Tuesday, 7 October 2014

What did the dog mean? by Bill Kirton

Some of this blog is true.

Earlier this year, when the weather was warmer, I walked up a hill which is just a 20 minute drive away but takes me up and out of streets and into heather and vistas. As soon as you start climbing away from cars and people, you can let yourself think that mystical stuff is possible.

As usual, there were several pauses on the way up because it’s steep in places and, with only trees around, you just stand there and you’re just open to whatever jumps into your head. This time, one of those whatevers was a bloke called Simon de Montfort. We spent a year in France a while back, in the South West, the Languedoc region, and that’s where Simon indulged his fancies, one of which struck me particularly forcibly. He was leader of crusaders who were laying siege to Béziers, where a sect called the Cathars were holed up with some Catholic sympathisers. (This was back in the 13th century.) One of the charming things he did to try to persuade them to give up was to gouge out the eyes of a hundred prisoners, cut off their lips and noses and send them back into the town. A special little refinement was that he let the one at the front keep one of his eyes so that he could see to lead them back. How people can treat their fellow humans in such ways is beyond my imagining – and the fact that similar things are still happening in the ‘civilised’ as well as the less civilised world makes you wonder whether evolution has somehow stopped.

Why I remembered that on a sunny Scottish hill I have no idea. So I carried on walking, thanking whoever had set the granite blocks in place at some points along the track to make it easier to climb. A little aside then made me start wondering whether I could use these carefully arranged blocks, and even the path itself, as a metaphor. It’s an obvious one but maybe I could distort it, undermine its obviousness. Maybe it wouldn’t be a symbol of our taming of nature or our determination to go somewhere, but a scar which would heal when we’ve gone. Maybe it would disappear behind me as I walked on, just as my past was. More than all that, though, I was wondering why I hadn’t remembered to bring any chocolate with me.

Then came the stump – dead, whitened wood, beside the path. A tree that had stepped aside for a rest and just snapped off and rotted away, except for the twisted bole and useless roots. It was like Sartre’s tree root in La Nausée, grotesque, challenging, excrescent. It was also a good excuse to have another pause and pretend I was thinking deep thoughts rather than taking deep breaths.

And it was just past that stump that the dog appeared. No barking or snuffling, no crackling twigs to announce it. I turned a bend and there it was, sitting on the path. The most mongrel of mongrels. Scruffy, yellowish, bits of fur missing, and a face that would never make it onto a puppy calendar. I put my hand out to it but it backed away. Not fearful, just private somehow. And it followed me to the top. And I know that some of you will lose any vestiges of respect you may have had for me at what I did next, but I started to get fed up with it. I’d come here to be on my own and this cur was interfering with that wish. So I shooed it away.

For a while, it stood some way off, then a final rush and a shout from me and it ran off on its stubby little legs. It set me thinking of the dog in Byron’s poem Darkness. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. Nasty, scary stuff – the black Romanticism, not the troubadours, minstrels and princesses stuff.

This is getting too long so I’ll just say that later that evening, just before I went to bed, I went out to lock the garage door and the dog was there, sitting on the other side of the road. Remember, the hill where I saw him is maybe 16 miles from where I live. But there he was, squat in the darkness, looking at me.

In fact, I’ve borrowed the last bit about the dog. But what did it mean?


julia jones said...

Doesn't have to mean anything does it? An image rather than a parable? Liked your piece except for Simon de Montfort who I'd dimly thought of as a Good Guy (sort of chap you'd name a university after) In fact I was so put out I went to Wikipedia which I discover TWO significant S de Ms. Your persecutor of the Albigensians and my early democrat (his son). So that's a relief. Better go write something of my own now. Your free association piece has done good to the head. Thanks

madwippitt said...

Obviously it means that your subconscious is telling you to get a dog. One of the ones from rescue that is passed by because it is not young enough or cute enough. Fancy chasing it away! If you can't have one, then maybe it is your subconscious telling you to sponsor one instead? Try http://www.kimshome.org.uk/

JO said...

I just love your first line - some of this is true - so who knows what place this dog has in the story? If it has meaning - for you, or for us. Great stuff!

Lee said...

Lovely post about the power of imagination. Some of the very best fantasy resides in that wonderful, strange, fertile borderland between the mundane and the magical. And I'm borrowing (OK, plagiarising, if you prefer) your granite blocks for a path I've been struggling to describe in my latest chapter!

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks for the comments all.

Julia, sorry to have (nearly) dethroned one of your heroes. To my shame, I didn't realise the two Simons were so closely connected. The son obviously took after his mother.

Madwippitt, I suspected you'd chastise me for the shooing away. I do, however, have a friend who's a chocolate labrador and two others who are black labs from next door, but we can't have one ourselves because my wife's terrified of them.

Yes, Jo, and the meanings will/may change from day to day anyway. In fact, my next post will revisit this.

Lee, you're very welcome to the granite blocks - just as long as I don't have to deliver them.

Lydia Bennet said...

yes a lovely post Bill. I wonder if it's innate, or because fiction has conditioned us, that we seek deeper meanings in encounters and events than the obvious? How people still look for 'signs' and things that must ' mean something'. Meeting animals away from people and buildings often leaves a strong feeling of something communicated, even if our modern minds aren't sure what - thinking of locking eyes with seals, wild goats, South African animals.

Reb MacRath said...

Well done, Wild Bill. I seem to be the only one who knows that the dog is telling you to get yourself a cat. Then again, I'm a student of yours, so I tend to know such things.

Sandra Horn said...

Jung would have loved this post...and so do I.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks again, all.

Lydia, I'm two thirds of the way through a terrific book by the Dutch primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal. It's called The Bonobo and the Atheist and, among many other fascinating insights, the author offers clear evidence of precisely the sort of eye contact between us and animals that you describe.

Thanks Reb, but surely there are more appropriate gurus in Seattle.

Thanks, Sandra. I know what you mean about Jung. He and his 'shadow self'. would have a field day with this.