Top Dog

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As the years advance I’ve become increasingly aware of the books I read as a child that have exerted an influence on my life. Would I have just returned from my fourth tramp through the African bush, for example, had my imagination not been fired by a vivid account of the bond that developed between a man and his dog as they hunted big game in the South African veld? Among the many seeds sown in my childhood, Jock of the Bushveld fell on richly fertile ground.

In the late nineteenth century the discovery of gold in the Transvaal brought fortune hunters from every corner of the globe. Among them was a young man named Percy FitzPatrick who had abandoned a dull job to seek adventure in the gold fields. But work was scarce; after attempts at prospecting and store-keeping, he became a transport-rider. At that time supplies for the mines were carried overland from the coast: huge spans of fourteen or sixteen oxen hauled heavily laden wagons along rutted tracks, through thorny scrub and grassland, across broad rivers, through swamps infested by tsetse fly, and finally up a precipitous escarpment to the mining camps beyond. Apart from essentials such as tea, sugar and salt, the wagons brought only those goods that fetched high prices in the gold fields. To provide meat for his team of drivers, the transport-rider had to hunt for it along the way. For this task, a good dog was essential.

Enter Jock, the runt of a litter of six puppies born to a mean but plucky bitch named Jess. With his crumpled little face, bandy legs and stump of a tail, he was dubbed ‘the Rat’ and threatened with extinction. But the Rat’s tenacity, courage and touching dignity had won Percy’s respect and he decided to adopt him. He began the dog’s education at once, training him to obey his every command. (I was so inspired by this description of canine obedience that I tried out Percy’s methods on my recalcitrant poodle puppy with, I must confess, a resounding lack of

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About the contributor

Caroline Chapman’s first biography, of Lady Elizabeth Foster, was published in 2002. Since then she has been searching for a new subject.

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