Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Henry Gee & Heidi and Saffron

Who is in the photo at right?

This is me, Henry Gee, with Heidi, the Golden Retriever. I’m an editor with the professional science magazine Nature, but I write a lot of articles, stories, a blog (‘The End Of The Pier Show’ and quite a few books. My books are mainly popular science – my latest is The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, just out with the University of Chicago Press. I also write science fiction (The Sigil trilogy, published by ReAnimus) and have even tried a gothic horror mystery (By The Sea, self-published, so help me, but the people who’ve read it really like it) in which I try to do for Cromer – the seaside town where I live – what Stephen King did for Maine. Heidi is a self-warming hot-water bottle, guard dog and portable rug. I would have had Saffron, the Jack Russell Terrier, in this photo, except that she usually moves too fast for photography.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

I can’t start the day without at least two cups of very strong coffee, usually taken in a saggy old leather armchair with Saffron on my lap and Heidi by my side. If, even after that, I still can’t clear my head, Heidi and Saffron take me for a walk – to the woods and fields, or down to the beach. Here on the North Norfolk coast there’s usually a breeze stiff enough to clear most cobwebs, or – in January – to flay your face.

What's brewing?

Mrs Gee and I favour a blend called ‘Lazy Sunday’ from Taylor’s of Harrogate, brewed in a cafetière. It’s a pretty smooth blend, not too bitter. I work mainly from home but go to the Nature office in London once or twice a week, and when I do I almost always get a latte from Starbucks next to Kings Cross Station. They’ve been promoting a really nice Ethiopian coffee lately.

Any treats for you or your dogs on this occasion?

The dogs usually get a dog chew each if we’ve been out shopping, but Heidi – being a Golden Retriever – will scarf up pretty much anything if we let her, and she’s on a diet. Saffron tries to raid the cat food if she can (we have four cats.) The dogs love scavenging on the beach – bits of fish washed up – but it’s not so nice if they roll themselves in Essence of Decomposing Seal.

How did your dogs get their names? Any nicknames?

Heidi was named by our younger daughter Rachel (who was seven at the time) after the heroine in the books by Johanna Spyri. Saffron came to us already named. She answers to Saffy, Ronnie, or SmallTinyDog.

How were you and your dogs united?

We had Heidi from a pup – she came from a breeder here in Norfolk. Saffron we found as a three-year-old on the internet. Or, rather, Rachel found her on the internet. Actually, come to that, we found Heidi on the internet. In fact, quite a few of our pets have come from the internet. We have a lot of pets. As well as the four cats, we have two snakes, a rabbit, about thirteen hens, several fish and an axolotl. But I digress. Saffron was three years old and her family was moving into rented accommodation where they couldn’t take pets, so she came to us. It must have been a wrench for the family, though, having to part with such a great dog.

Are your dogs more help or hindrance to your writing?

Quite a few of your interviewees will tell you that writing is a solitary business, and you need to be pulled away from the computer every now and then for some exercise and fresh air. My friend Brian Clegg (whom you interviewed in 2009, with Goldie) says that the best piece of equipment a writer can own is a dog – and I agree. You can put off going to the gym forever, but dogs need regular exercise, at least once a day, whatever the weather. Around lunch time Heidi and Saffron appear at the door of my study with That Look on their faces, and I know it’s time for a walk.

Where do your dogs most like to visit on an outing?

The beach. Luckily we live within fifteen minutes’ easy walk from one of the nicest beaches in Britain, if not the world. Cromer is a holiday destination, but the beach just to the east of the town is almost deserted, even at the height of the summer vacation. Heidi, being a water dog, loves to retrieve a tennis ball from the sea. She does this at any and all times of year, even in heavy weather. Sometimes she gets submerged, sometimes the waves sweep her off her feet – but nothing will distract her from that ball. Saffron loves to chase seagulls, and even just to run around for the sheer joy of running about. Occasionally Saffron steals Heidi’s ball from under her nose and literally runs rings round her. Saffron may be small with short legs, but she goes like a rocket – she’s only out-run by whippets and greyhounds.

Do the dogs have any non-canine pet pals?

Golden Retrievers are the most tolerant of animals, and Heidi raised three of our cats, who, when they were kittens, used her as a climbing frame. Our eldest cat, NaughtyPants(NotHisRealName), came into our garden as a stray kitten when Heidi was a pup. They grew up together and six years later are now a couple of old friends – like the bookends in the Simon and Garfunkel song. When NaughtyPants(NotHisRealName) was small he used to hang off Heidi’s face like the Alien. Heidi was quite unperturbed by this and would go around the house wearing a kitten mask. Later on we got two more kittens – the littermates, Ted and Elvis, who must be the most affectionate cats in the world. Heidi brought them up, too, and I am quite sure they think they’re dogs. Our fourth cat, Emma, is a rehomed Siamese and was initially very hostile to everyone but even she is getting used to the casual laidback vibe at our house. Saffron would chase the cats if they were outside (she did for our last two guinea pigs), but has a healthy respect for cats. I expect that one or two walloped her on the nose in her previous home.

Squirrel, cat, postman...?

Saffron barks at everyone and everything, especially her arch-enemy Pluto (the Chihuahua who lives down the street) but Heidi is a diva and thinks everyone has come to visit her, specifically.

Squeaky toy, ball, stick...?

Heidi is Queen of Tennis Balls, though if we’re in the woods she loves to stop at regular intervals and take a stick to pieces. Being a Retriever she loves to carry soft objects around in her mouth. If she can’t have a tennis ball, it’ll be a slipper, a cushion, a blanket, anything soft. Saffron, as a terrier, has sharp teeth and jaws that could probably tear scrap metal. Her favourite toy is a basketball which she is slowly shredding to bits over a period of years.

What is each dog's best quality?

It’s hard to imagine two dogs more different in temperament than Heidi and Saffron. Heidi, being a Retriever, is laidback, easy-going, tolerant, not easily perturbed and (I hope she won’t mind me saying this) not always the quickest on the draw. Saffron, on the other hand, is a live wire – full of energy and sparkle, always ready for a game. She’s the one who wakes me up in the morning, jumping up and down on the bed, wagging her tail and telling me that it is a brand new day and it’s such a shame to waste it lying in bed. I now realise why you never see Jack Russell terriers as seeing-eye dogs for the blind.

If your dogs could change one thing about East Anglians, what would it be?

Saffron thinks everyone is fantastic. Heidi is the same, with only one reservation - that they don’t love her as much as she thinks she deserves. Did I say ‘diva’?

If Hollywood made a movie about your life in which your dogs could speak, which actors should do their voices?

Dogs are brilliant. But they are also disgusting. Face it, dogs spend most of their time thinking about bodily functions. So, for Heidi you’d need a soul diva who’s not afraid to talk dirty and take their time doing it, perhaps Millie Jackson or Patti Labelle. Saffron would need someone who’s a fast talker, such as Joan Rivers or Bette Midler. Oh, I know: Sarah Silverman.

If your dogs could answer only one question in English, what would you ask them?

‘Where did I leave my shoes?’

Visit The End Of The Pier Show blog and follow Henry Gee on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue


  1. What a bunch of neat animals--a real zoo, just the way we like it at our house. Lady Caroline

    1. Henry Gee here. Thank you, zooperson. We love our animals and think they contribute hugely to our personal well-being. The downside is that I have my salary paid directly to our veterinarian...

  2. Henry, that's a wonderful post about your two dogs. They sound great characters.

    A locum vet (with a smile on his face) described my chocolate Labrador as a drama queen the other day, and all she was there for was a squirt of kennel cough vaccine up her nose. She had her back pressed to the door, quivering like a jelly one minute, and then the next she sat to attention with her boldly expectant "I'm a good girl" expression on her face. It was like two different dogs.

    They are expensive to keep but we decided to buy a dog instead of taking vacations. Far more entertaining and much better value.

    As for distracting one from writing, my dog learned as a puppy to get under my office chair and wheel me across the room to the door when it was time for her evening meal.

    1. Thanks Sarah - yup. Dogs are brilliant. Although I grew up with dogs, I took a lot of persuasion by Mrs Gee and the kids to get them. After all, they are a big responsibility. But then we got Heidi, and then Saffron, and I am completely dotty about them!