Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Dog Booker Prize for Fiction

There's a category for 'Best Supporting Role' in the Oscars and I think there ought to be a similar category for all those canine characters whose presence enlivens a novel - not the main characters but the ones who steal the show when they get the chance. So forget the Man Booker, with its prima donnas and petty controversies, and welcome to the Dog Booker, where the winners are all boot lickers and tail wagglers.

You're welcome to post nominations and I'll add them to this blog during 2012.

Drum roll. This award is dedicated to all the dogs who were badly written, especially those who died as mere plot devices, intended to jerk a tear and show the threat to the main human characters, who usually forgot about their dead dog within 30 seconds of car chase.

This year's award is especially dedicated to the red setter in the Janet and John books* by which I was punished at school in the name of learning to read (despite the fact that I already could).Younger people will have suffered the Peter and Jane version*. All of us will remember forever that symbol of the perfect family; a Mummy, a Daddy, a brother and sister, and that red setter in the garden, playing with a ball. Yes, the ball was red too (red being a monosyllable composed of three graphs, and therefore appropriate vocabulary for a six year old child, who in another century would have been allowed to learn to read in three languages - or not at all).

Who can forget the immortal lines:-
'Look Peter.
Look Jane.
See the dog.
See the dog run.
See the ball.
See the dog run with the ball.'

I will never know your name, red setter, but I know you deserved better and I apologise, on behalf of all writers.

The nominations so far for 'Best Supporting Canine Role in Fiction' are:-

Timmy in 'The Famous Five' by Enid Blyton - as Timmy is actually one of the famous five, it's a moot point whether he's a minor character but as I'm the one who makes up the rules, he's nominated. A brown mongrel with a very long tail and loving brown eyes, Timmy sorted the numerous criminals of Dorset by tying them up, stealing their plans or reporting them to the CID, and then he'd be back for a cuddle in the cove, while his loving owner George (short for Georgina) cracked open a (ginger) beer. In those days criminals always had written plans, without which they were lost. As lovable hero dogs go, Timmy is right up there with Lassie - nostalgic idealism. 5/5 barks from me for being one of the dogs you meet as a child and never forget. Incidentally, why were interesting girls, like George, always 'tomboys'? Conversely, being 'girlish' was not really complimentary about a boy.

Bouncer in 'The Reluctant Widow' by Georgette Heyer - I love this dog! A large English 18th century hound, he is all youthful exuberance, misdirected (from a human viewpoint) into all activities dirty and destructive, chasing game away instead of to hunters, disappearing for his own pleasures when required on guard duty and more dangerous when obeying orders than when ignoring them. We first meet Bouncer when the young man who owns him carelessly orders him to 'guard' without clarifying what or whom is to be guarded, and Bouncer dutifully prevents our heroine from stirring one dainty ankle's length from her chair throughout the day until Bouncer's master returns. Bouncer excels at night watch, when his mere presence is enough to deter intruders - and of course anyone in the house who wishes to move from one room to another. Gets 5/5 barks from me - a real dog.

Nighteyes in the fantasy 'Assassin' series by Robin Hobb - although a wolf, Nighteyes deserves his place here because seeing through his nighteyes is very much an imaginative leap into the canine world by the human, Fitz. The boy training to be an assassin is unable to hold back bonding with the wolf despite the laws against this old magic, and despite the risks of entering too far into a wolf's way of life. Nighteyes is a raw force of nature, fierce and loyal, unequivocal. If you want to lope deeper into twilight, the time 'entre chien et loup' as the French say, 'between the dog and the wolf', and start to wonder why you would want another human in your life at all, when you could be part of the pack, you'll love this canine character. 5/5 barks for this dog-ancestor. You're not sure whether he's turning you savage more than you're taming him.

Jiggs in 'Bravo's Veil' by Michael Croucher - It's WW1 and Paul is an evacuee in Cornwall, far from his family in London, and attacked by the same bullies who came on the train with him.  This time, however, the gutsy little dog of his host family is there as back-up and every child's dream dog comes to life. Jiggs is best friend, protector and confidante. He keeps the nightmares at bay just by being there. When I heard these lines sung by Francis Cabrel, I thought they were about my dog 'Je suis le guardien du sommeil des ses nuits/Je l'aime a mourir' (I am the guardian of her night's sleep/ I love her and I'd die for her). 5/5 barks for Jiggs, for being best friend for a lonely child.

Nici in 'Song at Dawn' by Jean Gill - yes, I'm nominating my own character. If this was a real award I'd get a friend to nominate my book but I thought I'd take a short-cut. This dog was the catalyst tow riting the novel at all. I was reading an American book about troubadours and found this; 'It is rumoured that there was a female troubadour travelling in the south of France with a big white dog'. How could I not write this story? Nici is a Pyrenean mountain dog, too fond of people to be any use guarding sheep, and his name means 'Stupid' in Occitan. He hooks up with a runaway girl and mostly does his own doggy thing, but turns up for food and night duty in her doorway. He ignores insults and orders alike, makes his own mind up about what's best and he is just there, a presence. A reader said to me, 'It's a pity you didn't do more with the dog.' I am writing Book 2 at this very moment and Nici is alive and well, living in Die with his troubadour mistress. 5/5 barks for being a big white dog and behaving like a big white dog.

You've noticed that they all get 5/5 barks. Well, I nominated them, didn't I? If you're barking too, post your nominations. The prize is the prospect of international fame. (My lawyers cautioned me against offering international fame itself rather than the prospect, which is sufficiently intangible and more than enough for most writers to live on, never mind their fictional characters.)

French Language Nominations
Thanks to the readers who suggested
Idéfix/Dogmatix in the Asterix books by René  Goscinny and Albert Uderzo - the punning pooch belonging to Obelix in the cartoon series. A little black and white mongrel with rabbit ears and a happy face, Idéfix (Dogmatix in the English translation) first makes his appearance as a literal running joke. He is also the first canine ecologist, defending his  beloved trees with tooth and claw, in true Celtic druid manner. Possessively close to his master, he is won over by Obelix's adored Panacea when she kisses him.

Bill in Boule et Bill by Jean Roba and Maurice Rosy- a cocker spaniel whose actions speak for him. Bill is the sort of dog who likes sleeping on sofas and hates baths. Bill would do anything for his boy master - except get in a bath. He even has his picture on an album cover - Pink and Blue's Night Slave. As a title character, Bill isn't minor, but I'll allow him in as a foreigner.

Milou/Snowy in the Tintin books by Hergé - as the English translation 'Snowy' prosaically suggests, Milou is white, a fox terrier, who is yet another master-loving boy-saving hero. However, as well as the endearing cartoons, his weakness for alcohol and fear of spiders distinguish him from the run-of-the-mill, as does his tendency to think in sardonic thought-bubbles. 

News flash - in the film world it looks like Martin Scorsese has won his case to nominate Blackie, the snarling doberman from 'Hugo' for the Golden Collar Award. Scorsese thought it unfair that the cute Jack Russell from the silent film 'The Artist' should be an automatic choice and Blackie should have to fight to be appreciated. Uggie is still front-runner but if they both turn up at the Awards Ceremony, I know who I'd put my money on.

*If you haven't read it before, this poem by Wendy Cope is the funniest take on Peter and Jane ever. Wendy Cope was lucky enough to meet me once was a primary school teacher who suffered these books even more often than her pupils.

Reading Scheme
Here is Peter. Here is Jane. They like fun.
Jane has a big doll. Peter has a ball.
Look, Jane, look! Look at the dog! See him run!
Here is Mummy. She has baked a bun.
Here is the milkman. He has come to call.
Here is Peter.Here is Jane. They like fun
Go Peter! Go Jane! Come, milkman, come!
The milkman likes Mummy. She likes them all
Look, Jane, look! Look at the dog! See him run!
Here are the curtains. They shut out the sun.
Let us peep! On tiptoe Jane! You are small!
Here is Peter. Here is Jane. They like fun.
I hear a car, Jane. The milkman looks glum.
Here is Daddy in his car. Daddy is tall.
Look, Jane, look! Look at the dog! See him run!
Daddy looks very cross. has he a gun?
Up milkman! Up milkman! Over the wall!
Here is Jane. They like fun.
Look, Jane, look! Look at the dog! See him run!

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