Wednesday 21 March 2007

Found by a man walking his dog

Why is it that whenever somebody is found dead in a field or by some railway tracks that the body is always reportedly found by "a man walking his dog"? Why is it always a man? I can see that the dog might be crucial to the situation - it is the one, after all, most likely to sniff something out; but the media almost always use the same, anonymous formulation. It's like those other journalistic formulae, such as "the boy, who can't be named for legal reasons" and "Partick Thistle 0". Maybe it's a governmental code, a trigger signal, like the complicated system of flaps and pats that baseball coaches use to tell the batter when to bunt, when to swing to help the runner on first steal second, when to fly out and so on.

I bet it was a man walking his dog who found Dr David Kelly dead in the woods near his home in Oxfordshire. Kelly, remember, was the government weapons inspector killed by over-exposure in the media in July 2003. Actually, I think it was the police who found him, but of course they would claim the credit; they would never say it was just "a [police]man walking his [sniffer]dog". The day he went missing, Kelly left his home telling his wife that he was going for a walk. I wonder if he had a dog. That would be bizarre: for once the man walking his dog would be the victim; but unless he was prepared to murder the mutt as well, the quadruped might actually have the opportunity to garner all the credit for itself. "What's that Lassie? Dr David Kelly has committed suicide in the woods on Harrowdown Hill, near his home at Southmoor in Oxfordshire? You ran all the way home? And he wasn't properly dressed to go out? He didn't have a jacket with him? Now, Lassie, don't be bolshy: not everyone carries their fur coat around with them all the time, you know. Have you told the police yet? No? You thought you'd come home for dinner first? I see. It's a bit early to start barking about the New Year Honours List; but maybe if you could loan the Labour party some money, that nice man with the sweat stains on his shirt might be able to find you a seat in the House of Lords."

Come to think of it, it was probably also a man walking his dog who found how to split the atom and map the human genome. Do you really think Einstein did all his thinking in the lab? Everyone knows all the great ideas are found when out a man...with one's dog.

On the other hand, it could be a euphemism for God. Bit too much of a coincidence that it's always a man and his dog, donchathink? Or even A Man and His Dog. Maybe the police just don't want to reveal their direct line to heaven and feed the press this bullshit just to protect their sources. It could be another one of those public secrets, like Charles Kennedy's drinking problem. Maybe one day it will out.

Is it the same man and his dog who stand on the touchlines at football matches, just out of sight of the TV cameras but ever-present when the match is between the Red Lion and the King's Arms in your local Sunday league? Is it, in fact, the same man every bloody time - the poor man's superhero: Man and His Dog-man in the amazing adventures of one man and his dog. See how they discover mysteries and forgotten treasure, spot drowning water-skiers, and rescue small children trapped under the ice of a frozen pond! Where are these men in the movies? They may find the body in murder mysteries, particularly ones set in incomparably violent rural English villages, but do they ever get a show just to themselves?

Is it the same as the Alsatian sniffer dogs trained to find drugs? Is the man blind and the dog his guide? Why is the dog never given top billing? "A body was discovered today on the toe-path of the Manchester Ship Canal. Police say they were notified this morning by a dog who had been out walking with its owner. Their names cannot be given because its voice was too ruff Rover the phone."

I wonder how often the phrase appears in the press. At the time of writing [April 2006], there were 33 stories in the Guardian online archive containing the phrase "a man walking his dog"; only 14 for "a woman walking her dog". Google News listed 40 stories with man and mutt. But, surprisingly, 54 hits were about women dog-walkers. Maybe the man is now so busy reporting all the dead bodies he's discovering that he no longer has time to walk his dog.

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