A couple of years ago, I was running through a field when I saw a chap struggling with a dog. He was bowed like a Volga boatman pulling on a barge, and the dog was pulling him in the other direction.
It was a large dog, some sort of combination of German shepherd and husky, with a dash of wolf there in the mix. When I got within about 20 feet, the dog seemed to win their tug of war, and he bounded in my direction.
His eyes were bright, his tongue was pink, and he bounced with all the happiness of Timmy the Dog in the Famous Five, as though seeing me was the best thing that had ever happened since the world was begun.
“Hi there, dog!” I cried, coming to a halt, and with great friendliness the dog stood up to greet me on his hind legs. He put out his forepaws and rested them on my chest, as though embracing a long-lost relative at the airport.
He gave a sweet little woof of excitement, and a doggy grin broke out all over his face as he opened his jaws as wide as they could go, exposing a perfect set of white teeth.
Then he made a wholehearted attempt to bite my head off. A few moments later, when everything had calmed down, the dog was back in the arms of his ancient master, and I was bleeding freely from puncture wounds in both cheeks.
“Look here,” I said, and I was on the point of invoking what are presumably the rights of the dog victim in modern Britain. I was about to tell the wheezing codger that his dog was a menace, that there were children in the vicinity, and that it was my civic duty to have that dog destroyed.
Then I looked again at the picture of the man and his dog. The old geezer was slumped by a fence, his arms around the dog. He was pleading with me. It seemed the dog had never done anything like that before. He was a good dog, said the dog’s master.
He had chosen this field because it was generally deserted, and though he was sorry for my injuries – which looked more spectacular than they were – he really didn’t know how he could make amends.
As he spoke, I had a sudden vision of his life: a widower, probably, with not much by way of family, and probably not much by way of entertainment or companionship or warmth except this vast hairy hound.
In that second, I felt ashamed of even contemplating some act of retribution. How could I even dream of separating this old man from the beast that probably meant more to him than any other sentient being in the world?
I mumbled a few reproving words and we went our ways, me dabbing my bleeding fang-holes and he bowed and puffing as the dog surged before him.
And I think of that dog bite today, because I have just read that we are nearing the moment of truth in the case of “Jack”, the 12-year-old Jack Russell from Newcastle. It is a fable for our times, and no politician can read the facts – as alleged – without a prickle of fear.
It is claimed that a former Labour councillor called Brian Hunter was out canvassing in November 2006, and he was doing what we all do, we British politicians. He was pushing the literature through the letterboxes.
You know what I mean. You push aside the gate, you walk up the little path, you ring the bell or rap on the frosted glass and, if no one is there, you shove the bumf through the flap, being careful not to trap your fingers as you withdraw.
No one is ever very keen to get this literature, but you have to dispense it, because otherwise the address cannot be deemed to have been properly visited.
I hope I will not seem unnecessarily wet, in the eyes of my fellow politicians, if I say that I have sometimes found this procedure a bit nerve-racking. As you stick your hand in, you very often find that you have to push it through a kind of mouth or barrier made of black nylon fronds.
It is impossible not to suffer a little frisson of fear about what may be beyond those hairy lips. You cannot help speculating about the slavering canine chops that may be right there, about to close over your intrusive politician’s fingers.
I don’t know whether Brian Hunter had any such apprehension, but something terrible certainly happened to the end of his little finger. When the householder, Mark Monroe, 44, came back, he found the tip of the digit on the mat – along with some election literature from the Labour Party.
With great presence of mind, he wrapped it in a food bag, popped it in the freezer and called the police. A few days later, Mr Hunter of the Labour Party identified himself as the owner of the severed fingertip, and is now pursuing Mr Monroe for £15,000 in damages.
The prime suspect in the case is Jack the Jack Russell, and, even though the dog is now getting on, and even though he has very few teeth left, the finger of guilt (so to speak) seems to be pointing in his direction. It is a hell of a case, and I am glad I am not the judge.
On the one hand (so to speak), I feel real compassion for a politician who suffered a painful injury in the course of doing something that is an everyday part of our democracy.
But there again, it is hard to see why Mr Monroe and his dog should be blamed, and have to pay such a swingeing sum. He has no insurance. He has had to give up work to defend himself, since he has no legal aid.
On the facts of the case, as alleged, it would be monstrous to deprive him of £15,000 and monstrous to harm the dog.
What does it teach us, this shaggy dog story, in these times of economic hardship? It is that sometimes there can be accidents where it is hard to find a villain.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 30 Septemebr 2008 under the heading ‘The Labour Party campaigner, the Jack Russell and a lesson for our troubled times’]