IN a few weeks’ time, my new book of poems, The Dogs, will be published by Smokestack Books.

This book came about from an encounter. Every day for over ten years, I passed a dog tethered in a yard on Low Lane near where I lived. He was guarding a pile of scrap metal. His only shelter was a corrugated sheet. He had a bowl of rainwater and his leash allowed him little freedom.

Every days two men would appear in a flat backed van, piled high with old fridges, broken microwaves, burnt out pans, rusted toasters, disused brackets, and other metal bric-a-brac. They would unload the van. It normally took a few minutes. Then one of them would open a tin of unbranded dog food and pour it onto the floor near to the dog. The dog would eat this greedily, then the men would get back in the van and drive off. They never touched the dog or spoke to him. That interaction was his only human contact. In the winter I saw him shivering beneath his shelter. When the frost came I saw icicles cling to his matted fur.

I rang animal charities but they weren’t interested. What the men were doing was not illegal. I thought about rescuing the dog, but I already had a dog and he would be disturbed by the presence of another. I thought about liberating the dog, opening the gate and cutting the rope, but how would he survive on his own? I thought about putting the dog out of his misery, but I’m not a killer. I had nightmares about that dog. I would wake up in the middle of the night, tortured by the image of this creature. I thought about trying to reason with the men, but I knew they would just give me a load of abuse. From their perspective, he was none of my business. In short, I wracked my brains trying to find a solution, but none came. Then one day, I passed the yard, and the dog had gone. I felt relief. Had he died? At least he would suffer no more.

But then, a few weeks later, I saw his replacement. They had another younger dog, tethered to the same post. I never walked past that yard again. This book is dedicated to the dog of Low Lane, and all the dogs around the world that never experience warmth, adequate shelter, or comfort.

I started to think about writing a book about dogs. I wanted it to be in three parts. The first would deal with the various origin myths of dogs, their pre-history, their place in the world before they were co-opted into our society, and how those early societies regarded them.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The Dogs looks at the past, present and future of dogsThe Dogs looks at the past, present and future of dogs (Image: Michael Stewart)

The second would look at dogs today, beginning with the formation of the Kennel Club by MP Sewallis Shirley in 1873, up to the present day, focusing on the various deformities we have imposed through the concept of ‘pure’ breeding and dysgenics.

Finally, the book would explore an imagined future where dogs have developed the power of speech and are demanding rights of autonomy. In this imagined future, two main protest groups form: the UnderDogs, and Der UberHünd. The first being a peaceful, non-violent direct-action group. The second being an ‘any means necessary’ radical splinter from this group that advocates a more extreme approach.

This, then, is a book about dogs, but it is also a book about us. What we have done, continue to do, and why we go on doing it.

Reviews for The Dogs: Steve Ely: “Michael Stewart’s paean to man’s-best-friend and his unflinching dissection of the human-canine relationship is a brilliantly original book-length sequence: a tour-de-force of visionary imagination that is at once apocalyptic and analytical, compassionate and chaotic, darkly comedic- and deadly serious. In this grenade of a book, Stewart has done for Dog what Ted Hughes did for Crow.”

Helen Mort: “In this inventive collection, Michael Stewart approaches Rilke’s proposition that, with dogs, we have created ‘a soul for which there is no heaven’. Origin stories, recent histories and a future when hierarchies are subverted mingle in an affecting, heady narrative that makes us think about human cruelty. These poems are exciting, exhilarating, moving and profound.”

The book has inspired an art exhibition of paintings and sculptures by Louis and Moira Benoit. The exhibition runs from July 1 to August 12 at the Everybody Gallery, Artworks, Halifax.

* The Dogs is published by Smokestack books on July 1. It’s available to pre-order now from bookshops.

Michael Stewart’s debut novel, King Crow, was the winner of the Guardian’s Not-the-Booker Award and has been selected as a recommended read for World Book Night.

His other books include two further novels: Café Assassin and Ill Will: The Untold Story of Heathcliff; two short story collections: Mr Jolly and Four Letter Words; two poetry collections: Couples and The Dogs; and a hybrid memoir: Walking the Invisible: following in the Brontës’ Footsteps.