James B. W. Lewis - Shena Mackay on Alfred Ollivant, Owd Bob

One Man and His Dog

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There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
But when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

(from Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Power of the Dog’)

When I came across Kipling’s poem, I thought not only of dogs I had loved but of Owd Bob, a book designed to tear the heart. For many years I thought I was the only person, apart from my family, who knew about it, and among them I was certainly the one who read and reread it and cried over it the most. Owd Bob, of course, is a dog and a beautiful one, but it is not noble Bob but his savage and ugly rival Red Wull who leaves the heartstrings in shreds in this tale of Cumberland sheep farmers and their dogs.

My raddled copy of Owd Bob: The Grey Dog of Kenmuir, with its broken spine and pages falling out, sits in my bookcase alongside other lifelong companions such as Come Hither (which I was delighted to see featured in Issue 43 of Slightly Foxed), but as an adult I feared to open it, because I had once loved it so much. I never knew who wrote it since the title page was missing and the wording on the spine was obliterated by brown sticky tape, until some years ago I mentioned it to my bibliophile brother-in-law, who came up with the author’s name – Alfred Ollivant. Subsequently I discovered not only that Owd Bob, published in 1898, had been a bestseller here and in America, but also that several films (which sound like travesties, although Will Fyffe is said to have turned in a great performance in one of them) were based on it, and that Alfred Ollivant had been a prolific writer.

Last autumn, to my astonishment, a friend was sent a handsome volume entitled Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmu

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About the contributor

Shena Mackay was born in Scotland, and now regrets having changed her name from Mackey to Mackay when her first book was published in 1964. A collection of her stories, Dancing on the Outskirts, was published in 2015.

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