BOOK REVIEW / Puppy love in White City's fading stadiums: 'The Dogs' - Laura Thompson: Chatto, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
ONCE, Laura Thompson reveals, Ted Dexter, the former England cricket captain and chairman of selectors, legged it round the track of White City greyhound racing stadium for a bet, recording a time somewhat slower than was the norm for runners in the place.

Such behaviour, whether perpetrated by barking toffs or yapping wide boys, is simply not on in the well-policed world of the dogs. After his run, Dexter was promptly and unceremoniously ejected from the premises. Laura Thompson, though, cannot find it in herself to frown at his Lordship's last hooray.

'I always rather admired him,' she writes, 'for actually doing the thing that must surely cross the mind of any lively dog person.'

And Laura Thompson is a lively dog person. Her 'personal history of dog racing' reveals a woman who not so much enjoys her chosen pastime as is reduced to a state of helpless emotional wreckage by it: puppy love, you might call her condition. But what an odd thing to fall for: standing around in fading, decaying stadiums, surrounded by men in sheepskin coats watching highly strung canines hurtling after a clockwork hare in competitions that last considerably less time than is required to fill out a betting slip.

Ms Thompson and her elegant prose are more than a match for such ill-informed prejudices. 'White City was the world,' she writes, mourning the demolition of the greyhound mecca in west London. 'But those who never went there never knew it.'

For her, greyhound racing, far from being the demi-monde waste of time and money of common belief, is the key to a richer place, the only legitimate, sensible way to spend your life: 'My mind blinks almost every day with the flashes and pangs of sudden memory when I see the smaller, duller life around me,' she says.

Ms Thompson was introduced to the sport as a child. Her father was an owner and enthusiast, a 'dog man': in her orbit there is no greater compliment. Mr Thompson took his daughter to meets where, knee-high to a bookmaker, she grew intoxicated by the lights, the chat, the fact her mum was once presented with a winner's trophy by Zsa Zsa Gabor.

In her teens the author went off the rails completely, gave up the dogs and took up a place at Oxford. Fortunately, after graduating, she slowly recovered her senses, and now, in her twenties, is back on track. This, then, is a book with a lifetime's research behind it, not one of those magazine articles where editors think it might be fun to send someone out on a cheap-day return to Walthamstow or Milton Keynes to laugh at the bizarre habits of the working class.

It is a book that exhibits more knowledge than a London cabbie: we learn, for instance, that although there is no genetic reason to suggest the female of the species might run slower than the male, only four bitches have ever won the Derby - Greta Ranee in 1935, Narrogar Ann in 1949, Dolores Rocket in 1971 and Sarah's Bunny in 1979. They may be slower, these bitches, but they have the edge in cracking names.

But it is also a book so in love with its subject that it hardly dares take a step back to observe in any manner other than the reverential. As Ms Thompson writes it, dog racing is noble, honourable, peopled by 'decent dog men who could wipe the floor with any bumptious interloper'. And no matter how tempting it must be to take the piss out of those who share her obsession, some of that obsession's more byzantine workings, or indeed out of herself, Ms Thompson keeps her book a strictly giggle-free zone.

Yet, despite the lack of laughs, you cannot help warming to the author and her sport. In a stunning conclusion, she reveals that during the course of writing the book, her mother rang to inform her that one of her favourite puppies had died: ' 'Is it Ali?' I said, my mind now grinding and whirring as I tried to imagine what had happened to her. 'No, it's Laura,' she said.'

Reading that, only the hard-hearted could stop themselves buying a day-return to Walthamstow immediately.