ohOne of the first signs of spring in my garden is a ring of snowdrops and winter acconites that surround the trunk of a medlar tree outside the greenhouse. This yellow and white display has been planted to complete a collection of elegantly engraved, moss-covered mini headstones that mark the resting places of the previous owner’s dogs. Each of these markers has a simple but evocative dedication: “Medlar, beloved Border Terrier”; “Otter, a little treasure. Sister of Medlar ”; “Skip, grandson of Genghis. Sweet eccentric. Whenever I see this pet cemetery, I remember that, despite a complex structure of denial that involves a stealthy suspicion that he is immortal, there will come a time when I will have to face the death of Hector, dog of dogs.
Hector is a cockapoo and isn’t ashamed to admit it. He makes fun of terms like “designer dog” and “hybrid” and is rightly proud of his spaniel / poodle heritage. While many people have an origin myth about how their pet chose them, in Hector’s case, it’s true. When I went with my wife Alexa to see a friend whose working cocker spaniel had just given birth, a blind, chocolate brown puppy caterpillar freed itself from the hairy mass of its siblings and crawled towards us. The link was instantaneous and, on our side, unconditional.
Eight years later, Hector is my companion, confidant and friend. Our relationship is simple; we don’t argue, we are always happy to see each other and I never go to bed angry with him (even if he takes half the quilt). Hector’s antics sometimes surprised me: at the funeral of Marion, an aunt whose life had been devoted to loving, raising and showing poodles, Hector, like the dogs of Antioch at the fall of the Roman Empire, threw back his head and let out a lupine cry just as the celebrant released Marion’s ashes to the wind; an action he has never repeated. (A friend recently recommended reading Dogs who know when their The owners come home, by renowned biochemist Rupert Sheldrake, who studies phenomena that conventional science cannot explain, to shed light on Hector’s more bewildering behavior.)
While many of my friends understand and even identify with the depth of my feelings for Hector, others see him as cutesy. How can a relatively healthy and intelligent person invest such emotion in an animal? I have seen this attitude express itself when other people who have lost a beloved dog have been struck with grief. “We reject and do not legitimize people’s grief for a dog,” says Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Survival. “It’s like people are more valuable and those who fuss about a pet are kind of insignificant. As our relationships, however, can be simpler with our dogs than with family or friends, we can invest a lot of love and time in our pets.We have no right to blame or reject the grief of people over the loss of a dog Indeed, it can be very important to have a ritual or a physical reminder to mark the death of a pet.
Unless I’m playing a reverse Greyfriars Bobby, I’m driven to find a suitable memento for a beast as special as Hector. Cloning? Too crazy about Silicon Valley. Stuffing? Too crazy cat lady. Brian Sewell, in his wonderful autobiography Sleeping with dogs, suggests planting a tree, but regrets that he will not be there to see the Sequoia sempervirens reach its full potential in 200 years, a feeling I can’t help but share.
As a more immediate memorial, I plan to have Hector sit down for a portrait and contact artist Sally Muir, whose work still manages to capture the innate stubbornness of her models. “I’ve been obsessed with dogs my whole life,” she says, “and I also love the way so many artists have portrayed them. I particularly like Hogarth’s pug paintings and Freud’s whippets. He was much more sympathetic to his canine guardians than to his human guardians.
“I work from photographs,” says Muir, “but ideally I like to meet my subjects and look them in the eye. If you want to have your dog painted as a memorial, wait until he is old enough. Like humans, as dogs get older they become an extreme version of themselves; there is a dignity in old dogs. A portrait would be a lovely way to remember Hector and, looking at Sally’s work, I know she would be able to produce a painting that would capture everything but her bark. Yet there is something a little too static, too frozen in time in an image that does not quite capture Hector’s pleasure of being Hector. He is a real energy and like all of his fellow human beings, he just can’t help but live in the moment.
Several years ago Laurie Anderson composed and performed music intended only for dogs. Performed in a low frequency perfectly suited to the hearing of its canine audience, this piece completed his film Dog heart, a work inspired by the bardo – the Tibetan concept of transition to the afterlife. It was Anderson’s idea of combining Tibetan mysticism, dogs, and music that inspired my final choice of an appropriate memorial for Hector: a piece of music composed to celebrate his life and death.
However, I did not want it to be a mass of dead in the tradition of Brahms, Fauré or Mozart, but rather an uplifting hymn evoking the exuberance, the joy and the chaos that Hector brings to life. Not a Requiem but a Hequiem. Although I have always suspected Hector of being a rock fan because of his resemblance to Robert Plant when he is late married, for the Hequiem I took as a starting point works that gave life to de great landscapes, freedom and hope, like Vaughan Williams’s Lark, the Scherzo: Molto Vivace by Dvořák’s 9th and “Open Prairie” by Billy the Kid Suite by Aaron Copeland.
My search for the right composer began with a conversation with William Mival, head of composition at the Royal College of Music. “A good songwriter will write to order and deliver what a customer wants,” explains Mival. “Mozart did exactly the same. Indeed, his order for the Requiem was from a customer who wanted to pass the music off as his own. However, since I was attacked by a dog as a child, I am not your man, but I can think of a number of Royal College students who would be delighted with the idea.
After discussing Hector’s personality and my ideas for the play, I was put in touch with Nahum Strickland, dog lover, songwriter and recently graduated from Royal College. Making his own music since the age of three, Nahum is something of a prodigy and has featured in a Guardian piece about child composers in 2004. His approach to composition is also remarkable. “When I watch a video or look at a landscape or a picture, the music appears to me fully orchestrated, already complete,” he says. “It’s right there and if I don’t write it down, it disappears – I’ll never get it back.”
In order for Nahum to get as accurate a picture of Hector’s nature as possible, I send plenty of videos of him charging through the countryside, playing with his dog walking bag and sleeping in his bed. We talk about his loves: playing ball (endlessly), keeping; and his hatreds: his sworn enemy the cocker spaniel who taunts him in the back of a quad – and being ignored, the cyclists.
For Nahum, the Hequiem presented a welcome challenge. “In composition you usually start with an arc – a beginning, a middle and an end – but Hector always charges. He seems to have a hard time concentrating on one thing and I have the impression that he will always do what he wants; he is a very immediate dog. So I had this very quick time and this piece became more of a progression and an odyssey. The play builds on something a little grandiose – like Hector. “
Not only is Nahum’s assessment of Hector’s character fair, but also the piece he produces – from the acerbic timbre of the opening oboe solo that captures Hector’s playful nature to the climax that brings me back. immediately recalls the sight of Hector charging after a bullet or a rabbit – is sublime. I can imagine myself crying uncontrollably next to his grave.
Hector, however, remaining blissfully unaware of his mortality, seems impassive and gives me a look that reminds me that it’s supper time.