Mr Smith goes to . . . the canal

A howling Labour dog

With my pin-sharp photograph as a guide, many readers will have recognised Islington almost at once. This lovingly reproduced waterway is not far from the restaurant where Tony and Gordon once settled the future of new Labour over their minimalist nosh. What you can't be expected to know is that this story involves a local dog that's been trained to howl at the Labour Party.

Timmy is the mutt in question and he lives on the Grand Union Canal. You're looking at Timmy's backyard, the extraordinary Islington tunnel that stretches for three-quarters of a mile beneath the bars and boutiques of Upper Street. Timmy knows its dank Victorian brickwork like the back of his paw because he goes through it every day. With his colleagues, Mick and Peter of British Waterways, he makes the rounds of the canal on a flat-bottomed barque. The Pride of London looks a bit like the craft in which Martin Sheen went upriver in Apocalypse Now, though not even in the director's cut do I recall seeing shopping trolleys in the prow of Sheen's patrol boat. The Pride is also full of bits of tree and her cabin is like a garden shed. Her mission is to keep the canal navigable by removing the rubbish from it.

By Camden Market, she chugged into a hollow underneath an old warehouse, a grotto known as Dead Dog Basin. I was careful not to say the name in front of the sensitive Timmy. Happily, there were no dogs in the water but dozens of bobbing bottles, as if every SOS sent from a desert island had washed up there.

Mick once fished a drunk out of Dead Dog Basin. "Pissed as a parrot, he was." The drunk had been showing off on a footbridge and had fallen in. When Mick approached him, he was "writhing and struggling". Mick said: "You lie still or I'll do you." He thought that he might have broken the drunk's ankle in saving him. "Did he ever get in touch and say thanks?" "No." Drug dealers also end up in the water. One was pulled from a lock last year.

It's no sea cruise, the canal. Another British Waterways man had recently ticked off some boys for fishing. "He wouldn't have been very tactful," said Peter.

"Not him. It would have been, 'Stop so-and-so fishing and bugger off,'" said Mick. The boys returned with a dad, or perhaps more than one, and threw the man in the canal.

Mick taught Timmy his party piece in order to get his own back on a friend who is a Labour man of the old school. "He was always going on about it, so I coached Timmy to howl whenever my mate so much as said 'Labour Party'." I tested Timmy. The magic words worked on him as surely as the dinner gong on Pavlov's dog. I knew the phrase produced a terrible response in Islington new Labourites, but I had no idea it worked on intelligent creatures as well.

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