Dabbler Diary – Bombay Duck

I was twelve when we moved from the city to the country, and soon after that deracinating adventure my father drove us to the National Canine Defence League kennels at West Down, where we acquired a dog. My parents had already secretly sussed out the prime candidate, a mongrel pup rescued from a life of terrified orphanic vagabondage: a skittish, short-haired collie-cross with bits of terrier and possibly Labrador, black with white belly and socks. Their choice proved momentous. The dog greeted us in a state of fevered joy which didn’t fully abate for some years. In the car he enthusiastically vomited across the back seat where we children were trying to cuddle him. Upon entering his new home his first act as a domestic pet was to clatter up the stairs and defecate wetly in my sister’s bedroom. We named him Jason.

And what a funny old dog he turned out to be. A mournful brown-eyed pleader; a crockery-smashing wagger. In the way of mongrels his personality was multi-layered and contradictory, and markedly more interesting than many human ones. Jason was both clever and profoundly stupid. When playing football you could astound him by making the ball ‘vanish’ up your jumper – he made no connection between the vanished object and the big football-shaped bulge appearing on your midriff. Yet somehow he could always intuit when the running bathwater was for him and would hide himself at the farthest corner of the garden and make himself heavy. He was obsequious yet seditious. Banished early on in his career from entering the dining room  – one Saturday lunchtime he had snuck in and methodically consumed the tuna element of four plates of tuna salad that waited on the table – he was commanded thereafter to lie outside it while we ate. He would do so with his back contemptuously turned, a single defiant paw pushed across the doorway.

He was otherwise preposterously indulged. He had his own armchair in the living room, and after a hard day’s bounding would curl up in it with his head resting on an arm, gaze out the window and sigh wistfully. He was the fittest dog in the country, running marathons across the Braunton Burrows. We renamed the Great Dune in his honour. Ancestral collie sheepdog voices whispered confusingly in his brain: crouching into a slink, he would attempt to herd unherdable things, like cows or crows or haystacks. All who encountered him loved him instantly. His names multiplied. Mr Muddy. Jason the Pason. He lived in a Basin. Jasonus Pasonus. The Passoon. He played a Bassoon. ‘Pasonish’ became an essential adjective to describe the deadpan, unintentionally comic behaviour of animals (donkeys wearing hats, goats standing in trees, glum baby gorillas in the rain using leaves as umbrellas, that sort of thing). ‘Dutton the Putton’, my tiny cousin Elliot winsomely miscalled him. Children are given short-lived rodents as pets to introduce them gently to the concept of death. I had gone through a string of hamster expirations unscarred. But how does one recover from the death of a Jason? I wasn’t present – Dad broke the news to me as I stood at the payphone in the bleached corridor of my university hall – but I see it clearly enough. A butcher’s bone, given as a treat, had caused some rupture in his digestive apparatus. In the living room he stood one last time, vomited, and died. Nobody in the family has owned a pet since.


But that was two decades ago. A painting of that unforgettable dog in his armchair – the finest of my father’s various watercolour efforts – hangs in the same living room like an ancestral portrait. This Easter on our holiday I showed it to my girls, who were keen to know more about the mythical Jason. I obliged with suitable stories. Some things needed explaining. Jason’s Dune on the Burrows has been hollowed and flattened by the elements. My tiny cousin Elliot is a six foot-five giant whose knees my girls barely reach. The village we moved to is now a jammed thoroughfare to the tourist beaches, traffic groans by the house all day long. It seems to me that Jason’s five or six years spanned the start of a transition from one Britain to another. Doubtless you could say that about any span. We think in ‘decades’ by reference to the trendy youth cultures of the day, but those geists long outlive their zeits: teens don’t disappear, they become adults, then middle-aged, then old, and their proclivities remain as sinking layers. Culture is not a churn but a long slow retreating tide dragging beneath the overlapping waves. The Britain of 1989, when Jason first puked in the backseat, was in many ways closer to the Britain of 1959 than that of 1999. Prior to moving to North Devon we would holiday at the NALGO camp at Croyde, where moustachioed sub-Redcoats would lead sing-alongs in the ballroom (“Goodnight children, see you in the mooorning” all the sherrysippers would chorus as we were bundled off to our chalets at 8pm). You could apply for a packed-lunch containing a flavourless cheese sandwich and an even flavourlesser square of plastic-wrapped fruitcake which we called ‘railway cake’ as it was also a staple of British Rail trolleys. As a nation we still hadn’t got the hang of flavours. Everything tasted either of nothing or of far too much: Shipman’s fish paste, mugs of Bovril, Bombay duck.

That last ubiquitous pungent curry accompaniment –  lizardfish dried on Indian beaches – was banned by the European Commission as over the course of Jason’s life our leaders, denied a cause by the long peace, decided that the ever-decreasing circles of First World Problems must be fixed by ceaseless bureaucratic diktat. We wore no seatbelts as we tried to cuddle the chundering Jason, let alone booster seats. We would pile into a car any old how, friends, cousins, pets (indeed we’d argue over who got to sit in the boot). The warehouses that are now Soft Play Centres housed industrial machines and we played in pub car parks. All public places were fugged with smoke: pubs, cafes, buses, cinemas, barbershops. Terry the barber in Braunton charged two quid for a haircut and smoked throughout the snipping. We feared not paedophiles (and, disguised as scoutmasters, disc jockeys and priests, they were consequently free to carry out their evil deeds unhindered). There is always a pre- and a post-. Post-industrial, postmodern, post-war, post-1963, post-Thatcher, post-internet. I think the one I’m rambling on about here is pre- and post-Blair.


Eurovision remains such compelling TV because of the palpable historico-political tensions running throughout, especially in the voting. The aspiration of the thing is to demonstrate, by a night of camp gimmicky trash-pop performances, that the continent has risen above its sorry history to lead the world in tolerance, peace, love and understanding. The winner should personify this. An Israeli transsexual has won before; this time, brilliantly, we had a bearded lady, whose victory speech was pitch perfect (“This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are Unity, and we are Unstoppable!”). Yet the veneer is so thin that old, bad Europe always threatens to stab through. The unspoken assumption is that there is a gradation of Enlightenment running across the continent from East to West with the former Soviets bringing up the rear. Concita’s triumph was, weirdly, interpretable as one in the eye for Vladimir Putin (that’ll teach him!). It’s not quite that straightforward since a simple East-West line of progress would place the UK as top of the pile, but as we all know that title belongs to the Scandinavians.

Or does it? We always think of our island as the odd one out in Europe, but this year for the first time a theory occurred to me: Eurovision proves that what Europe actually aspires to be is post-Blair Britain. And they’re not there yet – those uber-correct Danes enacted a bewilderingly unfunny skit about the Chinese that would never have made it past the BBC’s racism-detectors. No, the odd one out on the continent is not us but, and really this should have been obvious all along, France. The Frenchman has a soul that is perfectly unique, isolated and in fundamental opposition to the soul that New Eurovision-Europe covets. The English language is the tongue of this Europe, and by refusing to speak one word of it the French haughtily poop the party. It’s hard to see them ever scoring double figures again, and not just because they’re so very merde at pop music.


On Maundy Thursday a swarm of bees unwisely made their home in the drainpipe at the front of my parents’ house. Many buzzed around on the busy pavement. My sister (a hive-owner) suggested in a phone consultation that they had swarmed too early and would likely die out overnight from the cold. Sure enough, early on Good Friday the pavement was littered with browning bee corpses. But as the morning wore on the sun began to warm the street, and one by one the bees came back to life. They were not dead at all, just dormant. This disturbing Easter resurrection brought neighbours to investigate. One neighbour fetched John, the local beekeeper. He wanted to save the bees and hive them before they really were frozen. On his fifth or sixth journey up the ladder on the evening of Easter Saturday John lost his balance and fell. We called an ambulance and the excellent medics did what they could but he was 81 years old and such was the injury that he very sadly died that night at the North Devon District Hospital. He was by all accounts a remarkable, popular and very active man, and his funeral was standing room only.

The bees succumbed to the cold and rain over the following days. By then we were back in Bristol, and I took C to Clifton to see the sights of her city. We parked in the Ashton Court estate and walked over Brunel’s famous Suspension Bridge. We did all the traditional doings. We slid down the Rock Slide (a section of cliff worn to a shiny slope by countless bottoms), marveled at the Camera Obscura in the Observatory and peeped bravely out of the Giant’s Cave, halfway up the Avon Gorge. We lunched in the village and she ate an ice cream sitting on my shoulders as we crossed back again. We were as happy as rescued puppies. However protective you are, and however many Euro diktats are thrown at post-Blair Britain, the truth is that awful, traumatic accidents can happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it except to carry on, and hope for a decent run of luck.

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13 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – Bombay Duck

  1. wormstir@gmail.com'
    May 12, 2014 at 11:55

    fabulous writing Brit!

    I never saw/tasted/smelled bombay duck – can anyone provide me with a more detailed mental picture? How was it normally served?

    • Gaw
      May 12, 2014 at 22:47

      If you took all the powdered flavouring from a few packets of Bovril and prawn cocktail flavoured crisps, mixed it all up, then somehow pressed it into shards which you then joined up into flat wafers… that’s Bombay Duck.

      Really fancy one now.

      • Gaw
        May 12, 2014 at 22:50

        Someone should start making them again. Out of artisanal herring or summat.

        • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
          May 13, 2014 at 08:44

          Apparently you can get it again now, from specialist outlets.

  2. henrygjeffreys@gmail.com'
    May 12, 2014 at 15:29

    As a boy we used to go on holiday to Aberdeen where decent beer was hard to find. CAMRA guide in hand my father who drive for miles to find the only pub that did real ale. He would go inside, drink two pints and attempt to make conversation with the taciturn Scots who wanted nothing to do with him whilst we would sit in the car and eat crisps.

    Nowadays our daughter actually asks us if we can go to the pub. She’s 2 and half and loves running around and stroking the dogs and, of course, eats lots of crisps. The pub does 9 different types of real ale and silly expensive food which we don’t buy. I’m a deeply conservative person but this is one area where there has been some progress.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      May 13, 2014 at 10:21

      I’m a deeply conservative person but this is one area where there has been some progress.

      Conservatives prone to wax nostalgically about the superiority of bygone days can usually be silenced with one word—-dentistry.

      • davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
        May 13, 2014 at 20:13

        This is the third time in three days that the dentistry point has come up unbidden.


      • Gaw
        May 14, 2014 at 06:40

        Mightn’t the dentistry point be something of a shibboleth to distinguish the true conservative from the crude reactionary?

  3. hooting.yard@googlemail.com'
    May 12, 2014 at 17:28

    The late Simon Hoggart used to subject the more vapid outpourings of politicians (Blairisms?) to one simple test. Would anyone ever consceivably say the opposite? Conchita’s dedication passes the vapidity test triumphantly. Oh, how I longed to hear “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of violence and enslavement!”

    • hooting.yard@googlemail.com'
      May 12, 2014 at 17:29


  4. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    May 12, 2014 at 21:14

    I’m no great dog lover and to me 1989 feels like the day before yesterday; but for some reason I found this very affecting. Bloody beautiful, in fact.

  5. Gaw
    May 12, 2014 at 22:48

    Best biography of a dog I’ve ever read.

  6. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    May 13, 2014 at 10:21

    The older you get, Brit, the more Levinish you become and I mean that in the nicest possible way, the impact of the gnashers tale is so striking that it reminds me of Bernard’s description of Ludwig van’s music ….for an answer to those questions which Mozart asks but Beethoven simply buries beneath the molten lava pouring from his volcano of certainty, optimism and joy…..

    From Fido to Fidelio, Jason and Leonora.

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