Saturday, 15 September 2007

SNAPSHOTS: Brighton by night, June 1994

The Palace Pier, as it was called then. Up the steps to ground level and the first thing to see and smell was the doughnut stand. 5 for a pound, a warming snack to set the night's adventures off to a good start. Through the golden arches and out along the boards, the water rushing in beneath my feet. Peering nervously over the edge and breathing in the smell of the sea. Padding along it'slength, pausing to be lifted so I can peer through windows and into bright cases. Tinkling laughter and shouts of fun from the visitors from that other world which isn't our world, the world which does not know that this is our roof as well as their playground.

Down the steps on the other side to run along beneath the prom, letting off steam before the night begins in earnest. To our right, beach huts set into the wall, havens for the taking if only we'd thought of it sooner. To the left, shingle and then darkness. The whole area deserted late on, just me and Eyes, together with no-one else to get between or disturb our peace.

Along the front itself, there we were, a stark piece of the dirty reality of the town beneath it's anarcho-holiday exterior. Bright lights and dim futures. The all embracing society of leisure which left us out, heads turning and people tutting as they passed us by. Everyone's welcome in Brighton. The dirty hippies just add to it's alternative credentials. So long as they don't actually want to come in, that is.

The fabulous Royal Pavilion. A little piece of fantasy and folly in a world gone mad. Learning to sit and lie down in the lights, framed insanity at it's very best. How could anything be wrong with the world when you can turn the corner and find yourself in another one as quickly as this?

The Victoria Arcade, where we finally found the perfect place to busk. Halfway down, blending in with the mosaic, with acoustics that made even the breathy and jaded sounds of a busker in her fourth continuous hour sound like something direct from the heavens. Watching the faces of our audience as they turned the corner, looking for the source of those angelic, rippling sounds, only to be crestfallen when the spy the dirty and crumpled heap which makes up Mistress and Dog. The shine of the flute a surreal addition to the scene. The number who turned away, listened again, then returned shamefaced to drop. Their guilt is our living, their mall our concert hall, covering a multitude of weary musical sins.

The Laines. The alternative heart of Brighton, where even we didn't look out of place. Padding down narrow streets and through well-lit alleys, always ready to be surprised and never disappointed. So long as we kept to the dark hours, when no-one could see the ingrained grime on our faces and in our coats, we fitted in here. In daylight, even the head shops watched us and judged us, the very people who their customers were pretending to be. They didn't know what it was really like, when the wind whipped through under the prom and the rain and spray flew straight in off the ocean into our beds. Crusty was cool in the early and mid-nineties, in more ways than one.

Brighton. The only city in England where you can feel like you belong no matter how much people want you to vanish back into the hole from which you emerged. Alternative capital of the UK. Alternative hell in disguise.

Steps Out Of Puppyhood

By this time I was about 12 weeks old, and had been allowed to basically do as I pleased on account of being so small and young. I'd been taught only the word "NICELY", a command I learnt the night we spent in Worthing after I nearly removed several of Man's fingers with my puppy needles when reaching for a chew. A simple process of drawing the treat away when I went to snatch until I got the hint and the lesson was very painlessly learnt. Painless for me, anyway. Other than the odd threat to "SCRUFF YA" when I was making a particular nuisance of myself - I was seriously pathetic when it came to even a flea inspection on the back of my neck, yelping like the end of the world was nigh even though any vet will assure you that I couldn't actually feel a thing - I had basically just been being a pup, with no expectations of anything more.

It was when we got to Brighton that my training "proper" began. Being a hungry little soul, I didn't like it one bit, as the first and, I now appreciate, most important command for any street dog to learn was "WAIT". And the best way to teach it is to make the pup in question wait for his food. Oh dear.

The first day of training was the one when we busked in Churchill Square. It was fairly late when we packed up, so food was dished out there and then rather than waiting until we'd made the long trek back to the bottom of town for the night. In retrospect, it was dead simple. Pour out two bowls of food. Command both dogs to "WAIT". JD does just that, this being old hat for him, a ritual observed every night. Put pup down in front of his bowl and place hand gently across his chest between him and the food, repeating the command. Encourage his back end to rest on the deck as his older companion is demonstrating.Then cower with embarrassment as said pup proceeds to howl, yelp, yap and howl some more, drawing every judgemental eye for streets around to stare at "Those awful tramps, look what they're doing to that poor little puppy".

I did my absolute best to convince every single one of them that I was subject to the most awful and heinous abuse, and succeeded. One even came up and enquired, although I was dismayed to find that they were quite approving when told the whole story. After what seemed like hours, I noticed JD glaring daggers at me and realised he was being kept from his dinner as well. I shut up and sat down for approximately one eighth of second before Eyes said "Go on then" and my tummy was filled. Three days later I was mirroring JD like an old paw.

Once Eyes was certain that this command had gone in, she started making me wait for all sorts of stuff. Eventually it became clear that I would do exactly what I was told on the "WAIT"ing front, so late one evening she scooped me up and we left the cosy circle at home to ascend the steps into Brighton nightlife. This was to be the start of a new ritual for us, and was when we really bonded as Mistress and Dog. Up until then I had looked to Eyes for love and protection, but little more. It was on our night-time training treks that we became a cohesive and working partnership, as we explored the city together.

The first night, she carried me across the main road between the beach and the town, then headed off to the East where there were quiet residential streets with no traffic. Backwards and forwards we drilled, as I learnt to walk at her heel ("WAIT" when I tried to trot ahead), stop at a road ("WAIT"), sit quietly whilst she admired a view ("WAIT"), and even stay where I was left when she walked away ("WAIT"). I hated that bit, and whimpered, but I didn't move. These lessons learnt, more command were fed in - "WAIT AT THE ROAD" when I was allowed to trot ahead. "STAY CLOSE" when I needed to be within grabbing distance."WAIT FOR ME" when I got too engrossed in something just out of sight.

After several nights of this, she took my tiny lead off for the last time. I wouldn't need one again until I started to get too old to resist the temptation of a passing bitch or tempting snack. That would be many years later. These days I feign deafness, but then old age is always meant to be a second puppyhood, and I am enjoying mine to the full. But for now, I was a proper street dog. Free as bird but with no desire to take that freedom. Then we started REALLY exploring.

Life Ticks On

In through the door, people tumbling over one and another in the crush. We hang back until a path clears and go into a reception area with posters on the wall. "Need Help With Benefits?" they ask. "Drugs A Problem?" "Housing Issues?".

To the right, a doorway to showers and washing machines. To the left and into a hall, formica-topped tables and plastic chairs set out. Most are taken, but we find a corner and settle down, me and JD, Eyes and Man, and our three friends from under the pier. The men go up to a long bench and return with tea and sandwiches. We eat and Man mingles, giving it large to the scarier types. Eventually they disappear out of a back door, and he returns, smiling. Eyes raises an eyebrow and Man nods. She breathes a visible sigh of relief - not for herself, but for him.

Eventually we leave and head into town. We find the busiest area, in a large modern square at the top of town, and Eyes and I sit down and start to ply our trade. Man sets up across the way, juggling balls flying, JD's scarf ruffling in the breeze. He seems to be doing more watching than earning. The music gets lost in the crowd, and not a great deal happens, but eventually the coins start to fall and the mood of both music and musician lifts.

We run through our usual repertoire. Old busking favourites - Bright Eyes, Stranger on the Shore, Annie's Song. The flute sings out, clear and strong. Irish jigs dance across the pavement, fingers flying, breaths coming quick and sharp. More slowly now, English folk. The Young May Moon and it's ilk. Summer is Coming. Then a few classics, as Eyes starts to get bored and her ability shines through. The Halle Sonatas soar out amongst the shoppers, and Dvorak turns surprised heads. Chanson de Matin raises eyebrows. Satie's Third Gymnopedie stops them in their tracks. Unfortunately none of these actually draw any of the hard stuff we are after, so it's back to the beginning and Bright Eyes all over again.

Back to the pier and the humans stretch and smoke. Man is not happy with the meagre haul. He is particularly unimpressed with how small his portion of it is. Words are exchanged and Eyes hangs her head as she agrees to take on the burden of making the next day's money whilst Man goes off in search of The Big Issue, whatever that may be. He relaxes and skins up. She sighs and I curl up. JD throws up, and Man is after him, dragging whatever rank remains he is attempting to eat from between his jaws. The party disperses.

Dusk stretches it's fingers along the coast, and lights flicker on along the prom. The pier is reflected along it's length, the lower version dancing like fire in the water below. The beach clears, and we surface from our gravel-strewn home and amble along the front, a happy group of five adults and four dogs. I dart amongst their legs, weaving between the long human ones, and getting tangled in those of my fellow canines, who nip and growl at me in that maternal way reserved for the baby amongst them.

Eventually we find another group of street people, some faces familiar from this morning, others not. This time everything is calm, as the unspoken etiquette of the soup kitchen calms tempers and admonishes drunks. "These people are here to help us", the older, bigger, and scarier ones say, "Have some respect." One man won't listen, and there is a tussle before he leaves with his proverbial tail between his legs. I watch it all from my hiding place beneath Eyes' skirt, reaching my nose up and my tongue out to take pieces of sandwich and pools of soup poured onto the floor for my satisfaction.

Afterwards we head back down to the stark uprights of our beachfront mansion. Beds are rolled out and joints rolled. I sniff about under the boards and between the timbers, discovering a whole delicious world of seaweed and burger leavings, shellfish and chip wrappers. I have my fill, before returning to curl up in the bed and drift off to sleep, listening to the gentle crash of the waves on the shingle just feet away.