OK, I’m at Crufts and it’s insane.
Twice canceled by Covid’s unstoppable serotonin harvest, the world’s premiere dog show is back from the dead and ruling over the vast space of the Birmingham NEC for four days, until the traditional climax with the Best in Show competition on Sunday. Gargoyle-faced squishy little pugs, moon-eyed panicky Chihuahuas, deerhounds who appear to be in a perpetual state of mourning – they’re all here. Oreo milkshake-colored spaniels swoosh around your legs, coats liquid in their silkiness. Jumbotrons flash the best products to buy your favorite beast. I have an eight-minute chat with a Scottish guy named Keith about how to groom a Golden Retriever until the beast reaches the desired level of heavenly softness, and it’s so soothing it makes my brain drool. Gordon Setters on reverb, nine in a row. I bloody love dogs and now I’m in some weird alternate realm in which they have overrun the humans – not in some satirical we-take-our-dog-to-a-psychiatrist kind of way, but for real.
This experience pretty quickly renders you cosmically a shambles, and it’s amazing. Amid walls of leashes, walls of treats, walls of extremely kinky collars, you hunt for non-dog stimulus to get your paws – I mean, feet – on stable terrain. You find out this is a weirdly fruitless task, like wrestling fog. I speak to a man who communicates with his beautiful ghost-white dog in Finnish. Shake hands. Good boy. It’s psychedelic: you’re on a planet of dogs.
Stupidly, this is not what I imagined. I figured it would be a relatively chill experience. I mean, when I thought about Crufts, a glossy AF collie wearing a monocle and top hat would pop up in my mind and wink at me. I’m going on the last day (Gundog Day!) and I’ll zone out watching dogs get prizes for their exquisiteness. I’ll watch dogs leap gleefully over those obstacle courses that look like early Matthew Barney installations, get a pic with a bearlike and beautiful Bernese Mountain Dog like he’s a famous rapper, bag some obscure merch, train home: no biggie.
Few things are as British as Crufts – maybe roast dinners served at lonely motorway service stations, Original Pirate Material by The Streets, and John Lennon reciting that “Once-upon-a-tarmac” poem in Get Back. It’s been a scheduling mainstay on British TV for yonks, darling, a reliable locus of cuteness overload and wonder. (Later I’ll regret not meeting Clare Balding, the official queen of Crufts’ TV coverage, with her Princess Di circa 1986 tribute coiffe impervious to weather or time.) Crufts illustrates several crucial aspects of the nation’s character, some great and others totally not: the weird fealty to tradition in all its forms, the adoration of animals above all else, and the immortal affection for anything eccentric. I guessed, like a lot of extra-British things it would be kind of haughty, ridiculous, and exclusive – even though I couldn’t have been more hyped if Xmas had married Halloween. They’ll probably play The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks all the time to mask the constant undulant noise of dogs panting, I thought. I was wrong.
To quote the dying replicant dude at the end of the original Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” At Crufts I see kids practicing resuscitation methods on a plastic dog carcass with a hyperreal pink tongue. (It turns out a dog’s pulse is strongest in its groin.) A bloodhound snuffles at my Comme Des shirt: the suction is so intense he can probably vacuum me whole. A Pyrenean Mountain Dog chills on a pillow the size of a parking space like a heavily medicated polar bear. A bat-eared Russian Toy gazes at me with saucer eyes so deep and lonely I feel he’s reading the contents of my soul.
The things you wouldn’t believe occur not in the main arena – which is dystopian in a fun way, the whole space is blacked-out – but in the sprawling complex of halls surrounding it. There’s no point even trying to go through the purgatorial airport-style security process it takes to reach the main arena, where most of the TV/livestream content happens. These halls are a goldmine.
The last day is like the climax of a four-day rave, with its artificial light, noise, recycled air, people with neon grins because they’re swept up in serious euphoria, others looking spiky and unapproachable in corners. People are eating those pucks of fried sugary goo that are supposed to be donuts, people are drinking in the Wetherspoons. The mood, basically, is constantly fluctuating good-time chaos with a discreet undertow of hysteria. The behavior range of hounds includes eerily well-behaved in the style of children in horror movies; still and mute as sculpture; playfully bouncy; and severely freaked, shivering and staring as if they’re mid-bad trip and somebody’s waving a knife in their face. Do the dogs think they’re in heaven? A lot of them look like they’re on comedowns, lying there in velvety puddles with their eyes half-open, aching for a real sleep. Pretty soon into stroking a bunch of Weimaraners gazing at me like the ghosts of aristocrats, you get doped, the surrounding world is reduced to a murmur.
What do these dreamy beasts do to your brain? Their humans tell you how great the dogs are and you really feel it. Something inside glows. Any dreams of bopping up to people like a goofy interloper and asking naïve questions in my best Louis Theroux (“Are you OK?” “Does that mean you prefer dogs to people?”) are put to sleep. The country folk present are cheery in the way that postmodern anthropology has taught us to expect, as if they spend all their time whittling little goat sculptures in sleepy fields at sundown or something. But maybe this isn’t some vast affective gulf; maybe they just spend a lot of their time around supremely adorable dogs and thus have ready access to one of the finest organic highs ever, all the time.
Some of the humans are enviably sedate, kicking back on deck chairs with ciders and pre-mixed G & Ts like they’re spending a mellow summer afternoon by a lake. Some, though, are nightmare schoolteacher severe. The difference turns out to be majorly dependent on whether you misidentify their dog – a sin roughly equivalent to saying “really cute raccoon” to somebody about their baby. A whippet is not the same as a greyhound is not the same as a Sloughi. Hardcore “No Trespassing” stares burn from bald men who look like they have a stash of human brains in their freezer. The indoors is the outdoors. Nowhere else is like this.
Nobody talks about how Crufts is a deeply unappreciated fashion event. The aesthetic known as Cruftscore comes in multiple forms. Some trainers and breeders favor the classic practical fieldwork attire you see in Country Life: the sensible fleece, the corduroy trouser, gilets the color of the sky on a winter’s morn. Baronial dudes in waistcoats and flash bowties with the kind of complexion you only get if you’ve been in a long-term relationship with cognac swagger around, shaking hands with their competitors. Slick Irish guys are chatting in hardy tweed coats. There are also looks galore that would be termed in idiomatic British English as extremely snazzy, whether to wow the judges or just out of celebration. The snazziness manifests in the use of sparkle as a special effect. A special cadre of ladies wear bespoke merch – jackets with spaniels outlined on the back in a constellation of radioactive rhinestones. Hot. Best are the handlers who, probably in accordance with some old-school sumptuary law unique to Crufts, get to dress up like supernatural 19th century poachers. It’s all about Vivienne Westwood-style plaid coats and sly Good Witch slippers.
Dogs are eternal style archetypes, too. St. Bernards are lumbering kindhearted stoners. Golden Retrievers are, like, really happy angels. Pick the right one to suit how you feel inside; it’s your cute daemon, wagging its tail. Greyhounds are melancholy intellectuals, which is why it felt so right when people started dressing them in turtlenecks to keep the cold off their bones. And dog fashion is an extremely fruitful area. A breeder of Irish wolfhounds – picture a huge and thoughtful dog version of Gandalf – shows me their heavy metal collars emblazoned with a swirly Celtic motif “to honor their ancestry.” Another subsection of greyhounds (good luck keeping track of ALL THE BREEDS) wears gold collars with thick tassels, flamboyant as Russian Orthodox monks. An insane angel princess poodle gets its fluffy white fur styled into plaits in front of an audience who look understandably bewitched, as if they expect the dog to narrate the experience like a supermodel in one of those Vogue beauty routine videos on YouTube. If you ask to take a picture of a dog, their human will immediately cajole them into adopting a couple of classic stances – the regal profile, or the head-on and heroic. They’re so proud.
Everybody here is alike in their total devotion to dogs. Even if the major demographic on show is white and ageing, the vibe isn’t nationalistic: Crufts is about something deeper. A lot of the humans know each other well, or on a level of competitive familiarity that comes from catching each other at multiple countrywide events, like the parents of kids gifted at a niche pursuit. Some of the dogs’ stalls are festooned with ribbons in exploding kaleidoscope colors, support cards, and glittery tchotchkes from other pals in the game. One woman (handler of an ex-Crufts winner) says she’s been coming for forty years. A girl insistent on showing off her sleepy spaniel’s hot fangs tells me three generations of her family have come here with their hounds. Crufts is its own world but it’s about the spooky and magical love that exists between humans and dogs in all its manifestations: obsessive, kind of sinister, gentle, adulatory. It’s in the blood. I believe in Dog.