My story really begins at Charleston, a perfect haunt of light and invention that stands in the English countryside. It was warm that summer and the mornings went far into the afternoon, when the best of the garden would come into the house, the flowers arranged in pots and given new life by Vanessa in her fertile hours. She was always there with her oils and her eyes, the light falling through the glass ceiling to inflame the possibility of something new. She had good days and bad days. On good days she set out her brushes and knew the time was right for work when all her memories became like an aspect of sleep.
It was June 1960. The gardener had just brought a tray of foxgloves into the kitchen, the flowers pert but deafened after a week or two of bees. I was sitting in a basket next to the oven when a ladybird crawled over the table. ‘He’s got the knock, innee?’ said the insect, climbing over a breadcrumb.
‘He’s just tired,’ I said. ‘He needs a cup of tea.’
Mr Higgens swiped the soil off the table and the poor creature, too. ‘Bloody slummocky in here,’ he said. ‘Grace! Where you want them?’
People have no head for miracles. They are pressed into shape by the force of reality, a curse if you ask me. But never mind: I was lucky to have my two painters, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, a pair who, for all their differences, shared a determination to dream the world they lived in and fashion it into permanence. And what a blessing it was to paddle about on those Sussex flagstones and chase the yellow wasps, turning slowly into lovely me, the sort of dog who is set for foreign adventures and ordained to tell the story.
There are several things every civilised person ought to know about your average dog. The first is that we love liver and think it’s a zizz and a yarm and a rumph and a treat, especially when it comes with sausage. The second is that we usually hate cats, not for the typical reasons, but because they show an exclusive preference for poetry over prose. No cat ever spoke for long in the warmth of good prose. A dog’s biggest talent, though, is for absorbing everything of interest – we absorb the best of what is known to our owners and we retain the thoughts of those we meet. We are retentive enough and we have none of that fatal human weakness for making large distinctions between what is real and what is imagined. It is all the same, more or less. Nature provides a nice example, but it is no longer the place where men live. They live in a place they invented with their own minds.
This day, my siblings and I were to be found crowded around three dishes on the kitchen floor, while Grace Higgens stood at the table with flour up to her elbows. She was giving voice to all manner of nonsense about her holiday in Roquebrune, which wasn’t really a holiday. Grace was clever: she imagined the animals were listening to every word she said and she even grew embarrassed if she said something foolish, which was not only endearing but quite wise. The loudest of the people in the dining room was certainly Mr Connolly, the literary critic, who was visible to us beyond an expanse of sisal carpet and a lilac armchair, the great man munching olives and inhaling dark wine like it was going out of fashion. He made a pinched face every time he drank from his glass.
‘You hate the wine, Cyril,’ Mrs Bell said. ‘Why don’t you ask Grace to bring one of the better things from downstairs?’
‘Even during the War,’ Mr Grant said, ‘Cyril always knew where to find a decent bottle of wine. Yes, he could always find wine. And paper for his angry little magazine.’
I licked Mrs Higgens’s elbow when she put me on the table. She made a jolly sound and bent down to look at her reflection in the kettle and primp her hair. ‘I’d say you’re a terrible charmer,’ she said. ‘A right one for the charm, eh? Not as clever as that last litter. My. That lot were the cleverest dogs. You hadn’t seen clever until you saw those dogs. What? A lovely group. You could just tell they came from good people. Walter said it himself. Yes, he did. A credit to the breed he said. The beautiful eyes they had on them.’ Like most people who don’t say much, Walter was always being quoted for what he did say. She touched my nose. ‘But you are the pretty one. Yes you are. The pretty one. Mmm-hmmm. And America! You’ll be too good for us once you’re in America!’
Mrs Higgens kept the whole thing together, cooking and cleaning, and of course it’s a great thing to be among talented people, but all the hurly-burly of their extravagant natures and their sexual lives and everything appeared to quite exhaust Mrs Higgens. Just thinking about what went on in their minds made her want to go for a lie down. Of course she wasn’t scared to have her say and when she lifted me onto the table I spied immediate evidence of her tendency to complain: her wee brown diary sitting there open and quite proud of itself. It was Mrs Higgens who gave me sympathy for the household gods; here she was, this experienced rinser of garments, this Helen of failed cakes, who might have ruined her eyes during forty years of enabling those artists to be free. She sat down, wiped the rim of her teacup, and lifted the book. On the inside cover it said, ‘Grace Higgens, Charleston, Firle, Nr. Lewes’. As she flicked through the pages she was living all that life over again, what wasn’t there as much as what was. (As a diarist, Mrs Higgens was a minimalist. Feb. 5: ‘Bought cream buns with real cream.’) The laughter coming from the dining room seemed an adequate accompaniment to the smell of cinnamon drifting over the kitchen.
Mrs Higgens wasn’t the best cook in the world. She always worked out of a box of clippings – things she’d torn out of The Times or the Daily Express, pages now discoloured, covered in powdered egg, ground spices, dust. (It was the same box she had used to hold the gas masks during the War.) Mrs Bell was forever rolling her eyes at the desperate chore of having to pretend to Grace her dinners were edible. For my own part, however, she was the best feeder of dogs I ever encountered, and I thought of her kitchen long after I’d succumbed to the American way of life.
A supreme effort was being made in the kitchen that day, not for their neighbour Cyril Connolly, a frequent and frequently complaining guest at Charleston, but for Mrs Gurdin, the dog-loving lady from America, a noted Russian émigré and mother of the film star Natalie Wood. I never fully processed the connection, but I think it was that nice writer Mr Isherwood who put them all in touch, knowing from Mr Spender that the Bells’ housekeepers bought and sold puppies. Mrs Gurdin, not without grandeur, liked to say that the world’s dogs were her life’s work and her great hobby.
I passed through the dining room, where Mrs Bell was talking quietly. ‘Quentin used to say it was odd how Virginia wanted to know what dogs were feeling. But she wanted to know what everyone was feeling. Do you remember Pinker?’
‘The Sackville hound?’ said Connolly. ‘I remember it only too well. It had Vita’s face. I’m sure Virginia’s little novel Flush was a joke on Lytton. All those eminent Victorians, and here was the little Browning spaniel, the most eminent of all.’
‘Pinker is buried in the orchard at Rodmell,’ said Vanessa, gently touching her wrists in turn, as if dabbing perfume.
When it comes to pedigree, each dog worth his mutton is a font of expertise. We Maltese – we bichon maltais, the Roman Ladies’ Dog, the old spaniel gentle, the Maltese lion dog, or Maltese terrier – are suffered to know ourselves to be the aristocrats of the canine world. A great relative of mine was famous as the boon companion to Mary, Queen of Scots; another one gained the ravenous affections of Marie Antoinette. We have known philosophers and tyrants, dipped the pink of our noses in the ink of learning and the blood of battle, and Publius, the Roman governor of Malta, having given house to my distant relative Issa, had a portrait painted of the little dog that is said to have been more lifelike than life itself. That is our habit and also our creed. Once I came to know myself, to know that my relatives in art are no smaller than the story of my own cells, I understood at once that I must be a scion of that contemplative muse, the little dog in Vittore Carpaccio’s Vision of St Augustine. Nothing is lost on the littlest of all dogs. We served in the heroic narratives of the Mediterranean, in the Holy Wars, we sat on the laps of evil-doers and saints, were passed by marriage across the princes of Europe to lick the tragic boots of Charles Edward Stuart, producing, in our turn, heirs out of the houses of Eduardo Pasquini and the Contessa di Vaglio, the Conte Anselmo Bernardo de Pescara and the Principessa de Palestrina. After princes and pups alike were murdered by Hanoverian agents, the surviving brother prince and brother pups married into the house of Dalvray and later into the house of Claude Philippe Vandenbosch de Monpertigen and the Comtesse de Lannoy. From there, by ferry, a son of that union, married to Germaine Elize Segers de la Tour d’Auvergne, came to Leith with a litter of pups that included my ancestor Muzzy. In good time Muzzy met a full Maltese bitch against the park railings on Heriot Row, right across from the house of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose cousin Noona once patted them both. (The whole family was kind to dogs. In the first surviving letter written in his own hand, RLS makes affectionate mention of his dog, Coolin. Three years later he is still thinking of the dog when writing to his mother from boarding school: ‘I hope that Coolin is all well and that he will send me another letter.’) It was some of their noble grandpups who were taken from Edinburgh to the Highlands, where the next generations grew up in a castellated mansion at the end of an avenue of silver firs.
Our pedigree was terrifically intact, and our good fortune secure, at the time of my own birth in Aviemore in the kitchen of the tenant farmer Paul Duff. My first owner had imagination galore, a really infectious manner of drumming up knowledge and making up words. He was fierce excellent, a noted Trotskyist, terrible with money, and he – the eager-faced Mr Duff of Aviemore and Kingussie – had a wonderful old Stalinist mother with whom he argued until both were purple in the face. She was in fact a great hero of Red Clydeside, but a posh old bird as well. The family all called her Elephant or Stodge on account of her greed for Madeira cake, potato scones, and Paris buns. Her voice was terribly plummy and even in her old age she still scooped up great ladlefuls of bramble jam. Bless her, though: the old lady loved my own great-grandfather Phiz, and was said to have feathered his basket with a red flag the day after Trotsky was attacked in that Mexican villa. I could never have imagined that one day I would see that place, but we’ll come to that in good time. The Duffs were the first people I ever knew on earth, and I find their habits pretty much cling to me from when I was a suckling, those evenings of argument, with Duff and Stodge ripping the world’s prose to shreds as they spat crumbs across the dining table like bullets at Ypres and threatened liquidation to half the population. I say liquidation, because that was the kind of thing Mrs Duff would say. She couldn’t bear to use the word ‘death’ or ‘dead’, and, consequently, neither can I. She would narrow her excited little eyes as if about to say something deeply shameful, and then say: ‘If anything ever happens to me, the policy book is in the cupboard above the kettle. I’ve taken to policy books. That’s how far we’ve come down. But you have to be careful. Something happened to Mr McIver over the hill and he had to be buried by the Parish.’
‘It wasn’t that something happened,’ said Paul. ‘He died.’
‘Don’t be morbid,’ she said. ‘Those dogs are howling, Paul. I’m sure they’re listening to every word we say.’
The Duffs, mother and son, never had any money, but they were quite grand about it, making do in the old way of farming common to Scotland. I am not saying I sprang out of a dunghill, but my origins were not propitious. A muddy kitchen. A stale parlour. The breeder Paul was a complex man with a love of whisky and a passion for the early European novel. (He liked novelists who got out of doors. Defoe, Smollett, Orwell. He said novelists who didn’t like adventure should take up knitting.) He would work the fields and read a tome at the wheel of his tractor before returning at sunset with colour in his cheeks, ready to begin drinking himself into a stupor. His favourite actor was Cantinflas. He had watched all those old socialist movies when he lived in Glasgow.
But truly I digress. (And digression is another creed.) Paul was short of a few quid in the spring of 1960, and he sold my entire litter to a gardener from Charleston, Firle, in the province of East Sussex, who liked to travel to Scotland on holiday, looking for dogs and plant cuttings. This was none other than Walter Higgens, full-time husband to my great good friend Mrs Higgens. He had driven up to Scotland to buy pedigree dogs and he found us in Aviemore. It wasn’t far from the place where Mr Grant was born – we each yelped our first notes in the land of midges. The main thing about Mr Higgens was his capacity for listening. We could all talk, after a fashion, and I suppose the Bloomsbury habit was for the endlessly characterful business of talk, a modern version of the classical love of rhetoric. Talking was a thing I took very much for granted, as all animals do, but the vital talent was the one for cocking an ear. Walter Higgens listened to everything and he said little: that was my initial inheritance, on the long drive through the mountains, lowlands, and smoky shires.
I sat up and looked at Mrs Higgens. I moved my head in the way they liked, and she clapped my coat and stroked my face. She pressed her lips together as she tried to open an old tea tin. ‘Mrs Gurdin told me this morning she comes to Europe a lot of the time, and she always arranges to take dogs from England. She finds lovely homes for them in California.’ Mrs Higgens, as she spoke, was looking at me with a brand of self-pity, the kind that imagines other people’s lives are always more exciting than their own. She finally got the tin open and took out a collar that smelt immediately of leather that had spent many long hours out in the rain. ‘Walter used to look after the dogs,’ said Mrs Higgens, ‘the ones at Rodmell as well, and this was Pinker’s collar. You don’t inherit much in this family. Mr Grant is seventy-five. We’re not that kind of family. But Vita gave this to Mrs Woolf’s dog and now I’m giving it to you.’ She made the collar small, taking it down several notches. Then she fastened it around my neck with the great ceremony that English people reserve for moments of minor sentiment, and I was immediately glad to have its story with me.