Visitors to London sometimes complain that Londoners are unfriendly, or at best reserved. To them I have an answer: get a dog. Borrow one for the duration of your stay. Last autumn, I walked George, a two-month-old cocker spaniel, for a friend while she was away. I had help from my good friend John; in fact we took it in turns. It rained every other day, so, like the little old man and woman of the mantelpiece barometer, I walked the dog on sunny days and John did duty on rainy days. This did not go unnoticed.
London is a different world when you have a dog, especially a puppy. Instead of scuttling or shuffling past, avoiding eye contact, Londoners young and old stop to talk to you and make a fuss of your little friend. Surly teenagers in hoods, studs in sunglasses melted at the sight of George, petting him and picking him up — and sounding distinctly uncool.
One of George’s admirers was a girl of about seven. A plain, awkward child, she played by herself in the park. On seeing the puppy, her face lit up and the plainness vanished. Every day — or rather every other day — she rushed up to me, falling over herself to hold him and cuddle him. Naturally we fell into conversation. An intelligent child, perhaps rather lonely, she was curious to know all about the dog, its owner — and my strangely silent friend John, who appeared on rainy days. “Why doesn’t your friend talk to me?” she asked, hurt. I was surprised at the question and, thinking that John was being churlish or impatient, resolved to tackle him about it that evening. “What, are you crazy?” he asked. “I can’t go talking to little girls in parks. I’ll get arrested.”
I remonstrated with him, but had to acknowledge that he had a point. George’s canine charms had failed to break down one of Britain’s great barriers: the barrier between adults and children. It is acceptable — just — for a woman to talk to someone else’s child in a public place, but a man who does the same thing must be a pervert. Has it come to this? How many perverts are there, for goodness sake?
Lots of good comments, also.