I am his majesty’s dog at Kew.
Pray, sir, whose dog are you?
Malcolm somehow recalls that John Berryman identified that as the shortest, real poem in the English canon: “real” because it encapsulated an eternal truth. All of us, like King William’s dog — apparently a pug, are obliged to someone, something.
Kipling had the same conceit in The Land:
Georgii Quinti Anno Sexto, I, who own the River-field,
Am fortified with title-deeds, attested, signed and sealed,
Guaranteeing me, my assigns, my executors and heirs
All sorts of powers and profits which—are neither mine nor theirs,
I have rights of chase and warren, as my dignity requires.
I can fish—but Hobden tickles—I can shoot—but Hobden wires.
I repair, but he reopens, certain gaps which, men allege,
Have been used by every Hobden since a Hobden swapped a hedge.
… whoever pays the taxes old Mus’ Hobden owns the land.
What makes that even more relevant is the book from which the poem is taken is A Diversity of Creatures.
Whenever Malcolm ventures into the garden of Redfellow Hovel he has the same awareness of being owned, being manipulated, being part of a great chain of being.
There is a whole hierarchy of bird and beast to which he is subservient. The visiting family of owls — one dusk there were five of them in the beech tree — have been absent these many years; but the urban fox beats his regular path each dawn. Stag beetles rummage along the leaf mould. In damp corners toads appear without prior warning. Generations of blackbird (there was a grand-sire who did a perfect, and unnerving imitation of a Trimphone’s trilling), thrush and blue-tit expect to be fed and watered.
The worst tyrant of the lot is Mr Cook, a perky, posturing, highly-opinionated (and let’s you know it) male robin. He is named in respect for and honour of a lost socialist leader, who had the decency to resign over the Iraq war.
The character likeness is truly remarkable.
Whenever grass is being cut, or weeding being done, or some other intrusion into his domain occurs, Mr Cook comes along, perches nearby, observes, and gives advice. As soon as the task has been completed, Mr Cook investigates thoroughly and locates supper.
The Eden Project
Last autumn the Lady in his Life and Malcolm spent a day at the fabulous Eden Project, near St Austell.
Resisting the do-it-yourself beehive, complete with bees, they came away from the gift-shop with a notion.
Come October, in the English climate, hanging baskets are getting quite manky. So, a winter option: plant them with evergreen succulents. He shoots! He scores!
Come spring, Mr Cook gets nest-building. Hanging baskets need liners. Malcolm had used coconut coir. Mr Cook thoroughly approved.
As a result, Malcolm’s hanging baskets are slowly-but-surely being dismantled. In the process they are looking hairier by the day.
Somehow it all seems quite proper.