I have in front of me a collection of short stories written in 1968 and never previously published. They are contained in a school-issue exercise book with the word Compositions on the front page and the author's name, J. Bennett. He was 11 years old. His story The Great Escape begins as follows:
''Woof!' came the barks of the other dogs in the compound. I was not in high spirits like the other dogs but felt lonely and dejected. Before I go any further I will introduce myself. I am an alsatian called Prince belonging to Mr and Mrs Winkleby."
Stylistically it's an unusual opening for Bennett. Of the other 11 stories, nine begin with the words One day.
Thematically, however, the story is typical because no fewer than four of the 12 stories concern dogs. (Of the others, three are about cricket and most of the rest are improbable adventure stories featuring Bennett's friends Clive and Andrew.)
Also typical of Bennett is the straining after humour. The surname Winkleby isn't funny but you can sense the author's hope that it might be. Such writhing for effect would seem to be born of Bennett's status as the spoilt youngest child and his desperate desire to be liked.
"The reason I felt dejected is because my master and mistress had left me for two weeks at the kennels because they were going away on holiday."
Now, the Bennett family had a dog, called Rebel, whom the young Bennett loved far more than he loved his siblings. Whenever the Bennetts went away on holiday Rebel would be placed in kennels where he would pine and refuse food. On the family's return the sight of the emaciated Rebel affected Bennett as deeply as anything in his childhood and one suspects that the emotional wound may never completely heal.
Evidence of the psychological intensity of this experience is that two of the other dog stories in this collection also feature kennels and the plot of all three is identical. Here Bennett lays it out without preamble. "I planned an escape to get out and go back to my master and mistress."
Here, obviously, is literature as balm and fantasy. On the written page no dogs are allowed to suffer.
One would think that the emotionally vulnerable Bennett might immediately reunite Prince with his owners, but, safe in the knowledge that as author he has the moral universe of the story under control and can guarantee the happy ending, he makes the reader wait a little.
"When the keeper (a very nice man) came with my dinner I started growling menacingly and slowly advancing towards him. But unluckily for me he was a man who had worked with dogs for a long time so he just put down my dinner and walked off."
But Bennett is psychologically incapable of keeping this up for long. He is still the child who couldn't watch a Lassie movie or even the cartoon of 101 Dalmatians. Though he knew the plots would turn out well he found the dogs' distress literally intolerable. Predictably then, in the very next sentence, introduced by Bennett's favourite adverb, he gives the dog just what it wants.
"Then I nearly did a head over heels in surprise. He had left the gate wide open…I gobbled up my dinner and ambled off."
The implausibility of the experienced kennel hand leaving the gate open is not considered, nor yet of a dog rolling head over heels. The point is the emotional release of both dog and author - and of course the first person narration only underlines the sense of identification that Bennett feels. And note how before leaving the kennel he compensates for the meals that his actual dog refused.
Two sentences later Prince has found his way to the holiday resort. Time for Bennett's signature adverb again.
"Then across the road I saw my master and mistress. I ran across the road heedless of traffic and squealing breaks to meet my master and mistress. They made an awful fuss of me and I never went to the kennels again."
It's the Cinderella ending, a canine happily-ever-after, a consolatory myth in a fallen world.
The only other person to read this story, Mr Tucker, Bennett's form teacher, corrected the spelling of brakes and put a tick in the margin at the end but otherwise didn't comment.