With a dog you meet all sorts of new people. When we had the old dog I used to stand with him outside supermarkets while the better half shopped for food. I would be approached mainly by people on the fringes of sanity. ‘Can I touch? Does he bite?’
‘Not always,’ I would say.
Now that we have Bella I am coming round to the idea that the old dog must have encouraged these unsavoury approaches with his surly nature. A much sunnier class of people want to touch Bella. The other day we were on the Tube. It was between strikes. An attractive young woman, Italian as it turned out, was standing on the platform and got in with us. After a stop or so she turned to me and said, ‘I’m in love. Can I touch?’
Bella looked away in disgust, but I said, ‘I think she means you.’
It was a sad story in a way. The woman had been sent to England to learn the language and had left her six Jack Russells in Florence. She missed them terribly.
‘Can’t you bring them here?’ I said. ‘All that quarantine business has changed.’
‘You don’t understand. My father, he will not let me and he will not let me come back to see them until I speak English perfectly.’
Anyway she got on well with Bella. She was affectionate with her without encouraging hysteria, which was good because when Bella gets overexcited she pees herself, even on the District Line. When we got to Bow, off she went.
Between Bow and Plaistow I mused on the relations between dogs and the people in our area from the different strands of multi-ethnic London. Italians are used to terriers as pets; other cultures are different. One must be wary of generalising. Amy took to Bella on sight but when I took her through Gerrard Street the crowd parted to each side of us. Chinese people are not all the same as regards dogs any more than anyone else is.
Of course the position is reciprocal. When we had the old dog and I was still taking Russian lessons my teacher was delighted by his aggression. I was taught to say in Russian, ‘My dog is racist. He hates both black people and Jews.’ I tried to explain that this was not the case: the only black people that he barked at were postmen and in that case it was the uniform, not the man. As for Jews, the one he knew best was my Russian teacher himself and how could he trust a man who made up such stories about him? Of course, with my limited command of the language, my teacher had gone off onto some other flight of fancy before I could fashion this into a laborious sentence and deliver it.
‘Ed Miliband, he is a Jew. Is he a Jew-hating Jew?’
My teacher’s mind was a snake-pit of fears and insecurities.
‘Nyet,’ I said.
Just as we have to be eternally on guard against signs of racism, along of course with gender bias, in ourselves, it is essential to check for equivalent inappropriate behaviour in our pets. Bella in general takes people as she finds them, but there has been a development that has worried me. Every morning we go for a walk together in West Ham Park. We have to pass a bus stop on our way there. For some reason the seat is always occupied by modest Muslim women waiting for the opportunity to proceed on their way towards Barking. Bella is terrified of them and plunges into the gutter rather than walk anywhere near them.
I lectured her on Islamophobia. She doesn’t understand many words. ‘Walk’, ‘dinner’, ‘no’ (optional), and ‘West Ham Park’ are about it: certainly not ‘Islamophobia’. But as they told us at Battersea Home for Dogs it’s the tone of voice that counts. I tried to get into this a conviction that all people are worthy of respect, regardless of race, gender or creed. My speech positively throbbed. In return she gave me her alert look. The following morning she dived into the gutter again.
Who can tell what goes on in a dog’s head? I try to be positive about it. One thing that did occur to me is that the dresses of the Muslim women, being modest, reach down to the ground. As we approached the bus stop on the way back I noticed that the younger ones were swinging their legs but that their shoes could not be seen. If I were at ground level I reckon that, never mind racism-awareness, I would want to keep a distance from wherever the feet might be, if kicking was in progress.
Curiously there was another incident the same morning. We got to the Park and skirted the various buggied mums, tai chiers and runners. The old dog would always consider it polite to join in with runners, an act that more than once delivered a Personal Best on the runner’s part. Bella is not that interested, although one enormous lady, struggling along with her stomach waving perilously in front, visibly intrigued her more than was tactful. We got to her favourite bit of grass and she addressed herself to her morning duty. She is shy about this and has only recently been persuaded that it is all right in public, as opposed to the hall floor where she is among friends. I had gathered the result into a plastic bag, and I was carrying it towards the bin marked ‘Dog Waste’ when a crowd of mainly black schoolboys enveloped us. They were going for a run and were delighted. ‘Old white man! Dog shit! Urggh!’ they shouted, and gave us a theatrically wide berth, even though that must in some cases have endangered their chances of a Personal Best.
Bella was furious, though whether it was their casual manners towards me or her I don’t know. She caught them up and passed among them, barking and showing her teeth until the boys scattered. Their teacher caught us up. ‘Your dog is racist,’ he said, making a note in his little book.