Our dog is named after Syrie Maugham, the interior designer famous for her all-white decor. She (the decorator) was the daughter of Dr Barnado and the unhappy wife of Somerset Maugham. She designed rooms for fashion legends such as Schiaparelli and Capt Molyneux as well as Wallis Simpson and her Prince of Wales. She’s probably as responsible as any designer for getting us out of the grim, dark-crimson clutter of the Victorian drawing room.
None of this is relevant to our dog, a grey Weimaraner who could turn an all-white room into one celebrating 50 shades of mud in a few moments. However, Maugham’s best-known quotation, ‘Nobody is any better than he should be’, is entirely relevant. I originally wanted to call the dog Sirius, after the Dog Star, the brightest in the sky (although Sirius actually comes from the Greek meaning ‘scorcher’, which is nearer the truth with our dog).
But Sirius is a dog, not a bitch. The feminine version would be Syria and, even before that country descended into appalling bloodshed and anarchy, I decided I couldn’t shout ‘Syria’ at a dog in a London park. Previous dogs have also been called after those I admire, which is as good an inspiration as any. Nik was named after Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Chloé after the French fashion-design house that was clever enough to invent prêt-à-porter, thus freeing us from the extravagance of couture, and Otto after Otto Dix, the German painter of the Neue Sachlichkeit. Actually, I’m lying here. I just liked the name Otto for a German dog.
Dix, whose 1926 Eton cropped and monocled Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden is as good as portraits get, was known for his satire of Weimar society and my dog, Otto, was another Weimaraner. None of these names has raised any human hackles in the park. London dogs need circumspect names: we’ve come across Lily, Eddie and Whisky and it’s hard to see that anyone could take offence at these.
It’s easier in the country. I once knew a company chairman whose black labs were unfairly called Goofy and Bonkers-not names I would choose and certainly not to be shouted in a municipal park. But, as she had thousands of acres of Argyll hillside of her own, populated with nothing but red deer and the occasional ghillie, there was no one about to take offence. And don’t even think about calling your dog after its colour. Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, DSO, DFC of the Dam Busters had a black labrador, who was the mascot of 617 Squadron with a name so currently heinous that I can’t write it down, even with asterisks. The Dam Busters film was censored in 1999 and the dog’s name-used as code to signify the dam had been successfully breached-removed.
A few years later, it was reissued uncut, but with a health warning. The Dam Busters finally reappeared uncut again, on BBC2 in October 2010 and then on January 1 and 5 this year on Channel 5. Has political correctness now reached the limits of its idiocy or are TV channels at last getting braver? Or perhaps offence being taken at perfectly sound English words, such as paediatrician and niggardly, has at last made us so angry that we’re fighting back? Thus, Syrie she became, and I thought that I’d successfully steered around all the rocks of language, offence, politics and good taste (the original Syrie was nothing if not tasteful). Imagine my annoyance when I discovered some new technological invention, post-dating the dog, is called Siri.
According to a friend who’s writing the technical section for an encyclopaedia for children, Siri is ‘a virtual personal assistant on an iPhone, which can remind you about appointments and ring someone for you’. Thus, when I shout for Syrie in a London park, I might as well have called her Twitter or Google.
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