Talking Dog

Have you ever heard of a talking dog? Well, I hadn’t until last summer when I was walking in the Pennine hills in Britain.

It was a hot day (you see, it’s not true at all what they say about British weather) and I was getting pretty warm and thirsty. I was walking through the beautiful, lonely countryside, along a narrow country road, it went around a bend with a cliff on one side and a river at the bottom. And I was getting thirstier and thirstier. But just round the bend – a pub! Well, of course when a pub is put on your road on a hot day you just have to go in. So in I went and ordered a pint.

It seemed pretty old-fashioned, a typical Pennine pub, and as I was drinking the landlord told me how it had come by its name; The Talking Dog.

Apparently the place had been called The Ring o’ Bells when his great-great-grandfather had been the landlord. He showed me a photo hanging on the wall; an enormous man with an even bigger moustache. Now don’t forget, this was in the 19th century, there was a pretty strict moral code in those days – not always kept, of course, but appearances were the most important thing. And the landlord told me that there were plenty of rumours of what his great-great-grandfather was getting up to with his red-headed barmaid. But the man was so big, and his temper even bigger, that no one spoke a word about all this. So there he lived, with his wife, his son Jack, and of course with the red-headed barmaid! Rumours, rumours, rumours, but no one dared say a thing!

Now one day the landlord sent Jack down into the valley to the local fair with some money to buy a cow. And as chance would have it, the first person Jack met, before he could even get to where the cows were being sold, was the red-headed barmaid’s sister. Jack, like many another Jack, had the reputation of being a bit stupid, at least his father said so often enough. But Jack certainly was not so stupid that he couldn’t see what an opportunity like this might mean. And after all, life can get pretty lonely for a growing lad up in the Pennines.

Well, Jack put his hand into his pocket, rattled the coins about a bit. He smiled at her, she smiled at him, and all thoughts of buying a cow were rapidly replaced by quite different thoughts. First he bought them both a few drinks, then a bite to eat, then a few more drinks – and then it was another good smile between them, a quick kiss to start, and up to the woods outside the town!

It was about half-an-hour later (and a very happy half-hour it had been) that Jack’s happy, happy smile slowly began to fade, and he stopped thinking about what he’d been thinking of ever since he’d met the barmaid’s sister, and started thinking about other things – about how to buy a cow now that all his money was gone, about what his father was going to say, and even more about what his father was going to do!

“He’ll kill me!” he whispered into the young girl’s ear.

“What, him? He’s no better himself – I know he’s flattened some grass with that sister of mine.”

And then Jack had an idea. And it was a great idea – he was sure it was going to work.

He walked back home, up into the hills and into the pub. It was just as it always was; all the regulars sitting there drinking their beer, his mother serving at one end of the bar, the landlord serving in the middle, and the red-headed barmaid serving at the other end. When he opened the door, everyone stopped talking (they all knew he’d been sent to buy a cow). And his father, standing there so full of his own importance, “Right, son, now where’s the cow?”

“A cow? I’ve done better than buy a cow! Listen, I met a man with a talking dog! And I bought it!” All eyes in the pub were on Jack, mouths open, ears open even wider.

“A talking dog? I’ve always said you were a bit stupid, but this is plain daft!”

“No, no, Dad. Just think of it. A talking dog – great for trade. With a dog like that any pub’ll sell five times as much beer. So of course I bought it.”

“Well, if you’ve bought it, where is it?”

“Now, I was just coming to that. See, I was walking home, chatting with the dog – intelligent animal, he knew a lot – we were just walking up the road by the big cliff, chatting like, and the dog asked where he’d be living. He’d heard of The Ring o’ Bells (like I say, an intelligent animal). But you’ll never credit what he said next, that dog. Why, he came right out and asked if you were still carrying on with the red-headed barmaid.”

The silence in that pub was incredible. Everyone froze, eyes and ears even wider than before. And they were all looking at the landlord. And for once in his life that landlord seemed at a complete loss for words.

At last, when the silence was broken by his wife’s sharp intake of breath, he managed to stammer, “So what did you do then, son?” “Well, what else could I do? I kicked the dog over the cliff, of course. I couldn’t have a dog about the place telling such tales to embarrass you!”

“Aye, well, I reckon you did quite right, son.”

And only a few years later, when Jack took over from his father as landlord, the very first thing he did was to change the pub’s name to The Talking Dog.

So now you’ve heard of a talking dog, too!

I heard this as a song “The Talking Dog”, sung by a Pennine group of folk singers, The Oldham Tinkers. It is on their LP Sit Thee Down (Topic Records, London, 1977). They give as their source a volume of what I imagine is a journal, Lancashire Lore, where it is a prose story. A friend of theirs, Gary Heywood, turned it into their song.
I have turned it back again. I wonder what the original was like!

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