Sadly, on December the first at 9.40am we said goodbye to Finbar.
I should apologise in advance to non-pet owners and non-dog lovers. I remember a time when I would have thought “it’s only a dog…” if I read something like this but believe me when you have shared thirteen years of your life with a very interactive being it doesn’t matter whether he has a tail or not, he’s your kid; except that from the outset you know he won’t outlive you. Over the past couple of months he had noticeably lost weight despite maintaining his usual appetite. Then he contracted a cough which was considerably reduced by antibiotics but on the Wednesday he started breathing in very short, quick pants. The diagnosis this time was that he had an advanced tumour in his chest. By Thursday morning he was looking pretty miserable and I knew it was time. He passed very quickly and it felt a privilege to help him in his time of need. The piper must always be paid and I wanted to be sure it was me picked up the tab not him.
Right that’s the grim bit. I don’t intend this to be a lament, hopefully I can make it a celebration of Finbar’s life as a sort of canine motorcycle celebrity. So to kick off, here’s what he looked like when he WAS a kid.
Cute, huh? Him, not me, obviously. When he arrived he peed and slept a lot. In that time he was, of course, utterly fearless and I made use of those first weeks to expose him to as much as possible that might frighten him later in life, maybe I went too far – he wasn’t scared of anything…
Not just weird tree monsters but welding, angle grinding, hammering, revving motorbikes. It all became everyday stuff to Finbar and really the only time I ever saw him terrified about anything was a few years ago when he got his daft head wedged between two concrete bollards and I had to lift him clear, growling and snapping hysterically.
FInbar came to us in mid-October so I was able to include Bonfire Night in his training, I had him out in the garden chasing around during the fireworks and from then on they never worried him and I used to delight in taking him round the block on November 5th, if possible holding a spent rocket in his teeth for effect.
In fact here he is last year, enjoying a local display.
He liked to be lifted up to sit on my hips like a kid so he could see what was going on, which people found almost as entertaining as the fireworks themselves. To protect his ears I equipped him with ear defenders which he was used to wearing anyway during angle grinding sessions in the shed.
But I’m getting ahead; as a nipper he grew very quickly – and equally quickly, typical terrier mischief surfaced and he would run off with anything you put down. Terriers – and Irish Terriers in particular – have a reputation for being strong-willed and throughout the first couple of years we were pretty tough on him – not rough or unkind but just making sure he never really got his own way; we tried to always ‘out-terrier the terrier’. But we balanced that with loads of chases, wrestling and ball games so he got used to having fun with us, rather than at our expense. As I said, he did like running off with rags and tools, just to get chased, and instinctively knew to get an obstacle between him and you so you had to run around it, trying to catch him. Once his adult teeth came, he was remarkably non-destructive though and still has toys and balls from puppyhood. I remember him once running off with an expensive pair of sunglasses – and another time even a 45 record, I traded treats for their return and neither was in the least bit damaged by its stay in his mouth.
One exception to this was a strange obsession with baseball caps in his youth. The one I still wear for working on the van or particularly grubby jobs was forever falling into his clutches, whereupon for reasons known to himself he would chew through the strap at the back, which I then had to repair. I remember him brazenly eyeing up people’s caps that came to visit. He’d sidle up to them, put his paws on their knees, crane his neck as if to give them a kiss then grab the peak and scuttle off with it. Very funny – if it wasn’t your cap.
Irish Terriers also have a bit of a mixed reputation with other dogs so from early on we took him to a puppy class. The first Christmas there was to be a fancy dress for all the pups. I’d always referred to his little waxed cotton coat as his ‘coat of Sherwood green’ so the answer was obvious…
Here he is, Doggin Hood, although I always title this picture ‘the reproachful stare of an humiliated pet’. Needless to say I had gone into it a bit too seriously; I mean, that bow is a working model whittled to shape from raw timber, steamed into profile with a bound leather-thread handle. I’ve never considered myself parent material but maybe I’m wrong…
Pissed off though Finbar seems in the picture, he was cock of the north when we got there, strutting about enjoying the attention. It turned out that none of the other contestants had opted for an accurate depiction of an historical character, most had a bit of tinsel wrapped round their collars or a paper crown (briefly) stuck on their heads, so Finbar was declared the winner and enjoyed the prize of a bone.
What else did I waste my time over; oh yes, every dog should have a kennel, right? Having made my own workshop I decided to use some offcuts to build Finbar a small one of his own but the wee shite could never be bothered with it, instead preferring to sit on the ridge like Snoopy. I could have saved a week’s joinery and given him an upturned packing case…
About the only thing that kennel was useful for was a place to chuck all his balls and toys from the garden. He never really got ‘retrieve’; in his view if you let go of the ball you’d have to catch him to get it back, so it was easier to have several balls and keep kicking them against the side of the shed to set him running about in different directions. The funniest thing was when my pal Jamie came round with his Collie, Chevy, who was always much faster to the ball. Finbar gave up and instead went round the garden picking up all the out of play balls and tidying them away in his kennel!
Finbar grew up with Chevy and Jamie says the old Collie still cocks his ears at his name. Here they are as nippers, literally.Finbar was a wee bit older than Chevy, who’s still a tiny pup in this picture and would not leave Finbar alone for a second. We took them to a country park when they were both older and Chevy, who knew the place, went romping across the field into some reeds and leapt, closely pursued by Fin. It was hilarious watching as in mid-air Finbar realised his Terrible Mistake and tried to back pedal frantically before splashing into the river. We had to haul him out by the collar while Chevy enjoyed a swim. That was one big advantage with Finbar, he hated getting wet or dirty and was never one to roll in muck. On another walk, just before getting back to the vehicles, Chevy spotted a muddy midden and leapt into the pit with a satisfying splat! Finbar looked from Chevy to me as if to say, ‘I bet you’re glad it’s me that’s going in your car…’
You could always tell what he was thinking by his facial expressions. In this picture, we went to an Irish Terrier day and everybody got along fine apart from these two, Fin on the left and ‘Bruce’ on the right. It turned out that Bruce was one of Finbar’s brothers and looking at this picture always reminds me of the Dad’s Army episode where Captain Mainwaring’s wide boy twin brother turns up.
I guess it’s all in the ears: “Finbar!” up he’d trot, interested, ears perky; “Bath-time” about turn, unhappy, ears flat.
With his dislike of water, he hated a bath and would stand there the whole time licking his lips nervously and standing on three legs, trying to keep at least one of his feet dry. The drill was to wash his body thoroughly and do his head at the very end – he only seemed to know he was wet when his nose felt it. He was very good at resisting his natural urge to shake in the bathroom and would wait as l picked him up in a big white towel and carried him downstairs (like ET) and delivered him into the back garden where he would then shimmy and shake around the lawn.
But he still put up with it. One thing about FInbar, he was incredibly patient and biddable. He’d sit on a table for ages while I cut his hair; sometimes it came out better than others but, typically, it was only really this last year that I started getting consistently quite good at it. Still, fortunately they say dogs don’t recognise their reflection in a mirror – he presumably thought it was some other poor schmuck with a terrible haircut.
Sometimes, admittedly, the grooming routine went a little too far…
From the outset it was clear Finbar would have to be motor cycle compatible. Initially I took him round the block in a tankbag, zipped up so his little head poked out but that only worked for the first couple of weeks, as he got bigger it was obvious that I would need to come up with something more permanent. An Irish Terrier is one of the larger terrier breeds and it isn’t that easy to accommodate him. I ended up making a stout box with a hole for his head at the front and a hinged back section secured by locks and hasps.
There was no way he could get out and the box could be clamped to a rear carrier like a top box. The problem was that it was too big and heavy (with occupant) for a swinging-arm bike, where it would sit behind the axle, so it had to go on a rigid – whose carrier takes the place of a pillion seat. But this meant he had a bit of a bumpy ride, so the box didn’t get used all that often. I took him on the back of the Sunbeam on the Ixion Run around the Pevensey levels near Bexhill and when he came out of the box he walked about ten paces before doing the largest poo he had ever managed, rigid frames make a good purgative!
He was admittedly never keen to get into the box but once there seemed happy enough to ride along enjoying the force-fed smells of the countryside. The only ride I know he didn’t enjoy was one Scott rally where we decided to take him on the all day run but just as far as the lunch stop and come back. Unfortunately the stop was a long way from base and worse we managed to get completely lost returning and ran into heavy rain. We ended up doing about seventy miles and when I let him out he crawled straight under the back of the van and stayed there scowling at me.
But he was definitely a motor cycle enthusiast; he would always leap up to the car rear window if a bike was behind but only really British bikes or things with a similar beat, like Harleys or Ducatis. He mostly ignored fours or two strokes. I guess in reality so many people came round on British bikes when he was small that the sound was indelibly stamped in his memory as meaning ‘friends’ but it was more fun to think he was into the same sort of bikes as us!
Finbar often appeared alongside me in Classic Bike, the first time being June 2005. Initially then-editor Hugo Wilson was dubious, saying there was a bit of a taboo about ‘cute dog pictures’ in bike magazines but I persevered. Finbar pictures were intended to be humorous rather than cute and reader opinion proved that Finbar was a popular inclusion. In fact he nearly made it onto a tee shirt but a change of art editors midway meant it fizzled out in favour of a reprint of an old design, sadly. This is one of my favourite pics from CB, I like the way he’s looking at the camera out of the corner of his eye.
In this one I was trying to portray us as a pair of dodgy dealers ( such as Dudley and Dunstan in the great film ‘School for Scoundrels’) Finbar played up perfectly with a splendid ‘no pictures’ pose.
During the course of his magazine career, naturally he hob-nobbed with the stars; here he is with Ewan McGregor for example….
But he was no stranger to dressing up for the camera himself. He was particularly good about hats and would sit there wearing one until it eventually fell off – just so long as you didn’t cover his eyes. Kids were delighted to see him sitting with my cap on at shows but there’s more…
You get the idea…If I say so myself, Finbar was a pretty special character, remarkably easy going with no real ‘killer instinct’. He’d snap at flies but spit them out and let them crawl away to recover. Admittedly, although I doubt he would ever have tried to hurt one, he wasn’t cat friendly, I did try, I had a go at introducing him to a neighbour’s cat as a pup. He sat patiently while I stroked the cat sitting on a wall. I explained that the cat was a friend. Finbar watched with interest…and then leapt up the wall in a single bound! The cat screeched off and from that moment he learned cats were chaseable. I also remember his reaction to a mate’s pet rats in a cage. He walked in, sniffed, looked around and stared at the cage for the rest of the evening. Irish Terriers are ratters to trade and I think that was the moment he realised his mission in life and perhaps the rats were best off in the cage that night. But strangely the creatures that seemed to interest him most were frogs.
He was fascinated by the way they would sit immobile….and then suddenly jump (causing him to jump too). It was very funny to watch but after a while he learned that he could make them jump more by boofing them with his paw or snapping over their heads. This meant they were likely to get hurt, so I’d put him indoors when one was about. Unfortunately I was too late one time. I went out to find a dead frog and Finbar foaming at the mouth, I thought he’d been trying to eat it and was horrified! I couldn’t believe it, he just never ate anything that wasn’t food and I never had to worry about him crunching away on something he picked up in the garden. Of course I should have known better. It was only when I removed the unfortunate amphibian and saw it was untouched that I realised Finbar had killed it by accident and then been licking it, trying to make it better in same the gentle way he would do to my finger in the workshop when I got a cut.
Aaah, he was a real little gent and I’m going to miss him like hell but dogs, pedigree ones anyway, have a fairly accurately predictable lifespan. For an Irish Terrier it’s reckoned to be 13 to 15 years (although some live longer). As an owner, you know you will see them go and you know roughly when and for the last year I had been conscious of the fact that his clock was ticking even though he appeared as fit and healthy as he had always been, just a bit deaf and not really inclined to run off with the other dogs at the park. Maybe it was better to lose him now, still active and happy than having to watch my dear friend deteriorate and perhaps suffer pain, after never having had a day’s illness or injury in his life.
Finbar had so many friends and one of his best pals, our mate Richard Duffin, came up with the idea that we should commemorate him by helping a charitable cause. One thing that Judy and I felt was particularly significant to Finbar was that we had occasionally taken him to visit elderly friends in care homes and being such a friendly dog we’d also take him around the day room to say ‘hello’ to the other residents. This is one of the roles of Pets As Therapy but they are massively over-subscribed – one home told us they could only get a handful of visits a year. Finbar was like a real pro, treating strangers as old friends and I think he would be pleased if anyone wanted to give a donation in his memory that it would help the PAT organisation. There’s a big hole in my life now and a big empty space in the shed but there are a lot of people with far greater holes to deal with and a visit from a friendly critter like Finbar can make a huge difference.
If you would like to make a donation please follow this link https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Finbar-ClassicBikeWorkshop
I dunno about Pearly Gates, but I’d like to think he’ll be out there somewhere, waiting for me…