Slowly, step by step, I am walking up Casterton Fell in North Yorkshire. My son is somewhere ahead of me. My wife and daughter are – surprisingly – somewhere behind. I’m near the delightful town of Kirkby Lonsdale, overlooking the villages of Casterton and Barbon. I love it around here, in The Dales, but why do I?
As I plod on up this gentle hill, treading in sheep poo, I am reminded that the strongest, most all-consuming urge I have ever had – greater than that to procreate, or to play football, or to study politics – was to own a border collie sheepdog. Aged 13 or 14, seemingly out of nowhere, every waking moment I was filled with the desire to own a border collie. No family member had such a dog: we were not farmers. Like the rest of my family, we lived in the suburbs. I remember repeating the words “border collie” to my parents, ad nauseam, as the answer to every question they asked in order to get my way. One day, to shut me up, they relented.
On what was one of the best days of my life, my mother took me to a scruffy farm in Salford, near to where we lived, to look at some border collie pups. There, I chose my companion, the runt of the litter. I named her “Becky”. (Incidentally, in later years, I dated a few girls named Becky!).
On her first day with us, aged only eight weeks, Becky learned her name, how to sit, and how to retrieve multiple tennis balls. Throughout her life, no amount of entertainment would ever be enough for Becky, for that is the curse – and the pleasure – of owning a border collie bred on a farm.
Gosh, I loved that dog. She went everywhere with me. Even the day that I was arrested, on my first as a lawyer, did she bear witness to it all. To this day, I still have this sentimental photograph of her in my bedroom.
Several years after Becky passed, my father dug out the earliest photograph of a family member, Samuel Gray: a shepherd. Samuel is my great great, great grandfather. His three children had 28 children between them. The only photograph of him is with his border collie. He died in 1900, aged 87. Surely, this is where my border collie-obsession came from: my genes.
For my birthday, many months ago, my wife bought me a DNA assessment kit, from 23andMe. It was recommended by a consultant doctor friend of mine. After a few months, I received my results. I shall spare you most of the details – though they are fascinating – suffice to say that my coeliacs was present and a few other issues, none too dramatic.
What really made me pause for reflection, however, was the genetic analysis that I am likely to weigh far less than the average person. I shall confess that I have always been proud that my weight hasn’t really changed since I was 18, but now I have genetic proof that it is nothing to be proud of! Conversely, deploying identical logic, those who weigh more than average, may also have a genetic reason. Of course, I was aware that we inherit certain characteristics from our parents, but this genetic test, coupled with my bizarre obsession with border collies, reminded me that so much of what we do and how we look is a matter of luck.
If the NHS could conduct these affordable saliva DNA tests, then medicine could be targeted, saving lives, trauma and money. Naturally, none of the main political parties are suggesting such a cost-effective policy, for innovation and big ideas no longer play any role in the three main parties.
If as a society we could consider that many of the decisions that we make, and the way that we appear, are genetically originated, then I suspect that we would be gentler with one another and kinder to ourselves.