Home And Away: 'Like Obama, I used a new puppy to help my children move home'

Brian Viner: 'Malia and Sasha won't be the ones who have to clean up behind the dog in the White House

Thursday 06 November 2008 01:00

Remember, Remember the Fourth of November should perhaps be the new refrain following Barack Obama's historic victory in the US presidential election on Tuesday. Yesterday morning, as we watched the clips of Obama's stirring speech in Chicago, I tried to impress upon my children the seismic significance of the occasion, at least until 13-year-old Joe started wondering where his rugby boots were. Then his younger brother Jacob came downstairs and asked if he could have Welshcakes for breakfast. You can't get too swept up by global events when there's rugby practice to think about and Welshcakes to butter. I'm sure Barack would understand.

Still, there was one moment in the Obama victory speech that captured the interest of my kids without any input from me, and that was the bit when the president-elect told his young daughters, Malia and Sasha, that he loved them more than they could ever imagine and that they had earned the puppy that would be going with them to the White House. Now, I hesitate to compare myself with Obama, although we are less than three months apart in age and we both have five-letter surnames, which is pretty uncanny. But one thing we really do have in common is the idea of using puppies to ease our children through the dislocation of moving house.

We moved from north London to north Herefordshire in July 2002, and on our first full day in our new home we drove to Herefordshire's stunningly lovely Golden Valley, aptly enough, to pick up eight-week-old Milo, a golden retriever. Milo's playful presence in the house completely diverted the kids from the pain of leaving their friends behind, which is doubtless what Barack and Michelle plan for Malia and Sasha.

But I have some words of warning for the 44th President of the United States. For one thing, Malia and Sasha won't be the ones cleaning up behind the new puppy as the White House quickly gets splattered in yellow and brown. Nor will he, probably, but still. And if it's a retriever they buy, we can at least offer a useful tip. On Monday night Jane and I watched a TV programme about the First World War, from which we learnt that our Tommies used to drench socks in their own urine and clasp them to their noses to repel the effects of poison gas. This reminded Jane of the violent stench that would sometimes greet us when we went to let Milo out of the back hall in the mornings. The exceedingly sensitive retriever stomach, coupled with its unfortunate tendency to eat absolutely anything, from all kinds of faecal matter to rotting carcasses, periodically used to unleash a sustained bout of nocturnal vomiting and pooing that smelled so revolting that Jane, on one notable cleaning-up exercise, seized a child's pyjama bottoms that had been copiously peed in during the night, and tied them firmly round her nose.

The Obamas should also think long and hard before giving their new dog a canine playmate, as Malia and Sasha will doubtless want to do before long. We made the mistake of adding Paddy, a lively Jack Russell, to the equation, without realising that two dogs, however good-natured, can act as a pack. One night, after we had let them out for a scamper round the garden, they didn't come back. We searched for hours without success, helped by our friend Paul, who was staying with us and is a musician who has played many times with Elvis Costello. Later, Paul told us that two of Costello's roadies were called Milo and Paddy, and that every time we bellowed our dog's names, he pictured two hefty Irishmen in denim jackets emerging from the trees, saying: "What the feck is going on?"

This was the only humorous note in what was otherwise a domestic tragedy. The following morning we discovered that 25 sheep in a field two miles away had been either killed or fatally wounded and the culprits were returned to us in the back of a van, looking, of all things, decidedly sheepish. The local farmers, who had been out looking for them with shotguns, wanted them put down, but our vet refused to do it. In the end we had them re-housed, hundreds of miles away. None of which is unlikely to unfold on Pennsylvania Avenue, where sheep are extremely limited, but if a black man can be elected President of the United States then anything can happen.

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