A few days ago, I promised some stories about the many animals I grew up with. Here's the first:
We were in the Guinness Book Of Records.*
The first house I can remember living in was Bradkirk Cottage, a ramshackle old farmhouse at the end of an unpaved road, in Bamber Bridge, Preston. For an inquisitive six-year-old, it was heaven on earth. We had fields, ponies, a little stream running into a duckpond, and a mysterious spinney in the woods behind the house. But then my parents decided to open dog kennels; row upon row of fenced off runs. At any one time, we'd have perhaps 20 of our own dogs and up to 30 which we were boarding for others. The barking could be heard for miles around.
My parents could never agree on what type of dog they wanted to breed. My dad loved Alsatians ("vicious brutes," said my mum) and my mum adored Irish Setters (Stupid softies," said my dad). But my dad would have to agree that it was the red setters that made us money, and made us - briefly - famous.
My mum's favourite dog was a lovely setter called Pat. She was a goldmine. Not only did she win Best In Breed or Best In Show at all the local dog shows, she also had enormous litters. We'd mate her with Sam (more formally known as Twoacres Triton) and Pat would produce loads of puppies. Not satisfied with the standard six or eight puppies, Pat would produce twelve, or sixteen, or - as in 1970 - twenty-one puppies.
Now, there's no way one dog can feed 21 pups, so we had to farm them out to some of our dogs who were lactating at the same time. Seeing four tiny red puppies being suckled by a huge white Pyrenee Mountain Dog, who had lost all of her pups, is a strange sight. Four of the setter pups died, leaving 17.
A man from the Daily Mirror arrived, and the whole family was pictured holding the puppies. We got a call from the people at Guinness, and they came along to verify our claim to the UK's largest ever dog litter. The world record is 23, but we held the UK record. For just one year, apparently - some bitch [hey, that's the technical term, OK?] had 22.
*I admit that I have never actually seen the edition of the Guinness Book Of Records with our name in it, but this is the family legend.