Back in the 1960s you might have caught (and then been caught by) a BBC radio programme, The Northern Drift. This was also the title of a stage-show, fronted by the writer Henry Livings and the legendary song-writer Alex Glasgow: some of this transferred to television in BBC2’s Get the Drift.
Livings was unabashedly Lancastrian. His short-stories (monologues on radio) invented gritty Ravensgill, high in the Pennine Hills: I’ve always assumed that was a fictionalised Greenfield, near Oldham. From there the old trackway across grim Saddleworth Moor and to Summer Winey Holmfirth in South Yorkshire. Officially, that’s the A635 — though you’ll still find locals referring to it as the “Isle of Skye Road”, from a long-lost pub at the head of the Wessenden Valley.
Today I was making a nugatory effort to tidy my bookshelves — actually, I was trying to squeeze a couple more paperbacks into nonexistent shelf-room. That involved shifting the Le Carrés and Donna Leons (both present as complete runs). This displaced an ageing and “foxed” paperback of Livings’s short stories.
An opportunity, then, to revisit an old favourite:
Dog Race Coup
Nobody outside this village ever believes me when I tell about Harpo, people think I’ve invented him. This is not so: Harpo invented himself. On the subject of wine, for instance, he knows there are three sorts: red, pink, and white. On this basis he will give you an extended account of wine and its uses, normally ending with ‘I wouldn’t give you tuppence for champagne; cider is every bit as adequate.’ He’s an expert on everything, and a rivetting anecdotalist; I won’t spoil your meal, but his account of being taken short leaping a low wall in pursuit of the 183 bus, told with a semaphore of mime worthy of Marceau, and ending with the conductor remarking, ‘My word, you’ll have to get off this bus if anyone else wants to come on,’ is a cherished classic.
Take the matter of his dog, Benji. ‘It’s definitely a Basenji,’ he said, walking round the Co-op freezer with the animal sticking its nose into everything, ‘ancient Egyptian hunting dog; I’ve seen a picture in a dog book, same curved tail; that’s why we called it Benji, after the ancient Egyptian dog breed. Fastest dog in Ravensgill, even though it’s had a broken leg.’
Why do we rise to such things? Why challenge obvious balderdash? Why not just let him rattle on? He’s entertaining, original, a lunatic. How in the world would anyone get a Basenji out of the Dog’s Home? Come to think of it, how come Harpo got his dog free when everyone else has to pay £7? Imponderables.
‘Do me a favour,’ I said, ‘mine’s a damn lurcher; that thing wouldn’t have a chance. Get off.’ (Benji was licking the butter packs and I was after buying some.)
‘I’ll definitely challenge any dog against mine,’ he said.
‘Get that stinking pooch out of here,’ said Mr Bacon.
‘D’you mind,’ said Harpo, ‘that’s no pooch, it’s a Basenji.’
The word got about. A small committee was formed, rules framed. No reference was made to broken legs, but it was to be for mongrels only (Harpo was wounded, but confident, after this slur), the length of the football pitch, and started with a shotgun blank by the landlord of the Tinker and Budget, entrance fee ten shillings. (We’re waiting for the older end to die off before we introduce metrication.) The book was to be held by Nipper Schofield, well experienced in illegal book-making at bowls matches, known absconder. Once, when he was really in trouble, he phoned up the landlord of the other pub, the Shanter, from the kiosk outside, and stuck a pencil in his mouth, on a Sunday, mark.
‘Peeppeeppeep … Hallo? This is Mr Schofield’s bank manager; he tells me he’s cashed a cheque with you; he’s asked me to tell you not to bother presenting it, he’ll come in and settle it Monday.’
Another imponderable: what were we doing putting money into his hands? I suppose to a certain extent we relish the consistency of his depradations. Be it understood that no money was to change hands on the bets till after the race, but nevertheless. Everybody paid their entrance fee, except Harpo.
Blatantly furtive training sessions began; you could hardly go into the playing fields without someone speedily and casually pocketing a pigeon-watch or elaborately not looking at his digital as he threw a stick for a scampering ragmop. The women were the most obsessive: Mrs Hirst, fifteen stone and a compulsive nibbler who didn’t like to leave the dog out, had a good half stone off her Labrador/Alsatian by switching from chocolate digestive biscuits to dogchews for its between-meals snacks, and throwing its ball down a banking for half an hour every day; she promised it verbally a biscuit if it won, but its eyes grew more desperate by the day and it had to go on Valium after the race.
Then there’s Marrie, who’s been going to obedience classes for four years. ‘He’s all right when there’s other dogs, it’s when you get him on his own he goes mutton-headed.’ I saw her in a back lane; she’d devised a scheme whereby she was at one end of the course and her husband at the other, so that, when loosed, Duke had a quick decision to make as to which of its owners it was going to run away from.
In my opinion, my Bounty was the strongest entry, on the grounds of obedience: she comes to me when I call, and of course she was bred mostly for speed anyway. Early morning I sat her on the touchline, told her to stay, walked to the other end, called, and she ran to me. Nine seconds. Not world class, but good enough for the mutts of Ravensgill I thought, in my pride. The dog gave evidence that it thought I’d gone potty: where were the rabbits if it was required to run? On the fourth morning it lay down and yawned on the touchline, so I knocked off the training.
11.30 am. The football field. A prize of £9.50 (Harpo still hasn’t paid). Starter and finishing judge in position. Nineteen dogs, from terrier-style to lolloping Labrador crosses (there’s a large black dog on the estate that’s always first on a bitch’s doorstep). Every knuckle white. Maybe thirty spectators. Nipper in his dad’s velour trilby, bawling the odds. No Harpo, no Benji.
He’s chickened out. He’ll be watching from behind the curtains at his Auntie Alice’s. We shan’t see him for weeks, until he thinks we’ve forgotten. It was like this when he was telling us about his skill at unarmed combat and then we found out that the husband of one of his paramours, a karate enthusiast from Ashton, was standing in the other bar.
11.45 Harpo comes, pale from Saturday, the dog on a brand new lead, steadily the length of the pitch, daughter Linda beside him, clearly wishing herself elsewhere, cheeks aflame. A crossword fanatic, he was delighted to find that ‘crapulous’ means poorly through the effects of drink. ‘You’ll have to excuse me, gentlemen,’ he will say at a Sunday morning bowls match, ‘I’m feeling a little crapulous today.’
‘Benji’s been sick,’ he tells us by way of excuse, ‘I told him he was in a race, and I had to wait while he was sick on the way down.’
He takes the lead off Benji, and Linda holds the animal among the competitors, by now strung like banjos. ‘Come on, Benji,’ he says, ‘c’mon boy.’
Finishers set off for the other touchline.
‘C’mon Benji, c’mon.’
‘Shut it, Harpo, you drive us mad when you’re not here, and you drive us mad when you’re here.’
‘It’s my method, Henry. C’mon Benji!’
Finishers all in place, handlers in place, judge signals with white hankie, starter raises the shotgun. You can almost hear false teeth being tested to destruction. ‘BOCK!’ and they’re off.
Twenty throats roar for their dogs, women screaming with unpent fury, urging the animals. Marrie’s scheme falls to pieces at once: Duke runs away from the both of them, and is found at home later, staring with punished eyes from under the hen hut. Mrs Hirst’s pudding dog leads the pack with joyous yelps, its mind mayhap on chocolate digestive biscuits. Benji well up and going strongly. Where the devil’s Bounty? Good grief, she’s run straight to the starter and sits, eager, ears up, bright and ready to be waved on to the rabbit. What did I have in my head to think I could call her in all this din? My wife dashes across to wave her on, frenzied, and the dog sets off, a blur of speed after the others. Can she make it through the pack?
They’re bunching, and then bundling as the pudding dog wheels back, eager to be among its friends, Mrs Hirst’s imprecations rising above the clamour like exploding rockets. Benji is through and over the line, passes Harpo at an easy gallop, across the road, and into the Tinker and Budget, it being opening time.