Kate Spicer & Wolfy © Gerrard Gethings

The Colour of Old Conkers

5th April 2019

Lifestyle journalist Kate Spicer appeared to have it all: writing regularly for The Sunday Times, The Times, The Daily Mail, the Evening Standard and Red Magazine; frequently appearing on tv (MasterChef, Newsnight); and with three acclaimed documentaries (all of which still air internationally) to her name. Behind the scenes, though, it was a very different story – a life going off the rails. Lisa Botwright meets her to talk about how everything changed…

He’s tall, lean, devastatingly handsome, and with a confident insouciance that’s enormously charismatic. It’s easy to see why journalist, writer and broadcaster Kate Spicer is completely under his spell, why she’s even made this male in her life the star of her new book. “He unlocked a lot of love in my heart that the knocks of life had locked away. He’s given me back my heart,” Kate tells me, over mugs of strong tea in her West London home. “Since I’ve had him, a lot has changed in my life… animals can be huge catalysts for change.”

For the subject of Kate’s adoration is a seven- or eight-year-old lurcher named Wolfy, a rescue dog who came into her life four years ago. She’d never owned a canine as an adult before, and in her book, Lost Dog, she describes the moment she first meets him with all the fascination and fear familiar to a new parent: ‘For a brief moment as I stare at him I panic and wonder if I could love him. But what graceful bounce to that slinking step. He has a noble carriage with a well-sprung suspension; it’s like his joints are made of rubber. The dog manages to be simultaneously a scruffy bugger and completely regal.’

She stares into his eyes – the ‘colour of old conkers’ – and is utterly smitten. But, after months of bonding, when living in Notting Hill with the dog ‘every day feels a bit like a holiday’, Wolfy disappears. Kate is distraught.
Cue a huge campaign to find him, spearheaded by the media-adept journalist who uses every means at her disposal, from old-fashioned walking-the-streets-and-putting-up-posters, to the modern-day power of the hashtag.

“#FindWolfy went viral,” recounts Kate. “Famous people got involved [including two very different Jeremys: Clarkson and Corbyn]; it was in the papers, and everyone got into the soap opera element of watching what was happening on Twitter.”

It’s no spoiler to reveal that eventually (after a long, gruelling search) he was found – he does, after all, appear with Kate in all of her Lost Dog press publicity – and is currently stretched out across the sofa proprietorially, in all his corporeal cuteness, as I perch on the edge. The book is so well-written that their reunion will still bring a tear to your eye (I properly sobbed), even though you know the outcome.

Kate was approached by an agent very soon after the event. with an invitation to put it all down in a book, but by the time she forwarded the first draft of the material, it was dismissed as ‘old news’. I venture that you need to be very resilient to be a freelance writer and she laughs: “Oh, I wear my rejections like a badge of honour.” But thankfully, she wasn’t put off from sharing her story. “After I was told it wasn’t relevant any more, the more I thought, the more I realised that there are so many universals to dog ownership that are not really spoken about, not explored. I realised that the story had changed in my head from the strictly chronological story of getting Wolfy back and was more about falling in love with him; how shocked and surprised I was at the love you can feel for a dog.” Eventually she got another proposal, “but, my God, it took a long time!” Her motivation now came, she explains, “from a need to explore that love, and what it’s made from. It’s mysterious, it’s made from your human frailty. It’s made from the animal’s needs. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Not that the book is in any way overly-sentimental – an anathema to the otherwise pragmatic writer – in fact, it’s ‘refreshingly depraved’ as one online critic calls it. “I’ve never read books about dogs because generally they’re really sappy,” she asserts. “Where’s the rock’n’roll?”

The story of Lost Dog is, in fact, more about ‘lost woman’ – and the narrative arc, illustrated by some very gritty rock’n’roll stories – charts Kate’s redemption from the seedier side of fashion and lifestyle journalism. She describes her ennui with parties where the crowd is divided into the cream of the cool scene – ‘her lips barely move and her eyes look trapped,’ she says of one haughty editor she attempts to make conversation with – and the second tier: ‘those who will be happy to see me’.

The story opens with a stark tableau in which Kate is trapped in conversation with a famous instagrammer and two ‘delinquent bankers’. On the coffee table in front of them is a mound of ‘snowy-white toot… worth £130 a gram’. All they have in common is their ‘urgent grubby desperate need for more cocaine’. As dawn breaks, her ‘spirit claws at each rib as it sinks into the pit of [her] stomach’ and she pours herself into a taxi home, just as London is beginning its day. Home is where her ‘sensible boyfriend’ is asleep in their bed – Charlie likes to go to bed early to be rested for his ‘proper job’ – and the contrast between her craving for ‘anaesthetic escapism’ and his contentment for routine is at its most marked.

It’s our canine hero Wolfy, of course, who gives Kate the motivation to sober up and a reason to rush home. Of her life now, she says: “As well as cleaner living, I feel more connected to nature, which is the secret to happiness. I’ve been exploring my soul a lot more. He’s connected me to what the most important things in life are, which is pretty much all about love.”

Kate’s all-consuming adoration for her pet takes centre stage in the book, but her relationships with her other loved ones are more ambiguously drawn. At times Charlie, her longstanding partner, is a comfort to her; at others, a massive irritation. ‘The problem with living [together] in a small space is that moods simmer, merge, mutate and inevitably grow,’ Kate writes. The protagonist herself is a fascinating mix: confident, yet insecure; judgmental, yet caring. It can be both draining and exhilarating being inside her head.

She adores her little brother, Will, but is intimidated by her successful sister-in-law Steph: “She’s quite full-on,” Kate says. “A very successful writer, an amazing women – but she has a touch of the Melanie Oxbridge about her.” This is Kate’s name for those women educated at top universities who “fill all the opinion pages of our best newspapers and our women’s magazines – it’s a monopoly: the rung above that I can never attain.”

Wolfy disappears when Steph and Will are dog-sitting – one of their young children accidentally leaves the back door open and the dog bolts – and much of the ‘search’ part of the book ruminates on the resulting tension. Charlie is particularly angry with Will. ‘Did he even bother to look for the dog yesterday?’ he rages to Kate at one point; and Kate, in turn, is stung by a perceived coldness from Steph, who greets her ‘in a strange way that I can’t read’.

Was it very important to Kate to be completely authentic? “So many writers have said that you cannot think about other people when you’re writing. You have to bite the bullet. I think that’s maybe that’s why it took so long, because I was scared of writing the truth. It only came together when I wrote that first chapter, and I thought ‘the book is the truth’. You’ve got to tell the truth.”

But there must have been some fall-out from this deeply confessional approach, I hazard. Charlie, apparently, enjoyed the book and thinks he ‘got off lightly’, but with Steph it was different. “She was the first person who read it after the publisher. It was Christmas, and we were down at mum’s. She got up one morning and looked tired; she was making strong coffee. She said, ‘I’ve read your book, it’s great.’” But Will confided to Kate later that his wife had stayed up all night reading it, and had woken Will up at at 4am to saying ‘we’re not coming back from this’. But, as Kate points out, there’s a very redemptive paragraph later in the book. “She got to that paragraph, thankfully, and we did come back from it, but for a period of forty minutes or so, it could have been total divorce.”

Wolfy is happily unchanged by his traumatic experience. “We had a bottle of Krug in the fridge. It had been there for a while waiting for an occasion good enough to drink it. When we got home from taking Wolfy to the vet [the day he was found], it felt like absolutely the right time to open the champagne, even though it was only midday.” She smiles at the memory: “I lit a fire, and Wolfy lay where he always lays, along the wall. I don’t think he felt very well, that’s for sure, but he was just very chilled.”

Kate claims she is trying hard not to be neurotic about caring for him, but says that Charlie is much more paranoid. He’ll only leave the dog with his mother now, for example, which means regular journeys – mostly for Kate – up and down the M40 to the Cotswolds.

She leans in conspiratorially. “I haven’t told anyone else this – especially Charlie – but I did leave Wolfy with a dog walker a few times. I was very busy; it was getting harder for me to walk him regularly, and I couldn’t drive all that way every time I needed a dog-sitter. I warned his new walker that he’s a real homebody, to never, ever take him off the lead, but she obviously wasn’t listening. She took him out, unclipped his lead for a moment, and he was gone. He just legged it. He had to cross a really busy road, but he was home in five minutes. I was going ballistic, standing by my back gate – and he swaggered round the corner, like Tommy Steele in a musical.”

Kate concludes: “I didn’t set out to write a deep book and I don’t think I have written a deep book, but the more I wrote, the more I saw the cobweb of connectivity between everything… This is a story about what it is to be human. You are made by your experiences, aren’t you?”

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