Growing up I became acutely aware that the men of the family enjoyed gambling; horses, dogs, football, cards - if there was a turn of chance or luck then they'd have a few shillings on it. My Dad had five brothers, and more fantastic, larger than life uncles a young kid couldn't ask for. One in particular, my uncle Gordon, had a lifelong love of betting on greyhound racing. Unannounced, he turned up one day at our crumbling tenement flat in Maryhill, Glasgow, with a smile as wide as the river Clyde,
"Our fortune is here! Our fortune is here!" He proclaimed.
Dad and I stared at the family fortune as it raised its leg and pissed against the coat-stand in the hallway. A black greyhound my uncle had won in a poker game in Partick.
"This dog is the fastest thing ever! Faster than speedy Gonzales!" his big, fat, burly frame exclaimed.
Soon, the message filtered from one bar to another, the uncles 'gathered' at our place, and through the haze of a sitting room filled with cigarette smoke (which was probably stifling its chances of winning a walk to the park let alone a dog race) they admired 'Blackford Bert' or 'Bertie' as he was known on non racing days.
"He looks stunning, a real champion," my uncle Jimmy said between puffs on his cigarette and the others chokingly agreed.
I didn't quite get it - to me he looked less stunning and more stunned as he lay on his back in front of the coal fire with his legs in the air. I was sure none of them knew anything about dogs and yet there they were proclaiming that this dog - which had only so far walked from where uncle Gordon had won it and then climbed the stairs to our tenement flat, was the fastest dog alive.
So, 'wee Rory' was tasked along with uncle Gordon to keep Bertie fit and healthy until it could be entered in a race at Shawfield Stadium. Uncle Gordon had read somewhere that swimming was good training for dogs and so that week, off we went to hire a rowboat on Bingham's pond.
We bundled the dog onto the boat and rowed out into the middle at which point Uncle Gordon issued the highly technical dog training command "Throw him in then Rory".
"Yes!" He yelled, "It's a good distance to the bank from here - this will be a really good swim for him."
"Uncle Gordon, isn't the dog meant to be moving?" It seemed to me to be perfectly still.
"Aye Rory - it's dog paddling just now. It'll get its bearings in a minute and start swimming to shore."
"It's not moving at all Uncle Gordon."
"Don't be silly boy of course it's moving, it has to or it'll drown."
We both peered at it over the side of the rowboat. It was then the realisation dawned that the pond wasn't deep enough for a dog to swim in - it was just standing there, shivering, staring at us both accusingly, water almost reaching its underbelly.
"Damn!" Uncle Gordon muttered.
"What do we do now?" I asked as our boat started drifting further away from Bertie who was still standing there, traumatised.
"You'll have to get in the water Rory. We can't row the boat towards him - we might hit his ribs or legs!"
Reluctantly I became man overboard and started wading toward Bertie while urging "C'mon Bertie". The water was freezing. Bertie started ploughing his way toward me and from there I led him to the boat. Between my uncle Gordon and I he was just too heavy to lift out of the water back into the boat. Uncle Gordon jumped into the water too and together we raised him up high enough to put him back in the boat - at which point he gave the boat momentum and it started sailing away from us. A small crowd had gathered on the shore watching these two stupid people with an intelligent dog - well it was obviously intelligent and they were obviously stupid - they were in the water while it was seated comfortably in the boat.
We should have taken it as a sign, an indicator that 'our fortune' may not be what we hoped for. But no, we didn't. Race day at Shawfield was only a week away and every uncle, every aunt, every cousin, every niece and nephew had already been tipped to set aside their rent money that week - The Grants were about to get rich with the biggest racing certainty ever.
Part II can be found at the following link - "C'mon Bertie"