FOR all the tricks and habits that humans teach them, there may be something we can learn from dogs. We consider ourselves their owners and masters, but there is no way to know what they think, and we are only guessing when we say they dream of rabbits. On occasion, between frequent, inscrutable relapses into primaeval wolfishness, tongue-lolling lunacy, and dung-eating degeneracy, they act as if they might possess the secret of happiness.
Harry Horse’s dog Roo was no different, except that she could actually tell him about these things. “I honestly believe that I could talk to her, ” says Horse, “and that she could talk back to me.” When he asked, for example, why Roo was eating chicken droppings one night in the garden, her reply came back, clearly, into his mind: “Because my teeth get bored.” And if you think Horse is crazy – “It really doesn’t matter, ” he says, jokingly aware that infamous New York serial killer David Berkowitz (aka the Son of Sam) also thought his dog was talking to him – you have to admit that was a plausible answer.
Roo’s many peculiarities have inspired Horse to write a series of bestselling children’s books about this dog over the past decade. The Last Polar Bears and its sequels are very tall tales in which Roo clumsily explores the Arctic, becomes an ineffectual sheriff, and wrecks a ship on the rocks through basic navigational incompetence, while always remaining true to the blithely triumphant character of her non-fictional counterpart. “People have often suggested to me that the real dog must be very different to how she appears in the books, ” says Horse, “but no, I really hope not. What I tried to capture was the essence of Roo. She wasn’t always a goody two-shoes, which is why I think children love her. She was a boaster, an expert on everything, a master of one-upmanship. Very single-minded, quite selfish, easily distracted.”
The books have sold over two million copies worldwide, and made this small brown mongrel, according to one editor, “the most famous Scottish dog since Greyfriars Bobby”. Horse thinks that Roo was probably too “hardcore” to be compared with Edinburgh’s patron canine saint, and he remembers that she recently expressed her own opinion on the matter. “I was on the phone to my agent, ” he says, “who was telling me why I should write another book about Roo. She was down at my feet throughout the conversation, so I asked her what she thought about it. Her reply just came to me, and the glibness of it convinced me I was hearing a voice different to my own. She said: ‘I’d rather have a good life than read about it.’ Isn’t that a fantastic line?”
Not long after that, the dog passed away. Roo died a couple of weeks ago at Meal Beach, near Horse’s adopted home on the Shetland island of Burra. She was very old, but her exact age was never confirmed. “We reckon she must have been 18 at a minimum, ” says Horse, but for all he knew she might have been 100. “That would have been typical. She was given to exaggeration.”
It is customary, when in mourning, to tell stories of the departed, and Horse has some great ones about Roo. Even her death is a tale worth telling, but so sad that it should probably be saved for later. “She went extremely . . . well, ” says Horse. “We were all around her. The whole family, such as it is – my wife and our other animals. We’re a childless couple, which perhaps explains a lot.”
THEY had taken Roo everywhere with them (bar loud music venues). “That might sound boorish, ” says Horse, “but we just thought, why not bring her wherever we go?” She once went missing in Glastonbury, but returned the next day wearing a bandana emblazoned with skulls, having apparently spent the night around a hippy bonfire. The poets John Hegley and Alan Jackson met Roo on separate occasions, and both composed spontaneous verses in her honour. Hegley’s was interrupted – and promptly forgotten – when Roo got into a fight with a long white shroud being worn by a passing performance artist. Jackson’s survives for posterity: “Her mother was a mink coat, ” he said, “and her father was a fox.”
Roo was flown to Glasgow in a crate for the book launch of The Last Polar Bears in 1996, and when a businessman at the airport wondered aloud why anyone would make such a fuss over a mongrel, Horse told him that she was a Hollywood pyrotechnic stunt dog specialising in jumping through the windows of burning buildings. She later recorded her own barks for the animated film adaptation of that same story, and the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who provided the voice of Roo’s fictional companion, Grandfather, was unnerved by the precision of her timing. All of the Roo books, like Horse himself, are admittedly “old-fashioned”. If they have a single moral, it is that even the littlest lives have meaning and value. And if proof were ever needed, then Roo provided it herself. “She was the kind of dog who would save the day by accident, ” he says. “Then she’d act like that’s what she intended to do. And that’s what she did for us, over and over again. People and dogs have been on a very long march together. For 40,000 years we’ve had this bond. And recently we’ve started to think that we don’t need them so much any more, but I really think we do.”
Horse had an an affinity with Roo from the beginning. Born Richard Horne in 1960, he had grown up amid an unhappy family on a farm in Warwickshire, and ran away from home at the age of 17. He only chose to run to Edinburgh because that was the destination of the train which happened to be standing at the station.
“I think I was vaguely aware that London would have spat me out in little pieces, ” he says, “because I’d seen [Ken Loach’s tough TV runaway drama] Cathy Come Home. But I was still as green as grass. And when I got to Edinburgh, the first piece of graffiti I saw in a pub toilet said, ‘Scotland’s Nae For The Squeamish’.” Dark and austere as he found the place in 1977, Horne survived, making his way as a writer and illustrator under a cartoonish new alias fashioned out of an old school nickname. He made a brief return to the streets after a job setback in his mid-20s, but Horse never really slept rough – passing himself off as a student at the Edinburgh College Of Art, he stole food from the cafeteria and clothes from lost property, used the facilites to practise his drawing, and made his bed behind the theatre on a rolled-up velvet curtain.
When he met Roo years later, having established himself as an artist, columnist and satirist for respected Scottish newspapers and American magazines, she reminded him of his days “on the other side of the coin”. Horse and his wife Mandy found the dog at the Portobello cat and dog rescue home in 1990, almost immediately after their wedding. “What drew us to Roo was the fact that she sat at the back of the kennel, looking extremely forlorn. All the other dogs were at the front going: ‘Me, me, me, I’m neurotic but I’m good with kids, I won’t chase the cat, I’m reformed, I promise.’ But Roo’s expression just said ‘Life isn’t as good as I thought it was going to be’. So I thought, that’s the one for me. “She’d been found beside the motorway by the police, on her way somewhere or other. They reckoned she’d been stoned by kids, and she had a dent in her head. The bone had been crushed a bit. I think this is what gave her extraordinary powers of perception.”
They called her Ruby after Mandy’s grandmother, which became Roo when she revealed a tendency to sit up and use her front paws as hands, like a marsupial. Horse tried to sketch out some adventures around Roo in their first years together, but abandoned them because this dog just wouldn’t fit the role of a conventional hero, not even when fictionalised. “By the time I got to know her full, rounded character, I realised she was actually more of an antihero.” One weekend when Horse’s wife was away, Roo stole and ate the entire supply of ham he had bought so that he wouldn’t have to cook in Mandy’s absence.
“I asked her why she did it, and it occured to me that there were suddenly just two of us in the house, and Roo must have thought it was every man for himself now. I remember there was snow falling outside the window, and Roo looked particularly wolfish on the floor, surrounded by scraps of meat.”
HORSE immediately ran upstairs and wrote The Last Polar Bears in one night. “The story was a gift from Roo, in a roundabout sort of way, and I thank her for it. Which doesn’t mean that I wasn’t furious about the ham.” That first book, which has not been out of print since it was published and must now be a classic, reveals as much about Horse’s idiosyncrasies as his dog’s. Roo, for her part, comes across as an unusually subtle character, her many opinions and foibles related through a series of letters between the Grandfather and an unnamed child. Having taken the dog on a voyage to find polar bears because he can’t afford huskies, he finds Roo’s claims that her breed is particularly good in the snow to be entirely bogus. Her apparent indifference to the plight of local wildlife is just an affectation too, and Roo’s deep, sociable compassion reveals itself in various inadvertent and hilarious ways.
The author, however, went as far as to gently and heartbreakingly kill these characters off. Grandfather sends one last letter before he freezes to death with Roo, then they get up and meet the polar bears at last in some kind of Arctic afterlife. “I wanted to give a sense that they had moved on, like the polar bears, that certain things are vanishing from this world, and the world is poorer without them. Of course, I then did a bit of a Dallas number on the characters and resurrected them to write more stories, but now that Roo has gone I think of the later books as prequels, and that first ending as the true one.” The Last Gold Diggers followed, then The Last Cowboys, the titles elegiac in themselves, each story setting the little dog loose in the narrowing, beautiful margins of a world getting smaller, cheaper and uglier.
When he started the series, Horse hadn’t written a book since his award-winning 1983 debut, The Opopogo: My Journey With The Loch Ness Monster. “Simply because I didn’t really have anything to say. I like telling stories, but I can’t just produce for publishers at a rate of three books per year. A lot of writers do, of course, and that’s partly why so many children’s books are complete and utter dross.”
WHATEVER inspiration Roo herself provided, he was thinking also of the backlash that prevailed in the early 1990s against the scientists who had warned of global warming and other calamities. “At that time there was a movement which was trying to establish as fact, with a capital F, that the environmentalists were talking crap. I didn’t subscribe to that at all.” By 2003, when Horse wrote the most recent book The Last Castaways – in which Grandfather and Roo pass through the cathedral-sized “Door to the Sea” in a glorious prose passage of spouting whales, circling birds and luminous plankton, only to find themselves washed up on the shore of an exclusive tourist resort – he felt his stories were already “out of time”.
“I honestly don’t know how long these books can stay on the shelves. The zeitgeist has moved on and it’s all about materialism now. There are books aimed at girls which are basically about shopping, and some of our ‘greatest’ children’s writers are producing schlock to market-tested formulas. They write about schools where there are teachers called Mr Chalky and bullies called Gnasher and Basher. Now, in the 21st century.”
Old-fashioned as they are, Horse’s stories seem almost radical in this context: small works of art which make room for love and death. They might soon, as he suggests, go completely out of style. It’s not cool to build modern children’s fiction around something so antiquated as the relationship between a small pet and a grandparent, and Horse finds it easy to imagine what would happen if he took the same basic idea to publishers today.
“You say you’ve got a story about an old man writing letters to his grandchild, they say, ‘Wait, could the man be a woman?’ You ask why, they say, ‘Because it’s dodgy.’Why is it dodgy? ‘Because he might be a paedophile.’ Well, he’s not a paedophile, he’s a grandfather. And if that bond is stolen away, what hope have we got left?”
On the other hand, Horse’s books about Roo are only now being published in American editions, and there must be some slim chance that they will appeal to parents and children seeking an alternative to the “school picnics and nihilism” that make the Harry Potter stories so appalling to him. “I hope so. I’ve always hoped that, really. What I really hate in our culture at the moment is the idea that you’re weak, you’re fired, you’ve been voted out of the house. You’re not good enough. It encourages a disregard for each other, for any other lifeforms apart from ourselves, and you can see the effects in Iraq when frightened boys go into a room and shoot anything that moves. My contribution, and Roo’s contribution, if that doesn’t sound silly, is to try and remind people that they can love things, even very small things.”
This reminds Horse of another story about Roo. On the night of March 21, 2003, she seemed almost desperate to go outside, and when he followed her, he saw the same unusual blood-red moon that provided the optimum conditions for the Allies to commence bombing in the Persian Gulf. “It blotted out everything else in the sky, and I remember thinking, ‘She’s taken me out here to show me this.’ Then, from the sublime to the ridiculous, she started eating chicken shit.”
Since then, everything has changed for Horse and his wife, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago, and is now confined to a wheelchair. “Once, I was a workaholic with my writing and drawing and painting, ” he says, “and now I feel my work is in the centre of the house, making sure everything is okay. That was always Roo’s job, and in a way I learned it from her. And I think she hung on as long as she could because she was worried about us.”
Roo’s last night, when she could no longer move, was spent listening to her favourite stories and records. Those songs included Neil Young’s Old King and Emmylou Harris’s Lonesome Hoboes – “She liked the voices, ” says Horse, “and she liked what they were singing about.” If her choices seem mawkish or predictable, given that both of those songs are tearjerkers about the bond between hounds and their masters, then consider that Roo also loved Brian Eno’s cerebral ambient record, Before And After Science, and enjoyed krautrock so much that she used to stick her head right into the bass bins when it was played at parties.
Horse gave her little tubes of morphine to send her away peacefully, but in the morning she was still hanging on, so he carried her to her favourite beach, where Roo died in his arms. There was a burial, a headstone, an obituary. “Our animals protect us, ” wrote Horse, a heartfelt line from one of his notebooks. And now he will finish The Last Pirates, one last book about Roo, and the world she just left.
“I was trying to write it before she passed, but it was too disjointed. Now I feel released to finish her story, and I think it’s going to be a good one. It was a good life. An interesting life. Who knows how many people she touched?
“Sometimes I think that Bush and Blair are inconsequential compared to a little dog who never harmed a soul. There’s no logic in that I suppose. But then again, of course there is.”
Author’s Note: Six months after this story was published, Harry Horse (Richard Horne) and his wife Mandy committed suicide at their home on the Scottish island of West Burra. The case was subject to a lengthy investigation and the details remain a matter of contention.