Everyone's charge

I think it is about time Bellman was better known. His merely local reputation, to date, is clearly not adequate for such a big- hearted, generous kind of villain. In fact, come to think of it, I wouldn't mind meeting Bellman myself. So far I have only received reports of his doings from (as they say in the political columns) a reliable source.

Yes, I would enjoy catching a glimpse of Bellman, and that in spite of the fact I've never really been a beagle man. Without in any way wanting to hurt the feelings of a single solitary beagle or beagle owner, I have always felt that beagles are about as thick, dull, dim, slow-witted, dense, dopey and dreamy as it is possible for a dog to be. Other breeds have their faults, of course, but beagles, it has always seemed to me, take the prize.

The painter Renoir once said: "You construct a theory, and nature knocks it down." And so it is, evidently, with beagles. I first had to upgrade my low view of beagledom when some friends, who owned one, described how he had chased a cat. Not that I approve of cat-chasing, but if you are going to do something, you may as well do it with a proper gusto. The said beagle one day caught sight of a vagrant feline at the end of the garden, and this apparition translated him in less than a trice from a dozing lump into a bullet. It was fortunate, perhaps, that such an extreme transformation was possible for this normally flaccid, cushion of a dog because between him and the cat was the not insignificant matter of a large sheet of clear plate glass.The canine bullet shot straight through it, unscathed.

So my picture of beagles had already improved a fraction when some other friends, visiting my house from the wirral, told me all about Bellman.

Bellman came to their neighborhood when his owners moved from the other side of the River Mersey. The truth is that Bellman does not appear to have received the one-hundred-percent full time attention dogs expect of their humans. Maybe they were too busy, who knows? But the result was that Bellman came to prefer places to people, and the next morning he was back at his old home. How he crossed the murky Liverpool waters is to this day an unsolved mystery. He could have (1) taken the ferry (unlikely) or (2) walked through the tunnel (incredible) or (3) swum across (impossible). Bellman was, however, loved enough to be once again brought over to his new domicile, and this time he stayed.

How long it took, I'm not sure, but I gather that it was no more than a short while before Bellman had cased the joint and settled down to a life a blatant exploitation in the wirral. His own household doesn't seem to have satisfied the needs of this remarkable hound, and, not to be the fool of circumstance, he decided to become everyone's dog. Even people who hated dogs were soon in love with Bellman. He was a constant and carefully timed visitor to virtually every house in the neighborhood, and wherever he went he seems to have inspired affection and respect.

In a way this is odd because the fact remains that he was on the scrounge. His interests were purely self-centred. Yet, along with the unscrupulous gall of the dog -- throwing, as he did, his bulk against frontdoors to gain entrance, blocking passageway until his demands were met, lying in front of living room fires without a by- your-leave, swallowing whole platefuls of scraps one day, refusing specially treasured morsels the next (clearly not up to standard) -- his increasing band of admirers must have felt in some way that he was giving them something back. The question is, what?

A one-man, undivided devotion, an uncritical loyalty, an uncrushable fidelity? But Bellman, as each of his hosts and h ostesses were doubtless aware, was out to please, or be pleased by, all of the people all of the time. He spread his loyalty far and wide, which is a little like saying it wasn't loyalty any more. It seems that he managed, this fourlegged Falstaff, to make all his scroungees feel somehow honored. Maybe it was his very gall that made him appealing. To be a beggar and choosy requires a special daring, an almost thrilling lack of conscience, and this virtue Bellman possessed in abundance. He lived like a prince off his takings -- too well, in fact, and his owners had to hang a label (which he must have worn with a pride as deep as his illiteracy) round his neck which said: "Please don't feed me."

What has happened to Bellman? Well, like Eliza Dolittle's dad, he's gone and got poshed up. A new home has been found for him, and I understand that every bourgeois attention is now showered on him and probably a dignified touch of restraint as well. Is he happy in his new environment, away from his haunts? I don't doubt it. But I also suspect that he may dream occasionally and sentimentally of the days when life was more complicated -- and more cunning.

One thing is certain: all those surrogate owners of his miss his visits. Perhaps in the end they love him because here was a dog they could "have" without having to "own".It was an arrangement by which no-one was tied.

My friends told me that he returned recently for a two-week holiday with his old family. Instantly he made the rounds of his favorite neighborhood. The lady who lives next door came and knocked on their door, quivering with excitement, like a mother greeting her son from the wars. "Bellman's back!" she cried, eyes shining. "Bellman's back."

So there, if you like, is one clever beagle. I suppose they can't all be bad.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.