There's a whole world out there which I didn't know anything about until an angel came into my life to show me. Don't worry, I'm not gettting all New Age on you. It's the world of Dogs and Dog Shows.
It's nearly two years since Millie first came on the scene. I never wanted a dog, and as my sister so pointedly observed "you don't even like dogs anyway". I did want to see the world from a different perspective, have a home full of love, and enjoy discovering more about life.
Millie's breeders chose her for us as she was very spirited, feisty even, agile, keen and full of energy and enthusiasm, very intelligent and quirky. Those are all adjectives which have been used to describe me in the past, so I knew we would get on well.
Bolognese were the pooches favoured by Ladies Who Lunch in the Renaissance, even perhaps as far back as Classical Roman and Greek times. The packaging of a flocked coat of uncut hair, the triangle of three black spots of a nose and two big eyes, and their compact square frame contains a big personality. Millie quintessentially embodies their joie de vivre, is content with a shabby chic elegance, and loves in a warm, calm and joyful way.
When we were invited to the British Bolognese Club show it was just too good an opportunity to miss. When was the last time that you were in a Church Hall full of white fluffy dogs? Precisely.
We arrived at the Church Hall, in a small parish, complete with wet Saturday wedding preparations flustering in the Church next door. It was actually a lovely old church, the type that England does so well, and the village itself, set in the opulent Oxfordshire scenery, was all so picture postcard that all that was missing was an American taking photos and saying it was so quaint from the ol' country. This was England as only the English can do, and it was dedicated to Dogs.
The Bolognese were all immaculate, with more grooming paraphernalia than a hot teenage model, and rather glad to see each other. It felt like the reunion of a very proper Italian Finishing School, where the drivers had forgotten that their place was in the car park.
Millie's brother, Coco won Best Puppy, Best Dog and was reserve best in show. This Dog Show thing is nowhere as simple as their breeder makes it look. It is an art and a science. As Coco and Millie's breeder walked round the ring her poise and ease shone and I could just see how Coco visibly relaxed in her presence. I had a lot to learn.
Of course, it's a competition, isn't it, for a rosette. But this was also the third ever Briitish Bolognese Club Breed Show. How amazing is that?!? There was not one dog in that room that I didn't want to go and hug, love and enjoy. It was their party. It blew Millie's mind a bit that she is not the only one, there are others out there like her, who are lovely, loved, white and don't bite, unlike the Pit Bulls round where we live.
The ultimate competion in the Dog World is Crufts, the world's biggest dog show. Somehow we agreed that we would meet up there with some of Millie's newfound friends. For many dog owners going to Crufts with their dog is beyond their wildest dreams. It certainly had never, till now, been one of mine. But hey, why not dream big, outside the box, and way beyond my comfort zone. First though Millie had to qualify.
So last June we loaded up the car for our next dog show, the Southern Counties Show. The tone of the day was set on arrival when we drove into a huge show ground, filled with big white marquees fluttering in the breeze, looking as though it was ready for a big music festival. Only there was silence, which given we were in Berkshire (which in case you're not from England is pronounced Bark-sh're), was highly incongruous.
It struck me how aristocratic all the dogs were. Here we were surrounded by the Top Dogs in the country and what a pleasure it was to behold. The way they walked was pure poetry, the way they gazed with supreme self-confidence in their purity, the way that they felt so comfortable as themselves brought an air of elegance, grace and serenity to the day.
The dogs' owners, or rather perhaps we should call them servants, were on the whole also very decent and honourable people. Their knowledge, love and dedication to maintaining their breed's standard (which is an Official Document) gave them a nobility which complemented their dogs most favourably. It reminded me of a fable whose punchline is that the king's majesty rests on his court's nobility not its humility.
My lasting memory of this day was not actually from the Show ground itself but from the Motorway Service Station just back up the M4 where we stopped on the way back. We pulled in to park next to a very beautiful 1970s black vintage Bentley. In the middle of the back seat sat an Afghan hound sporting a very sexy pale blue leather collar with diamante trim. When his driver returned to the car and drove off, the dog just had that radiant command of royalty (his owner said he'd come second - which is a great feat in such a popular breed). It knew its place in the world, and so indeed did its owner.
Now for Millie. She qualified for Crufts 2009 and it, quite simply, could not have been easier. Bolognese are a rare breed and so there were comparatively very few entrants to the show. In the end, all we had to do was just show up at the show and not to be eliminated. In Millie's class there was one entry: she was in the majority of one, she came first with no competition at all. This was a profound lesson to me. How many times have you turned down an opportunity because you didn't think it was worth pursuing. Millie's experience was that it was effortless effort, the competition had gone before it was even an issue and we were there anyway for the community of Bolognese. It was also where I fell in love with dogs.
Crufts was a whole new level of experience, for us both. The Kennel Club has been under fire since the BBC's film about breeding caused a furore and Crufts was its showcase to say that it's putting its house in order. The theme for the show was Celebrating Healthy and Happy Dogs, and ensuring that dogs were Fit for Purpose.
The Bolognese benches became the social gathering to be seen at. It was such a family affair, with a community spirit shining down the whole row. If you've ever travelled in a 2nd Class A/C train in India then you'll have a pretty good idea of what it was like. We were all there to celebrate, and we all knew that as a breed, the Bolognese are healthy, and generally very happy too, and we were there to ensure that others recognise the potential of Bolognese both as pets (and as angels).
Unofficially, and with absolutely no shame in how biased I am, I voted Millie the happiest of them all. The official judge though couldn't reconcile with the breed standard her quirky teeth and agile frame and that she has hasn't yet got a grown-up long coat. Somehow she just isn't like the others.
The judge was a very sensible man who took the new guidelines to heart. We had eaten our picnic under the watchful eye also of Bonny who, true to her name, was a very bonnie little Bolognese. Her owner was a bit worried that the judge wouldn't approve: Bonny had a big scab on her nose which had just fallen off, leaving it rather pink - a complete breed standard no-no. I was thoroughly heartened by this because Bonny obviously shared Millie's sense of adventure. She had been investigating what was under the brambles when one of them had spiked her nose. The judge did not let a little blemish like this get in the way: Bonny won our class on being the closest to the breed standard. She won my vote too for her spirit and gentility.
Overall, though Crufts was a rather disappointing experience. We had not gone there to compete so that had nothing to do with it. It was that the whole event lacked spirit and soul. There was no celebration. This was, after all, a dog show but it was not about dogs at all; it was about product, commercialisation and appeasing the public with so-called entertainment. We entered the hall, like all the 22,000 dogs, through a discreet side entrance, like minimum hourly rate workers, without any fanfare. Yes, it's a competition, but even that didn't seem to create any atmosphere. For many of the owners and breeders coming to Crufts was the epitome of their endeavours. Crufts did what England, sadly, does only too well: it celebrated excellence with professional mediocrity.
If I had known that in reality Crufts was nowhere near as glamorous, exciting or enjoyable as it appeared on television I may probably not have bothered to come. However, without that goal would I have got out of my comfort zone and entered a whole new world, where dogs are majestic, radiant and full of life? Probably not. It wasn't about Crufts at all, it was about the community of Bolognese, the spirit of exuberant love and calm confidence which brought us here. I have walked on the green baize floor of a Crufts ring with a little white dog at my heels, both of us harmony in motion. I can now tick that off the list of things to do in Miillie's and my lifetime. What a great adventure in seeing life from a different perspective.