A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
‘OK – Monty, just come around the corner with the barrow, pick up the pot, say your stuff to camera A, put the pot in the barrow and throw to camera B.’
‘No problem,’ I say. ‘Standing by.’
So I set off, pushing the barrow, and as I came around the corner I heard one of the cameramen say, ‘Hang on – just a mo’ … the sunlight’s just perfect … don’t move … good boy – perfect.’
[…] I saw Nigel lying exactly where I was to park the barrow, finding the one shaft of sunlight that had broken through the cloud all morning, his tail gently wafting like a preened russet ostrich feather, filtering the light. He looked up and saw me – with, I could swear, a slight smirk – and then demurely lowered his head onto his stretched-out paws.
The director called out the signal to end the scene: ‘Cut!’
The sun went back in. Nigel shuffled off out of the way. Both cameramen congratulated themselves for capturing the magic moment and the director beckoned for me to do my required stuff now the star had completed his turn.
It happens time after time.
As most of my (endlessly tolerant and patient) friends know, if there’s one thing I love more than gardens and gardening, it’s dogs. So when Monty Don – journalist, horticulturalist and presenter of BBC 2’s Gardeners’ World – let it be known that he was writing a book about gardening AND dogs, I was right at the front of the queue, begging people to take my money from me.
Nor was I alone: Nigel – My Family and Other Dogs went straight into The Times’ bestseller list, thereby cementing the ‘National Treasure’ status of one of television’s most deeply loved personalities … not Monty Don, but his golden retriever, Nigel.
Gardeners’ World screens weekly on BBC2 from March to October, and in 2018 will celebrate its half-century. The schedulers interfere with its hallowed 8.30pm-on-Friday spot at their peril. Just this year, when the callow youths and non-gardening wide boys at the BBC were looking around for programmes which could be safely shunted to one side to make room for the screening of sporting fixtures, they alighted on Gardeners’ World as the obvious candidate – presumably on the grounds that the potatoes could wait, and in any case, the programme’s audience was, they believed, old and daft and probably wouldn’t even notice. The fury they unleashed was a thing of beauty, and revealed that gardening is a universal British passion shared by people of all ages, conditions and backgrounds, many of whom are both articulate and social media savvy. (Many of them can also wield a mattock in one hand while clutching a mug of tea in the other – something the schedulers might like to bear in mind in future …)
Monty Don has presented the programme since 2003, with a three-year hiatus from 2008 after he suffered a stroke. It was on his return in 2011 that the gardening public was first introduced to Nigel, who quietly proceeded to upstage his (putative) master every time he ambled in front of the camera. He now receives more fan mail, gifts and Christmas cards than the rest of the family put together, and it was that extraordinary popularity which prompted the writing of this book.
Why, Monty Don wondered, are we so fond of dogs? What is it they give us which we value so highly?
In Nigel, he examines not just the man-dog dynamic, but also the man-dog-landscape one – which in his and Nigel’s case centres around Longmeadow, his constantly evolving garden in Herefordshire.
What follows is a beautiful, often elegiac, but always life-affirming meditation on one of the oldest man/animal relationships on the planet, which will strike a chord with anyone who has ever shared their life with a dog. Although the narrative concentrates mostly on Nigel and Longmeadow (as well as Nigel in Longmeadow and Nigel accidentally rearranging Longmeadow), we also meet some of his predecessors, are given glimpses into Monty Don’s own life and learn the fascinating history of the golden retriever as a separate and recognized breed.
Apart from being companions, work mates and four-legged therapists, our dogs are often signposts and milestones in our lives, marking the places where we have changed direction, moved on and released the past. Because their natural life spans are so much shorter than our own, the pleasure we derive from their company is always tempered by the knowledge that one day we will have to say goodbye to them, and the most moving passages in the book are those where he describes the loss of his beloved pets – none more so than the death of the first dog he ever considered truly his own. Her name was Gretel, and she succumbed to cancer in her tenth year. His description of burying her in a field which had once been given to him by his father – but had since passed to his brother – is painful and deeply affecting, capturing precisely the way in which our dogs waymark our lives:
She lay curled up in her wicker bed, at the bottom of the five-foot shaft of chalk, a bowl of food prepared just as she liked it and a ball. When she woke, I thought, she will be hungry. The ball will comfort her. When she woke she would not be confused but would know where she was and be free to run in familiar fields.
Then I threw the spoil back over her, working fast, refilling the hole, piling the excess in a chalky mound and topping it with lumps of flint.
When it was done, hands bloodied and raw to the meat, I sat down and wept for my dog, my father and my field. And myself. When I finally walked down in the dark, I knew that everything that connected me to this place was now over.
I had buried my past.
Nigel is, then, far more than a jolly romp through ‘dogs I have known’. Like everything Monty Don writes, it’s a layered and thought-provoking book which looks honestly at the joys and sadnesses of loving and caring for dogs. Nigel himself is now eight years old, and heading towards elder-statesmanship. These days, he shares the stage with a new dog on the block – Nellie, a young stripling of a golden retriever who has put a spring in his step and a flourish in his tail. Together, they have become joint scene stealers.
With any luck Nigel will be surreptitiously dumping his tennis ball in the boss’s wheelbarrow for many more summers to come … but when he does eventually leave us, we will at least have this delightful tribute to one of television’s great characters and the abiding memory of a dog who was always ready for his close up.
Two Roads Books, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. 2016. ISBN: 978-1-473-64169-3. 225pp.