When our dog Fritz, a standard schnauzer, was in his youth, and a puppyish delight in play still ameliorated his oafishness, I used to let him off the lead in Battersea Park and Clapham Common to allow him to investigate the world. This wasn’t always wise, even then, because his unwillingness to back down from any social situation could lead to difficulties. The owners of South London canine killing machines tend to be as ungentle as their beasts, and it could be awkward extricating him, and me, from the attentions of a pit bull and his companion.
It was invariably with male dogs that Fritz overstepped boundaries. Later, his tastes would become more pronounced. I would know to put him on the lead whenever an animal that looked as if it might have intact testicles came into view. He also developed a life-long animosity towards spaniels, particularly King Charles spaniels. Labradors, of which there are many in Clapham and Battersea, would sometimes arouse him, sometimes not. The first time there was a moment with a black Labrador was when I caught up with Fritz to disentangle him from a submissive dog that he was mounting with vigorous thrusts.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said to the owner, who was a sad-eyed, grey-haired gentleman.
‘That’s quite all right,’ he said. ‘This happens all the time. Come along, Shakespeare.’
Shakespeare became a regular feature of our walks, either through my pulling Fritz away from him or passing him by as another male dog vigorously mounted him. The owner, whose melancholy good cheer never flagged, assumed it had something to do with a hormonal smell that Shakespeare gave off. Perhaps, he thought, he had had him neutered too early. Shakespeare was as uncomplaining as his owner. He submitted peaceably to other dogs’ attentions, without experiencing them, it seemed, as pleasure or discomfort.
What, I wondered, but never quite managed to ask, had the owner hoped for from naming his dog Shakespeare? Fritz is called Fritz because he is of a German breed and my son thought he should therefore have a German name. I quite approve of dogs with people’s names. He used often to play with an equally bumptious collie called Dave. I’m not so sure about dogs called Brandy and Marmalade. And my pity (and, I have to admit, scorn) went out one day to a hapless man who was chasing ineffectually after his little terrier in the dog-free part of the Common while shouting, ‘Tinkle! Tinkle! Stop! Tinkle!’
But why Shakespeare? Presumably the sad-eyed gentleman is a fan. I doubt if he had been hoping for an equivalent richness of verbal ingenuity from his dog. Was he honouring the playwright or in some way mocking him? If Shakespeare’s characters stand for anything, it’s for a slipperiness of identity. The self shifts, identity is cast aside, in gender swaps, disguises, in loss. And meanwhile, on Clapham Common, a sad-eyed owner takes the unchanging attentions upon his stoical black Labrador as their due.
Image © Gerrit Dou