Debora, Gracie, Barney and Dixie
Three times author, celebrated journalist and mother of three fur babies… is there anything Debora Robertson can’t do?
Words and pictures: Simon Glazin
In a world now where we all complain that social media has taken over our brains/lives/existences (note: you do have the option to NOT use social, you know that, right?), there are still some positives of having a platform or two. Prime example: I became obsessed with the Dandie Dinmont Terrier a long time ago - its puff-ball appearance and sausage shape spoke to me - so much so that when I started this site, I knew it was only a matter of time until I found someone willing to be photographed with their Dandie. A simple Tweet later - '“Obsessed with the Dandie Dinmont terrier. Literally Pat Butcher. Anyone have one, or know anyone with one??’ - and there Debora was. Recommended by a friend. In my feed. Ready to be photographed.
In fact my tweet attracted other attention too. Someone pinged me (is that even a word?) an article that detailed the decline in the Dandie. In 2015 and 2016, only 79 and 80 puppies were registered by the Kennel Club making the breed in certain risk of being endangered. According to some news outlets now though, the breed is on the rise, yet it’s still in the top 10 of the rarest breeds in the UK.
Meeting Dobora was a real treat. Having read her work over the years (in the Telegraph, Daily Mail, independent, Times) and seeing her book, Dogs’ Dinners, in almost all bookshops, it was brilliant to put a human to the writing. She welcomed me into her home which, by the way, is fabulously furnished and one of those houses that has so to look at your don’t know where to start. Fun art on the walls, family heirlooms and trinkets lining shelves, a new set of historic-looking chair that, Debora tells me, she is having upholstered imminently. And a kitchen that I didn’t want to leave.
You only have to visit her Instagram page once (@lickedspoon) to realise that Debora’s real love, apart from dogs and her husband, is cooking. Her kitchen is that of a cook. Bowls of delicious fruit and veg, a jar for EVERYTHING, an army of food processors, presumably for different things and a saucepan rack that puts my Tesco-own stack to shame. She offered my freshly baked cookies that smelt divine and a ‘proper’ coffee that tasted amazing. Then, after obsessing over her house, we started talking dogs. Barney is the ‘old boy’, he’s 12 now and is slowing down, and Gracie is 18 months and a big bundle of joy. “Barney is kind and wise are watchful, Gracie is a bit nuts and so darling and very stubborn.” The perfect twosome! Debora tells me about how she started to cook for the dogs, all about her new projects and what her daily routine is - scroll down to see and hear more…
On having dogs: Anyone who shares their life with animals will tell you it’s the unconditional love that binds us to them so completely. When I come in the door, it doesn’t matter if I have just been to the post box over the street or been away for a week, Barney and Gracie are so happy to see me. It’s completely, unequivocally joyful. That saying that everyone is a hero to their dog is spot on – the adulation is quite intoxicating, especially if you have had a tough day, and it goes both ways of course.
Also, as a writer and a journalist, I work with words all of the time, in my head, at my computer, talking to people, trying to form the perfect sentence. It is heaven just to sit down on the floor and play, gabbling nonsense made up words and singing stupid songs to my dogs (at least they seem to appreciate my awful singing). My relationship with my cat Dixie is slightly different but nonetheless loving and profound. I don’t understand why people think cats are aloof. You just need to pay more attention.
On work: I am a journalist and author. I started out working in book publishing which I enjoyed but wasn’t sure I wanted to do it forever. Then my boyfriend at the time got a posting to Moscow so I went with him as an adventure. It was 1990 and everything was changing there. One day you might go to the Bolshoi ballet, the next you might wake up to tanks rolling down the street. I absolutely loved being there and met so many fascinating people, a lot of them journalists. I started to write a few pieces about Russian women for British magazines and then when I came back, I went to City University to do their post grad journalism diploma. From there I got my first job in an interiors magazine, which I loved but the editor was quite a challenge, shall we say.
I went freelance as I never wanted to be dependent on one person for my work or wellbeing ever again and I have been freelance for 25 years now. You can never stop hustling or pitching, which doesn’t come easily to me, but once you realise almost everyone hates it, and there’s no perfect way to do it, that makes it a bit easier. I began writing about houses, then segued into food, then gardens, then dogs. Now I write a lot about modern manners, too, and lifestyle trends (I hate the word lifestyle, but there we are). Sometimes I think my job is like being a social anthropologist of modern domestic life.
On career plan B: I never had a Plan B as I never really had a Plan A, other than I knew I wanted to do something creative.
On career advice: Find what you love and work really hard and a pattern will emerge. Take every opportunity, appreciate the people who help you along the way and – this is an old fashioned thing which is absolutely current – be polite. It sounds obvious, but good manners and a strong work ethic will take you a long way. It will make you stand out for all the right reasons. Also, be curious. It astonishes me how many people are content just to look at the surface of things. Keep digging and asking questions, as much of yourself as anyone else. Seize every opportunity to meet new people and do new things. Don’t get stuck in a rut. You will bore yourself to death. And also all writers of any kind need to read a lot. It is an arrogance not to. I am often surprised when people tell me they want to be writers or journalists and they struggle to tell you the last book they read.
On inspiration to write Dogs’ Dinners: I genuinely never thought I would turn into someone who cooked for their dogs – my eyes nearly rolled into the back of my head when someone took her organic homemade liver treats out of her bag. When I started cooking for my own dogs though, it was just an extension of my normal life. I cook for everyone I love, whether they have two legs or four. Then I suggested to my editor I might write a slightly tongue-in-cheek confessional piece about cooking for my dogs and I was overwhelmed by the response. I got lots of tweets and emails and letters from readers confessing they cooked for their dogs too. I did a lot of radio about it and This Morning called to ask about Barney’s availability… Then Katie Cowan at Pavilion Books called me to ask if I wanted to write a recipe book for dogs and here we are…
“Having them with us helps breaks down barriers as people stop and chat with you and you get to know people in the way you don’t often have the chance to.”
On new work: Well, I have just written a cookbook for cats which will come out later this year. That was more challenging than the dog book as while dogs thrive on a varied diet, cats only really need meat. And I am also writing a book for next spring on modern manners with my friend Kay Plunkett-Hogge, which at the moment consists of us observing absolutely terrible behaviour and screaming at each other THAT’S GOING IN THE BOOK. Field work is extensive.
On her daily routine: I get up when my husband gets up, about 7am, let the dogs out into the garden, check my emails, have my breakfast (yoghurt and fruit. Never put cereal in front of me. It’s for cattle), shower and then take the dogs for their walk. If I have time and am feeling social, I’ll go to Clissold Park where my lovely dog walking posse hang out. One of the best things about owning a dog is it opens up your life in the most wonderful way. If I have less time, I take them to Abney Park Cemetery which is closer to my house and very beautiful in a decayed sort of way. I am back at my desk by about 10.30 and I might be researching or writing a feature, or recipe testing in the kitchen. I try not to go out to lunch as it can really break into the day and I don’t get enough done.
I do go out quite a bit in the evening to work things – when you work in food, it’s pretty social and you meet some fantastic people, as well as a few who are compellingly, fascinatingly awful. I always try to be in bed by 11, reading my book or listening to a podcast (send me your true crime recommendations, people). Though of course, it can always be different. I can be writing that day’s feature in my nightie at lunchtime, spend far too much time messing about on twitter (@lickedspoon) or ‘researching’ things on the internet, following link after link, before eating dinner on a tray in front of the telly, bingeing on some Netflix series or other until past midnight. But whatever I am doing, my dogs are welded to my side.
On the best piece of advice she has received: This is from my mum, who is the wisest person I know as well as being one of the most productive (she is a novelist, and her name is Wendy Robertson). She always says, Good enough is good enough. I am quite a perfectionist and like lots of perfectionists, it can tip over into procrastination. Reminding myself of this helps me get stuff off my desk and to keep moving forward.
On her favourite things about the dogs: I love everything about them! Barney is kind and wise are watchful, Gracie is a bit nuts and so darling and very stubborn. He is 12 and she is 18 months old, so they are quite different but very sweet and patient with each other. Each summer we take them with us to France with us and they get so much attention as there aren’t many Border Terriers, and certainly not many Dandie Dinmonts, there. Having them with us helps breaks down barriers as people stop and chat with you and you get to know people in the way you don’t often have the chance to as tourists. Having them has definitely helped improve my French!
On her favourite dog-friendly things to do in London: We take them to Columbia Road flower market each Sunday morning, where they know all the stall holders. One of the ladies even makes them little presents each Christmas, and they often get a stray bit of bacon from a sandwich or a nibble of a biscuit.
One thing people should know about her: I have a very long memory and never forget a slight or a kindness (it’s a Cancerian thing). Also, I am an Arsenal season ticket holder.