Can you teach a shaggy dog new tricks? Graham Dukes knows a man who can…
Some seventeen years ago – yes, it was 1999 – I made up my mind to become famous. It all started at a second-hand bookstall, where I picked up what had once been a correspondence course for budding writers of fiction. A certain Tamkin, it seemed, had discovered a Plot Formula that underpinned all the decent stories ever written. All that I need do, so the text assured me, was to choose my theme and characters, then apply the formula, and a story would more or less write itself. Fame and Fortune would await me.
A mere three weeks later, having absorbed as much Tamkin as I could manage, I sat myself down at my portable typewriter and, in the expectation of speedy wonders, looked around for my theme and characters.
My eyes fell first on my old chessboard, clearly a splendid arena for action. A little further away. Dingo, my faithful Retriever, snored in his basket. And before me was a calendar, prominently reminding me that the twenty-first century was approaching; clearly, this was a time for boldness. I leaned over my keyboard and hammered out a title: “The Man who taught his Dog to play Chess”.
Fine, there was my title, full of challenge and humour, preparing me for action. All that now remained was to persuade the Formula to write the story for me, and in no time we would have the literary world rolling in the aisles with delight.
Somehow, during the weeks that followed, it didn’t turn out quite like that. The Tamkin Formula, built around the notion of mounting conflicts, didn’t tell me what to do with them or how to solve them. With my fingers impatient every morning to start typing and two canine eyes eying me attentively from the basket, I had to act. That word said it all. Not that Dingo and I would feature in the actual story, but one needed now to act it out, just to see what happened, identifying whatever conflicts might accost us.
I began every morning after that by depositing the animal in front of the chessboard; generally he would remain there, though occasionally he would scratch, yawn and briefly fall asleep. Progressively he appeared to accept that he was expected to shift pieces around, though his ample paws, necessarily guided by my firm hand, were not well suited to the task, generally moving two or three chessmen at a time and knocking over several others in the process. I did briefly encourage him to use his teeth on the job, but the unfortunate resemblance of white chessmen to chewable bones proved too tempting, and his Queen ended up somewhat gnawed. Sidestepping that particular conflict, I went shopping and acquired an electronic chessboard with sixty-four windows, each capable of displaying an image of any piece. Press once with a paw to clear a window, then press on the destination window to place the image there. That worked reasonably well, despite Dingo’s gross ignorance of the rules, until he hit on two push buttons that served to signal “check” or “checkmate”. When these were pressed, a bell rang and the appropriate message would be promptly delivered in nasal tones through a loudspeaker. As far as Dingo was concerned this was the real fun; those buttons were now the essence of the game, to be pressed every few seconds; and so things continued (“Tinkle!”, “Mate!”, “Check!”, “Tinkle!”, “Check!”, “Mate!”) until I disconnected both buttons, after which Dingo retired disgustedly to his basket.
I will not trouble you with all of my further experiences in the matter, but I was aware that if I were to produce a truly hilarious story, I must not now bow to despair or defeat. Let us simply say that the twenty-first century had long dawned, and that I had read Mr Tamkin’s little manuals some twenty times without becoming wiser, before I hit on an idea. My next-door neighbour, Mr. Watkin, of whom I have spoken before, is a man gifted with positive thoughts, acquired during an adventurous life; nothing beats him for long. So one evening I called him round and explained the situation; my head, as I put it succintly to him, was full of the rules of chess, while Dingo’s brain apparently contemplated only sleeping and gnawing.
The positive thinking duly bubbled up. “I see here an opportunity,” Watkin declared, “for catalyzed telepathy to transmit your thoughts directly to the animal.” Dismissing my emergent doubts with a flick of the hand he went on: “The Yeren-Gozi tribe, which I encountered down towards the border with Sudan, they do it all the time. They persuade pharaoh owls to take messages for them and they instruct camels too. For that they use a simple incantation, which I am sure I can still recall. Now please concentrate your thoughts.”
I obediently concentrated my thoughts, while Watkin produced a series of atonal noises, with a baffled Dingo staring at him from his basket, “And now” declared Watkin at length, “You must retire to your bed. The telepathy takes time to mature. You will feel quite different tomorrow.”
I did indeed. By eight the next morning, every rule of chess had left my head. The trouble, though I never admitted this to Watkin, was that I now felt a nagging urge to climb into the dog basket and to nibble on the White Queen. Could his incantation have worked in reverse? Fortunately, that effect wore off within a couple of days, and I began to think creatively again. Dingo, alas, remained uninspired.
So here I am, in 2016, still determined to write that story, still intent on Fame and Fortune, but now a trifle unsure about both Tamkin and Watkin, let alone Retrievers. Has anybody out there a helpful idea? And incidentally: should anyone want a much- thumbed copy of the Plot Formula, free of charge, they need only drop me a note. Or perhaps they might try telepathy?