Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

I shifted a chest of drawers that hadn't been moved for years, and found an old photograph lying among the dust and the cobwebs behind it. I picked it up and studied it, fascinated by the alien light of the mid-1980s. A summer meadow. A terrier ring at a dog and ferret show. And there I am, a stranger to my present self, crouching beside a tidy Jack Russell terrier bitch. She has liquid, almond-shaped eyes set in a black-and-tan face. The well-proportioned body is piebald black and white. Smooth coated. Her tail is undocked, the blood-blackened bone showing through the sparse white hairs at the tip. She is looking with calm, confident interest at something off-camera.

People often commented on what they saw as kindness in her face. My mother often expressed the far-fetched belief that she was a Christian. Indoors, she had perfect good manners. She was sensitive and you could command her with your eyes. The day I met her, she jumped up on my lap and I immediately picked her up and flung her away. I was used to Alsatians and was stupidly contemptuous of the little dog. She never asked to come up on my lap again. She was quiet and watchful and careful not to get under anyone's feet. She never asked for food, though thirst would drive her to bark at the kitchen tap. She was fastidious as a cat in her cleanliness and when doing her business. She had one terrible, overriding, maniacal vice, however. She lived to kill.

My brother-in-law got her from a Dartmoor farmer who had found her out foraging alone. My brother-in-law gave her to my brother and my brother gave her to me. Then, she looked about three years old. The first time I took her for a walk she killed a rat right in front of me. She chased it twice around a telegraph pole, caught it with a twisting leap, shook it to death, cast the corpse aside, then jogged on as if nothing had happened. Snuff ballet. From start to finish about two seconds.

I'd never seen a terrier nail a rat before and I was astonished and impressed.

But a rat was nothing. Her bread and butter, or so she thought, was badger. In the early days of our acquaintance, I spent a lot of time lying on the ground with my head as far down a badger hole as it would go, shouting myself hoarse, anxiously alive to the fact that the fine for disturbing a badger set was £2,000. …

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