Helen Mort reveals the story behind her new book: Never Leave the Dog Behind
Helen Mort is a writer, trail runner and climber, who lives in Sheffield. She teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and her published work includes poetry, fiction and non-fiction, with a particular interest in women and mountaineering.
Her first poetry collection, Division Street (Chatto & Windus, 2013), was shortlisted for the Costa Prize and the TS Eliot Prize, and won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize.
In 2015, Helen was chosen as one of the Next Generation poets. Her first novel, Black Car Burning (Chatto & Windus, 2019), was longlisted for the Portico Prize and the Dylan Thomas Prize.
Helen is the author of Lake District Trail Running (Vertebrate, 2016) and editor of Waymaking (Vertebrate, 2018). She has written for Alpinist, Climb, the Guardian, the Independent and Radio 3.
She has lived with a variety of dogs, but thinks a house is not a home without a whippet.
Here we find out more about Helen and the book.
What inspired you to write Never Leave the Dog Behind?
A few years ago, I wrote a poem called The Dogs, which was inspired by the two whippets I had at the time, Charlie and Bell. It was about the way that, when you live with animals for a while, you begin to see the landscape around you differently.
When I went running or walking with them I was imagining the scents they trailed, scanning the ground, revelling in their freedom.
That poem has become a book length meditation on dogs and mountains, and how we love to make our pets part of our adventures. I’m fascinated by creatures. I think I’m bored of being a human now; I want to see the world anew.
You have written an impressive array of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Was the experience of writing this book different to everything you’ve written before?
In this non-fiction book, I compiled interviews and researched widely: I visited Chris Bonington in the Lake District, walked with St Bernards in Switzerland and acted as a “body” for search and rescue dogs at Wharncliffe. I enjoyed distilling all that material into short essays and chapters.
But I also tried to let my thoughts roam, like a dog on a fellside, following my instinct. I like to think of it as an instinctive piece of writing.
You currently own a whippet. Have you always owned dogs?
I had a phobia of dogs until I was in my twenties; as a child I was absolutely terrified of them. In the book, I explore that fear a little and talk about how I only really got over it by diving in at the deep end and adopting a whippet.
What is it about dogs that make them such good companions?
If the people I interviewed for the book and the stories I collected are to be believed, it is so many things: Their loyalty and steadfastness, their lack of self-consciousness, their agility and strength, their difference from us… they are ordinary and endlessly fascinating at the same time.
Whilst doing research for the book (such as meeting search and rescue dogs and interviewing climbers), what was the most interesting thing you found out?
That one of the reasons St Bernards aren’t as popular for Alpine rescue anymore is the arrival and use of the helicopter as a rescue tool. Dogs are still vital in search operations, but in terrain as vast as the Alps helicopters give a big advantage and St Bernards aren’t the most economical breed to fit in them. Smaller, lighter dogs are favoured. The history of the St Bernard is incredible and I was so proud to walk with them in Switzerland.
What has writing this book taught you about the relationships between dogs, mountains and people?
That many of us love dogs at least as much as humans. That when we take them to the hills, we’re able to visualise our wilder, freer selves. That we will sacrifice a lot for them but they will sacrifice even more for us.
You love going out into the Peak District. What is your favourite place to go with your dog?
Charlie the whippet is now 15 years old and mostly enjoys a peaceful retirement with my parents in Chesterfield where he can be found curled up on the sofa. I used to love taking him to Birchens though and setting off towards Curbar Gap. He was so nimble over the rocks.
Do you always bring your dog with you every time you do outdoor activities, such as trail-running and climbing?
I hate to admit it because I love them so dearly but whippets are probably not the best choice of dog for an outdoor enthusiast in some ways. Yhey are sprinters rather than endurance athletes. However, I still took my whippets to the tops of many Munros and Wainwrights and ran countless miles on the fells with them. Sometimes at the crag, I’d put them in cosy fleeces and they would curl up in my down jacket and a blanket and wait for me to finish climbing.
Do you ever leave the dog behind?
Shhhh… don’t tell anyone else… we’ve just adopted a rescue kitten. I feel like a terrible traitor to my own book. I never leave the dog behind in spirit though.