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.
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:
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.
Extracted from ‘The Hollow Men’ by T S Eliot
All this week we’d taken it for granted that- – almost overnight – the swallows and martins had left us and had begun their long, perilous journey back to Africa. We noted the empty skies above our favourite field where each afternoon I retrieve my beloved ball again and again and again; the absence of cheery clacking as the martins twirled and swooped near their nests until the toilet-block eaves. Seemingly, some dreary days had made up their minds to be off. None has been seen in that area, whether over the fields, the dunes or by the sewage plant. That emptiness again! All around, things are changing and the usual seasonal shifts are taking place. Young herons who were born in the little forest behind Bailey’s house still congregate in the early morning light, chatting and checking their individual progress in the survival stakes with which they must learn to contend. But soon they will relinquish the support of their brethren and tackle life alone. Even now each makes a tentative fishing forays along the shore, squawking hello in that delightful way as they pass in front or above our little band as we trundle along the shore.
The curlews have returned to the beach, bringing with them their ethereal cries, so redolent of this coast’s wide open spaces. Only yesterday they were the featured bird on BBC 4’s Tweet of the Day, to which we listened as Kemo Sabe prepared the breakfast bowls before our run. Within the hour curlews accompanied us as we dodged the high tide along Bamburgh beach, where the going is so tough when the water’s up. Extraordinary, really; how blessed we are to hear daily those voices that will not be drowned and which for so many are a distant dream.
And then this morning, once Kemo Sabe turned the mower off to empty it, suddenly she realised she could hear the unmistakable chatter of house martins – some local ones – those fighter planes of summer, at least three pairs, still enjoying the feast of flies provided; still, for the moment at least, content to leave departure a while longer. Like the warmth which comes and goes as summer reluctantly gives way to autumn, they are living reminders of time’s passing and, even as we watch their antics, we anticipate their silence. Almost simultaneously, high, high above and way off in the distance, a squadron of geese made themselves heard before coming into focus, returning to the pastures which will sustain them for the coming months.
If you would like to hear the curlew, you will find the recording here:
Today we celebrate a recent major achievement in the show career of our old friend, Sebastian, professionally known as Ch Buffrey Incognito By Dalleaf JW. Here he is, pictured in August at the Welsh Kennel Club Championship Show 2018, where he went Best in Show, beating nearly 8000 other dogs of all the different breeds to the title. In order to be in the running for this title, Sebastian had first to compete against all the other entered Dalmatians, both dogs and bitches, emerging as Best of Breed. Then he took on the winners of the other Utility breeds under the experienced and distinguished Sigurd Wilburg, whose response to seeing Sebastian should perhaps be quoted here, as it so vividly expresses his reaction as well as describing the eventual outcome of the Show. In his critique he wrote:
‘When the Dalmatian entered the big ring last Sunday, I could feel my heart starting to beat quicker. He made a huge impact on me and I had to look twice before I realised that he was just as good as I first thought. Here was a Dalmatian which was strong and muscular with a symmetrical outline free from coarseness and lumber. You could see he was capable of great endurance and speed the way he was moving around the ring as a professional athlete. He is probably the best Dalmatian I have ever seen . . . I don’t think I have ever given a group to a Dalmatian before . . . ‘
Then Sebastian beat all the other group winners, the gundogs, the hounds, toy, pastoral, and the rest, before finally going head to head with West Highland White Terrier bitch, Ch Burneze Our Marnie, who was given the Reserve. Big thanks to world-famous BIS judge, Peter Green, and hearty congratulations all round!
Sebastian’s winning ways continue; the week after, he was Reserve Best in Show at the SKC in Edinburgh and this last weekend, at City of Birmingham, he went Best of Breed and Group. Other Dalmatians may look up to him in awe but, to us, he is simply Sebastian, whom we see regularly when he calls by. Although we can never hope to emulate his achievements – the way he dominates the show ring and powers his way into the judges’ hearts – he is in all the fundamental doggy ways just like the simple spaniels and Dickens Dogs of this world: loved and looked after and keen to go home after a busy and tiring day, somewhere at the other end of a motorway! See you soon, Sebastian!