WHEN author and couples therapist Andrew Marshall experienced intense grief after the death of his much beloved partner, he found solace in an unexpected place.
Its name was Flash and it came in the form of a collie cross puppy. It was, Andrew admits, perhaps not the best choice for someone who’d never owned a dog or even lived with one before – but slowly the joy of owning an excitable puppy enabled him to emerge from his depression, start to laugh again, fall in love with the Sussex countryside and heal old wounds with his mother.
Andrew, who lives in Hurstpierpoint, chronicles the ups and downs of life with Flash in his new funny and moving memoir The Power of Dog, which he will be discussing at Waterstones in Brighton on Tuesday July 17.
In the book, he describes how he fell in love at the age of 30 with Thom Hartwig and they talked about getting a dog together. But then Thom fell ill.
“I loved Thom with a passion that sometimes terrified me; so when he died, on 9 March 1997, I was completely inconsolable,” he writes. Grief isolated him and friendships withered away, while three different counsellors failed to lift his spirits.
“When you lose a partner, you lose the only structure of your life, then your life becomes formless,” Andrew tells Pique. “Dogs give your life a structure. It meant I did not have to turn up to places alone, and dogs are great conversation starters. You go somewhere with a dog and people talk to you. It opened that door for me. At that point, I had lived in the village for 10 years, and since I began walking the dog, I saw my neighbours and stopped to talk to them, and then they introduced me to another set of neighbours. They asked if I was new to the village because they hadn’t seen me before.
“As soon as I had a dog, I stopped being invisible.”
Above: Andrew Marshall with Flash on Hurstpierpoint Green
Below: The Power of Dog by Andrew Marshall
Below: Andrew with Pumpkin
It was in 1999, as the millennium approached, that Andrew, who writes therapy books as Andrew G Marshall and has also written a memoir called My Mourning Year, made his New Year’s resolution to be a dog owner. He wrote down the negatives of owning a dog, including the responsibility, the fact that they are a tie and that you don’t know what you’re taking on.
“Maybe it would be less controversial if my resolution had been to try crack cocaine,” he writes in The Power of Dog. “I expect I’d receive fewer warnings. So dogs are a tie and a responsibility. At the moment, I’m entirely free to do exactly as I please. I can stay out all night and nobody cares. I can stay in bed all day and nobody moans. Don’t fancy working today? No problem. I just don’t phone anybody, and don’t sell a newspaper or magazine article. My problem is not having enough ties or responsibilities.”
The book begins in 1999, when he got Flash, and began writing his thoughts and experiences as a form of journalling. “It’s a way of keeping track of what we were doing, and it was an interesting time as I had never had a dog,” says Andrew. “It made me think about my childhood when I desperately wanted a dog but wasn’t allowed to.”
In his book, Andrew explains: “My parents belonged to the ‘comfortably off’ middle classes and were only to happy to pay for tennis lessons, new bikes and summer camp – indeed, they were particularly keen to send me to these. My birthday cake was always home baked, a fruit cake decorated with teddy bears sitting in a spiky snow scene. Despite the growing number of candles and my entreaties, the gods of birthday wishes were unmoved. Although my mother agreed first to guinea pigs and later mice, she remained firm about getting a dog: ‘I’ll be the one who ends up walking it.’”
Owning a dog helped Andrew repair his relationship with his mother. “My polite but distant relationship with my mother had left us both tiptoeing round each other, but when you get the responsibility of something as an adult, then you start to have sympathy for parents. I was able to get books for dog training and go to classes – but parents do not get an owners’ manual. I was hopefully a bit kinder.
“My family is not very good at talking about things, but you can communicate through dogs. The great things about dogs is that they live in the here and now. They don’t worry about the future or obsess about the past.”
Owning Flash also enabled Andrew to confront his childhood fear of wolves. He can pinpoint the exact moment his nightmares started: “Our next door neighbours, who I’d christened H’auntie and H’uncle, had retired to Bournemouth and one summer we stayed overnight at their house. I must have been four or five and already possessed a vivid imagination,” he writes. “In the middle of the night, I had to tiptoe across an unfamiliar landing to the lavatory – never toilet because my mother considered the term vulgar. Returning, I closed the bedroom door as quietly as possible and revealed a large hairy wolf ready to pounce. I can’t remember if I screamed or whether anybody came. Maybe my mother pointed out that the wolf was really a man’s woollen winter dressing gown hanging on a hook, all of those details have been forgotten but I can still remember the nightmares.”
The nightmares had ceased by the time he reached adulthood, although he still felt uneasy if he came across them on TV. Then, after Flash came into his life, he went to interview people who kept a pack of wolves on a country estate in Berkshire. “I ended up walking a wolf,” recalls Andrew, who is also a journalist and worked as Deputy Programme Controller at Radio Mercury in Crawley. “They were looking for volunteers and I became a wolf walker. It had a impact on my childhood fear of wolves – I won’t be rushing off to meet wolves again but my fear is more manageable now.”
Life with Flash was, he recounts in his book, pandemonium but the experience has also convinced Andrew that such is the power of dog, wider ownership could benefit society in a number of ways.
“If every household had a dog, 90% of our problems in country would be solved,” he says. “If you are out walking a dog, you start using local shops and shops would have to be a bit kinder about allowing dogs in. That would solve the problem of the High Street.
“We would all start talking to neighbours more, and asking for help, which would solve the loneliness problem. And it would also deal with obesity and lack of exercise. After all, a gym membership does not look at you and nag you to go out.”
Andrew describes the book as “a love letter to dogs and the beauty of the Sussex countryside”, which he discovered through walking Flash. “They’re the two things that got me through,” he says. “A lot about book is about letting go and I also had to learn to let go of Flash eventually. I have a different dog now. She’s called Pumpkin.”
The Power of Dog by Andrew Marshall is published by RedDoor Publishing, priced £9.99.
The Power of Dog: An Evening with Andrew G Marshall is at Waterstones, 71-74 North Street, Brighton, at 7.30pm on Tuesday July 17. Tickets £3 including a glass of wine on arrival. Phone 01273 206017 or visit waterstones.com.