I go down to the village to run an errand. As I am in the shop, talking to the ladies – our village shop is small, but there are usually three ladies at the counter at any one time – the blare of car alarm goes off and I look out to see Stanley sauntering across the asphalt. He looks like a boulevardier: quite at home, rather pleased with himself, and on the lookout for dash and fun.
‘Oh dear,’ I say to the ladies. ‘That is my dog.’
I leave all my things on the counter, run out, restore Stanley to the car, look him in the eye and say, sternly: ‘Wait.’ Darwin sits like a statue on the back seat, expressing clearly that none of this was his idea and would I please notice that he had not moved.
Back in the shop the ladies are laughing quietly and looking at each other out of the corners of their eyes. ‘He can now officially escape out of a locked car,’ I say in extravagant despair. ‘He can open every door in the house and now this.’ I shake my head. They find this very amusing.
The most senior of the ladies, whom I love, nods her head. ‘Lurchers,’ she says, wisely. ‘Very, very clever.’ And they all nod with her, knowing their dogs.
A lot of people think that the lurcher is a breed. In fact, it has the loosest definition in the canine world. All you need is half sighthound, and you’ve got a lurcher. It could be anything from a whippet crossed with an Irish terrier to a wolf-hound crossed with a Labrador. Because most people traditionally used lurchers for poaching or hunting or coursing, the most common cross is with a working dog such as a collie and that is why there is a fairly recognisable lurcher type. The sighthound always shines through, giving the lurcher a distinctive look.
As I go home I think about why I love lurchers so much, and why I am so delighted to have two of them. (Darwin is officially a lurcher-Labrador cross, so he’s only quarter sighthound, but in my book this counts. He is a lurcher to his bones.) I think I like them because they are mutts, and yet they are not any old mutt; they have a long and fascinating history. They are found in the Book of Kells. I love them because they are proper country dogs. They are athletes, which I like in both dogs and horses. Some people used to look down their noses at lurchers, because at one time they were thought of as gypsy dogs in the days when gypsies were considered beyond the pale. They were considered sneaky, thieving dogs, who would have the chicken out of your pot when you were not looking. But even if they were not historically favoured by the nobs, they have something very aristocratic about them. There is a grace and a bearing about them which is entirely noble.
My boys are very different from each other. They have led very different lives. Stanley was a double rescue, and still bears the scars of his dual abandonment. Somewhere along the line, someone hurt him, and he can still have acid flashbacks to a darker time. Darwin came from a great human family and a grand canine litter. He has only ever known happiness. Nothing bad has ever happened to him, so he sees the world as the most tremendous place and regards people as endless sources of delight. He has an innocence to him which was stolen from Stanley.
But their lurcheriness gives them many things in common. They both love to run and wrestle. When they are out and about, they are constantly searching for amusement, sniffing the air for thrilling scents, scanning the horizon for alluring targets. They chase birds at top speed, never becoming down-hearted by the lowering fact that they can’t get anywhere near the canny avians. (The birds look down in mild disdain, as if to say: you should realise that we can fly.)They are both obsessed by really, really big sticks. They love children, and are incredibly gentle with them. I’ve never heard either of them growl, or seen them bare their teeth. They do not snap. They are very honest and straightforward, and they both have natural comedic skills.
Everybody, in the end, settles on their dog. Some people like tiny dogs, some people insist on pure breeds, some people prefer a working dog. I loved my two grand old ladies, the Lab-collie crosses who were so elegant and kind and good-hearted that they brought me to dog island in the first place, and left me stranded there without a ferry home. In some ways, they were my dogs of a lifetime, and I miss them still. But now I don’t think I’d have anything other than a lurcher. It turns out that they are my people, my tribe. Of mixed breeding, often misunderstood, good at heart, full of enthusiasm and happy to try for lost causes, hoping for the best, stoical in the face of the worst: yes, that is my kind of dog.