Hairy Maclary: A dog's life

By Finlay Macdonald

It’s 30 years since one of our most famous children’s books was first published. Hairy Maclary has been read and loved by millions in its three decades. Here in an extract from a new book, Finlay Macdonald looks back at the life of author Lynley Dodd and her famous companions

Out the gate and off for a walk went Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy. Illustration / Lynley Dodd
Out the gate and off for a walk went Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy. Illustration / Lynley Dodd

Out of the gate and off for a walk went Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy ... And the rest is history. Since its first publication in 1983, Lynley Dodd's simple tale of a small dog and his four-legged friends trotting off for an adventure to "the far end of town" has become a classic of children's literature. There are many of those - books that are critically admired, loved by children and permanently in print. And Hairy Maclary From Donaldson's Dairy is all of these things, for sure. But there are books that transcend even great commercial success and popular acclaim. They are the books that become somehow ingrained in a culture; books that seem so familiar to us now that it's hard to remember what it was like to read them for the first time; books that have become cultural reference points available to all readers, regardless of their age or background. Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy is such a book.

This isn't hyperbole. At the 30th anniversary of its debut, Hairy Maclary can be fairly said to have been read by - or read to - nearly every New Zealander who was a child, a parent, a grandparent, an uncle or aunt, cousin, nephew or niece.

If that isn't virtually everyone, then try to find a stranger who has never heard of Dodd's most famous creation. Good luck.

And while this may seem to be stating the obvious, it can also be said with some certainty that Hairy Maclary has been read by all those people. This is not always the case with classics. Many people can reel off a list of great titles, but how many of them - including the most voraciously literate - can honestly claim to have actually read them all? The sheer democratic accessibility of the story of the little black dog marks it out as among the few books that so many people can legitimately claim to have finished.

You might argue that this is simply a symptom of its brevity and relative naivety. After all, it consists of a mere 17 pictures, 256 words (36 of which consist of six repetitions of "... and [/with] Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy"), and only 30 instances of punctuation (19 commas, eight full stops, seven apostrophes, an ellipsis, two quotation marks and an exclamation point). As a text it is bordering on minimalist prose poetry, which is undoubtedly why so many people can recite it from memory after only a few readings.

But to dismiss Hairy Maclary as "just" a children's book is to overlook the work in its creation. Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous adage that "easy reading is damn hard writing" is no less apposite for a book being aimed at young children. Indeed, children are ruthlessly honest critics and will never persevere with anything that doesn't capture their imagination and carry them along. The key to Dodd's economy and inventiveness as a storyteller resides in her assiduous paring back of words and pictures to their elegant, whimsical essentials.

To stay with the text for now, its metre and rhythm remain scrupulously exact throughout. Dodd never attempts to squeeze in an extra beat or demand of the reader an unnatural emphasis to make a line work. The steady momentum of her syllables reads like clockwork - or a heartbeat - so that the tongue never trips and the pauses for breath come at the right intervals. That the names of the dogs - Schnitzel von Krumm, Bitzer Maloney, Muffin McLay, Bottomley Potts, Hercules Morse - are inventive and funny goes without saying, but they are also more than just easily contrived rhyming words.

Each dog sounds like it looks, and matches its description more than simply phonetically.

Hairy Maclary with his canine friends. Illustration / Lynley Dodd
Hairy Maclary with his canine friends. Illustration / Lynley Dodd

So to the pictures. Again, familiarity may have partially blinded us to their cleverness and deft ingenuity. In the first frame we meet our hero, and everything we will come to know about him is already on the page: the animated gait, the spindly legs, the slightly scruffy mop of his coat, the expressiveness of the eyes. In truth, it should really be eye, singular, for we rarely see Hairy Maclary in full face.

But what an eye! With his shaggy visage, Hairy's expressiveness is somewhat restricted
by his absence of a mouth or jawline. Yet with a minimum of black ink and white space Dodd conjures a host of reactions and emotions from the concentric circles of Hairy's eye, depicting him variously as jauntily eager, inquisitive, tentative, playful, mischievous, frightened and contrite. No one who has observed dogs and their ways could fail to see the essential accuracy of his depiction.

Similarly, the other dogs display their personalities in their faces and eyes. Hercules Morse already looks anxious as he leaps the chain at his front gate. Bottomley Potts is clearly an optimist. Muffin McLay - an old english sheepdog whose fur-obscured face consists of only a button nose and a slightly wry smile line - nonetheless gives off an air of untroubled calm. Bitzer Maloney is cheerfully highly strung. And Schnitzel von Krumm, low slung and in a hurry to keep up, looks eager to please.

The scruffy star went on to feature in 12 books. llustration / Lynley Dodd
The scruffy star went on to feature in 12 books. llustration / Lynley Dodd

Each dog emerges from a gate that echoes and reinforces those perceptions. Hairy himself leaves number 60, with the very edge of its "Donaldson's Dairy" sign just visible to the right of the picture. The roof of the house behind the white picket fence is of red corrugated iron. This is New Zealand. Hercules Morse exits number 54, the stone pillars of its entrance way as substantial as he is. Bottomley Potts emerges from between fine wrought-iron gates, beneath a vine curling around a trellis - elegant, refined. Muffin McLay seems at one with the bushy hedge and rough-hewn wooden gate of number 48, and Bitzer Maloney's twirling tail echoes the curlicues of Bottomley Potts' gates, in counterpoint to the stolid timber fence of number 36. Going by the substantial brick walls and gateposts topped with ostentatious lanterns, Schnitzel von Krumm's home at number 22 is as aristocratic as his name suggests. We never see them, but it is easy to imagine the owners of these animals, human versions of their assorted pets - forever off-stage, as it were, while the stars of the show fill every frame.

Schnitzel von Krumm, despite his posh name, loves his old basket. Illustration / Lynley Dodd
Schnitzel von Krumm, despite his posh name, loves his old basket. Illustration / Lynley Dodd

Finally, there is Scarface Claw, the toughest tom in town. The scars are on his ears, which jut like battle-scarred horns from each side of his substantial head. One eye droops menacingly as he delivers the only line of dialogue in the entire story: "EEEEEOWWWFFTZ!"

It's the big payoff, the page that never gets old for parent and child alike. Again, anyone who's ever owned a cat or even heard a catfight outside their bedroom window at night knows exactly how that elongated yowl and hiss is meant to sound. As a story structure it is the essence of simplicity: a journey, a challenge, and a return home.

One should probably be cautious about placing Hairy Maclary in the Homeric tradition, but his travels are still an odyssey of sorts, albeit of a humble, domesticated kind. It is the symmetry of the tale that is so pleasing; the fact that it ends in bed - where so many of its readership are no doubt already lying as they listen - is as comforting as it is perfect.

Dodd says the process of writing Hairy Maclary was very straightforward - that once she'd settled on its basic structure the words and the pictures flowed naturally. And you can still feel that original creative impulse when you read it now. The story's internal logic and building narrative have a coherence and pleasant inevitability that is deeply satisfying. It just feels right.

The book was virtually an instant hit. In its author's own words: "It took off! It just hit a chord with people." Excellent reviews in the foreign press helped, of course. As did the backing of its publishers in New Zealand and overseas. It was picked up in England almost immediately.

"It was way beyond what any of us expected," Dodd said nearly 30 years later. "I'm still gobsmacked really, even now. Who would have thought that one little dog and his buddies could do that?"

Reproduced with permission from The Life and Art of Lynley Dodd (Penguin $50). Text by Finlay Macdonald, illustrations Lynley Dodd.

- NZ Herald

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