Pigeon Power

Commando, one of the British pigeons who served in the National Pigeon Service during WWII
Carrier pigeon’s skeleton sparks WWII code mystery!1 Pigeons AND coded messages! My favourite kind of news article! Poor brave little pigeon.

On a cheerier note, here’s a news reel of some valiant pigeons who did make it home. It shows pigeons Gustav and Paddy being presented with the Dickin Medal, the animal version of the Victoria Cross.


  1. Thanks for the link, Zoe.

‘Dated’ Books, Part Six: The Wind in the Willows

1 I recently had occasion to re-read The Wind in the Willows2 by Kenneth Grahame, and realised at once that it would make an excellent addition to my ‘Dated’ Books series. (For the benefit of those new to the series, ‘dated’ means ‘of its time, not ours’. ‘Dated’ books can be offensive to modern sensibilities, or they can be charmingly nostalgic, or they can simply be . . . odd. And some, like The Wind in the Willows, are all of these things.)

I picked up The Wind in the Willows because I’d been asked to read a section of it aloud as part of the National Bookshop Day celebrations3. Although I’d read the book as a child, it hadn’t made much of an impression on me, so I figured I’d better have another look, just in case there were any ‘difficult’ words. Well! Here are some of the words I found in The Wind in the Willows. How many can you correctly pronounce and define, without looking them up in a dictionary?

provender'The Wind in the Willows' by Kenneth Grahame

While the general meaning of the words could usually be inferred from the context, I had to look up several of the boating-related terms. For example, a ‘caique’, pronounced ‘kah-eek’, is either a rowboat used on the Bosporus or a small Mediterranean sailing ship, while ‘gunwale’, the edge of a boat formerly used to support guns, is pronounced ‘gunnel’. That’s not counting all the French phrases (table d’hôte, en pension), off-hand references to Norse legends (Sigurd) and Old English names of flora and fauna that I came across in the book. Now, imagine an author of today using those words in a manuscript aimed at primary school children, then trying to get the manuscript published. 4 It says something (probably something unflattering) about expectations for child readers these days. I think it also means The Wind in the Willows is more of a read-aloud-to-young-readers book now (although it depends on the particular child, of course – there are some who’d love figuring out the unfamiliar vocabulary for themselves).

The second thing I noticed about the book is how uneven it is, regarding tone and pace. There are a number of funny, exciting chapters involving Toad’s misadventures, in which he steals a car, insults a policeman, escapes from prison, hitches a ride on a steam train, gets tossed into a canal, steals a horse and finally makes his way home, only to find that his mansion has been invaded by weasels. There’s also the thrilling tale of Mole and Ratty getting lost in the Wild Wood during a snowstorm. Fortunately, Mole trips over a door-scraper hidden under the snow, although he fails to understand the significance of this:

“‘But don’t you see what it MEANS, you—you dull-witted animal?’ cried the Rat impatiently.

‘Of course I see what it means,’ replied the Mole. ‘It simply means that some VERY careless and forgetful person has left his door-scraper lying about in the middle of the Wild Wood, JUST where it’s SURE to trip EVERYBODY up. Very thoughtless of him, I call it. When I get home I shall go and complain about it to—to somebody or other, see if I don’t!’

‘O, dear! O, dear!’ cried the Rat, in despair at his obtuseness. ‘Here, stop arguing and come and scrape!’ And he set to work again and made the snow fly in all directions around him.

After some further toil his efforts were rewarded, and a very shabby door-mat lay exposed to view.

‘There, what did I tell you?’ exclaimed the Rat in great triumph.

‘Absolutely nothing whatever,’ replied the Mole, with perfect truthfulness. ‘Well now,’ he went on, ‘you seem to have found another piece of domestic litter, done for and thrown away, and I suppose you’re perfectly happy. Better go ahead and dance your jig round that if you’ve got to, and get it over, and then perhaps we can go on and not waste any more time over rubbish-heaps. Can we EAT a doormat? Or sleep under a door-mat? Or sit on a door-mat and sledge home over the snow on it, you exasperating rodent?’

‘Do—you—mean—to—say,’ cried the excited Rat, ‘that this door-mat doesn’t TELL you anything?’

‘Really, Rat,’ said the Mole, quite pettishly, ‘I think we’d had enough of this folly. Who ever heard of a door-mat TELLING anyone anything? They simply don’t do it. They are not that sort at all. Door-mats know their place.'”

But then, interspersed with the humour and excitement of these adventures, are entire chapters wallowing in cloying Victorian sentimentality. Most of these are Romantic odes to Nature:

“‘This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew […] All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.”

Can you believe these two excerpts are about the same characters and come from the same book? And then, directly after Rat and Mole’s trembling glimpse of The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, we return to Toad escaping from prison, disguised as a washerwoman. Still, this might not count as evidence of the book’s datedness – it’s possibly just a sign of Kenneth Grahame’s eccentricity.

One definite sign of both datedness and the author’s oddness is the book’s attitude to girls and women. Not one of the animal characters – Mole, Rat, Toad, Badger, Otter, Portly, the Wayfarer Rat or the Chief Weasel – is female. When baby Portly goes missing, it’s his father, not his mother, who frets about him, searches for him and keeps a lonely vigil at the ford waiting for his return. The only female characters with speaking roles are the gaoler’s daughter (described as “a pleasant wench”) and an unnamed barge-woman (described by Toad as a “common, low, FAT barge-woman”). When other females are mentioned, it’s always with contempt. Toad’s friends try to get him to give up his dangerous motoring escapades by warning him that he could end up “in hospital, being ordered about by female nurses”. Then there’s this charming exchange between Toad and the barge-woman:

“‘But you know what GIRLS are, ma’am! Nasty little hussies, that’s what I call ’em!’

‘So do I, too,’ said the barge-woman with great heartiness. ‘But I dare say you set yours to rights, the idle trollops!'”

Oh, dear. Apparently, when Kenneth Grahame “sent the manuscript off to his agent, he told him proudly that it was ‘clean of the clash of sex’.”5 By ‘the clash of sex’, I assume he meant ‘any positive references to girls or women’. Still, you have to feel sorry for the man, because he had a very troubled life. His mother died when he was five, his father proceeded to drink himself to death, and his guardians refused to send him to Oxford, ordering him instead to work at the Bank of England, where he was shot at by a ‘Socialist Lunatic’. Fortunately, all the bullets missed, but Grahame retired to the country soon after this to live in “a loveless marriage with a hysterical hypochondriac” and look after their disturbed young son, Alastair. One of Alastair’s favourite games involved “lying down in the road in front of approaching cars and forcing them to stop”, and he eventually killed himself at the age of nineteen by lying in front of a train. It was no wonder Kenneth Grahame wanted to escape into a world where animals lived in snug little houses by a river bank and spent all their time “messing about on boats” and having delightful picnics.

Despite the difficulties I had with this book, I am curious about this annotated volume, edited by Seth Lerer (if only because it features those lovely original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard).

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence


  1. I have finally learned how to do proper footnotes in WordPress. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
  2. Now available in a new Vintage Classics edition.
  3. at Shearer’s Bookshop in Norton Street, Leichhardt, which now has a large selection of my signed books.
  4. I write for teenagers, not children, but still had a minor editorial skirmish over ‘enervating’. It appears in the Australian edition of The FitzOsbornes in Exile, but was replaced with ‘tiring’ in the North American edition.
  5. All the biographical quotes in this paragraph are from this fascinating article by John Preston, entitled Kenneth Grahame: Lost in the Wild Wood.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

'Drei neugierige Katzen' by Arthur Heyer (1931)
Fluffy indicates the time of the crime, while his assistants, Muffin and Smokey, examine the evidence carefully for further clues
I think I’m writing the wrong sort of books. Apparently, cat mysteries, a “subgenre of detective novels in which crimes are solved either by cats or through feline assistance” are selling “millions upon millions of copies”. I tend to agree with the author of the article, who suggests cats are “more likely to commit crimes than to detect them”. (To appease any cat fanciers who may be reading this, here’s a cat comic.)

Those who regularly use Wikipedia may be interested in this article, which points out that only nine percent of Wikipedia editors are women and that male editors frequently try to delete articles seen as not culturally “significant” enough (that is, too “girly”). This leads, for example, to an article on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress being flagged for deletion for being a “trivial” topic – although somehow, Wikipedia manages to find the space to include more than a hundred articles on Linux.

I love What Was That Book?, a community on LiveJournal in which readers write in to ask for help finding books they’ve read so long ago that they’ve forgotten the titles and authors. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly the community is able to identify a book, based on very vague clues. For example:

“The last radish in the world (galaxy? universe?) goes up for auction. The person who wins the radish is underwhelmed by the experience of eating the legendary vegetable. It might be a science fiction short story or a scene in a novel.”

And, within twenty-four hours, a reader had let us know that the book was Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper.

Kill Your Darlings is hosting a YA Championship, in which their “ten favourite YA fanatics – authors, buyers, publishers, readers, writers – [will] champion their favourite Australian YA book from the last 30 years”. The public will then vote on the selected shortlist, although there’s also a People’s Choice category allowing the public to nominate their own favourite books, with book packs as prizes.

– And my own Vintage Classics book giveaway is still on, with entries closing on Wednesday.

Alex and Me by Irene M. Pepperberg

'Alex and Me' by Irene M. PepperbergI love birds, and science, and books, so how could I not love a book about a talking bird, written by the scientist who raised him? Alex and Me is a touching, funny account of a scientist who trained an African Grey parrot to talk, in order to gather information about bird cognition and language. Alex learned how to label colours, materials and objects, knew ‘same’ versus ‘different’, was able to construct original phrases from words he’d been taught, could count to six and possibly add numbers, and even taught himself to segment words into phonemes, after being taught how to link English speech sounds to plastic letters. He played jokes on his trainers, loved to dance and be tickled, and said ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Calm down’ during tense situations after watching people in the lab use these phrases. The book is full of entertaining Alex anecdotes – for example, he once ordered a toy parrot, ‘You tickle!’ and then, when the toy failed to respond, said, ‘You turkey!’ and stalked off in a huff. When recuperating at the vet’s after an operation, he wanted to talk to everyone he saw, including the accountant who was working late one night:

“‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
‘No, Alex.’
He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally Alex became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”

I must admit that Dr Pepperberg is not the world’s greatest writer, and this book would have benefitted from further editing. I really didn’t need to know the details of the author’s childhood or her early studies, for example, and I would have liked more information about how Alex produced human-like sounds when he didn’t have lips or teeth. I’d also have loved some photos of Alex (although I later found a film clip of him in action). Another issue, barely alluded to in the book, is how captivity affected Alex’s life. His beak, claws and wings were clipped when he was young, and he never had the chance to fly, to sit in a tree or to mate with another parrot. Dr Pepperberg had difficulties securing permanent research funding, and the constant moves around the country made Alex so stressed that at times, he pulled his own feathers out. I’d like to think that a similar research project nowadays would show greater concern for the bird’s welfare, although it’s clear from the book that Dr Pepperberg and Alex had a strong, affectionate bond and that she was devastated by his relatively early death at the age of thirty-one.

One thing that surprised me was how resistant many scientists were to Dr Pepperberg’s theories (and evidence) about animal cognition and language, with many refusing to accept that animals could actually use ‘language’. Some continue to believe that Alex was merely repeating the sounds he heard without any understanding of their meaning, and that his intelligent behaviour was simply a ‘Clever Hans’ effect, with Alex responding to cues from his handlers during testing. This seems highly unlikely to me – the research was carefully planned to control for the ‘Clever Hans’ effect by using multiple trainers and testers. Anyway, Alex repeatedly demonstrated complex, novel, situation-specific behaviours that could not have been prompted by his handlers. But perhaps some scientists feel threatened by the notion that animals other than themselves are capable of intelligent behaviour, of using language – of even, perhaps, experiencing human-like emotions.

I’ve never met an African Grey parrot, but I’ve spent the past decade watching the wild rainbow lorikeets that hang out on my apartment balcony and they use language. Rainbow lorikeets don’t imitate human sounds, but are capable of ‘almost continuous screeching and chattering’, as Jim Flegg’s Birds of Australia says. They make happy, murmuring sounds when they’re feeding or grooming each other; enquiring calls if their mate is out of sight, rising in intensity if the other bird doesn’t respond immediately; sharp, angry sounds when another bird muscles in on their territory; and inquisitive, chirruping sounds at me if I’m watering my balcony plants or appear to be eating something they might like. When baby rainbow lorikeets want their parents’ attention (which is pretty much all the time), they make a noise like bits of styrofoam rubbing against each other, and the harassed parents respond as quickly as they can. Isn’t that ‘using language’? But I think they go even further in human-like behaviours than simply using language.

One morning last year, I was awakened by the sound of some rainbow lorikeets screeching with distress outside my window. I went out to investigate, assuming they were being harassed by currawongs, and found a dead adult lorikeet lying on my balcony. It showed no obvious signs of injury or disease – the poor thing had simply died. Two lorikeets were sitting on the balcony railing, looking down at the dead bird and screeching, but they fell silent when they saw me and climbed down the railings to have a closer look. One of them started grooming the feathers around the dead bird’s face; the other took hold of the dead bird’s claw and gave it a couple of tugs, as if to urge it to wake up. The two birds climbed back up onto the railings to watch while I took the body away, and then flew to a nearby tree branch, where they sat for twenty minutes gazing at the spot where the dead bird had been. Did they feel sad? Or confused? It’s impossible to tell, but they were certainly unsettled by what they’d seen – and this was an adult bird that had died, not their baby.

As I don’t have any photos of Alex, here are some photos of rainbow lorikeets. First, a rainbow lorikeet eating a grape:

Rainbow lorikeet

And a group of rainbow lorikeets hanging out on my balcony:

Lorikeets on balcony

And finally, rainbow lorikeets take flight:

Rainbow lorikeets take flight

Great (and Not-So-Great) Expectations

Life is short and there are many books in the world, so it’s not surprising that readers take short cuts when deciding what to read next. In my case, I often make decisions based on my experience with the author. If I’ve loved an author’s previous books, I’ll probably pick up his or her next book. If I’ve disliked a book, I’m unlikely to give that particular author another try, although I can sometimes be swayed by friends’ recommendations, award short-listings or the fact that there’s nothing else that appeals to me on the library shelves.

So it was that I picked up The Other Family, by Joanna Trollope, at the library last month. I’d read an earlier book by this author (I think it might have been The Choir) and I’d disliked it intensely. I didn’t like the characters, I wasn’t interested in their smug, boring, privileged lives and I thought the plot was stupid and pointless. I didn’t even like the author’s photograph. (Why do publishers put author photographs in books, anyway? I don’t care what the author looks like!) But it was years since I’d read The Choir, and I’d subsequently seen a positive review of Joanna Trollope’s most recent novel, and I was in the library, not a bookshop, so I wouldn’t be investing anything except a little time if I took the book home with me. So I did, and you know what? I liked it.

'The Other Family' by Joanna TrollopeThe Other Family begins with the sudden death of Richie, a moderately successful musician. Chrissie, the mother of his three daughters, is bereft, especially when she discovers he’s remembered his first wife and his son in his will. Worse, Richie never actually got around to marrying Chrissie in the twenty years they were together, so she’s faced with a huge inheritance tax bill and may have to move out of the family mansion in London. I think we’re meant to sympathise with Chrissie, but she came across to me as a spoiled, self-centred idiot, and her two eldest daughters were just as bad. Luckily, there was Amy, the youngest child and still at school, but also the smartest, most compassionate person in the family. Amy is the one who reaches out to Margaret and Scott, her father’s first family, who live in the north of England. Margaret is an especially appealing character – an intelligent, strong-minded woman who managed to bring up her son and establish a successful business after Richie abandoned them. However, I have to admit my favourite character was Dawson, Margaret’s overweight cat:

“If Margaret was restless, Dawson reacted to her by being particularly inert. He would lengthen himself along the back of the sofa in the bay window of the sitting room and sink into an especially profound languor, only the miniscule movements of his little ears registering that he was aware of her fidgeting round him, endlessly going up and down the stairs, opening and shutting drawers in the kitchen, talking to herself as if she was the only living creature in the house. Only if it got past seven o’clock, and she seemed temporarily absorbed in some area of the house unrelated to his supper, would he lumber down from the cushions to the floor, and position himself somewhere that could not fail to remind her that she had forgotten to feed him. He was even prepared for her to fall over him, literally, if it served his purpose.

This particular evening, seven o’clock had come and gone – gone, it seemed to Dawson, a very long time ago. Margaret had been in the sitting room, then her bedroom, then back in the sitting room, then at her computer, but nowhere near the place where Dawson’s box of special cat mix lived, alongside the little square tins of meat that Dawson would have liked every night, but which were only opened occasionally by some arbitrary timetable quite unfathomable to him. He had placed himself in her path at least three times, to no effect, and was now deciding that the last resort had been reached, the completely forbidden resort of vigorously clawing up the new carpet at a particularly vulnerable place where the top step of the stairs met the landing.”

Yes, that’s all it takes to make me approve of a book – the addition of a charismatic cat. But there were other things to like in this novel – for example, the descriptions of Newcastle and the quays of North Shield. The depiction of grief and bereavement felt authentic to me, too, although I never managed to work up much sympathy for Chrissie. I think the concluding chapters wrapped up everything too neatly for each character (even Dawson got his tin of meat for supper), but overall, I enjoyed this book. There are some interesting interviews with the author here and here. And if you have no intention of reading The Other Family, but are curious about the plot, there’s a hilarious (and, I have to admit, accurate) Digested Read of it here.

'The Stranger's Child' by Alan HollinghurstOf course, just as I am sometimes pleasantly surprised by a book, there are times when I’m disappointed, and so it was when I read The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. I’d loved his previous novels, particularly The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker Prize in 2004. And The Stranger’s Child sounded so promising. An aristocratic family with scandalous secrets! A rambling old house in the English countryside! A beautiful young poet, tragically killed in the First World War! The poet’s biographer, who has secrets of his own, struggling to unravel truth from lies! And yet, this novel dragged. There was simultaneously too much detail, and not enough useful information. There were too many unnecessary characters – what, for instance, was the point of introducing the Strange-Paget family, when they added little to the narrative and were never mentioned again after that chapter? And while some of the prose was sharp and amusing, there were too many sentences like this:

“Daphne’s second husband’s half-sister married my father’ s eldest brother.”

That was actually a relatively clear explanation of one of the complicated relationships in the novel. Mostly, the reader was left to figure all this out for herself, and I often found myself flipping back to earlier sections, muttering, “Now, what was Revel’s surname? Does that mean Jenny is his daughter? Or no, she’s too young, must be his granddaughter, except wasn’t he gay? Did he end up marrying Daphne, anyway?”

There were parts I found interesting, particularly in the first section, but I had to force myself to finish this book. (Maybe Alan Hollinghurst should have added a cat or two for my benefit.)

To end on a more positive note, I just finished reading the latest novel of one of my favourite authors of all time, and it really did live up to my extremely high expectations. I’m referring to The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, which was absolutely wonderful, and highly recommended if you like her work. I will get around to writing a proper blog post about it soon.

Keep Calm, Carlos and Henry

Carlos and Henry may be, respectively, a dog and a young girl, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t desperate to do their bit to defeat the enemy. They deserve posters just as much as the other FitzOsbornes, so here they are, thanks to Keep Calm-O-Matic.

First, Carlos the Portuguese water dog:

'Get Mad and Bite Nazis' poster

(He’s already had some experience at biting Nazis.)

Next, Henry. Actually, keeping calm isn’t really her thing:

'Run Wild and Make Lots of Noise' poster

More Keep Calm posters:
1. Keep Calm, Sophie, Veronica and Toby
2. Keep Calm, Julia and Rupert
3. Keep Calm, Daniel and the Colonel
4. Keep Calm, Carlos and Henry
5. Keep Calm, Barnes and Aunt Charlotte

Tomorrow: Barnes and Aunt Charlotte

Keep Calm, Julia and Rupert

Following on from yesterday’s personalised FitzOsborne posters, here are some posters for their dear friends, Julia and Rupert.

First, Julia, Belgravia socialite and wife of the Viscount Whittingham:

'Keep Calm and Stay Chic' poster

Julia can share that poster with her equally glamorous friend, Daphne, who has a larger role in The FitzOsbornes at War than in the previous books.

Then there’s Rupert, friend to all animals in distress, but especially furry ones that meow:

'Keep Calm and Care for Cats' poster

More Keep Calm posters:
1. Keep Calm, Sophie, Veronica and Toby
2. Keep Calm, Julia and Rupert
3. Keep Calm, Daniel and the Colonel
4. Keep Calm, Carlos and Henry
5. Keep Calm, Barnes and Aunt Charlotte

Tomorrow: Daniel and the Colonel

In Which I Acquire Two Shiny New Things

Last week, I acquired two shiny new things. The first was a shiny new camera. I’ve never owned a camera before (no, not even one in a mobile phone, because I’ve never owned a mobile phone, either), so this has been a very exciting and time-consuming experience for me (hence the lack of blogging). Oh, the wonders of modern technology. This camera can do anything – it even has a MAGIC shooting mode. Unfortunately, I am a Muggle, so most of the magic has eluded me. This is particularly disappointing because one of the MAGIC modes can cause objects to sparkle. This immediately made me want to go around taking pictures of people, then showing them the photos and saying, ‘LOOK! You’re a sparkly vampire!’, but so far, the only thing I’ve managed to turn into sparkles is a picture frame. However, I will persist. I actually bought the camera so I could take photos of the setting of my next book (which is set in Sydney, where I live), so those photos may appear on this blog in the near future. Or not, depending on how my photography skills develop.

The other shiny new thing I acquired was the Uncorrected Bound Proof (or ARC, if you’re American) of my new book, The FitzOsbornes at War, which looks like this:

'The FitzOsbornes at War' Australian ARC cover
Click on the image to see the cover more clearly

Pretty, huh? I tried to make it sparkle, but all that happened was that a red splodge with an uncanny resemblance to a lobster claw appeared on Sophie’s frock. (Oh, camera, sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.) Here’s a photo of the spines of all three Montmaray books, so you can see how enormous the third book is:

'The Montmaray Journals' Australian covers
Click on the image to see the covers more clearly

Actually, it doesn’t look much bigger than the second book, but it really is – it’s more than five hundred pages. Massive. My next book’s going to be a lot shorter.

Here, have a photo of a rainbow lorikeet:

Rainbow lorikeet

Dogs and Books

If I were asked to list my favourite things in the universe, dogs and books would be near the top of the list, so I’ve been pleased to see lots of both of them about lately.

Firstly, Inside a Dog, the website for the Centre for Youth Literature, was relaunched last week, with a new blog and loads of useful, interesting features. Go and have a look at the gorgeous photos of dogs reading books! I also liked the article about a greyhound who helps children learn to read. Children love reading aloud to Danny, because he

“does not criticise or correct their pronunciation. He just nods and pricks up an ear, although sometimes he closes his eyes and appears not to be listening . . . Some children even show Danny the pictures as they read.”

It reminded me of a learning disorders clinic where I used to work. My boss would bring in her good-natured poodle, who would sit on the verandah, looking adorable. I soon discovered that my students became highly motivated to finish their work if I promised they could pat the dog at the end of our session.

I’ve also been reading about Bamse, the St. Bernard who was the mascot of Free Norwegian forces during the Second World War. Bamse was an official crew member of a ship that managed to escape the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. While stationed in Scotland, Bamse rescued a sailor who’d fallen overboard, and saved another from a knife-wielding assailant, by pushing the villain into the sea. The crew bought Bamse a bus pass, which hung around his neck, and he would take the bus into town by himself to round up any crew members who were late returning to the ship. Bamse would often have a bowl of beer with the men, and he was an enthusiastic goalkeeper and centre forward when they played football on deck. When he died of a heart attack in 1944, eight hundred school children lined the streets to watch his flag-draped coffin being carried through the town of Montrose, where he was buried. Of course, I cannot resist squashing Bamse into Montmaray Book Three, even though his story doesn’t have much to do with mine.

I’ve also been thinking about beloved dogs in books, and came up with my favourite five:

1. Roger in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals

My Family and Other Animals
'My Family and Other Animals' - 2005 BBC production
When ten-year-old Gerald and his eccentric family move to Corfu in the 1930s, they are accompanied by Roger, a woolly black dog of indeterminate breed, who causes a canine riot within minutes of their arrival. In a book full of endearing animals, Roger is one of the most lovable. As Gerald points out:

“He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.”

(Roger was also portrayed beautifully by a very clever canine actor in the recent film version of My Family and Other Animals.)

2. Heloise in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle

Heloise is the family bull-terrier, described at one point by Cassandra as

“gazing at me with love, reproach, confidence and humour – how can she express so much just with two rather small slanting eyes?”

Heloise is a loyal companion to Cassandra during her wanderings around the countryside, and even manages to get Cassandra into, then out of, an awkward situation with Simon by barking out the barn window at exactly the right time.

3. Miró in Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

Miró is a standard poodle who “seems to think he is human” and watches “the simple canine ways of the other dogs with amused condescension”. His Manhattan family talk to Miró more than they talk to one another, but teenage James admits he’s often mean to the dog:

“I say things to him like ‘You’re just a dog. You don’t even have a passport or a Social Security number. You can’t even open doors. You’re totally at my mercy.’ Or ‘Get a haircut. Put on some shoes.'”

Needless to say, Miró is not bothered by these insults. He’s way too cool.

4. Edward in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist

There aren’t many dogs in Anne Tyler’s novels (I have a sneaking suspicion she prefers cats), but Edward, a Welsh corgi, rules this book. Edward is responsible for Macon’s broken leg, which forces Macon to move back to the family home. Then Edward’s unruly behaviour leads Macon to hire Muriel, the crazy dog trainer, which results in scenes that any dog owner will recognise:

“During the course of the evening he chewed a pencil to splinters, stole a pork-chop bone from the garbage bin, and threw up on the sun porch rug; but now that he could sit on command, everyone felt more hopeful.”

In between attacking Macon’s boss and terrorising innocent cyclists and pedestrians, Edward brightens the life of Muriel’s son and manages to throw Macon and Muriel into a very unlikely but satisfying romance.

5. King in Anne Holm’s I Am David

Oh, King! The most loving, loyal sheepdog in the world, who sacrifices himself to save David! I can’t type out a quote about King, because it will make me cry. Just go and read it (with a big box of tissues).

Hmm, I didn’t plan to end on such a sad note. Look, here’s a hilarious comic about a dog with . . . um, intellectual challenges and another one about the same dog having difficulties adjusting to a new house.

Also – don’t forget that the Montmaray give-away is open till April 5th, if you’d like to win a book.