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The Lick of Love by Julian Clary

I have always followed my urges. Without question. The need to do, say, possess or swallow something sweeps through me like a primal scream and opposition is pointless. An urge is, after all, defined as a ‘strong, restless desire’, and we meddle with nature at our peril.

So when the mantra ‘Get a dog!’ started whirring in my youthful mind, I had to comply. It wasn’t sensible, of course. I was twenty-one, living in one room in Blackheath, south-east London, with no particular idea of what direction my life would take. I had vague thoughts of being a performer and had enjoyed premonitions of fame and celebrity since the age of thirteen, but these were mere daydreams and I can’t claim any real sense of destiny. I had recently applied for a job with Help the Aged because I liked the company of old people and had a taste for Murray Mints.

But I followed my urges and got a dog . . . and within a few years she had propelled me up the ranks of the alternative comedy circuit and onto television.

There is a lot of stern advice available to anyone wondering if they should get a dog: Are you ready? Can you give a dog a happy life? Can you afford it? Do you have time? Then, apparently, you have to choose what sort of dog you’d like, what size, gender, age, and so on. I didn’t do any of this. I acted on impulse. I followed a need as compelling as the need to eat or drink.

The ‘Get a dog!’ compulsion was to return again nineteen years later on 5 November, when I was in a shopping centre in Sutton, of all places, filming a Daz advert. It was stronger this time, and more urgent.

‘I need a puppy!’ I cried to my assistant Bertha. Fame, the reader may observe, had made me a tad petulant. This sudden need for a dog was to occur again on two more occasions, each time a bit more extreme, like a career criminal taking greater risks as his crimes escalate in an attempt to recreate the first, thrilling rush. In 2009 I was in the middle of a chat show when the host brought on a selection of homeless puppies. I had taken a liking to one within seconds, and took him home. Then in 2019 I locked eyes with a photograph of a dog in a Serbian rescue pound and I sent for her. What next? Will I be snatching dogs from the arms of their owners on the street?

So my need for a dog (or two) in my life is not to be resisted, that much is clear. Dogs bring calmness and clarity to my life. There is much talk these days about the benefits of mindfulness and living in the moment, but you don’t need to become a Buddhist or go to the trouble of reading a book by Ruby Wax if you have a dog to interact with. One stroke is all it takes, as the rent boy said to the bishop.

Throughout my adult life there has been a dog by my side, bearing witness, radiating unconditional love or just snoring peacefully. Whatever else is going on, it is the water bowl in the kitchen, the dog hair on my jumper, the knowing gaze from the dog in the basket beside me that comforts me and tells me that all is well. I am not the first person to observe that dogs are uplifting for the human spirit.

I have a theory: what if each dog has been ‘sent’ to us to help us learn something profound, to enrich our lives and help us evolve spiritually, like cards dealt to us by an all-seeing deity? It’s a thought-provoking wheeze, if nothing else, but stop me if I’m coming over all Dalai Lama. We can blame the herbal tea.

It is only now that I can fully appreciate the contribution of my four-legged friends. They deserve this book. Without them, my life might have veered off towards a number of undesirable destinations. I feel the need to articulate my appreciation and thanks.

My first dog, Fanny, came into my life when I was twenty-one and somewhat adrift. At the time I was an aspiring performer, unsure which porthole to stick my head through. Her zest for life and willingness to try every new experience helped me to become bolder than I think I would otherwise have been. More importantly, as I took my first tentative steps on the comedy circuit, she provided the star quality that would otherwise have been sadly lacking.

Fanny was also my guardian angel. I like to think she still is. (You will get used to my tendency to etherealise.) She stopped bad things from happening to me, just as a St Christopher medal protects the traveller. I hate to break this to you but I was, in my youth, a rather unfussy picker-up of gentlemen callers, oblivious to the risks involved – or maybe just willing to take my chances. Fanny saw off several men who had evil intent, sometimes simply by her presence. St Sebastian is considered the patron saint of homosexuals but I think Fanny the Wonder Dog might be his understudy, should he be feeling under the weather due to all those pesky arrows in his ivory flesh.

Valerie, my whippet crossbreed, escorted me through my forties, urging kindness where otherwise petulance might have triumphed. Poised and fearless, the Germaine Greer to my Bernard Manning, she kept things in proportion, as if to say: ‘Showbiz is not all of life. I am here. I care nothing for your profile, bank account, TV series or magazine covers. Now pick up my shit and shut the fuck up.’

Ten years later, she was joined by Albert, a jaunty geezer type, sent to acclimatise me to middle age, perhaps, to instruct me about the benefits of peace, quiet and an afternoon nap, and to help me seduce my future husband, mediate between us and prevent him from slipping through my fingers.

Most recently there has been Gigi: a fur bullet, an inscrutable, unpredictable, hilarious acid trip of a dog. Gigi has expanded the boundaries of love beyond where I thought they lay, and proved that there are no limits.

Without these four dogs – well, there would be nothing to write about.