By human standards, dogs’ lives are considered very brief, something their owners’ lives will encompass and have to move on from, the awful effect of death of a beloved canine so unendurable that many humans afterwards proclaim: ‘I can never go through that again.’ Yet when you consider their lifespan more carefully, even just taking a decade as a conservative estimate, it’s striking what changes in their family circumstances our canine companions have actually witnessed and, of course, the powerful effect they have made on us resonates well after they have left us. Just think what you were doing and where you were ten years or so ago.
When the Great and Original Newman Noggs was born, the Jaguar Land Rover plant was a bustling place near his family home but curiously still quite rural in its own way for a Solihull kennel. In moving to London, he benefitted from the last vestiges of a social system Mrs Thatcher soon dismantled but he ended his days back in the Midlands in a lovely Victorian house, buried in a private bluebell wood within the garden where he lies to this day. Willie, his closest friend, was born in the Black Country, enjoyed regular visits to a country cottage but soon came to live in London too, always happy within Epping Forest and, like Newman, was a school dog through and through. The last few years of his life were spent making people smile within a south of England grammar school, enriching the daily lives of the students. In a final twist, he was laid to rest in a little London garden south of the Thames. Such is the whirligig of time and place.
The biographies of Uncles Johnny and NuNu create their own memorial kaleidoscope of joy and sorrow, economic change, views and viewpoints, ups and downs. All of them have eaten their dinners in extraordinary places, watched by a whole host of friends and called all parts of the country home; remembering this makes remembering them poignant and often painful, but it is part of the measurement of our relationship with them all. When we contemplate the eventual death of a dear dog – which will happen several times over a dog-owning lifetime – so much of life is brought into sharp relief. Such is the unique bond from which both species benefit and which makes experiencing such sweet sorrow so worthwhile.
An undistinguished little photo, I know, but this is quite an historic one, for us in Northumberland, at least. For there on the low branch of the young crab apple is our dear young Robin, one of the pair which live behind our shed and which, over this last winter, have become increasingly friendly and trusting, as well they might, considering how well we feed them. What is extraordinary is that little Robin is here seen guarding one of his fledglings – yes, fledglings – who appeared in the garden with the adult pair this morning, mirabile dictu, despite the recent very cold spell, indeed the snow with which their nest must have been touched only last week.
Wood anemone and frittiliary are still in flower; the sparrows are yet to pair and nest; the martins have not as yet arrived here in the frosty north: never mind – Robin Redbreast’s little family look remarkably well and happy. These pictures show only one of the blessed creatures, sensibly snuggling between the back rails of the bench and enjoying the blessed warmth of welcome afternoon sun. Under the crab apple, the other fledglings dart about – sometimes hopping on a branch, or balancing on the dead ferns by the pond, or popping out for a meal-worm feast, coached and encouraged by he robins whose trust is such an honour to have won. Spring, Summer and Winter: we will do everything we can to help you all to thrive!
Because Barnaby had recently been so ill, it looked unlikely that anyone would be going to Crufts this year. However, three weeks after his operation he had clearly made a complete recovery: the seaweed blockage and infection were happily just memories, his tummy wound was completely healed and his strength restored, so our dear vet told Barnaby that a well-earned change of scene was just what he needed. Instead of manning the golden retriever stand at Discover Dogs, as he usually does with Newman, he spent Gundog day enjoying the sights, most stunning among them the giant Frontline spaniel, which came as a great shock to most passing dogs, as he moved about encouraged by the presenter demonstrating the dangers posed both to dogs and our homes by fleas and their eggs. Inside the giant spaniel was an actor who could only stay there for short periods because it was so stifling and because of the strain on his legs and back from the tortuous pose he had to adopt in order to look so realistic. Designed and made by a specialist firm used by the BBC, the spaniel proved a popular draw, teaching and selling in equal measure.
Barnaby loved sharing himself with the people he met, behind and in front of all the stands, as well as being useful as an example of his breed. He patiently allowed a goldie breeder whose dogs were over on the show benches to use him as a model, so she could try on him various sizes of the special harness she was after. Who knew there was so much choice, and how precise one has to be to get exactly the right fit for a retriever’s muzzle. For what it’s worth, size 3L in the Dogmatic harness is perfect for the breed! We have never used such an item, always having been trained to heel with a slip lead – pulling isn’t a family trait, so to speak, though it’s obviously something far too many dogs do. Barnaby’s gentle nature was much praised, but it’s a pleasure to do a dog-owner a favour; Crufts is all about sharing one’s love of dogs, telling stories, and bonding over similar canine experiences. One meets so many visitors there who have lost their own beloved , and who long to reach down and feel the warmth and comfort of a gentle retriever once again.
Though we glanced at the scores of entries being judged in the golden retriever rings, it was hard to ignore the fact that most of these qualifiers (an achievement in itself) were completely wasting their time as there are so few top prizes and, as is the case with most breeds, the winning kennels seem increasingly familiar in every show one attends. This magnificent cocker spaniel came all the way from Sweden in order to compete but, despite wins throughout his home country and across the Baltic states, he met with no success at Crufts. One honestly does wonder how the majority of exhibitors maintain their enthusiasm for the contest when it is so difficult to supervene on such a stage. Meeting him after he’d left the show benches after 4pm was one of the highlights of this trip, however; though tired from his day on duty, he sat atop his wheeled crate, born proudly aloft by his well-dressed human family, who love and treasure him, no matter what – precious winners all, as someone famous once said.
Although a couple of years ago I learnt the hard way, our lovely vet made it quite clear yesterday that the terrible dangers posed by the seaweed we get along our Northumberland shore are not generally appreciated by those whose dogs habitually gleefully devour it. Not, that is, until there is a problem. And boy have we had another problem this week.
Both of our retrievers are obsessed by eating the thick kelp we get on the beach here (and which the stupid tourists also keep bringing up into the field). On our morning beach trundle, Barnaby is constantly trying to get his muzzle off and eat it, succeeding from time to time just by determination when the fancy takes him. On Monday’s morning run, Kemo Sabe couldn’t get over to him quickly enough when she realised what he had done and prevent him from swallowing what was in his mouth. Usually there are no consequences but . . .
The first signs that something was wrong came on Tuesday morning, when he had sudden onset vomiting, though he had nothing in his stomach to being up other than saliva, though the reflex was very dramatic and he declined visibly, not wanting to eat anything. After consulting the vet and being reassured over the phone early on, Kemo Sabe soon rang again as poor Barney continued to try to be sick and because he was just not himself. A hundred pounds’ worth of treatment later she brought him home, reassured that little seemed wrong that would not soon be rectified but the following day, he was worse and by then hadn’t eaten for two days. He looked and seemed so despondent, so before the vet was even open, off they went to seek further investigation.
Although X-rays didn’t indicate the presence of a foreign body in Barnaby’s gut, the vet thought it prudent to investigate surgically because she could see gas in the ileum; inside they found the two chunks of seaweed in the picture above, and the damage already inflicted by the spiky root. Peritonitis. As you may recall, a few years ago I also had seaweed removed from my tummy, but by comparison that was a fairly straightforward (and much cheaper) procedure. Barnaby’s operation was much more complex, involving flushing the gut and removal of some damaged bowel. He spent two whole days on intravenous medication and liquids and is now on six different types of pills but, thank God, he is happily hungry again, enjoying easy walks on the lead and seems to be making a good recovery. The only thing that matters is that he has returned to us – with a relatively small scar, considering that his digestive system has had to be rearranged – when, for an anxious post-operative time, we all thought we might lose him. Dearest Barnaby, welcome home. I can’t tell you how worried we all were.
Before dawn on Monday, we emerged on to a Bamburgh beach cloaked in darkness. Despite the lengthening days, and an encroaching dawn, it might as well have been midnight that morning; the night had been so overcast. Only a little sliver of the moon was initially visible. Almost immediately, though, a great glowing red disc burnt through and presented itself. The wondrous blood moon – the supermoon; the harvest moon; the wolf moon – call it what you like. Standing proud at last, in contrast with the cloud cover, the moon intruded and illuminated all at once. Without hesitation, we spoke aloud Nick Bottom’s innocent words, ‘Sweet moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams. / I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright.’ Though we didn’t see the eclipse up our way, we were delighted to witness the enlarged and unexpected presence of our earth’s special friend, the secret life of which does so much to make our trundles possible at all, lighting those darkest moments before the dawn.
The Elizabethans thought of the moon as a planet in its own right and, though they were misled about that, the fact is that our moon has a profound effect on the life of both the earth and us upon it. The moon is the ruling influence and measure of all things in Shakespeare’s magical masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and just as the Mechanicals employed it as a torch by which to rehearse in secret, we boys rely upon it to negotiate the icy rocks, check out distant strangers – canine or human, steer clear of pools left by the moon’s own tides and find our way to safety up the dunes when the waves are pressed by tidal surges. Whether blood-red, cold or watery, whether we enjoy revels beneath its gaze, whether moonshine blesses our endeavours or casts us into despair or madness, the moon’s transformative power is always affecting us. We both listen to it, and thank it for what Bottom calls its ‘gracious, golden, glittering gleams’.
By the time we reached Seahouses, the clouds had cleared completely and the most beautiful dawn had completely chased that sunniest of moons into oblivion. This hand in hand the instruments of illumination work upon us, bringing us hope and life, and making a ‘good grace’ of what might otherwise seem an unknown fear – what the new day might bring.
The other day, as though by magic, and for the first time ever, suddenly, out of nowhere, Johnny Heron appeared by the pond. It was a Sunday morning, bleak and cold, and the young bird was obviously hungry and a bit desperate, for there are only a couple of tiny frogs who call our pond their home – and there have never been any fish, and they have now taken shelter under their china cloche beneath the rhododendron. When Kemo Sabe glanced unthinkingly out the kitchen window, to keep tabs on the bird food situation, she did a double take: how big and bold and beautiful the lovely bird looked; what a striking presence, cast against the uninspiring winter ferns, the twigs and empty trees, a hundred dull greys, the backdrop to the heron’s living plumage. It returned early in the afternoon but hasn’t been seen here since. It has obviously read the runes intelligently as we can offer little of interest for it, unlike the tits, sparrows, wood pigeons, starlings and goldfinches who cling close to us through thick and thin. Another interruption came the other afternoon when a sparrowhawk swooped across the front garden bird-feeder, but the sparrows were too quick for it and there was no harm done.
As we look out at the sleeping garden, where the birds have now mostly finished their breakfast, we see reflected John Clare’s thoughts in ‘Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter’; his picture of the natural world at rest beautifully complements the still, midwinter scene which – in a world in turmoil – besets us this meteorologically-quiet Christmas Eve:
I love to see the old heath’s withered brake Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling, While the old heron from the lonely lake Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing, An oddling crow in idle motion swing On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig, Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed. Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread; The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn And for the haw round fields and closen rove, And coy bumbarrels*, twenty in a drove, Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain And hang on little twigs and start again.
You can hear it beautifully read by Sam West here:
Inside two of this year’s Christmas cards came awful news one dreads: of the death of two individuals with whom one has only yearly contact but whose continued existence reinforces one’s sense of identity. From season to season we trust that life will somehow simply continue on its way, onwards and maybe even upwards, as we confront the chaos and confusion that beset us all from time to time. We unthinkingly assume those we knew along our way are striving manfully alongside us, albeit at a distance, from year to year; a gracious presence, imperceptible yet strong; a network of shared experiences and memories holding us all, far and near, together. But alas it isn’t so and, as we grow older and the losses increase, people we took for granted leave the stage in the personal theatres of our lives. Reading of the deaths of those we recall fondly – some once very close to us, before time, space and circumstance intervened – is especially sad within the context of receiving a Christmas card, but in another way so to do is actually quite in keeping.
For this, the shortest day of the year comes, in liturgical terms, at the close of a mournful period of waiting – to the secular world, the overlooked season of Advent – which, like Lent in the Orthodox Church, is marked by weeks of fasting and prayer in preparation for the celebration to come. This period of waiting – longing even – is pointedly evoked in depictions of St John the Baptist , slumped upon a rock, the birds going about their business oblivious to his quiet distraction, even boredom, waiting for the end of the beginning. His expression is a picture in itself.
In Bosch’s painting above, as in this by one of our very favourite artists – Geergen tot Sint Jans – natural images abound – birds and trees, flowers and shrubs, even hills and water. The life that endures, even if only underground. We here at the darkest and most depressing time of year, also desperately search for light of all kinds, especially when those we know and love are far away, some now beyond worldly reach. On Christmas Eve it will be exactly six months since the celebration of the birth of John the Forerunner and Baptist, a Saint so central to the Orthodox faith that he has no less than six feast days. His miraculous birth, to aged parents, comes at the summer solstice when the sun is high and strong but since then it has decreased and nature has lost its confidence. Only now, when so much seems sad, in this season of contrasting joy and sadness, when divided friends and families lean towards each other, does the hidden glory begin to increase. The Forerunner knew this: whatever our struggle, we would do well to emulate his quiet patience, indeed his fervent hope. For beside him lies the little lamb, waiting just as patiently for him to gather his thoughts and get on with his purpose in life.
There’s a lot of Wilfred Owen about right now; unsurprisingly, given that he has become the reach-for voice of the First World War in the popular imagination. Cohorts of British schoolchildren have emerged from their GCSEs familiar with his war poetry, their memories indelibly inscribed by the extraordinary lines and images they have tortured into life once again over years of study. Would that the media cognoscenti knew more about the culture to which they casually refer, as occasion arises, in the course of their work. For example, ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth’ is neither the title nor the subject of Owen’s poem – to be read aloud by a famous celebrity – ponderously introduced in plummy tones by a recent BBC presenter. It might as well be, though, for all the presenter really cares about the art so casually promulgated before an audience probably assumed to know little and care less: like sequins on a utilitarian gown, the ‘meaningful’ can be sprinkled on the meaningless, the only thing that matters being that the gesture towards the high-brow has been made. It is so easy to point, and think a point has been made. It’s that war of attrition, the one we fought for nothing: bring on the Wilfred Owen; pick a poem, any poem.
But there are as many voices of the Great War (for that is how its contemporaries spoke of it, not as some build-up to the next one) as there were participants; when it comes to those who responded in poetry, there are almost as many again and this powerful commemoration of the 1918 Armistice provides an opportunity to think again about the way the Great War affected and indeed continues to affect us all. The loyal and patriotic citizens who rose without hesitation to confront an ambitious, militaristic Germany were of course denied the prism of the Second World War through which to view their undertaking – a four year sacrifice, and perhaps for them not the ultimate one. It is all too easy to feel that the cold, the wet, the rats, the gas, the ghastly disfigurements, the loss of pals – all the horrors we have heard and seen and are so keenly reflected in Owen’s poetry are the point on which we should dwell. Because we are horrified, it is tempting to think that the depiction of what is horrifying is the true representation, perhaps even the only point for a modern sensibility. But in truth, all human life was there, and we should remember that. Then was as complex as now.
Kemo Sabe’s own grandfathers each spent four years in the Army, away from their wives and young families, and each returned to tell the tale – or not to tell: their choice, as the case may be. The elder, a Boer War veteran and keen member of the Yeomanry, was already in France with his battalion preparing for hostilities before war was even declared. In due course, his eldest son enlisted too; he was shot through the cheek, blessedly survived and wore his dashing scar through what was to be a long, fulfilling life. For both grandfathers, the scars were more complex: the reason the first never worked again was because there was need for fewer furriers after the war and he had no drive to find another job. He preferred the Army to ordinary life and would have stayed there if age had not prevented him; he only missed contributing to the next war because he died before it, from drinking and smoking too much. For such a life, and the war experience which lies behind it, that poem remains as yet unwritten.
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday came a brief but very welcome contribution from an unexpected but familiar figure, John Simpson, notable foreign correspondent and BBC News world affairs editor, who has reported from scores of countries and many war zones. As the western world focuses its collective memory on the centenary of the 1918 Armistice, Simpson quietly reflected in a personal capacity on the effect of the Great War on two undistinguished members of his own family: ordinary men, both of whom survived the war, like the ordinary grandfathers mentioned above, but in their own multifarious ways marked for ever by their experiences. Simpson described the first of his great uncles, once a handsome, proud man – who lived until the 1960s – as so seriously injured that he neither worked nor had another relationship again. The other, from the less respectable side of the family, was a short, pub regular whose wartime experiences were integrated more subtly into a normal way of life. Of him, Simpson said, ‘He knew the poems of Wilfred Owen. He knew them, and he didn’t like them’. The picture Owen painted of soldiers’ lives – tortured victims, the by-now cliché of lions led by donkeys – was not how he saw himself and his comrades during their experiences in the trenches; the choices they made; he and his fellow soldiers united in their determination to do their duty and fight their country’s enemy. They were active, not passive; doing, not done to.
Perhaps Rupert Brooke’s most famous poem, simply called ‘The Soldier’, speaking as it does of the meaning endowed by personal sacrifice, should stand this day for such an attitude to the pity and reality of war and act as a corrective in a society where some now draw attention to themselves by turning into a controversial symbol the British Legion red poppy, the closest thing we in the United Kingdom have to a symbol of national unity, in all its emotional complexity. It is an unfashionable point of view but, lest we forget, here are his words:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
We do not know where our great uncle Edward – our grandmother’s only brother – is buried. So many thousand others like him are commemorated in anonymous graves like this one: serene, rather chilling, but dignified and beautifully looked after, nonetheless. This weekend, a hundred years ago, the guns finally fell silent and, out of a green and pleasant land from whence our ancestors emerged centuries before, a wasteland was revealed – a place of bones and emptiness, made all the more disturbing by the intermittent chirruping of sparrows and the bloody poppies which found their time to have come. As someone famous once said: