Kate Spicer is not the kind of woman who is interested in eliciting sympathy, which is just as well, because nor is she the kind who’s likely to receive it. She’s led a life of freebie leisure and decadent pleasure, supported by a rickety freelance career as a lifestyle journalist.
She lives in Notting Hill, is socially well connected, and her causes of grievance are not having attended Oxbridge and, as a consequence, not gaining the respect she might otherwise have done.
In other words, she’s a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman – hardly someone at this present cultural moment from whom the world is hankering to hear tales of angst and affection. And yet she has written a remarkable memoir, entitled Lost Dog, that begins with an epiphany in the debauched setting of her drug dealer’s apartment.
46-years-old and childless, she realises her life has been wasted. Whereas most of her fellow fun-seekers have gone off to sober up, have children or, as she puts it, a “partyectomy”, she admits to herself that she had been “feeding a low-level addiction for two decades”.
A lifetime of hedonism had left her hardened and indifferent, “smoked dry by dissipation”, she writes, recalling the words of the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. There was a meaningful hole in her life, some core purpose bigger than her desire for the next distraction, the temporary escape.
There was a meaningful hole in her life […] and the shape of that hole turns out to be dog-sized.
The shape of that hole turns out to be dog-sized. Its specific dimensions are those of a rescued Lurcher she names Wolfy that she buys from a woman in Thurrock Services car park for £160. The dog, she writes, is “a scruffy bugger and completely regal” and “smells like the juice at the bottom of a wheelie bin”. And Spicer instantly falls for him.
Suddenly, as if by canine magic, her life is transformed, with the rescue dog rescuing its owner from the white stuff every bit as effectively as a St Bernard in the Alpine snow. The late nights grow less late, the drugs rapidly decline, and a feeling of greater engagement with the world takes hold of her, the like of which new parents often report.
To cut a long and absorbing story rather short, everything dramatically improves until one day Spicer and her boyfriend go to a wedding in the countryside and leave Wolfy with her brother. The dog duly escapes from the brother’s house and Spicer experiences the kind of anguish and heartache that we more commonly associate with parents of a missing child.
Her desperate campaign to find Wolfy goes viral on social media, where celebrities like Ricky Gervais and Jeremy Clarkson help spread the message. But meanwhile her recovery from dissolution seems to hang in the balance.
A spoilt hack and a missing hound – why should we care? But it’s a mark of Spicer’s talent as a writer that we root for her even as she reveals sides of her character – her petty prejudices and poisonous resentments – that most of us spend a great deal of psychic energy trying to conceal.
The book is deceptively profound. Though it’s often amusing, like a very dark Bridget Jones – if you can imagine Bridget in middle age with a coke habit, a small flat and a semi-detached boyfriend – it’s also in its own idiosyncratic way full of substance on matters of love, loss, missed opportunities, the diminishing returns of the self, female competition and disloyalty, and the extraordinary bond that can form between a human and a dog.
Did she really feel that she’d wasted her life, I ask, when we sit down at a cafe not far from her home.
“I couldn’t stop taking drugs,” she says matter of factly. “I travel enough around different demographics to know that a low level drug habit is incredibly common. I did things like run across the Sahara, swim across the Bosphorus and to the Isle of Wight, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t shake it off. I knew the book would have no teeth if I wasn’t honest.”
The book has plenty of sharp teeth, gleefully snapping at the media, predatory men and untrustworthy women and pretty much any other target that falls within her range.
The effect can be shockingly candid. But it’s a candour that won’t please everyone. At one point, Spicer writes: “I’m so crap with women. They either scare me with their strength or disgust me with their weakness.”
“Yeah,” she says, when I read her back this line. “It’s awful to admit that, because it’s not OK to say that right now. It’s not OK that you don’t see all women as your sisters.”
I ask her if she's concerned what people – more specifically, women – will make of it? She says that fessing up to her ambivalent feelings about women was much more difficult to do than divulging her drug habits.
“Feminism has become a hashtag. It’s so easy to be a feminist but it’s in this cartoon-like sense of ‘empowerment’,” she says, miming speech marks. “It doesn’t leave any space open for the complexities of being human, of the relationship you had with your mother, the relationship you had with your sister.”
Spicer is now 49, and a quarter of a century ago, after a rather depressing stint at university in London, she slipped into media-world, making a living with a spiky attitude and a nice turn of phrase.
She built a reputation as one of the more compelling voices in lifestyle journalism. At various times she’s written about her weakness for botox, attended endless launches and parties, and for a while she was GQ magazine’s sex columnist.
It was a career choice she puts down to low self-esteem, and the sense, prevalent when she started out, that you couldn’t be taken seriously in journalism unless you were an Oxbridge graduate.
“I think that’s why I wrote about sex and stuff. It wasn’t that I was dying to do it. I look back now and I think I would have been absolutely fine as a war correspondent or something more esteemed, but I thought I wasn’t worthy.”
She describes a dislocated childhood in which, after her parents divorced, she was separated from her younger brother and lived with her father and stepmother. She writes that she felt punished for being her mother’s daughter.
If all the best memoirists nurture a defining wound, then this sense of abandonment and inadequacy is the scar tissue on which Spicer’s confessional is built. But she obviously doesn’t want me to pick at it, skimming over my attempts to explore her childhood, and insisting that she adores both her parents and stepparents.
Yet it doesn’t require great psychological insight to see that the loss of Wolfy went to the heart of longstanding feelings of dereliction, not least because it threatened her relationship with her beloved brother.
There are a series of forlorn and mostly false sightings of the dog that she hears about on social media, and the reader begins to fear that all the simple joys and homely comforts that have transformed her life are destined to be lost with the Lurcher.
The search for the dog becomes like an existential voyage to her own fractured soul, full of fear, yearning and disappointment
The search for the dog becomes like an existential voyage to her own fractured soul, full of fear, yearning and disappointment. Outside the genteel bohemia of Notting Hill, Spicer seems almost as lost as her dog. North London is described like a foreign country – Albania perhaps.
But, spoiler alert, the dog is found in the wildlands between Kentish Town and Dartmouth Park. Indeed, now as we speak, Wolfy is under the cafe table with my dog, the pair of them having completed a pre-interview circuit of Wormwood Scrubs, the large west London parkland favoured by dog walkers.
I wonder what would have happened had a garage-hand not managed to corner the dog and call Spicer (her number was on the emaciated Wolfy’s collar), ten harrowing days after his disappearance.
“It’s a bit of a time waster, that kind of thinking,” she says. “It’s like obsessing over whether I should have had kids or a nice Georgian house in the country. I don’t know.”
Again, this seems like a disingenuous response, because the book venture into the unspoken territory of regret, of shadow lives not lived. It’s not done with any self-pity, but with an unblinking acknowledgment that we all have to tally up our decisions, take account of how we got to be us and here. And Spicer brings it off with a winning mixture of caustic self-awareness and bristling social observation.
She sees my unpersuaded expression and reconsiders her answer.
“I think what it showed me is that grief is a process and I was probably going to have to go through that grief.”
But I want to know if she thinks she would have held things together. As she insists on responding to every false sighting of the dog, the strain between her and boyfriend threatens to be terminal.
“I think we would have survived,” she says.
Her boyfriend – “Charlie” in the book but he’s called Martin in real life – is portrayed as the hard-working but remote counterweight to her louche, procrastinating self. It’s not the most romantic depiction of midlife love. They seem permanently to be one bust-up from a total break-up.
“When I was writing the book we were not getting on,” she says. “I kept saying: ‘You’ve got to be nicer, it’s really hard to write your character.’ He’s a cartoon version of the man he is. That was the best way I could do it and not fuck with him.”
They’re still together, but of course the real love story of the book is between Spicer and Wolfy. If it’s a memoir about belatedly growing up, it’s also about experiencing unconditional love with a pet.
Though dogs are a common enough feature of modern life, the deep emotional attachment that people feel to them is still a slightly taboo subject.
“I felt so ashamed that I was so grief-stricken,” says Spicer, about her response to Wolfy’s absence. “There’s that point [in the book] when my friend dies and I just can’t engage with it because I’ve just got to find the dog.”
It is a jarring moment, because you realise that she cares more about her missing dog than she does for her dead friend. No doubt there will be some who will say that she’s investing thwarted maternal instincts in an animal, but it’s clear on meeting them that she is as devoted to her dog as he unquestionably is to her.
Does she worry about losing him again?
“Martin does. We went to a wedding at the weekend and he was so triggered by it. I try really hard not to,” she says, looking down at Wolfy with an expression of unbounded adoration. “But we’re glued to each other, more so than ever.”
Spicer has written a book for dog-lovers, but much more than that, it’s a book for anyone who’s ever been dogged by the feeling that a fulfilling love has passed them by.
By Andrew Anthony