To Love a Dog: The Story of One Man, One Dog and a Lifetime of Love and Mystery, by Tom Inglis, Penguin, 182 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1844844919
The title of Tom Inglis’s book does not make clear to whose lifetime of love and mystery it refers: his, or his dog’s. That is entirely as it should be. From one point of view, the opening pages merely describe taking a dog for a walk on a dark evening. Yet they convey a blend of devotion, obligation, enjoyment, resentment, apprehensiveness, self-reproach and adoration: a masterly survey of the usual kinds of ingredient one might find in a relationship.
Astronomers, we are told, will tend to look beside a faint galaxy, rather than directly at it, because the rod cells in the eye, needed to detect dim light, are located away from the centre of vision. You have to train yourself to do this, but with practice you learn to perceive more and more fine detail. The particulars Tom Inglis supplies in these opening passages are characteristic of the book. They don’t look directly at a topic but just past it, which in serious questions can be the best way to proceed.
Shall I try to bring out Pepe the dog now, though it’s got so late, or shall I leave it for tomorrow? Should I really attempt a slightly insecure walk in the dark by deep water, not absolutely sober? But if I don’t, it’s unfair to the dog. The walk isn’t framed as a duty, exactly, nor as something to quieten the writer’s conscience, or not entirely. More important than these tussles between going and not going, it’s simply part of a caring relationship to behave fairly – not just towards dogs. This shows much about the untidy, layered way in which moral ‘choices’ are made, what they feel like and what is most important about them.
It’s part of his method that Inglis doesn’t always present himself in the best light. You feel like asking, irritably, how come he’s left the walk so late? Surely it’s obvious when it’s sensible to walk a dog. But he is analysing habitual reactions that go through one’s mind when hesitating over amends for any everyday remissness, the kind we all commit.
This is on the face of it a book about a dog, and it can be read and savoured as a book about a dog. But because dogs are social animals it is only reasonable that it should also concern the author’s relationship with others. It touchingly reflects the warmth and kindness shown by his daughter, Olwen. In a way that dog-owners may recognise, the problems they have faced have been refracted partly through the way they have seen and talked about Pepe. The book resonates with Inglis’s life with his wife Aileen, who died in 2005, and about whom he has written in a deeply intense earlier work, Making Love. His passion for her continues, his appreciation of her joyousness and courage, her love for life and her artistic creativity ‑ as well as his real resentment of her lack of feeling for animals. He remains engagingly indignant. It is all right, this seems to tell us, to have contradictory feelings. These are placed next to each other in the book, not “resolved”, which seems right. No one would argue that his feelings for Aileen and her death are remotely comparable with those for Pepe and her impending end (Pepe is female). But still, he’s cross. So his account of Pepe is also an account of what it’s like for him to be a person, or to be this particular person. It tells us something of what it is to live in this particular society, at this particular time and stage of life. Walking on a country road, or living in a Dublin suburb where gardens are arranged to exhibit their owners’ prestige: they all have their charms and traps from a dog-owner’s point of view.
Inglis is (rightly) decisive about seeing Pepe as a dog, not a person. She has some feelings that are familiar to us but not others. Perhaps she does not love her owner as much as he loves her. But she is exemplary for her lack of moodiness or resentment, her real joy in other people, what Inglis calls a dog’s lack of any “sense of self”. These differences are part of our absorption in pets, what we learn from them and appreciate about them. What’s alluring about dogs includes “their freedom, their lack of inhibition”, their dwelling in the moment – without apprehensiveness, but equally without the capacity for hope. As he remarks, all this is enviable in a way, yet we don’t entirely want it. Having a pet can extend one’s being, but it needn’t make one want to be a pet.
Inglis has had Pepe for a long time, and the focus of this book is what ageing is like for Pepe: her increasing blindness and deafness, her developing incontinence, and at the same time her lack of resentment at her infirmities. This is described as it happens in terms of Pepe’s life and that of her owner, with the other things he is doing – walking with friends or his new partner, Carol, scrambling over rocks, driving to Dublin. It helps him reflect on what he might feel in a comparably frail situation (he is growing older too), or to rehearse his failings as someone who should be considerate of Pepe.
There is plenty in this book that is actually about dogs – mention of the grave over 12,000 years old that contains a man with his hand around a puppy, or the fact that half of Irish households include dogs (but only a quarter in the UK). But in some ways it’s comparable to a detective story or a travel book: it uses its subject to explore more than meets the eye. This would have been a different book if it had been only about moral obligation and the nature of relationships, or indeed only about a dog. Together, they work perfectly.
Ricca Edmondson is emerita professor of political science and sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Her research includes work on ageing and wisdom, intercultural sociology and the sociology of argument.