back, and we came to the conclusion that maybe that small tumour in the corner of his eye had been causing him some pain, even though he never complained. Skipper coped magnificently with just one eye, and enjoyed another four years of life, with occasional infections which gave him an upset tummy, as I've described, but otherwise he remained in good health for the rest of his life. Earlier this year, 2021, he started to struggle with his back legs. 

Our house in Beeston Regis, has a back garden that is ten feet or so below the level of the front room floor. When we first moved in we realised that there was only one way in and out of the house - via the front door. The only way to get to the back garden was through the garage! We're pretty sure this was against the law, and that the council, who built this small parade of identical houses in 1972, should have provided a back door. Of the five pairs of semis, ours was the worst - the only way out of the house in the case of fire, was through the front door, and failing that, through one of the back windows, with a ten-feet drop to the concrete patio below.  Not ideal. When we first moved in, we contracted our next door neighbour's son to put in a patio door and some steps, and for the best part of fourteen years, Skipper went up and down these steps quite happily to get to his beloved garden, where he would spend most of his time. But for the last few months of his life, he struggled to get up and down the steps as arthritis started to trouble him. He always preferred being outdoors, and would often sleep on the patio in the evenings from six o'clock until ten-ish, which was the time I would go down the steps and gently wake him up for a final wee and a final drink before bringing him indoors  for a good night's sleep.

On Thursday 15th April 2021, Skipper reached the grand old age of fifteen - one hundred and five years old using the old way of calculating dogs' ages, seven human years to every one dog year. In the morning, he demanded his treats with a series of barks, then started jumping up and barking to get me to hurry up and take him for his early morning walk. He spent a lovely day, ate his lunch, ate all of his dinner (he was always a fussy eater) and ate his evening treats, then settled down to sleep the evening away on the patio, as always. The following morning, the 16th, he wasn't interested in anything at all and we took him to see Ioannis, the young vet who had fallen in love with him when he met him a few weeks earlier in the year when he had another infection that laid him low. Ioannis gave Skipper an antibiotic injection which he said should put him right within about ten hours, but when we got him home, all he wanted to do was sleep. We managed to get a few drops of water down him, but by four o'clock he had completely lost the use of his legs. I managed to get him up the back steps one at a time and eventually into the front room. But he couldn't really move. When we lifted his front end up, his legs wouldn't support him, and there was no way he could stand. At five-thirty in the afternoon of 16th April, the vet sent him off to sleep for the final time and for us it was the end of an era. Skipper and Holly had dominated our lives for fifteen years and eight years respectively. It's three weeks now, as I'm writing this, since Skipper passed away, and we still look through the patio doors to make sure he's OK down on the patio. I still think to myself that I will need a lighter jacket for when we take him for his lunchtime walk. We still open the front door when we get back from shopping expecting to see him laying in the hall waiting to greet us and to give him the "fusspots" he so loved. Both of us still go to fill his water bowl. We don't know if we will ever get another doggy. Not to replace Skipper, but just for company, for someone to look after.  We have started looking, but who knows what Fate has in store for us?

We have never ever thought of ourselves as dog owners. Instead, we like to think of all of our dogs as members of our family, that have come into our homes to share our lives, loaned to us by God, some people say, and that seems about right to me. Several times during his last two years of life, we thought we were losing Skipper because he was so ill with one of those dreaded, dreadful infections brought by the dogs from the campsite and the static caravan park which are such a blight on an area of outstanding natural beauty. North Norfolk District Council have always been one of the worst councils in Britain, and granting permission for these horrendous eyesores on our beautiful clifftops has to go down as one of their worst ever decisions. But every time Skipper survived, he came back from the brink against all the odds and had a reputation at the vets' and with us, of course, for being a real fighter when it came to illness. He loved life and he loved us. In return, we gave him everything we could - a happy, loving home, and all the home comforts he needed and was entitled to. He was a treasured family member - he was the Special One, and we miss him terribly. 

It was a privilege to have shared his life and Holly's of course (and all of our dogs' lives). We've had dogs as part of our lives for over 57 years, and loved them all, but naturally it's the last dog who lived with you that affects you so badly when they pass away. We had a particularly soft spot for Holly, because she was our only girl, and she was taken from us when she was far too young; God apparently needed her back... and Skipper had such a profound effect on us not only because he was our last dog, but also because he was quite simply so spectacularly beautiful. When Holly went, he seemed to expand, his heart grew, seemingly to cater for the fact that Holly was no longer there. If possible, he was more loving than ever before, more loving than any dog we ever lived with. He made our lives complete, and now that we're dogless (we're not sure yet if we will ever have another doggy as part of our lives - we're both getting on a bit in years now) there's a huge chasm, a void that nothing can fill in the same way that Skipper filled it.

I can think of no better epitaph for Skipper the Wonder Dog, as we called him, than to say that he brought only joy into our lives, and made us happier and better people in the process. Now he's with our beloved Holly again, and we can remember him and Holly and all of our other doggies, and the years of constant joy and laughter they brought with them when they came into our lives and changed them forever.

The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its 24th year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email at paulenorman1@gmail.com and I'll let you know where to send it.





 
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This is Skipper on the day we first met him, in May 2006. Just look at the size of those paws!



My Dad with one of my Gran's many dogs, this one's a border collie, I think... proof that the family loved dogs, of course! And here's one with Mum and Dad and the same dog: