How I Spend It... Sophie Dahl: ‘When I go abroad I want to take home about 15 animals’
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I’m crazy about Greece. When I was a teenager, I went to stay on Kalymnos with my aunt and cousins, and our days were spent swimming in the sea, renting little fishing boats and befriending street dogs and cats. I wanted to take them all home. I vividly remember the heat, the stark white of the houses against the blue sky and surreptitiously feeding sardines to cats.
Animals are such a part of the landscape on the Greek Islands. When I think of Greece, I think of cats and dogs and donkeys and lizards. I grew up reading Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which very much chimed with the household I grew up in as there was always some odd stray creature floating around. Tortoises, love birds, dogs, cats, goats, a sheep – Mum had them all.
As an adult, when I go to Greece I still immediately want to take home about 15 animals – yet the irony is that when we finally found our dog a few years ago, a biscuit-coloured Heinz-57 Labrador/lurcher mix, it wasn’t on holiday but in a photograph I saw at home in Buckinghamshire. I was with my friend, the hairdresser Adam Reed, walking the two dogs he had recently adopted from Nikki Tibbles’ animal-rescue charity, the Wild at Heart Foundation. Adam is very ebullient and sort of whirls you up in his enthusiasm. “You should get a dog,” he said. “Let’s have a look on their website.” And that’s when I saw her: this scrawny puppy that looked more like a little fox, with her tail between her legs. I felt immediately that she was meant to be ours.
She was called Jojo. And it turned out that she was from Greece. She’d been found by a couple who live on Lesbos – the artist Matthew Usmar, and his partner, the interior decorator Claire Lloyd. Matthew found her alone, tiny and emaciated on the side of a road, by a rubbish dump. When he tried to approach Jojo, she was so weak and fearful she collapsed. He scooped her into his arms and took her home and nursed her back to health. Now she was up for adoption.
I went to collect Jojo at Heathrow, armed with a blanket and a bag of bacon. She was enchanting but traumatised and accordingly frightened of all things. It took almost a year (and a lot of time spent with a brilliant dog trainer called Nick Honor) before I felt she really began to trust us. She taught us all a lot. She is completely part of our gang now, a beloved member of the family.
When we’re walking in the woods, I sometimes wonder if Jojo has any memory of her Greek birthplace. Little things – like the fact that she loathes the rain and will resolutely turn away from it at the first drop – make me think there could be a sense of place within her. But honestly, she doesn’t like hot weather either; she just lies on her stomach panting and looking horrified, so I’m not sure she would have flourished in Greece. I’ve decided she just doesn’t do weather extremes and is actually quite precious: a delicate, snouty English rose, if only she didn’t eat sheep shit. She adores our cats; she’s less sure of the tortoise.
When I saw the photograph of the little dog standing by a whitewashed wall in a country I had always loved, I felt a tug of hope. She came from across the sea, and her trust in us, her openness to be loved by us, gives me a faith so big it renders me tiny. She still loves bacon.
The Worst Sleepover in the World by Sophie Dahl, illustrated by Luciano Lozano, is published by Walker Books at £12.99
As told to Nicola Moulton