My story really begins at Charleston, a perfect haunt of light and invention that stands in the English countryside. It was warm that summer and the mornings went far into the afternoon, when the best of the garden would come into the house, the flowers arranged in pots and given new life by Vanessa in her fertile hours. She was always there with her oils and her eyes, the light falling through the glass ceiling to inflame the possibility of something new. She had good days and bad days. On good days she set out her brushes and knew the time was right for work when all her memories became like an aspect of sleep.
It was June 1960. The gardener had just brought a tray of foxgloves into the kitchen, the flowers pert but deafened after a week or two of bees. I was sitting in a basket next to the oven when a ladybird crawled over the table. ‘He’s got the knock, innee?’ said the insect, climbing over a breadcrumb.
‘He’s just tired,’ I said. ‘He needs a cup of tea.’
Mr Higgens swiped the soil off the table and the poor creature, too. ‘Bloody slummocky in here,’ he said. ‘Grace! Where you want them?’
People have no head for miracles. They are pressed into shape by the force of reality, a curse if you ask me. But never mind: I was lucky to have my two painters, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, a pair who, for all their differences, shared a determination to dream the world they lived in and fashion it into permanence. And what a blessing it was to paddle about on those Sussex flagstones and chase the yellow wasps, turning slowly into lovely me, the sort of dog who is set for foreign adventures and ordained to tell the story.
There are several things every civilised person ought to know about your average dog. The first is that we love liver and think it’s a zizz and a yarm and a rumph and a treat, especially when it comes with sausage. The second is that we usually hate cats, not for the typical reasons, but because they show an exclusive preference for poetry over prose. No cat ever spoke for long in the warmth of good prose. A dog’s biggest talent, though, is for absorbing everything of interest – we absorb the best of what is known to our owners and we retain the thoughts of those we meet. We are retentive enough and we have none of that fatal human weakness for making large distinctions between what is real and what is imagined. It is all the same, more or less. Nature provides a nice example, but it is no longer the place where men live. They live in a place they invented with their own minds.
This day, my siblings and I were to be found crowded around three dishes on the kitchen floor, while Grace Higgens stood at the table with flour up to her elbows. She was giving voice to all manner of nonsense about her holiday in Roquebrune, which wasn’t really a holiday. Grace was clever: she imagined the animals were listening to every word she said and she even grew embarrassed if she said something foolish, which was not only endearing but quite wise. The loudest of the people in the dining room was certainly Mr Connolly, the literary critic, who was visible to us beyond an expanse of sisal carpet and a lilac armchair, the great man munching olives and inhaling dark wine like it was going out of fashion. He made a pinched face every time he drank from his glass.
‘You hate the wine, Cyril,’ Mrs Bell said. ‘Why don’t you ask Grace to bring one of the better things from downstairs?’
‘Even during the War,’ Mr Grant said, ‘Cyril always knew where to find a decent bottle of wine. Yes, he could always find wine. And paper for his angry little magazine.’
I licked Mrs Higgens’s elbow when she put me on the table. She made a jolly sound and bent down to look at her reflection in the kettle and primp her hair. ‘I’d say you’re a terrible charmer,’ she said. ‘A right one for the charm, eh? Not as clever as that last litter. My. That lot were the cleverest dogs. You hadn’t seen clever until you saw those dogs. What? A lovely group. You could just tell they came from good people. Walter said it himself. Yes, he did. A credit to the breed he said. The beautiful eyes they had on them.’ Like most people who don’t say much, Walter was always being quoted for what he did say. She touched my nose. ‘But you are the pretty one. Yes you are. The pretty one. Mmm-hmmm. And America! You’ll be too good for us once you’re in America!’
Mrs Higgens kept the whole thing together, cooking and cleaning, and of course it’s a great thing to be among talented people, but all the hurly-burly of their extravagant natures and their sexual lives and everything appeared to quite exhaust Mrs Higgens. Just thinking about what went on in their minds made her want to go for a lie down. Of course she wasn’t scared to have her say and when she lifted me onto the table I spied immediate evidence of her tendency to complain: her wee brown diary sitting there open and quite proud of itself. It was Mrs Higgens who gave me sympathy for the household gods; here she was, this experienced rinser of garments, this Helen of failed cakes, who might have ruined her eyes during forty years of enabling those artists to be free. She sat down, wiped the rim of her teacup, and lifted the book. On the inside cover it said, ‘Grace Higgens, Charleston, Firle, Nr. Lewes’. As she flicked through the pages she was living all that life over again, what wasn’t there as much as what was. (As a diarist, Mrs Higgens was a minimalist. Feb. 5: ‘Bought cream buns with real cream.’) The laughter coming from the dining room seemed an adequate accompaniment to the smell of cinnamon drifting over the kitchen.
Mrs Higgens wasn’t the best cook in the world. She always worked out of a box of clippings – things she’d torn out of The Times or the Daily Express, pages now discoloured, covered in powdered egg, ground spices, dust. (It was the same box she had used to hold the gas masks during the War.) Mrs Bell was forever rolling her eyes at the desperate chore of having to pretend to Grace her dinners were edible. For my own part, however, she was the best feeder of dogs I ever encountered, and I thought of her kitchen long after I’d succumbed to the American way of life.
A supreme effort was being made in the kitchen that day, not for their neighbour Cyril Connolly, a frequent and frequently complaining guest at Charleston, but for Mrs Gurdin, the dog-loving lady from America, a noted Russian émigré and mother of the film star Natalie Wood. I never fully processed the connection, but I think it was that nice writer Mr Isherwood who put them all in touch, knowing from Mr Spender that the Bells’ housekeepers bought and sold puppies. Mrs Gurdin, not without grandeur, liked to say that the world’s dogs were her life’s work and her great hobby.
I passed through the dining room, where Mrs Bell was talking quietly. ‘Quentin used to say it was odd how Virginia wanted to know what dogs were feeling. But she wanted to know what everyone was feeling. Do you remember Pinker?’
‘The Sackville hound?’ said Connolly. ‘I remember it only too well. It had Vita’s face. I’m sure Virginia’s little novel Flush was a joke on Lytton. All those eminent Victorians, and here was the little Browning spaniel, the most eminent of all.’
‘Pinker is buried in the orchard at Rodmell,’ said Vanessa, gently touching her wrists in turn, as if dabbing perfume.
When it comes to pedigree, each dog worth his mutton is a font