The Isle of Dogs
186 pages • Serpent’s Tail • May 7th, 2009 [PB]
Reviewers have likened Daniel Davies to JG Ballard and Michel Houellebecq, and there is certainly bleak urban detachment and nihilism aplenty in his novella, The Isle of Dogs. But one might also add Alan Hollinghurst to the list – not so much in his prose style, or his sexuality, but in his cool anatomising of social and sexual mores. In any event, no young writer would quibble at being grouped in the company of such literary luminaries.
Not to beat about the bush (and the metaphor is used advisedly in this context) Davies’ book is about dogging – the exhibitionistic practice of straight couples having sex in public places (usually car parks) with an audience of men, both straight and gay, who derive sexual gratification either through direct physical participation, or voyeuristically. There is an obvious correlation, and sometimes an actual overlap, with gay cruising, especially as the favoured locations are often used for both activities. According to Davies, dogging is a peculiarly British invention which, like so many others before it, has gone from a rarefied national hobby to attaining international cult status, largely thanks to the worldwide web.
The work is conceived as an autobiographical account written by Jeremy Michael Shepherd, an unassuming 39 year-old civil servant living with his parents in a nameless English provincial town. However, his backstory is that of a high-flying metropolitan magazine editor who, finally sickened by the materialism and consumerism of the high life, gives up everything to return to the anonymity of his roots. (He even goes so far as to convince ex-colleagues, friends and girlfriends that he has moved permanently to Ghana, the better to distance himself from his old life.) Needless to say, boredom and frustration soon set in, which he assuages by getting involved in the local dogging scene, eventually becoming one of its most popular habitués, known to his peers simply by his chosen nom-de-folie, The Shep.
One takes The Shep at face value when he claims to have happily foresworn the glitzy but empty life of a prosperous London socialite for the almost Zen-like detachment and simplicity of life in the provinces. Indeed, he makes his self-imposed exile sound most desirable. He eulogises dogging as a release from ‘the world of jobs, families, money, consumption.’ For him ‘the scene has always been defined by its purity, this singleness of purpose. This is what creates its unique democracy.’
Sadly, the truth, as Oscar Wilde famously observed, is rarely pure and never simple. The activity takes place (at least as Davies paints it – and one has no reason to doubt him) in a milieu very far from being an Arcadian idyll. It is furtive and fraught with hazard; a dangerous cat-and-mouse game played out against a backdrop of urban dereliction and decay. This is the dreary world of out-of-town supermarkets, car parks, ring roads, burnt-out and boarded-up buildings, graffiti, and, looming over it all, the ubiquitous and intrusive CCTV cameras providing surveillance which can only ever be partially circumvented.
This may seem a dystopian view of modern provincial and suburban England but one fears Davies presents an only slightly-heightened reality. Circling around the periphery of the dogging scene, shark-like, are the chavs, bigots and thugs who seize every opportunity to attack the participants, whenever and wherever they can. Then there are the regular and unwelcome interventions of the police.
All this hardly seems to make for a stress-free pastime and one is forced to wonder whether The Shep is painting an overly rosey picture of what he sees as an adult, consensual, and essentially harmless activity. But is he deluding himself? Is society illiberal and hypocritical or, in flaunting its rules in such a public manner, do those rebelling against its sexual norms invite a hostile backlash? Is this, in fact, some sort of masochistic self-flagellation? Like feasting with panthers, as Oscar Wilde puts it, is the danger half the fun?
There is a moral and cultural relativism at the heart of The Isle of Dogs which the shocking denouement only serves to underline. There are few answers, and those that there are only beg yet more uncomfortable questions. But, stark as it is, The Isle of Dogs provides an intelligent, thought-provoking and intriguing, if deeply unsettling, read.
‘This is human law: if people want to do something, it’s Impossible to stop them doing it.’