Estimated reading time:8 minutes, 4 seconds
Everyone has a story. What can you do to transform retirement from the lonely years to the busy years? Well, you could find a dog in need, then train it up so you can both visit retirement homes, hospices and hospitals spreading a bit of dog joy. That’s exactly what John WebberÂ did with hisÂ wonderful Battersea rescue dog Max. Interview by Nicola Baird.
Maximilian â€“ or Max – is a sweet black and white Pekinese/Cocker Spaniel cross living in Finsbury Park. Together with his handler/best friend John Webber, Max is a regular Pets-As-Therapy (PAT) visitor to St Josephâ€™s Hospice in Hackney, Priory Hospice in Southgate, nearby old peopleâ€™s homes and the Whittington Hospital. The pair also regularly go to the Royal Hospital at Chelsea where they visit Chelsea Pensioners.
â€śItâ€™s not a very hard job for Max. He has to sit and look cute and have a fuss made of him,â€ť says John getting out a fish skin treat for his adored dog, then moving his petâ€™s basket to a spot in the sitting room where thereâ€™s no draught.
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Three years ago Max was homeless and in a castÂ at Battersea Dogs Home after being hit by a motorbike. His tail had been amputated, his pelvis was broken and the vet was unsure whether the little dog would pull through. Itâ€™s clear John feels emotional thinking about the moment when he first met Max. â€śHe crawled over to me usingÂ his front legs and licked my hands. Of course I had to have him,â€ť says John.
With expert help from Battersea and Johnâ€™s adoring care Max is now settled and happy.
â€śI was a novice dog owner, so I went to Alpha Dog training in Finsbury Park with Sue and Ceri Evans. I thoroughly enjoyed the training â€“ Max passed bronze which was basic; then he passed the silver which was a bit more challenging, and then he passed the Kennel club Gold Citizen Award â€“ which was everything you needed to do for silver, but off lead!â€ť
Max is a Pets As Therapy (or PAT) dog and John a fundraiser for Battersea, so the pair were recently invited to the opening of a new kennels named after the founder of Battersea Dogs Homes, Mrs Mary Teably. Back in 1860 Mary Tealby opened her Temporary Home for Lost & Starving Dogs in a stable yard off Holloway Road (close to where Freightliners Farm is now sited).
Islington has another special link with dog history â€“ Charles Cruft, the founder of Crufts dog show held from 1891 in Islingtonâ€™s Royal Agricultural Halls, better known now as the Business Design Centre. Cruft worked for Sprattâ€™s (a company which made dog biscuits), and used to live in Highbury Grove, N5.
If Maxâ€™s journey to Islington seems far from smooth, Johnâ€™s hasnâ€™t been easy either.
John (originally Joachim) was born in October 1944 to Elsa, the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Marienburgh (modern Malbork), East Prussia, but within six months of his birth his father had been killed in action and he and his mother were forced to flee to the west ahead of the Russian advance – they found themselves penniless refugees living on the outskirts of Hamburg.
Things improved when John’s mother met, and later married, a British Army major, who adopted John and brought the family to England in 1948. They moved into a small cottage next to the River Thames in Sonning, Berkshire.
“MyÂ mother’s story would be worthy of a book were she alive to tell it. She was well-educated and could read and write in English and French, as well as German. She was also a good pianist. She taught me to read, write and do simple arithmetic before starting primary school.Â MyÂ adoptive father, although an older man who liked to appear far sterner than he actually was, could not have been a better or kinder role model for a growing boy,” says John.
“It was hard growing up in England in the 1940s and ’50s with a German mother, having to rebuff constant accusations of being a Nazi and having to comfort a parent often reduced to tears by such hostility. My mother was however never angry; she explained to me that she had lost a father, husband and three brothers to the war and our tormentors had also lost their own fathers, sons and brothers at the hands of her people. This early tension has resulted in me spending much effort as an adult countering the residual prejudices of allied wartime propaganda,” explains John.
WhenÂ John was about 10 years old his father left the army. â€śWe lived in a flat on the other side of Blackstock Road, and for a year I went to Gillespie Road Primary School.
Places John & Max like in Islington
- I love cooking â€“ thereâ€™s a marvellous cheese shop at Highbury Barn, La Fromagerie, and you can buy meat at Godfreyâ€™s that you can bone and roll. I cook for Max once a week, and even make homemade dog treats.
- Finsbury Park is a beautiful transport hub. Max isnâ€™t allowed on the furniture at home (he has a basket in every room) but he sits on my lap when we go on the tube.
- If I want to go for a nice walk I take Max to Clissold Park or follow the New River to Sadlerâ€™s Wells. But mostly I go to Finsbury Park. We walk about 35 miles a week.
- I love food shopping at Chapel Street Market.
Back in Islington
Johnâ€™s adult life has been interesting too. He joined the army and was trained as a civil engineer â€“ which later led to a job with London Underground.
In those early days out of the army he raised money for a deposit on a house by working at an open cast mine in Canada. â€śThey paid well and there was nothing to spend it on,â€ť says John who remembers that time as a mix of hard work and wildlife spotting. â€śI saw polar bears hovering around the rubbish bins, met a musher with four teams of huskies, went in a helicopter to watch vast herds of caribou migrate and saw wolves and eagles.â€ť
Looking out of his N4 window the wildlife is definitely on the quiet side, though Max did hurt a tendon chasing a squirrel…
Now 70, John has two sons, five granddaughtersÂ and even a great granddaughter. â€śI didnâ€™t want to retire at 65. It was a major jolt,â€ť he says. â€śWhen you are working you associate with colleagues and chat. Then suddenly you find yourself with a lot less money to spend and more expenses â€“ like needing to heat the house in winter and paying for tea and coffee! My wife, Jan, died when she was 48, only two years after we moved to Islington, and so when I retired I was lonely. Thatâ€™s one of the reasons I looked for a dog.â€ť
And with that John and I both turn to look at Max, lying comfortably on the rug waiting patiently for his walk â€“ though heâ€™d settle for a treat. Itâ€™s lovely to know that silky-haired Max is Johnâ€™s good friend, but still friendly enough to bring pleasure to the many older folk and patients he visits.
- Would you like to read another Islington Faces interview involving a dog? If so meetÂ Hazel, the Park Theatre dog,Â by clickingÂ here.
Battersea Dogs Home â€“ info about visiting, supporting or adopting a dog or cat on the website here.
Pets as Therapy always needs volunteers, see here.
Alpha Dog Training in Finsbury Park, is on Thursdays & Sundays. Details here.
East Prussia â€“ for more about its history and division in 1945 see Wikipedia hereÂ .
Over to you
If youâ€™d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.
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This blog is inspired byÂ Spitalfields LifeÂ written by the Gentle Author.
If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at theÂ A-Z Â index, orÂ search by intervieweeâ€™s roles or Meet IslingtoniansÂ to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola