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. Butn ever 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.Mmmhmmm. And America! You’ll be too good for us once you’re in America!’
Excerpted from The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O'Hagan. Copyright © 2010 by Andrew O'Hagan. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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