When it comes to animals in the workplace, I don’t have a problem as long as you’re a farmer, a cowboy or a butcher, otherwise leave the poor bloody things at home. Where I work, swathes of the staff are upper crust and, having rarely heard the word “no”, they’ve developed a laissez-faire attitude to pets at the desk. At any one time, you’ll find dogs lying by the printer, dogs nosing through bins or dogs nudging your arm with their cold nose while you’re trying to eat a sandwich (or, as is my style, eating salad with a plastic teaspoon). On the odd occasion that a dog isn’t in the office, people are looking at JPEGs of dogs on their screens, discovering comedy dogs on YouTube or discussing the dogs they saw on other floors of our building a few days/weeks/years ago. It’s like a syndrome.
I’ve actually worked out why dogs have overrun the workplace – they give an opportunity to down tools and do anything except the job you’re being paid to do. For many metrosexual men, a hound is a baring of one’s soul – “I’m sensitive, ladies!” – when actually, it’s more of an Alan Partridge-type “let’s talk about meeee” ploy. Dogs provide a subject matter, a pristine opportunity to crack up a conversation with a dollybird whose bra straps are on show.
I don’t know what my grandad would have made of it all. In his day, dogs carried strict second-class status, but today’s dogs are lords. Dogs were different prior to 1980, more grown up, more sensible. Modern dogs never stop being puppies. I suppose hounds have always mirrored their owners, and people had a lot more on their minds in the Seventies. My grandad’s dog was Sheba, an Alsatian/Labrador cross. Sheba didn’t like children; dogs rarely did back then. I developed an unhealthy taste for dog biscuits when I was about four, and an approach towards Sheba’s bowl was always greeted with an “Rrrrrrrrr, rrrrrrrrrrrrr, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” Sheba never snapped, but she was a bit like an old-bat teacher nearing retirement age. You knew you could only take pranks so far.
At my nana and grandads, the biggest crime a dog could commit was to whine. With my grandad, you had three strikes and you were – literally – out. The first whimper would be met with a fierce, “Give over.” The second cry would bring a furious, “Give over, and lie down!” If Sheba was bonkers enough to take her pleading further, she’d be grabbed by the collar and dragged, claws scraping, into the garden, whereupon she’d be “fastened up” in the “hut” – a black-painted, windowless cube made out of corrugated metal panels. It was quite Burma 1943 in its design. Sheba would remain under lock and key for anything up to four hours, whether it was snow, rain or shine. She’d also be fastened up when my nana was hoovering, which could sometimes be twice a day. In summer, moulting was another misdemeanour.
Apart from the frequent visits to the hut’s dark heart, Sheba would never be far from my grandad’s side. Grandad would only ever be seen by the hearth with a poker in his hand or out in the garden digging soil. I don’t think I ever saw him upstairs. Despite the fact that my grandad could easily have chinned a Nile crocodile or torn a poltergeist in two (and probably locked them in the hut), my nana says he was devastated when Sheba’s back legs finally gave way and the immobile dog had to be put down – or “destroyed”, as was the parlance of the day. When I heard that Sheba had been destroyed, I had images of the aged, bad-tempered creature being blown to bloody rags by a rattling war tank.
My mate’s grandad was a gamekeeper and kept numerous Alsatians. Out of the pack that lived in his kennels, only one was allowed into the house. For some reason, the dog – Gemma – had become fiercely protective of my mate’s nana, a fact that my pal’s lorry driving uncle enjoyed testing. Uncle Stuart would arrive, entice Gemma into the front garden, quickly shut the door and then pretend to give his mother an almighty beating by the front window. From the lawn, Gemma would watch with absolute disbelief as her kindly owner was thumped, slapped, shook and shouted at. “You don’t bloody learn, do you?” Uncle Stuart would blast. “I’ve had enough of you, ENOUGGGGHHH!” The dog would go crackers. Great entertainment.
People don’t train dogs any more. Barbara Woodhouse was the end of the line. To train a dog properly, you had to take a few days off work, disappear into the countryside, repeatedly wallop the dog in woodland until all fight had left its body, then you’d return home with a pet that would sit, stand, beg, jump through flaming hoops and obey every order instantly. Around 1990, we became too lazy and passive to teach dogs basic rules of behaviour. It could explain the problem we now have with sharks on leads.
We had a fantastic Labrador called Whiskey. He was destroyed around the time of the Madchester movement, an era when my brother would pull his paisley Y-fronts as far up his pigeon chest as was possible, bound like a drunk towards our younger sister, and sing “Hal-lel-lujaaaah,” mimmicking Shaun Ryder. I think it proved too stressful for the dog – his nerves couldn’t stand it any longer. My sister would run off screaming and my brother would follow her like a zombie, still singing. Before Whiskey popped his paws in 1989, my mam, perhaps a little prematurely, ordered his replacement – another Labrador, called Benjaman (sic). Mam’s not a speller. These two yellow animals were stark evidence that dogs were rapidly transforming from respectable pillars of society into cumbersome, greedy teddy bears with learning difficulties.
The characters of Whiskey and Benji were so dissimilar that it was like having Steve Ovett and Gazza in the same room. Whiskey was distinguished and statesmanlike, although he had some curious traits. He was a tough dog, and had many brawls with Alsatians, Dobermans and Rottweilers down the years, but he was frightened to death of field mice and for some reason he couldn’t look you in the eye. Benji, on the other hand, was like a clumsy child.
Me and our kid would take the dogs on long walks into the Doncaster outback, even when Whiskey had slowed to the pace of a Chelsea pensioner. Our kid used to get very vexed on these walks. Whiskey would approach a sapling to p*** his underpowered trickle down its stem, then Benji would appear like a Barnes Wallis bomb and absolutely banjax the near-disabled Whiskey. Benji would then hurtle off like a small van in a bank job with our kid sprinting after him, swinging the lead, shouting, “Get here!” Benji felt the leather of the lead a few times across his rump and the odd kick with a DM. Benji was so thick that sometimes when he went to p*** on a lamp-post, s*** would fall out of his arse. This would annoy my brother too.
This morning, I finished Danny Baker’s autobiography Going To Sea In A Sieve. I like the good-time banter of his radio show. It’s full of ideas. I particularly enjoyed his tales of being on a European tour with Ian Dury And The Blockheads in 1978, when Baker was writing for NME, specifically bits about Dury’s valet and minder, Fred “Spider” Rowe – “a real-deal hardnut”, as Baker describes him. During one tourbus conversation about the growing problem of mad dogs attacking people, Spider jumped in: “You make me die, you f***in’ hippies, straight you do. No such thing as a mad dog. It’s a myth. Thing is with a dog, if it comes at ya, you grab the nearest stick or newspaper or anything you can hold by both ends, even your keys. Then, just as it leaps at ya, you hold it out. A dog will always grab the middle of the stick, see. And as he does, you bring your knee up – bang! – on to its mouth and, because it’s open and weak, it’ll shatter its jaw like your old nan’s f***in’ glass fruit bowl. So don't talk to me about mad dogs, because it’s not a problem.”
I also liked how he dealt with a sozzled fan in Holland who’d outstayed his welcome:
Spider: “Sorry to interrupt, friend, but can I ask your name?”
Drunk: “My name is Andreas, what’s it to you?”
Spider: “Do you mind if I call you Superman?”
Spider: “Because in about 30 seconds you’ll be flying straight out that f***in’ window. OK?”
I’m a sucker for a stylish hardcase. I don’t think Spider would have had need of a canine companion – he had too much going on. Perhaps the pinnacle of my experience with workplace fleabags came earlier this year when I was stood by the printer in the hallway. As I collected flapping pieces of A3 paper, a dog approached and whined. “Give over and lie down,” I growled, on autopilot. Just then, a female member of staff walked through a nearby door and said, “Helloooo!” I thought: “That’s friendly!” and in the traditional Northern way, I raised my eyebrows, smiled at 15 percent and replied, “Alright.” “Oh, I didn’t mean you,” she said, “I was talking to the dog.” I felt as flattened as Whiskey after a bouncing Benji bound-through. I quickly realised that my place in the office pecking order was lower than a lurcher. I may start eating dog biscuits at my desk with a plastic teaspoon to try and raise my status.