His Name Was Montague

Holding on to Montague

Twelve years ago I introduced Montague on the pages of this journal.  Today, it was time to bid farewell.

Montague, a stout, furry Jack Russell terrier, developed a cancerous growth in his snout and the last few weeks were (mostly) painful for him; he quickly lost his eyesight, his hearing, and his sense of smell, even though, until the very last day, he still ate with relish as much as he could swallow with ease.

I stroked the sedated dog in his basket as the veterinarian administered the lethal injection; his heart was so strong that it required two injections to put an end to his suffering.  It even made me doubt, momentarily, whether he could not have pulled through after all.

I had never experienced dying before; that is saying a lot, considering that, in my youth, I worked in a hospital for twenty months and have been around since then for decades.

Adopted and at first reserved, Montague was the only dog ever to live with me.  Given his past, shadowy though it is to me, he was cautious and not overly attached to anyone in particular; so it would not be right to call him ‘my’ first dog.  He let my husband, me – and friends and relatives – take care of him as he saw fit; and I was glad of it.

He’ll stay in that carpet.

I had to go to work after the veterinarian appointment.  It was a gloomy Saturday, the day that Storm Callum caused the worst flooding in Wales in thirty years. When I walked to the School of Art, where I work, I heard organ music play in a nearby chapel.  I do not recall having heard music coming out of that place before, at least not in my presence, atheist that I am.  It felt like something out of Victorian melodrama; not that I, being late as usual, had time to dwell on the peculiar aptness of the music as a soundtrack for the moment.

On the previous day, my latest exhibition, “Travelling Through,” opened at the School of Art Museum and Galleries at Aberystwyth University.  The wistful, melancholy title has added meaning on this day of loss.

I am prone to sentimentality; but, in this age of meanness,  discord and accelerating indifference, I am glad to be feeling sorrow – though some may sneer that I simply feel sorry for myself – along with the need to let it be known; not in the hope of letting it dissipate but of making it resonate.

Farewell, Montague.  Little though I know, you taught me a lot.

"I started Early—Took my Dog . . ."

“. . . and visited the Sea.” I have not read the poetic works of Emily Dickinson in many a post-collegiate moon; yet, as wayward as my memory may be, I never forgot those glorious opening lines. You might say that is has long been an ambition of mine to utter them, to experience for myself the magic they evoke; but, until recently, I have failed on three accounts to follow Emily in her excursion. That is, I had no dog to take along; nor did I never live close enough to the sea to approach it on foot, at least not with the certain ease that might induce me to undertake such a venture.

Now that there is Montague in my life and Cardigan Bay practically at our doorsteps, the only thing that prevents me from having such a Dickinsonian moment is a habitual antemeridian tardiness. If “All’s right with the world” when “Morning’s at seven,” as Robert Browning famously put it, then I might as well roll over and let it bask in its easterly lit serenity. It is for the early birds to confirm of refute such a Browning version of bliss.

Besides, as Victorian storyteller Cuthbert Bede once remarked, it is “well worth going to Aberystwith [. . .] if only to see the sun set.” So, I’m starting late instead and take my dog for evening visits to the sea. No “Mermaids” have yet come out of the “basement” to greet me; nor any of those bottlenose dolphins that are on just about every brochure or poster designed to boost the town’s tourist industry. They are out there, to be sure; but unlike Ms. Dickinson, I’m not taking the plunge to get up close and let my “Shoes [ . . .] overflow with Pearl” until the rising tide “ma[kes] as He would eat me up.”

Not with Montague in tow. Dogs are not allowed on the beach this time of year. It is a sound policy, too, given that Montague frequently manages to confound me by squatting down more than once, especially when I am only equipped with a single repository with which to dispose of the issue. Is it any wonder that I’d much rather start late, preferably under cover of night?

On this sunless Tuesday morning, though, I started just early enough to keep Montague’s appointment with the veterinarian. No walk along the promenade for the old chap, to whom the change of schedule was no cause for suspicion. Now, I don’t know what possessed me to agree to his being anesthetized to have his teeth cleaned, other than Montague’s stubborn refusal to permit us to brush them. I trust that, once he has forgiven me for this betrayal of his trust, that we have many more late starts to meet and mate with the sea . . .

The Earl Next Door

Montague, our Jack Russell terrier, had a visitor this morning. A sheepdog from the neighboring farm took time off from her daily chores and made her way up the lane to our cottage. A mere quarter of a mile—but what a giant leap into the lap of relative luxury. I wonder about the old lass. You can tell by her coat that she isn’t a pet; she’s strictly the below-stairs kind of gal. And that would be the front steps. No lounging around in the conservatory at all hours of the day, no ball games in the garden, no treats from the table, no trips to the beach. If she weren’t dead tired from doing her work, she might be daydreaming about how the other half lives. Perhaps, that is what did in the last dog who held the job. The poor thing was run over by the tractor under whose wheels it rested. Shades of Thomas Hardy.

I was reminded, too, of Norman Corwin’s “association” with Nick, an English setter who “lived down the hill,” but, having had a “falling out with his owners,” insisted on being taken care of and paid attention to elsewhere. That same “Grand Hotel of fleas” achieved the next best thing to immortality in Corwin’s radio play “The Odyssey of Runyon Jones.” Our neighbor’s sheepdog, on the other paw, was rather less demanding. After an hour’s visit, she went dutifully back down the hill. Now it is Montague’s turn to dream about that life beyond the fence. . . .

Entire industries are devoted to reminding us that the grass is greener elsewhere, to sowing the seeds of discontent and to suggesting we’d settle for a pair of binoculars and a box of weed killer to improve our lot. In this racket of showing us the other half and telling us that, with some slight and low-priced adjustments, our own ain’t half bad, the quarter-hours known as soap operas take the booby prize. Some fifty, sixty years ago—but at just about the time of day that Montague was entertaining his not-a-lady friend—a string of tangled yarns like Our Gal Sunday would roll into America’s kitchens and living rooms, or wherever radio sets were positioned and tuned in for that chance at a ready-made getaway.

“Sunday,” as James Thurber put it, “started life as a foundling dumped in the laps of two old Western miners” but managed to move on up to become the “proud and daggered wife” of “England’s wealthiest and handsomest young nobleman.” Was it safe on the other side? Was it wise to make that leap? According to Thurber, that was a question asked by most of the so-called washboard weepers:

Can a good, clean Iowa girl find happiness as the wife of New York’s most famous matinee idol? Can a beautiful young stepmother, can a widow with two children, can a restless woman married to a preoccupied doctor, can a mountain girl in love with a millionaire, can a woman married to a hopeless cripple, can a girl who married an amnesia case—can they find soap-opera happiness and the good, soap-opera way of life?

The answer, of course, was a resounding “no.” The denizens of “Soapland” remained “up to their ears in inner struggle, soul searching, and everlasting frustration.”

Sure, we’ve all got those. I’m never sure, though, just what the other half might be for me. It’s not that I know my place; I just came to know a lot of places. What is the use of an elusive realm of otherness to a squarely queer working-class boy with a PhD, a cottage in the country, and a suitcase that is always half full (or half empty)? I am either here or there, and the elsewhere is neither here nor there to me. I guess I’m just not prone to nostalgia.

Meanwhile, on this partly cloudy afternoon, my better half and I are off to spend a night at Powis Castle. We won’t flop in the recently restored state bedroom, mind you, but in the timbered cottage to the right of the Welsh fortress once known as “Y Castell Coch” (“The Red Castle”). Further to the right is where the present Earl of Powis resides. So, I am spending the night between the riches amassed by the aforementioned Clive of India and the home of a demoted nobleman. Our Gal Sunday and her kind can take a half-day . . .

They Call Me Montague; or, A Question of Naming

Well, this is our new companion. Earlier today, we picked him up from a farm in South Wales where he had been in foster care after his original keepers (a family falling apart) had handed him over to a charity. I decided to call him Montague, or Monty, after Monty Woolley and his radio character, the Magnificent Montague—irascible, swellheaded, and hopelessly demoted. Now, “Montague” used to be my nom de blog as well; so, I’m only passing it on to the little one now resting next to me.

Will Montague grow into his name? Will he defy it or make it his own, after having been confronted, pell mell, with such an appellation? As yet, he barely responds when thus addressed. After all, until a few hours ago, he used to go by another name.

The act of naming and the meaning of names, the study of which is called onomastics (since every field of scholarly investigation must have a title validating it as such), has always fascinated me. As a child, I sensed naming to be a decided gesture of ownership, an announcement of having brought into being—that is, brought into my life—something that, before I laid claim to it thus definitively, had been vague, obscure or utterly unknown to me. After I had named the toys in my room, I began to name the fictional characters I drew or wrote about. Could I make up my own life in this arbitrary, willful way, despite being stuck with a name for life? Somehow, I thought the answer must be a resounding “no.” I had already been claimed by others.

My interest in names and naming only intensified when I read the works of Charles Dickens, who had a knack for the game of the name: proper nouns that might not be proper at all, but that keep you wondering, that arouse your suspicion, that conjure up a face in a few syllables. In an essay on the subject, I called this quality in Dickens “Onomancy”—the act of conjuring up the spirit of a character by virtue of a moniker. It is a game in which the reader is invited to guess whether nomen truly is omen.

In Dickens’s Little Dorrit, for instance, you will encounter a rich assortment of suggestive surnames, such as Plornish, Flintwinch, or Stiltstalking, and sobriquets such as Pet, Tip, or Altro. It has its mispronounced names (Biraud for Rigaud, Cavallooro for Cavalletto) and its unpronounced names (A. B., P. Q., and X. Y.). It has its aptonyms (Messrs. Peddle and Pool, solicitors) and eponyms (Barnacleism); its cognominal chameleon (Rigaud, alias Blandois, alias Lagnier) and its renamed renegade (Harriet Beadle, alias Hattey, alias Tattycoram); its allegoric Everyman (Bishop, Bar, or Bench) and its Nobody. After all, it is a story about losing and regaining a reputation—a story of how to make a name a good one.

In old-time radio drama, names were rarely quite this fanciful—but they were called out and repeated far more often than in everyday life. The creators of such plays assumed, and wrongly—that names, heard only once, would not sink in; that it would be confusing for the listener to discern just who was talking to whom. To be sure, some producers, like the Hummerts, went rather too far with such designations; but perhaps this is why Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, managed to make such a name for himself, despite the fact that he was dull as . . . , well, let’s not start with the name calling.

As tempting as it might be, there won’t be any mention of names in the radio play I am currently imagining. The listener will have to distinguish between no more than two main characters, individuals who are nothing to one another. Their personalities won’t be pronounced by mere proper nouns; instead, they have to speak for themselves. That is, I have to put words into their mouths first—if Montague, wild and woolly, will permit me to divert my attention. The named one, you see, has already laid claim to me.