Extract from The Green Road into the Trees:
In Peru I usually travelled with a mule –so that it could carry my kit as well as be company of a limited sort, but that wasn’t so feasible in southern England.
I had toyed with the idea of taking a dog along with me for the journey. Not that I’ve got one. But occasionally I had walked my neighbours’ sleek and beautiful rottweiler when at the barn. And my sister’s family had a parson’s terrier. Both were fine dogs. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, when he crossed the States with his large poodle, was one of my favourite books and an inspiration for this journey; I grew up to John Noakes’s television programmes about walking the Cornish coast path with his border collie, Shep. And I was aware, not least because my children kept telling me, that a book with a dog in it would be commercially attractive.
But there were disadvantages. For a start, both candidate dogs had names I didn’t feel like shouting out across a crowded field of walkers: the rottweiler was called Portia (like naming a gladiator Phyllis); the terrier, even more improbably, was called Spartacus. More seriously, the way I was walking would not work with a dog – too many impromptu stops and starts and stays with friends. I met a lot of dogs along the way anyway – particularly at Iron Age hill-forts, where dog walkers were often the only other visitors. It made for a perfect constitutional circuit: once round the earthworks of a fort and no need to scoop.
I was able to borrow a dog of my own just for a day though, as I passed Watlington, where my sister lived. Spartacus could come with me.
‘You can let him off the lead,’ said Alex, my brother-in-law, an incurable optimist, ‘but he may not stay with you.’
Within the next hour I had dragged Spartacus out of willow ponds, hedges and just about any cover that conceivably contained a rabbit. Dog-walking was the modern equivalent of medieval falconry – it required the owner to be led into unknown territory that they would otherwise not investigate. This was fine if it was a local landscape that you were happy to explore; not if you had a whole country waiting for you to cross.
I sat down on a bench outside a pub when I got to the next village along the Icknield Way, Chinnor, exhausted by having detoured past so many rabbit burrows. A man joined me and we got talking, mainly about Spartacus, as an easy and obvious point of conversation. It took all of a minute before he made the usual joke about ‘I am Spartacus’. I guessed he was about thirty-five, dressed eccentrically for the country, in pale tracksuit and trainers – more an urban look – and with an iPod looped to ostentatiously large and white Sennheiser headphones. He was very tanned. He said he had just been on holiday to Tunisia, where the clubbing was better than Ibiza.
I explained that the dog wasn’t mine and that my travelling lifestyle made it difficult for me to have one. He was sympathetic.
‘I know what you mean. And to be honest, I always think, “who needs a pet when you’ve already got a penis to look after.” ’
It was unanswerable.