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Toogin and Me

Holiday fun in Dorset with a four-legged friend.

Toogin When I was six, I contracted a disease that was contagious enough for my pregnant mother to ship me off to her sister. It was the early 1950s, and my aunt and uncle lived in a wooden bungalow on a cliff top near Bournemouth, Dorset.
It wasn’t a promising start to the summer. I was there because I was ill and photographs show a small, delicate boy, wrapped up in an overcoat and wearing a school cap – and it must have been early June!
To make it worse, I was subjected to regular injections of penicillin. The doctor, whose visits I so dreaded, was a cheerful soul. After reducing me to screaming agony he would share a glass with my uncle – a dentist – and they would swap jolly medico/dental chat. Never since have I had complete trust in members of either profession.
Thankfully, I was soon able to shed my overcoat and cap, and set about exploring my new environment. My aunt and uncle appointed their dog as my guide, playmate and bodyguard. Costing two guineas, Toogin had been something of a bargain at the local pet shop. He was black, an unlikely cross between a chow and a corgi, with a chow’s head and neck, complete with ruff, and a curly tail, set on a scaled-up corgi’s body and legs.
Toogin was something of a rough diamond and a bit of a geezer. He was totally loyal to whoever he decided he was supposed to look after; a loyalty that only wavered whenever there was a dog to fight or a cat to chase.
Toogin and I had adventures on the cliff slopes and played games in the field and on the beach. He didn’t mind if other children joined our games, feeling that they were there for his benefit. He would chase anything that moved, which meant that the rules of many games were quite simple, and I spent endless hours throwing things for him to retrieve. The moment I stopped, usually due to exhaustion, he would seek his own entertainment; I found it difficult to explain to my aunt, when we arrived back late and the dog was covered in dirt, what he had been up to.
All of a sudden, it was decided that the good times were over, and it was back home to meet my new baby sister (I wasn’t impressed) and face the new school term.
By the next summer, my return trip to stay with my aunt and uncle had become the most eagerly awaited event of the year. I was delivered to the coach station in Bristol, entrusted to the driver of a Royal Blue coach and, four hours later, collected at Christchurch.
I found a change in the household when I arrived, as my aunt introduced me to a brand new cousin. Having had to endure almost a year of my sister’s company, I felt that having to play second fiddle to yet another baby was a bit much. Since this baby was a boy, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
As I was a child, and considered myself to be the centre of the universe, it never occurred to me that I must have been an intrusion into my aunt and uncle’s life. They never gave me any reason to think so, and I felt that they were as pleased to welcome me as I was to see them. More than anything, I just wanted to share in the adventures that, I imagined, they and Toogin enjoyed year-round.
Adventures they were. My uncle had flown in the RAF during WWII, and had somehow managed to demobilise several interesting pieces of equipment, and these would appear from time to time. My favourite item was, according to my uncle, a target float. It was an inflatable device, made from yellow rubberised canvas, and shaped like a cone that had been cut in half. The result was a yellow triangle, about eight feet long, which we called the dingy.
It was inherently unstable and thereby provided endless opportunities for mishaps, ashore as well as afloat. Inflated on the lawn, it became a very comfortable lounging area and an unwitting occupant could be surprised by someone jumping on the opposite side. Overturned, my friend Toogin and I could use it as a hide. Afloat, it was always a question of when, rather than if, the occupants would finish up in the water.
There were many more adventures to come before the sad business of growing up took over. During my time in Dorset, I had become seduced by the freedom, the fun, the pleasures of the beach, the sun on my skin and my friendship with Toogin. For a couple of months each summer I had everything a small boy could wish for.

John Hartnell, Brighton, East Sussex

This article appeared in the August 2009 issue of Best of British.

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