I wasn’t a dog person until I met Violet, my beautiful black blanket basset hound. And last week, after eight happy years together, we had to say goodbye, but thanks to her, I’ll be a dog person for ever. Here, in a few of my favourite photographs, is why.
1. 2008 I met Violet in 2008 at her kennels in Atherstone, where she’d returned under melancholy circumstances from her first home in Aberdeenshire. She was three, and already had a couple of show wins under her belt, but her career up in Scotland had come to an abrupt halt when her owner, whom she adored, had a stroke, and his wife couldn’t cope with a young dog and the two older bassets they already had. So, Violet had made the long journey back to Warwickshire where although her breeders were happy to have her home, her canine family were less chuffed to see the kennel pecking order turned upside down. Big bro Gibson was the handsome stud dog, all ermine folds and magnificent head; mum Tessa was a double champion, UK and Ireland. Half-sisters Lolly and Matilda did not need gorgeous (and rather bossy) Violet landing back with her broken heart and perfect ears. Chaos and doggy handbags were ensuing.
My then boyfriend and I were exploring the possibility of a basset hound puppy, not a fully grown three year old, but from the moment Violet (closely followed by Gibson and Lolly) knocked me over and sat on my lap as if it were a throne, my heart was gone. We talked to her breeders, who’d quietly rejoiced at the way their dejected Violet had suddenly perked up in our company, and a few weeks later, Violet came to live in Herefordshire. The photo above was taken on the beach near my parents’ house in Cumbria – we took her to the seaside for the first time about ten days after she came home, and it was the first time her paws had touched sand. My dad still talks about the imperious way she barked at him when he surprised her in his own sitting room. There was a touch of the Lady Violets about her, even then.
2. 2009 Violet was the best companion a writer could ever ask for. For one thing she loved sleeping. Here we are, having a nap, not long after she moved in – she was about four, I was about thirty five, so we were much of a muchness in dog/human years. She also loved cold tea, and that long nose was perfect for finishing off my abandoned mugs, although it did mean they were often knocked over too. I’d never had a dog before, and Violet had never had a full-time pet human either, so it took us a while to get used to each other: we had to learn to read each other’s changing expressions, body language, tones and needs. She was exceptionally good at reading the subtleties of our moods, to the point where I could easily believe why some folk believe souls come back in animal form. When I was sad or lonely she would gaze at me with her solemn, wise brown eyes and lean her solid body into mine, licking away any tears and soothing me with her velvet beanbag warmth. Her gingery eyebrows were eloquent and she spoke a whole language with that white-tipped tail: curling high over her back when happy; at half-mast for uncertain or questioning; swinging low from side to side for ‘I’m sorry I rolled in that fox poo please don’t shout’.
For my part, I worried about her happiness almost constantly to begin with – not least because basset hounds’ default expression is Total Tragedy. I remember taking a photo of her on my phone in the early days, just after a long walk and a full, delicious meal, so I would have evidence of her Happy Face, should I need a comparison. I worried about leaving her, about losing her, about whether I would go stir crazy suddenly having my freedom reduced to four-hour-maximum stretches after years of freelance wanderings. Alone in her crate for the first time in her life, Violet cried for the first three nights, and upstairs in bed, listening to her plaintive howls, so did I. And then, on the fourth night, she stopped. And I stopped worrying, and we got on with our new life.
When Violet was happy, she would close her eyes and do a half-snore, half purr, which we called her happy huff. She’s almost certainly doing it in this picture.
3. 2010 Violet’s other great contribution to my life was to sound the 5.30pm tea alarm. I don’t know how she knew, but at 5.30pm every day, she would approach my desk, heave herself gracefully onto my leg and gaze at me like that. STOP WRITING, that lovely face is saying. STOP WRITING, IT’S HOME TIME. If I didn’t stop writing, she would put her paws on my arm and… well, you try typing with 35kg of solid basset hound suggesting it’s time the kettle went on. And look at those eyes. It’s here that I should probably mention Violet’s voice. I can’t be the only dog owner who talks to their dog, right? And makes up a voice for the dog to talk back? Violet, in my head, spoke like Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques, but much posher. She came from Warwickshire which is hardly the Black Country but to me she had a strong Brummie accent matched with refined tastes – as if Mrs Overall had won the Lottery in 1976 and drove around in a Rolls Royce wearing a designer housecoat. Violet’s voice was kindly, if sometimes a little waspish, and I miss it very much.
4. 2015 We moved house when Violet was four, just after Bonham came along, and the main thing on the checklist was an interesting footpath for walks, plus a big kitchen and a garden for her to sunbathe in. Here she is, in that garden, toasting her furry tum.
I never got tired of watching Violet roll on her back. It was always funny, because apart from the rolling, she was one of the most dignified dogs I ever knew. She had a regal tilt to her head, a serene demeanour that only cracked when Bonham really pushed his luck – and then she put him in his place. She moved with the liquid grace of a ballroom dancer, and rarely barked unless there was a very good reason (Bonham misbehaving, or someone attempting to deliver a parcel without permission). And yet she could throw off that dignity in an instant: she liked to lag behind on walks, ostensibly because she was so old and couldn’t keep up, but really so she’d be out of grabbing/shouting distance if she spotted some fox poo to roll in. And this is what would happen ^^. The little legs would cycle with joy in the air as she ground her back into whatever hideousness that mighty nose had discovered. I remember hauling her out of a bush in Ledbury in the early days, apparently coated in the contents of an entire nappy, then walking her in disgrace back to the car only to realise I’d have to lift her into it. STINKY GIRL. I loved you all the same. (She isn’t rolling in anything here. She just liked long grass.)
5. 2008 She was also very funny. This is her first Christmas card.
6. 2009 I gave Violet a home, but she gave me a whole lot more. It’s because of her that I wrote Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts, for a start – and all my other novels that followed it, in which the dog is really the hero/ine. Violet inspired all those scenes with the clueless dog owners trying to work out a silent language of trust and love and companionship and expectation. There was a bit of me in Rachel Fielding, but there was more than a bit of Violet in Gem. (And Buzz, and Tavish, and Bertie, and the rest.) She taught me to be more patient with mistakes, to get up earlier, to go out and walk and smell the apple blossom and the wet earth and the crushed grass even when it was raining. She taught me to be clearer about my commands, to be consistent with my rules and fair with my expectations. She listened when I rehearsed dialogue on our walks, she helped me make friends everywhere we went, cuddled me when I was sad, welcomed me adoringly when I came home, clambering up onto my lap at the slightest opportunity, regardless of whether there was already a laptop on it. She gave me all those things, reams of extra knowledge about myself, and asked for nothing in return, other than my company*.
Dogs are like sponges for our best human qualities – we pour our time, our care, our affection, our need to be needed, into them, and when we squeeze them, they give that love back to us with interest. I loved Violet; Violet loved me. If only human relationships could be so simple.
* and a Land Rover, cheese on demand, a memory foam mattress, a house in the countryside, and her own Twitter account.
7. 2015 Me and my girl. You don’t notice your dogs getting older, then one day you look at a photo and think, gosh, where did those years go? Both our ginger eyebrows started to fade to blonde. It’s funny, reading back through my own emails – I worried so much in the beginning, about what to put in Kongs, and whether she was getting enough mental stimulation, and then suddenly, you’re just part of each other’s life and you can’t remember what it was like not to carry poo bags in every coat or notice, subliminally, whether a pub has a water bowl by the door. I’m sure my friends have forgotten I ever smelled of anything other than basset hound. Or wore black clothes without a pale white hair pattern embedded on them.
Life changed, for both of us. The boyfriend and I went our separate ways, but Violet generously shared her loyalty between us (she adored him best, I was under no illusions about that. She was a Man’s Dog at heart, even if she and I were sisters in arms). When I found love again – a handsome Border terrier owner in a kilt, straight outta Longhampton – she sniffed him thoroughly and approved, sailing into his kitchen like a seasoned ambassador to break the ice for a nervous me. She was soon the darling of her new second family up north too. Her willingness to trust, and to make new friends even in the twilight of her life, was a glorious example of dogs’ capacity for love; and her natural sweetness made that love easy to find.
8. 2016 This is one of the last photos I took of Violet, and I’m thankful for my camera phone and the eight million photos I was constantly taking of this extraordinarily photogenic hound because I’ve got firm evidence to reassure me that Violet was contented, healthy and ludicrously indulged right up to the end. Although she had a slightly dodgy heart, and a bit of creakiness that you’d expect in a dog that was pushing 90 in human years, she was still galloping down the hill after Bonham a few days before she died and slithering up, seal like, onto the bed for a cuddle (her favourite treat, and only ever granted just before I changed the bed linen). We didn’t see it coming, and thankfully, the vet told us, she wouldn’t have done either. She fought bravely, with characteristic graciousness to the vet nurses, but the tumour was aggressive and unfixable; it came quickly, one weekend, and made the decision by itself.
Violet and I parted in the same way we’d spent most of our time together: curled up with her big, heavy head resting on my arm. I lay on the floor and held her, whispering into her silky black ears about her first tentative steps on Seascale beach; the naps on the sofa as daylight faded from the room; the walks through the woods when she surprised her stately showgirl self and raced, scenting, through the pine-needled undergrowth in pursuit of invisible webs of badger and fox trails; the stolen sausages that were her one and only transgression; the shows she’d won as a puppy; the New Year’s Eve she got lost for an hour up in Scotland, distracted by hare tracks, and we nearly went mad with fearful panic searching for her; the quietly contented ordinary days we’d passed in each other’s company. I told her how loved she was, how precious, how grateful we were that fate had made us look for her at the exact moment she needed us. How she would always be with me, in the shadows of my study, in the blossom of the orchards. And then Violet took a deep, final breath, and she went to wait for her humans somewhere else.
People and dogs are bound to each other only by love. And love stretches infinitely, across time, beyond what we understand, like a retractable lead that never tangles or breaks. Wherever I am, wherever the humans who loved her are, I know Violet will be too, patient and companionable, silent and kind.
Thank you, VV. My first, and forever, dog.