Jonathan Self: Don’t measure your life in years — measure it in dogs

Jonathan Self celebrates a birthday for a beloved dog.

Darling, our English pointer, turns 127 (in dog years) this week. I am proud to report that she can still manage a definite, if slightly shaky, point.

Moreover, my response, as I don’t shoot, still annoys her. She will stand, one paw raised, nose directed at the object of interest (which, nowadays, is as likely to be a plate of biscuits as a pheasant), casting quick glances back at me with a ‘What the devil is keeping you?’ look on her face for as long as five minutes before giving up in disgust.

The poor dog has, however, become selectively deaf. She can hear a packet of treats being opened from several hundred yards, but not a shouted instruction in the same room to get off the sofa. She has also become selectively disabled. She can leap like a gazelle onto a forbidden bed, but, on a wintry night, has such trouble getting up from the fireside to go outdoors that we have to carry her.

I suppose the main sign of Darling’s great age is really her memory loss. Every time she sees a member of the family, she is inclined to greet them as if they have come home after a long absence and she takes terrible offence if one doesn’t respond with equal enthusiasm. I am afraid I often creep around the house trying to avoid her, which makes me feel guilty.

“I do like some new things (New York, yes; Newport Pagnell, no), but, generally speaking, I have to say I prefer the familiar”

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Another thing that makes me feel guilty is the way she sometimes follows Elsa (our two-year-old whippet) and me down the drive when we are heading out for a walk. Just outside the gate, Darling stops and watches us closely until we are hidden from view by the bend in the road. Elsa, with the callousness of youth, is unmoved by this and, given the reference to barking, I wonder if it was what Waldo Emerson had in mind when he wrote: ‘Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands.’ It is a quotation I often think about at this time of year.

For many, 2020 will be a case of (as Tennyson so neatly put it) ‘Ring, happy bells, across the snow;/The year is going, let him go’. I prefer Seneca’s more nuanced approach, which was that: ‘Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.’

Libby Hall, whose books of collected canine photography have attracted what the Telegraph described as a ‘cult following’, recently published an excellent autobiography told through the lives of her dogs. Its title, A Measure of Dogs, comes from something her late husband once said: ‘We measure out our lives in the lives of our dogs.’ This strikes me as infinitely better than measuring them out in years, if only because it makes me 10 as opposed to 61. Under the Hall system of time, instead of celebrating New Year, one would celebrate New Dog.

Winifred Gallagher, an American academic, has written a book dividing the population into neophiles (people who are obsessed with new things) and neophobes (those who aren’t). I do like some new things (New York, yes; Newport Pagnell, no), but, generally speaking, I have to say I prefer the familiar and that which has been tried and tested.

At school, we learnt about hedonia, the seeking out of new pleasures and eudaimonia, more about being content with what one has, and I am most definitely a eudaimonist. So, Darling has let me know, by means of looks and barks, is she. Happy birthday and happy New Year, Darling.