Along with almost every Kiwi in this country, I’m trying to find words to farewell the greatest of greats, Murray Ball who died yesterday aged 78.
His observations of rural New Zealand were exceptional, right down to maggot racing and similar bucolic pastimes involving sheep, pigs and Welsh Corgis.
Through more than 20 year’s cartooning – some 6000 daily and weekend strips – there was of course, one star – Dog or the ‘bow-legged black brute’ commanded to get in behind. He was “…an astute observer of his fellows and motivations. He can spot a sheep in sheep’s clothing. He ponders the big questions: whether eating a hot dog is cannibalism, whether there is any better place to bury a bone than on the cricket pitch… what the difference is between being on heat and just feeling love… He states the flamin’ obvious, scratches beneath the surface and digs up some bones on the essence of esitence.” (The Wisdom of Dog, publisher’s note.)
New Zealand has some 600,000 dogs and about 200,000 of them work on farms, running up and down hills and paddocks, droving and mustering to command. We had our own little neurotic black and white border collie bullet, Eddie, who brought the cows in every day and cheered our farming lives. She was our Dog.
Murray Ball’s short-haired border collie Finn was the inspiration for Dog, and when he died in 1998, his master wrote this tribute. It comes close to how I’m feeling.
The dog died on Monday night. Finn, 16 1/2 years old, a short-haired border collie – The Dog.
He lay stretched out in his kennel in running position, as if frozen in full flight. He’d have liked to go like that.
He hadn’t run for years. As his sight went and his joints stiffened, he stopped jumping fences and spent more and more time lying in the sun outside the back door – often right across it so that he jammed the fly-screen shut and we had to push and shove to move him. He was always a stubborn dog.
I remember him latched onto the horse’s tail with his tooth snagged in a knot. The horse, neck arched, spinning on bunched hooves and Finn, airborne like a child on a fairground swing.
He did not believe there was anything he could not muster.
His look of gob-smacked incredulity when an approaching Clydesdale, upon whom he had fixed his most intense stare, refused either to meet his eye or even acknowledge his presence and simply walked straight over the top of him was the sort of incident that little by little inserted Finn into the cartoon strip Footrot Flats. He became The Dog.
Not exactly, of course, but The Dog’s spirit.
I gave The Dog Finn’s courage and his “discretion”, his intelligence, his innocence, his honesty, his sneakiness, his loyalty and his weaknesses (when there was the scent of mutton or bitch in the air). But above all I gave him love. The Dog loved.
I think Finn loved me. I know I loved him. Even when rescuing him from the clutches of a hormonally disturbed bitch who had baled him up in his kennel, or dragging him by the collar from the town pound where he had been jailed for loitering hopefully outside the local cake shop, I could never really be angry with him. It was just another cartoon strip.
No one could say Finn was not a trier, and as my father once told me, “God loves a trier”.
God will have to treat old Finn with a firm hand, but He’ll know he’s got a good one – the best. So long, mate, we won’t forget you.