Will Self: Why love is a many-splendored thing

The dog-bound hordes on the road to Cheshire got me thinking about this thing called love.

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A headline in the Independent caught my eye, ever hungry as it is for a hook upon which to skewer the mores of our mass society: “M6 jammed by dog lovers”. It transpired that after the fire at Manchester Dogs’ Home a fortnight ago, the surviving mutts were shifted to the Cheshire branch of the charity, which then announced it would be holding a “foster auction” to find them temporary homes. Chaos predictably ensued, with one-and-a-half-mile tailbacks on the M6 as frenzied pooch pimps sought licks and cuddles. According to the Independent, Cheshire Constabulary posted a message on its Facebook page reading: “Please DO NOT travel to Cheshire Dogs’ Home . . . Currently traffic is overwhelming the roads.”

Setting to one side the peculiarly modern phenomenon of a police force with a social media page – though you can’t help but wonder what they use it for: perhaps staying in touch with other friendly police forces, and sharing with them risqué photos of . . . suspects? – we must consider the emotions that can provoke such crazed behaviour. Assuming the average car to be approximately ten feet long, in the three-lane jam itself there must have been a minimum of 2,376 dog lovers; but given that they’re a sociable bunch, I think we can assume there were a lot more of them, all drooling at the thought of getting their claws into a bundle of furry joy (and trauma).

Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs as much as the next human being. Indeed, I’ve written on the subject before in this column, detailing the ecstasies my Jack Russell, Maglorian, still manages to induce in women of childbearing age who suffer from twin misapprehensions: 1) That because he’s little and cute he must be a puppy, and 2) Wouldn’t it be lovely to give birth to a bundle of furry joy. (No, it wouldn’t; if a woman gave birth to a dog it’s difficult to know which of them would be more freaked out.) My wife put the matter with her usual spare eloquence when she remarked that: “They love us more than they love each other, and we love them more than we love each other.” Quite so, and while I was actually in love with Maglorian, I found it hard to question that love, seeing it as simply the result of hundreds of thousands of years of selective breeding.

But a year or so ago the inevitable happened; it felt as if I were an unkempt poodle that had finally had his fringe clipped: I could see clearly, and what I saw was the absurdity of a man in his early fifties being utterly in thrall to a small, yappy and not particularly bright dog. When you love somebody, you tend to have a sense of acute sympathy with them. So it was with me and Maglorian: I sensed his hunger, his distress, and particularly his pent-up energy if he hadn’t been walked recently. Indeed, with the latter, I began to behave like a pent-up dog myself: pacing the room and scratching at the door until I remembered that actually, I was a human being and quite capable of taking myself off for a walk, should I so desire.

There was a lot of love in that demented, steel-encapsulated crowd on the M6; I dare say there was a lot of pent-up energy as well. I know it’s the wildest of imaginings, fit only for a child or a fool, but sometimes it occurs to me that if only we could take all the love expended on pets in this cuddly old country of ours, and somehow redeploy it in the direction of disadvantaged members of our own species, then possibly – just possibly – this would be a kinder and less divisive society. I know, I know . . . it’s an absurd notion, because there isn’t one kind of love in the world, it’s a many-splendored thing. There’s the love between people, there’s interspecific love, and finally there’s the love a woman or a man has for their car, arguably the most romantic (in the sense of deluded) love there is.

You can’t simply apportion love as if it were quantifiable and objectified – as if, in fact, it were money. Nor can you depend upon love of the right sort to be present in the right number of people, at the right time, in order for it to be activated as a force for righteousness. A Johnny-come-lately such as me is hardly likely to do any better in this regard than the organisations that have been trying to harness the power of love for millennia now: I believe they’re called “religions”. And yet I can’t stop thinking about that queue of love-bomb-laden wagons corralled on the M6; all it took was the announcement of the dog foster-auction and there they were, in force and on time. If only there were some way of tricking them into believing they were going to be acquiring a cuddly little puppy, but then foisting on them a human child that desperately needed a foster home.

I know, it’s a preposterous notion – and hardly ethical; even if it were possible to mass-hypnotise in this fashion I’m not sure I’d want to live in a society in which a large proportion of the population was subject to such behavioural conditioning. It’d be like cohabiting with a lot of dogs – well-trained ones, I grant you, but dogs nonetheless.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris