There is a ring of snowdrops and winter accretions around the trunk of a medlar tree outside the greenhouse, which is one of the earliest signs of spring in my garden. A collection of moss-covered mini-headstones that mark the resting places of the previous owner's dogs were added to complement the yellow-and-white display. Each of these markers has a simple but evocative dedication. Sister of Medlar. A sweet eccentric. There will come a time when I have to face the death of a dog, despite a complex denial structure that involves a sneaking suspicion that he is immortality.
He is a cockapoo and not ashamed to admit it. He is proud of his spaniel/poodle heritage and dislikes terms such as "designer dog" and " hybrid". Many people have an origin myth about how their pet chose them, but in the case of Hector it is true. When I went with my wife to see a friend whose cocker had recently given birth, a blind, chocolate-brown caterpillar of a pup freed himself from his siblings and crawled towards us. On our side, bonding was instantaneous and without question.
Eight years later, he is my friend and companion. We don't argue, we are always happy to see each other, and I never go to bed angry with him. At the funeral of an aunt whose life had been devoted to loving, breeding and showing poodles, Hector, like the dogs of the Roman Empire, threw his head back and released a lupine call. A friend recently recommended reading Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, by the renowned biochemist Rupert Sheldrake, who studies phenomena that conventional science cannot explain.
We don't have the right to begrudge people's grief at the loss of a dog.
Many of my friends understand and even identify with the depth of feeling I have for him, but others see it as mawkish. How can a person invest such emotion in an animal? I've seen this attitude expressed when people are grieving the loss of a dog. Julia Samuel, author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, says that people's grief for a dog is dismissed. It is as if people have more value than those that make a fuss about a pet. We can invest a lot of time and love in our pets as our relationships are more straightforward with our dogs. We don't have the right to dismiss people's grief at the loss of a dog. It is important to have a ritual or physical reminder to remember the death of a pet.
Short of a reverse Greyfriars Bobby, I am forced to come up with a suitable souvenir for such a special beast. Is it cloning? Too much of a Silicon Valley nutter. Taxidermy? Too angry cat lady. In his book Sleeping With Dogs, Brian Sewell suggests planting a tree, but complains that he won't be around to see the Sequoias reach their full potential.
I think it would be a good idea to have Hector sit for a portrait and contact Sally Muir, the artist who captures the innate doggishness of her sitters. She loves how many artists have portrayed dogs, and she has been obsessed with dogs all her life. I like Freud's whippets and Hogarth's pug paintings. He was more sympathetic to his canine sitters than his humans.
I like to meet my subjects and look them in the eye, but I do work from photographs. If you are going to paint your dog a memorial, wait until he is older. There is a dignity to old dogs, like people, who become extreme versions of themselves as they age. Sally would be able to create a painting that captures everything but his bark, so a portrait would be a good way to remember him. There is an image that does not get him excited about being Hector and it is frozen in time. He is a true energy and can't help but live in the moment.
Laurie Anderson composed and performed music for dogs. The piece was performed in a low Frequency and was adapted to the dog audience's sense of hearing. The idea of combining Tibetan mysticism, dogs and music inspired me to create a piece of music to celebrate his life and death.
I did not want this to be a mass of the dead in the tradition of Mozart or Fauré, but rather an uplifting anthem that evokes the exuberance, joy and chaos that Hector brings to life. A Hequiem is not a funeral. Although I have always suspected that he is a rock fan due to his resemblance to Robert Plant, I decided to start with works that brought to life big landscapes, freedom and hope, such as Vaughan Williams's Lark, the Scher.
William Mival, head of composition at the Royal College of Music, was the first person I talked to about my search for the right composer. Mival says that a good composer will provide what a client wants. Mozart did the same thing. His client wanted to pass the music off as his own, so he was commissioned to do that. I am not your man, but I can think of a number of Royal College students who would be thrilled with this idea.
After discussing the personality of the dog and my ideas for a piece, I was put in touch with Nahum Strickland, a graduate of the Royal College. Nahum was featured in a Guardian piece on child composers in 2004, making his own music since the age of three. His approach to composition is very different. He says that when he watches a video or looks at an image, the music appears to him complete. I will never get it back if I don't write it down.
I wanted the anthem to evoke joy.
Nahum can get as good a idea as possible of the nature of his friend, I send him videos of him charging through the countryside, playing with his dog walking pack and sleeping in his bed. He loves playing ball, guarding, and being ignored by cyclists, but his nemesis the cocker spaniel is his nemesis as well.
The Hequiem presented a challenge for Nahum. In composition, you usually start with a beginning, middle and end, but Hector is always charging around. He seems to find it hard to concentrate on one thing and I think he will always do what he feels like. This piece became more of a progression and odyssey after I got this very fast- moving time. The piece builds to something a little bit grandiose.
The piece he produces, from the acerbic timbre of the opening oboe solo that captures the playful nature to the climax that immediately brings to my mind the sight of Hector charging after a ball, is an example of Nahum's assessment of Hector's character spot on. I can imagine myself crying at his grave side.
It is time for supper, and that's when Hector gives me a look that reminds me that he's unaware of his death.
Beyond the garden.
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