Thursday, 24 June 2021

Hare today and gone tomorrow.

It was just after eight on a Friday morning, a few days before the summer solstice, and I was out walking with Honey, our golden retriever.


After a week of thick cloud and calm, humid conditions, the Irish weather had finally delivered something more like a summer day. The fresher air and clear blue sky would go a long way towards suppressing the clouds of midges which had recently made working outdoors almost impossible.

The word midge is frequently pronounced “midget” in Ireland. Soon after we had moved into our new home, this linguistic quirk caused a hilarious misunderstanding, with some woke eye-rolling on my part, until a kind friend pointed out my mistake. There are 29 species of midges in Ireland, including six which are partial to human blood. I suspect we have all six at our house. What these microscopic flies lack in size, they more than compensate for with persistence, quantity, and their disproportionately painful bites. Midges are as pervasive as smoke. If you are caught in a swarm, these almost invisible insects will find their way up your nose, into your mouth and under your clothes, turning every bit of exposed skin into a pincushion of itchy red bumps. I’ve even been bitten on the eyeballs — which is less fun than you might imagine.

Midges only fly during the spring and summer, when the air is still and humid. They are prevalent in and around lakes, forests, and boggy ground — the same terrain which surrounds our home. On the upside, these tiny flies are the staple food of skylarks, swallows, and bats. Midges dislike wind and direct sunlight, so they tend to swarm for an hour around sunrise and sunset. Although Ireland is frequently battered by the westerly Atlantic winds, we can also have days or weeks of calm, overcast and humid conditions. On these “midgie days,” the microscopic demons will appear at sunrise and swarm all day. Sage advice is to remain indoors, but sometimes the outside chores won’t wait.

Over the years, I’ve bought several midge hats, and various bug sprays, in an attempt to make working outdoors bearable when the “midges are up”. These hats have a fine net cage that encloses the head and can be tucked under a shirt collar. Although effective at keeping the little blighters off your skin, these midge hats are hot to wear and restrict visibility to the point of being dangerous, particularly when operating a chainsaw. I have found a bug spray called Incognito to be effective at hiding me from most biting insects, even small swarms of midges. Being less tolerant to chemicals, Lesley favours Avon’s Skin so Soft, as do the military. While not officially an insect repellent, this so-called dry oil is undoubtedly effective. I’ll give Lesley the final word on the product. “It smells lovely, keeps my skin soft and stops the midges from nipping,” she said. “On the down-side, by the end of the day I look like a basted pig, covered in dead flies!”

Midgets!

 Leaving the forest path, we turned right onto a single-track road and headed downhill towards home. Although we’d already been walking for an hour, giving Honey plenty of time to bound around in the forest, searching for squirrels, hare, and deer, she still insisted on pausing every ten yards to sniff at something invisible but interesting. Honey is generally well behaved and happy to walk to heel when on her lead, but she is a big dog and somewhat of an immovable furry anchor when she suddenly stops. From painful experience, I’ve learned to pay attention to what the big doggy is doing or risk wrenching my shoulder.

As I walked along the road, with Honey trotting dutifully at my side, I glanced at the delicious array of wildflowers growing along the embankments and hedgerows. I hoped to spot some new or unusual plant that I could photograph and later challenge my wife to identify. So far this month, she’s managed ten out of ten. Looking to my left, through gaps in the hedgerow, I can see several small fields sloping downhill. They are edged with dry stone walls and reinforced with prickly hawthorn bushes festooned with glorious white flowers.


The beautiful Hawthorn bush

 On the opposite side of the valley, the hills rise sharply and seem to curve overhead like the inner surface of a vast bowl. I can almost imagine the cattle slipping off the slope and flying over my head into the forest beyond. Just as we reached the gated entrance to the next field, a large hare suddenly burst forth, looked at us with contempt, and sprinted away down the hill. For her part, Honey did a comical double-take before launching herself into hot pursuit. The chase was on — or would have been had Honey not been wearing a lead. I braced myself against the inevitable tug but, despite my quick reactions, my right arm was almost ripped off at the shoulder. As 32 kilograms of excitable canine muscle tried to snap her collar or my arm, I shouted desperately for her to stop.

“Grrr-uff,” she replied.

After watching with ill-concealed frustration as the hare kicked up its heels and vanished from view, Honey grudgingly complied.

“Hello, young feller,” came a voice from my left.

“Hello Tom,” I replied. “I didn’t see you there.”

Tom was a local farmer. Although he is aged somewhere in his early 80s and his once tall frame is now bent by the ravages of time and gravity, Tom is still active, spending most of his days caring for his cattle, regardless of the weather. My time is expended by staring blankly at my keyboard, and I avoid playing golf if light rain is forecast. Beneath his tweed cap, Tom has thick white wavy hair and bright blue eyes, which seem to twinkle with mischief. His weatherworn face carries deep laughter lines, a testament to his quick wit and kind smile.

He nodded towards Honey. “I see yon dog almost caught a hare.”

“And nearly ripped my arm off in the process!” I rubbed my shoulder and winced.

“Aye.” He smiled so widely, I imagined he’d just won the lottery. “That would do it.”

“Are you injured?” I asked, pointing at Tom’s walking cane. “It’s the first time I’ve seen you carrying a stick.”

“Ah…My stick is for poking me cows when they won’t move along.” He nodded sagely, then added, “and pointing at things.”

“Can’t you use your finger?” I grinned and demonstrated how to point.

“I could…” Tom tipped his head politely, then raised his stick. His eyes twinkled with glee. “But this is for pointing at things that are further away!”

I laughed.

“For example…” Tom used his stick to draw my attention to the moorland to the west. “Yonder land used to be called rabbit mountain. At one time, it was thick with bunnies, goats, and grouse. Now all you’d find is them hare.”

“Really?” I exclaimed. “I’ve seen feral goats over there, but never rabbits and grouse. So, whatever happened to them all?”

“Back in ‘86, the gun club came up here and shot ‘em all.” Tom grimaced and chewed his bottom lip. “We haven’t seen a rabbit or grouse since.”

“Oh dear,” I replied, somewhat lamely.

“It’s a shame,” Tom nodded sadly. “My Mary used to make a tasty game pie.”

Still hoping to catch the hare, Honey was anxious to move on, so we said our goodbyes and carried on down the hill.

***

Back home, I told Lesley about seeing Tom, the demise of rabbits, grouse, and goats from the moor, and described almost getting my arm torn off. Consequently, we fell into a discussion about hares.

“Did you know the Irish hare is native to Ireland and our oldest surviving mammal?” Lesley asked. “It’s genetically different to the mountain hare, which is actually native to Scotland. The Irish hare is now known to have been present in Ireland since before the last ice age. It’s a protected species here.”

“I didn’t know that,” I replied, nodding towards the internet page she was reading, “and neither did you, until you looked it up!”

She laughed. “Do you remember when Lady caught that hare?”

I nodded.

“The silly old dog was running around on the moor when she accidentally kicked a sleeping hare in the head!” I smiled at the memory, but then my lips tightened. “I miss Lady….”

“So do I. And our other dogs too,” she added with a sad grimace. “At some time, they all chased, or were chased, by a hare.”

Lesley was right. Since moving to County Clare, each of our dogs have had hare(y) encounters. Now every hare we see is a poignant reminder of the dogs who lived rich, full, and happy lives in our care, but have since passed on.

 

 Lady — The Foxhound


The hare Lady killed was probably of the larger European variety. It weighed around 6kg. Despite the accidental circumstances of its passing, Lady proudly claimed the kill as her first. The hare was too large for her to carry alone, but she wouldn’t let it go, so she and I played a macabre game of tug as we brought the body home. Although she had just had a large breakfast, as soon as I let go of the hare to close the gates at Glenmadrie, Lady quickly dragged her prize into the bushes and began to eat. Ignoring our pleas, threats and bribes, the unruly pooch stubbornly remained just out of reach for the next six hours. When she emerged, looking glassy-eyed and considerably more rotund than before, the hare had all but disappeared. That evening, our foxhound slept in front of the fire with a satisfied grin on her face. Unaccustomed to such rich food, Lady’s stomach rumbled and squeaked like a defective boiler as she digested her meal. Inevitably, the eye-wateringly foul gasses from the fermentation process began to leak out. The smell was overpowering and potentially explosive, particularly as the source was laying in front of a roaring fire. Despite opening all of the windows, Lesley and I were soon forced to move to another room — quickly followed by the other dogs!

 

Romany — The Lasa Apsos


Being such a gentle and kindly creature, Romany had no interest whatsoever in anything dead or bloody — except for dog food mixed with cooked vegetables and some biscuit. Consequently, she was horrified when she saw Lady and I carrying a freshly killed hare. Despite her old age and frailty, the little white dog took one look at the gruesome scene, turned tail and sprinted home to her mummy!

 

Kia — The Collie


While Lady’s lifetime tally of hare kills eventually reached two, Kia’s proud score was nil. She was never the hunter; that was the job of the loopy foxhound. With her collie instincts, Kia was always happiest chasing the pack — even if it amounted to just one dog. On the approximately 3,000 occasions when Lady went charging across the moor, or crashing through the forest, yelping like a banshee whilst tracking the scent of some long-gone animal, Kia would always be following dutifully 10 metres behind. Whereas Lady would return, smiling and panting, but otherwise unsullied, Kia’s thick black coat displayed the history of every bush, ditch, and thicket they had visited, with some mud added for artistic styling.


Jack — The Rough collie


In the five or so years Jack lived at Glenmadrie, he never once chased a hare — or a ball. Unfortunately, when this sweet doggy turned up on our doorstep, he was malnourished, with arthritic hips and poor eyesight. Although Jack loved taking a gentle stroll on our land with the other dogs, his take on strenuous exercise was trotting cautiously for a dozen paces, then having a nice rest. Even when Lady was in full hunting mode, yapping loudly and running off with Kia in tow, Jack wouldn’t join in. Instead, he preferred to run a few excited circles, woofing into his own ears, before sitting down to wait for the wanderers to return.

 

Amber — The Pomeranian terrier cross

 

What Amber lacked in size, she more than made up for with guts and energy. Despite being run over by a car, kicked by cows, and savaged by larger dogs, Amber considered it her job to chase off all invaders. She frequently, and loudly, chased away cars, deer, cattle, cyclists, walkers, helicopters, jets, the International Space Station, and hare. In 17 years, this gutsy little Lady never caught a hare, but she never gave up trying.

We loved them much and miss them all.

 

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

An Unfamiliar Sky — Covid lockdown in rural Ireland


 This isn’t a golf story, but like my life, it has some golf in it.

 I hit my first golf ball in the summer of 1968, gave my first golf lesson in 1986 and my last on a showery morning, early in 2020.

 I can recall that first shot very clearly. It occurred in Scotland, late one summer afternoon on the hallowed turf of the Old Course at St. Andrews, the venerable home of golf. Unaware it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the stupid and frustratingly pointless business of using an unwieldy stick to manoeuvre an insubordinate ball through an obstacle course and into an unreceptive hole, that memory was solidified in my mind by other events.

At the time, my late father was an officer serving at Royal Air Force Leuchars and, therefore, an RAF member at the local golf club, which happened to be St. Andrews. Lucky us! That evening, Dad was playing golf with another RAF officer. Although I had no particular interest in the proceedings, I enjoyed the evening sunshine, searching for golf balls in the long grass, and the important responsibility of carrying his bag. As we neared the end of the round, Dad asked if I would like to try hitting a shot.

“Okay,” I shrugged nonchalantly.

He tossed a ball onto the ground and handed me one of his clubs.

“Go on, have a go.”

My first few attempts moved nothing other than the air or a few clumps of grass. But after a bit of guidance on how to hold and swing the club, I managed to move the ball a short distance, in approximately the intended direction.

“Well done!” my father exclaimed, his eyes twinkling with joy. “Pick it up. It’s getting late. We’ll have to head in now.”

It wasn’t an auspicious start, and it might have been my last go at golf had I not noticed the golf ball was named after that famous fighter aircraft, the Spitfire. Back then, the plane was legendary — especially for a young boy living on an RAF base. My heart sang as I tucked the ball into my pocket. I was hooked and went on to spend many happy days playing golf with my father.

Unfortunately, that day didn’t end well. Whilst Dad and his friend swapped flying stories in the bar for a couple of hours, I nursed my lemonade, ate a sandwich and entertained myself by reading an old and slightly sticky golf magazine. Back in the car park, Dad’s alcohol-fuelled affability quickly evaporated when we discovered his car keys were missing. Along with his wallet, the keys had been safely tucked in the ball pocket of his golf bag. The wallet was still there, but the keys were nowhere to be found. They must have fallen out. Accusing eyes turned in my direction. Obviously, the apprentice caddy was to blame. We set off with borrowed torches to search the course, retracing every shot and footstep for a distance of more than four miles. At 11pm, dusty, sweating and tired to the bone, we trudged dejectedly back to the car.

“Should we check the bag again?” I suggested.

“I already did!” Dad growled.

“Let me look,” I pleaded.

By the light of two torches, we tipped the contents onto the nearby grass.

“They’re not there,” he said. “We’ll have to get a taxi.”

I jiggled the bag.

“I can hear something!” I exclaimed.

A more detailed search eventually revealed a small hole in the ball pocket, just large enough to allow a set of car keys to slip through and become trapped behind the lining. There was more irony than humour in our laughter. Back home, my mother found the saga of the missing keys to be an unbelievably tall tale. To this day, she is convinced our late return was entirely due to the smell of beer on my father’s breath.

 Apart from that significant moment when someone exchanged some of their hard-earned cash for a little of my knowledge, the first golf lesson I gave was only memorable because the client was the husband of a young teller at my bank. After raising some money for charity through my golf, I’d been featured in the local newspaper. Gillian had recently married. She recognised me from the paper and asked if she could buy a golf lesson as a birthday gift for her husband. I was happy to oblige. Besides, the money came in handy. The lesson went surprisingly well. John’s golf improved considerably, and I began teaching golf part-time. It was something I continued to do until we arrived in Ireland, and my hobby turned into a serious career.

 Me busy teaching some putting.

 

In theory, there was no reason why my twin careers of author and golf teacher couldn’t have lived happily together. Indeed, for a while, they did. With our renovations finished, I had enough spare time on my hands to teach most days, write a golf instructional column for the paper at the weekend and rattle off a few bestselling books in the evenings. Everything was looking rosy until the financial crash knocked Ireland for six. From that point on, the flood of golf lessons slowed to a trickle and ended as an irregular drip.

 As a busy full-time author, my decision to retire from teaching golf after 34 years seemed entirely sensible, but it was still a sad day. On 5th March 2020, on my way home from shopping, I popped into the golf club to hand over my keys, empty my locker and collect my things.

“How did it go?” my wife asked when I arrived home.

I dumped the shopping bags on the kitchen table and grimaced.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting a gold watch and a party, but the subdued atmosphere in the golf shop was somewhat unexpected.”

“Who did you see?” Lesley asked as she helped me unpack.

“Only Jane. The shop was empty.”

Lesley tutted. “Did you upset her again?”

“Not at all!” I rolled my eyes, then added, “For once.”

Although she had a heart of gold and loved dogs, Jane was a somewhat fractious character, quick to hold a grudge and inclined to react explosively to the slightest perceived infraction. Whereas most people likened her volcanic eruptions to a toothless dog barking in the dark, being more black and white with social contracts, I took these things very personally.

“Anyway,” I continued. “My departure was acknowledged with nothing more than a curt nod. Jane was more interested in talking about this Covid thing. Apparently, it’s arrived in County Clare.”

“Oh no!” Lesley involuntarily brought her hand to her mouth.

Like many people, we’d seen the news reports about the strange new virus in China and watched the horrible scenes from hospitals in Italy. There had even been mention of a few confirmed cases passing through Dublin airport, but that all seemed a long way away from the sleepy west of Ireland.

“It hasn’t made the press here yet, but Jane has heard about it through her gossip grapevine,” I explained. “Apparently, a family of four returned from a skiing holiday in Italy last week. Initially, they’d all tested negative for the virus and had been cleared to return to normal life. The two children were back at school. The parents are a teacher and a doctor and had both been working. Yesterday, one by one, they fell ill.”

And so it began.

 ***

I’d last seen my daughter and my two grandchildren in November 2019, when I visited England for my mother’s birthday. Lesley had made her first trip of 2020 in February, but my April booking was already looking unlikely. My mother is 92 and medically vulnerable.

“You can’t visit mum, but look on the bright side,” Lesley said. “You’ll have an extra few days with Joanne and the kids.”

“Fingers crossed.” I grimaced with my reply. “But I don’t think I’ll be going. I hear they’re about to cancel all of the St. Patrick’s day celebrations.”

“Crikey!” my wife exclaimed, her eyes wide. “It must be getting serious.”

And it was.

A few days later, the government closed all of the pubs and shortly after, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the nation. He was calm, professional and straightforward. Ireland was in trouble. Urgent action was required to bring the infection rate under control and prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed. The country would enter a strict lockdown, with most businesses closed and non-essential travel forbidden beyond 2km. On the upside, perhaps mindful of the Irish famine, the government began immediate weekly payments to anyone losing income because of the restrictions. Authors and retired golf coaches need not apply! Nevertheless, it was an extraordinarily generous gesture, certain to save many people from destitution. Even now, those payments continue.

At Glenmadrie, little changed. We have a large house and a few acres of land, surrounded by miles of unpopulated forest and moorland. Up here, I can walk the dogs for hours, confident I won’t meet another person and, with enough space to hit golf balls, I can practice every day without going to the golf club. Our lockdown would be restrictive and occasionally frustrating, but it would be far from the ordeal many would have to endure.

Because our home is so remote, it is our habit to food shop around once a month. We have a large walk-in larder and oodles of kitchen cupboard space, so buying in bulk makes sense. With two big chest freezers, we also have room to store our home-grown vegetables and still have enough space for a months supply of frozen milk and bread.

My first ‘Covid’ shopping trip occurred early one morning, a week into lockdown. Dunnes, our preferred choice for food shopping, was well-stocked but eerily quiet. We had yet to receive guidance on face coverings, and they weren’t available to buy at that time, so nobody wore a mask. Most shoppers and all of the staff wore gloves. By common consent, we kept our distance and furtively glanced at each other, subliminally wondering if we were looking at ‘Patient zero’. Of course, we weren’t. At that time, the infection was racing unchecked through Ireland’s care homes, but the risk to shoppers was more imagined than real.

A month later, my next shopping trip was a completely different experience. Lulled into a false sense of security by my earlier trip, after taking the dogs for a leisurely walk,  I had popped into Ennis around mid-morning.

“You’re back earlier than I expected,” Lesley commented as I stomped into our sitting room. She was eating a late lunch. “Did you get everything on the list?”

“No, I did not!”

Ignorant to my simmering frustration, our dogs danced excited circles around me, vying for attention. I did my best to equitably share two hands with four dogs.

“What didn’t you get?” she asked, wincing as she sat forward. My wife’s bad back was playing up again.

“Pretty much everything.” I shrugged defensively. “The shops are all restricting how many people can be inside. I had to queue for 40 minutes just to get into the chemist. By then, the line for Dunnes was rather long. From what I could see, the staff were doing a magnificent job keeping everyone safe. They had a big marquee, a queueing system, the trolleys were being disinfected and there was plenty of hand sanitizer. But, by my estimation, it was going to be a three-hour wait to get into the shop. Apparently, Thursday is the day people receive their Covid payments. That’s probably why it was so busy.”

 

Lesley sighed. “I’m sorry you had a wasted trip.”

“Not to worry.” I delved into my pocket and handed over her painkillers. “We're not going to starve. I’ll go in early tomorrow. I’m sure it will be fine.”

“Thanks for going to the chemist. I appreciate you waiting.”

“Actually, it was rather entertaining.” I smiled at the memory. “We were all wearing masks and keeping our distance, but the old boy in front of me wasn’t taking any risks. Anytime anyone walking along the pavement came even close, he bellowed, ‘Social distancing’ and, like a pantomime pirate, took a swipe at them with his walking stick. It was really very funny!”

***

A year on, Ireland is in its third lockdown. Although Lesley and I have been cocooned since the beginning, life at Glenmadrie looks much the same. Sadly, we’ve lost three dogs and gained several pounds. In 12 months, I’ve hit thousands of golf shots at home but played just two games. Apart from a few short weeks during the summer, the golf courses and driving ranges have been closed the entire time, as have most pubs, hotels and restaurants. I fear many will never reopen. My trip to England was eventually cancelled and with travel restrictions still in place, I have been unable to book another. It’s nice to chat with family on the phone and make the occasional video call, but it isn’t the same as being there. When I wasn’t producing lessons to help keep my young grandson entertained, I’ve continued writing my Fresh Eggs series and working on some other projects. Lesley has kept busy working in the garden. In the summer it looked better than ever. She has also excelled in dreaming up DIY jobs for me to do!

Ireland will endure and bounce back. Its people are stoic and resilient. Those I have spoken with have always taken an optimistic view, mentioning a renewed appreciation for family, our beautiful landscape and the benefits of working from home. At Glenmadrie, I have noticed a reduction in traffic along our already quiet roads, a welcome stillness in the air, and a sky unfamiliar since the boom in commercial aviation in the 1970s. Before Covid arrived, around 900 aircraft a day flew over county Clare. At maximum altitude, these silvery specks passed on their journeys between Europe and America largely unnoticed, save for a distant subliminal roar and a milky haze caused by the contrails they left behind. With air traffic reduced by as much as 90%, I am more aware of our solitude, the sounds of nature and, on cloudless days, a stunning blue sky. Perhaps every cloud has a silver lining after all.

 An unfamiliar sky

 

 

 

Friday, 20 March 2020

Guest blog - Nick Albert, bestselling author of the Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds series










Bestselling author Nick Albert on The Burren, County Clare Ireland.

I’m delighted and honoured Beth Haslam has asked me to be her guest blogger this month. Although we’ve yet to meet in person, Beth and I have been virtual friends and professional colleagues for several years and I have long been a fan of her excellent Fat Dogs and French Estates books. On the day I signed the contract to write my Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds series, my publisher advised me to contact Beth for advice and support.

“She’s great,” they said, “and she’ll be happy to help. Her story is just like yours.”
Of course they were right. Beth is a lovely lady, always willing to offer advice and encouragement – even when it’s only to help me identify some particularly stinky French cheese. And our stories are certainly similar. At the time Beth and Jack were gazing listlessly through a rain speckled window in England and dreaming of a better life elsewhere, my wife and I were just 50 miles away having the same thoughts, but where the Haslam’s moved to France, Lesley and I headed west to a country we had never visited.

Why did we pass up the promise of seemingly endless sunshine in southern Europe, in favour of buying a derelict farmhouse with a few soggy acres in the rural west of Ireland? It’s still somewhat of a mystery. My humorous riposte to that frequently asked question is, “It was an idea conceived in drink,” but that isn’t strictly true. On our first visit to the emerald isle, we were magnetically drawn to the beautiful unspoiled countryside, the lovely people and the feeling we had been transported back to a time when life was less complicated.

County Clare, Ireland.
By the middle of the first week, we were hooked and quickly began hunting for our new home. Much like Beth, our carefully choreographed search soon degenerated into a comedy of errors. Whereas finding our dream property proved difficult, buying it seemed almost impossible – and that wasn’t all. Soon we were being stymied by indifferent lawyers, unenthusiastic banks, unsalable properties and a complete absence of available builders. Undeterred, Lesley and I pressed on and eventually became the proud owners of Glenmadrie, a former goat farm high in the hills of beautiful County Clare. With little money and even less experience behind us, we bought a secondhand DIY manual and began the long process of renovating our home by ourselves. Although there were some close calls and hilarious adventures along the way, somehow we survived and those experiences brought us closer together.
 For eight years we lived like this.
Eventually our house became a home.
A muddy field transformed!


When the renovations were completed, we had a delightful family home and a productive vegetable garden. At last I had the time to tackle another challenge – writing a series of humorous memoirs. As well as telling the story of our move to Ireland, I had plenty of interesting friends to introduce to my readers and dozens of amusing tales to tell about our dogs, cats, chickens, ducks and the local wildlife.
 Here are a few lovable villains from the first three Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds books.
 Let me introduce you to Honey, by way of an exclusive extract from
Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds book four.


These days, modern technology has a lot to answer for, some good and some bad. In our case, it resulted in the arrival of a new dog to our happy home. It all started after I changed mobile phone providers…
As usual, I was welcomed as a new customer, with the gift of a shiny new smartphone. Now, I’m quite tech-savvy, particularly for someone who grew up long before the interweb thingy was a glint in Mr Tim BL’s eye. That being said, I was still pretty impressed with the capabilities of my new HTC phone and enthralled with its numerous exciting but utterly pointless features. On the other hand, I’m nearly as paranoid about my privacy as a pot-smoking spy. So it might surprise you to learn I didn’t follow my usual protocol of disabling every feature and only using my phone for making calls, sending texts or as a glorified paperweight.
With the clever interactive features enabled, HTC soon became my virtual friend, watching my every action and making useful suggestions.  Consequently, just after I had casually searched for one of those drone helicopters, as a gift for my son-in-law, my smartphone enthusiastically took up the challenge and started bombarding me with suggestions as to how I could spend my money on unrelated electrical items.
“I see you were searching for a drone helicopter,” HTC said, “perhaps you might be interested in this robot lawnmower?”
“Not really,” I laughed. “That’s a 12-inch solar-powered lawnmower, fine for a tiny back garden in sunny Surrey, but hardly suitable for four-acres of wet meadow grass in rain-lashed Ireland.”
A few minutes later, my phone pinged again.
“I see you were searching for a drone helicopter,” HTC said, “perhaps you might be interested in this remote controlled car?”
“No thanks,” I tutted, whilst surreptitiously trying to figure out what ‘push notifications’ were and if I should turn them off. Before I could, my phone pinged again.
“I see you were searching for HTC phone instructions,” HTC said, without a hint of irony, “perhaps I can interest you in this advert for an HTC phone.”
I involuntarily ground my teeth and politely declined by banging my new HTC phone on the table. Lesley glared at me. Nevertheless, a few moments later, my phone pinged again.
“I see you were searching for electrical items,” HTC said, “so perhaps I can interest you in this electric dog.”
“What?”
“An electric dog,” HTC casually repeated.
“You’re kidding me,” I said.
“I kid you not – it’s an electric dog.”
“Show me.”
And it was…
 “My goodness!” I showed Lesley the advert. “Look, I’ve found the answer to all of our problems!”
“Ha! What a great idea! I bet it’s clean, obedient and better behaved than this lot.” She nodded towards our four lovable pooches. Like the unfortunate victims of a canine train wreck, they lay scattered around the fireplace quietly leaking noxious gas.
“I’m not so sure.” I grinned. “Knowing our luck it would probably drip oil on the rug and need new batteries every week.”
“I guess…still, it is kind of cute looking…” She left the clue hanging.
“And about as useful as a chocolate teapot,” I countered, trying to defend my wallet.
“I suppose you’re right,” Lesley sighed, clearly meaning the exact opposite, even though she usually despised such extravagant electrical oddities.
“Perhaps we should get another dog?” I suggested casually and without much enthusiasm, but guessing what Lesley was thinking.
She gave me a look which suggested getting another dog was a wonderful idea, but at the same time completely mad and irresponsible. Confused, I looked to our alpha dog for advice.
“What do you think Lady, should we get another dog?”
Lady lifted her head and gave me a sour look. She clarified her opinion by letting off a loud fart.
“Well, I guess that settles it!” I opened the window for some much-needed ventilation. “No more dogs!”
And we would have left it there had HTC not intervened.
It was approaching Christmas, the time of the year where Ireland’s climate encourages most sensible people to stay indoors and enjoy the twin pleasures of a warm fire and old movies. We were indulging ourselves in the delights of Gregory Peck at the peak of his acting skills, in Captain Horatio Hornblower, when my smartphone decided to interrupt.
“Hi Nick, I see you’ve been looking at dogs.”
“No, I haven’t!” I replied, firmly confident in my user history (for a change).
“Yes you have, I distinctly remember you looking at this Electric Dog…”
“You’re mistaken,” I said. “It wasn’t an animal, it was electric.”
“And a dog,” I imagined HTC giving me a sly smile.
“I can see what you’re thinking, but Electric Dog would come under computers and the like,” I explained.
“I understand… So dogs it is! Here’s a picture of a puppy which is for sale and may be of interest to you.”
“Oh for God sake! I said computers, not dogs, and I’m not really interested in another computer – or a so-called smart phone, thank you very much!” I angrily poked at the screen with my finger. “Now, how do I delete this advert for a pupp– Oh my God it’s so cute!” I held out the phone for Lesley to see. “Look at this little doggy!”
And so it began. Every evening, as regular as clockwork, my phone would chime to announce the arrival of the latest batch of adverts, featuring variously delightful dogs and puppies for sale or rehoming. At first it became a soft form of entertainment, like window shopping for houses at the obviously extortionate end of the price scale, but soon the Oohs and Aahs became more considered. I’m not really sure at what point we transitioned from idle speculation and adorable canine daydreams, to serious dog hunting. I suppose it was around the time we hypothetically discussed what sort of dog we would prefer.
We were genuinely concerned introducing a mature dog into our relatively well-balanced pack of old ladies might lead to problems, so we agreed a puppy would be the best option. Initially, Lesley was keen on the idea of getting another Lhasa Apso, but they are rare in the West of Ireland, primarily because short-legged dogs with long fur are about as inappropriate for muddy fields and wet grass as a supercar is for our narrow lanes and potholed farm tracks. We toyed with the idea of a Border collie puppy. They were all insufferably cute and available in their hundreds, but they are working dogs and need to be worked hard to remain healthy in body and mind. All four of our dogs were rescued from the pound and we would have been delighted to go down that route again, had there been a puppy available, but it was not to be.  And there was another consideration.
Almost everyone who has ever been a dog owner knows the dreadful pain we suffer when a beloved pet dies. Dogs fill our lives with such joy and passion. They are our constant companions, never needing time alone, or space to grow, and they are always there for us, with a head on the knee, or a lick of the hand, as soon as we need some comfort. Overflowing with unconditional love and friendship, they are so prevalent in our days their passing can leave a void so vast it can never be filled. We may be able to get over the death of another human, perhaps by imagining they have gone on to a better place. Our heart may still grieve, but life will go on and our friends and family will somehow fill the vacuum death has created. But there is something different about our relationship with dogs.
Dogs may not be our whole life, but they make our lives whole. Only children and dogs give their love unconditionally, in a way which makes you want to be as good a person as they already think you are. Children grow up and become people with their own lives and perhaps their own dogs. Only dogs will provide such silently devoted companionship. Their presence is constant, their attention total (particularly if you’re eating biscuits) and their love is unwavering. Each dog is so unique in its interaction with our lives they can never be replaced or replicated. Once gone, they are lost forever, but the open wounds they have left in our hearts will never heal. It is their only fault. So Lesley and I decided one more dog would be enough and our special dog would be a golden retriever puppy.
Once we had made a decision, it was time to put the technology to work. Inevitably, my HTC thought otherwise.
“I noticed you were searching for golden retriever puppies,” it said. “Here are some adverts for puppets which may interest you.”
And then…
“I noticed you were searching for golden retriever puppies. Here is an advert for gold flint garden gravel which may interest you.”
Or…
“Chinese golden urns.”
Or…
“Golf ball retriever.”
Eventually, with a combination of threats and IT skills, I managed to convince HTC we really were looking for a goldie puppy. Grudgingly it complied and showed me some adverts. There were several litters of puppies for sale, possibly because it was so close to Christmas. Lesley was keen to ensure we only bought from a good and reputable breeder, or preferably a family. So we discarded any suspicious-looking adverts, principally those with a sales history showing repeated breeding, or any with pictures of puppies in a permanent breeding enclosure. That certainly thinned our choices. However, there was one advert we found to be particularly promising. The pictures showed several puppies playing with a child in a kitchen, which suggested a domestic seller, and although the puppies were priced slightly below the average, the seller was demanding evidence his dogs were going to a good home. Several phone calls later, along with a lot of map reading and a trip to the cashpoint, we were on our way.
Gareth was a friendly family man and farmer. He had bred his golden retrievers for the first time and was now selling the litter. He readily agreed to our request to see all of the puppies and the parents in the home before we committed to buying, so we arranged to meet at his farmhouse that evening. The farm was about twenty miles west of Ennis and about an hour’s drive from our house, hidden deep in the winter darkness of west Clare.
On the assumption we were going to buy a puppy eventually, we stopped at a pet supermarket on the way to buy some essential supplies. Like excited parents at the mother and baby superstore, we filled our trolley with glee. There would be no hand-me-downs for our golden puppy! We selected new dog bed, a collar and lead, some bowls, various toys and chews and a sack of the finest puppy food. The bill was only slightly less than the cost of the puppy and left me wondering if we should have bought the electric dog after all.
Despite the inky darkness and the lack of any relevant road signs, we navigated our way through the cold drizzle and found the farm with surprising ease. In typical Irish fashion, we were greeted at the door by Gareth and his wife Mary and welcomed into their home as if we were old friends visiting from afar. They led us past the living room, all decked out with Christmas decorations, and into the warmth of their kitchen where we could get to know each other. Or at least that was the plan, but it was difficult to have even a short chat with the farmer and his wife, whilst eight gorgeous golden retriever puppies were demanding our attention.
Not much bigger than a domestic cat, all eight puppies were almost identically cute, with soft snow-white fur, stained with a little hint of vanilla on the ears and across the snout, and fat black noses which made a perfect triangle, along with the dark chocolate of their captivating eyes. Instantly we were in puppy heaven, tickling, stroking and petting any dog within reach. I was almost bowled over by a jumble of excited fur, as four of the puppies scrambled over each other in a desperate attempt to get the most attention. In retrospect, it wasn’t a good idea to wear my best black trousers, but I didn’t care. As I rocked back on my heels for balance, I glanced at my wife and saw from the look of delight on her face, we would soon be the proud owners of a golden retriever puppy.
After the initial chaos subsided, Gareth politely excused himself from the conversation and went out to the yard to fetch the parent dogs, leaving Lesley and me to chat with his wife. I tried to join in the conversation, but there were two women talking and the puppies would not be denied the attention, so I crouched down and put both hands to good use.
Mary watched me for a moment before asking, “Was it just the one you’d be wanting, or have you space for more?”
Lesley beamed a huge smile at me. “How many do we want?” she teased.
“Eight would be fun, but I think we’ll have to settle for one.” I scanned the furry gaggle of gorgeous pups. “But which one?”
After the initial excitement of meeting someone new dissipated, the puppies were beginning to turn their attention to other matters. Some were sniffing around the base of the cooker, perhaps attracted by the memory of roast beef, others were by the door, possibly looking for their mother. A couple had curled up under the table, unsure of the excitement, but too tired to care. However, one puppy sat confidently at my feet and politely demanded my attention. I gently picked her up and held her in the crook of my elbow, while I stroked her fat little tummy. She accepted my attention with a contented sigh, snuggling her face deeper into my sweater as she closed her eyes.
“I think I’m in love,” I whispered to Lesley, with a smile.
That exquisite moment of affection was rudely interrupted when Gareth came back into the kitchen with the puppies parents. They were attractive and excitable dogs, but obviously well cared-for. There was an undignified scramble as seven of the puppies fought to get to mummy and the prospect of some milk. She joined in the fun by doing a little dance, in an attempt to keep her teats away from their hungry mouths and needle-sharp teeth. Even the pup in my arms was taking notice of the commotion, so regretfully I put her down, all the time hoping she wouldn’t become lost to me forever within the group of eight near-identical puppies. I needn’t have worried. Five minutes later, the little fur-ball was once again back at my feet, full of milk and waiting patiently to be picked up. As before, content and trusting, the puppy snuggled into the crook of my arm and closed her eyes. Not to be left out, Lesley came over and joined in the petting and stroking. A little calm was restored as Gareth took the parents outside again. It was time to get down to business. Mary took the lead.
“It looks like she’s chosen you,” she said, stating the obvious with a gleeful smile.
“It certainly seems that way,” Lesley cooed.
With the shaking of hands, the exchange of good wishes and a not insignificant amount of cash, the deed was done, and we were the proud owners of a new dog – or more likely her new slaves!
Anyone who says, “Money can’t buy happiness,”
has never bought a new puppy.
 We had a long drive ahead and it was already late as we finally set off for home. The journey along unfamiliar roads was not made any easier by the steady drizzle which turned the oncoming headlights into a succession of greasy flares on the windscreen. During a break in the traffic, I glanced at Lesley who was sitting in the front seat and cuddling the puppy. In our excitement, we had not thought to bring a blanket, so our new friend was safely wrapped in Lesley’s best coat. By the faint light of the dashboard clock, I was able to see my wife was gently stroking the little dog and smiling like a new parent.
“So, what shall we call her?” I asked, hoping the conversation would help to keep me awake until we got home. Lesley looked down at the puppy. She gently stroked its soft white fur and the honey coloured tips of its ears.
“How about Goldie?” she asked.
“I think that’s what every other golden retriever on the planet is called.”
“Blondie?” Lesley suggested.
I pulled a face and sucked my teeth. “A bit obvious don’t you think? Anyway, I was never much of a fan of her music.”
Lesley gave my arm a warning thump. “You suggest something.”
“What about Kim?”
“Kim’s a boy’s name.”
“Sally?”
“Won’t work.” Lesley shook her head. “We had a next door neighbour in England called Sally. She had jet black hair.”
“Let’s call her Joanne,” I quipped.
“I don’t think our daughter would approve of us calling our dog by her name.”
“At least she’ll come when we call her.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” she said, with heavy irony.
There was a natural pause in the conversation while we got on with the quiet business of driving and dog petting. I thought about our daughter, her husband and our grandson, Austin. They were happily preparing for Christmas at their new home in England. Austin was two years old and excited at the prospect of his first proper Christmas. They were due to visit us in January. I reached over and gave the little head a stroke with my fingertips.
“I hope she stays this soft,” I said. “Austin’s going to have a fit.”
“I can’t wait to see his face. He’s never been in a house full of dogs, it should be fun.”
“Should we call it Honey?” I suggested.
“Honey…” Lesley said, in a gentle whisper. “Honey… Yes, that could work.”
“Do you think so?”
“What about it little one?” My wife gave the tiny pup a stroke between the ears. “Shall we call you Honey?”
Honey lifted her sleepy head and, after a moment’s careful consideration, promptly regurgitated her supper over Lesley’s best coat.
“Well, that’s settled then,” I said, as I pulled off the road and handed Lesley the roll of kitchen towels all experienced dog owners carry in their cars. “We shall call you Honey.”
And so Honey was christened in a Volvo on a rainy night in December whilst Lesley was liberally splattered with milk. A fair exchange in anyone’s book.