The end of the beginning?

20180508_150721‘Now is the month of May-ing’ . . .

. . . and – at long, long last – as if by magic, the wintry scene has shifted, the sky has cleared, the wind dropped, the sun is out and all natural things are on the move.  All this time, as we mourned the loss of light and life, the divinity which shapes our ends has been quietly at work and with this weekend’s gloriously hot weather, which curiously coincided with a national holiday, the fruits of those labours were gloriously made manifest.

Only last week migrant birds were still a rarity:  since sighting the first few sand martins in mid-April, the rest of the usual crowd were nowhere to be seen as we looked up day by day towards their nest holes in the dunes, entrances now obscured by the winter storms.  Only last Friday, there were but four pairs of house martins at Bamburgh dunes and none had flown over our house. Though the church swallows had safely returned to their roost inside the porch of St Aidan’s in Bamburgh, across the fields generally the usual laughter was missing. Such a long-delayed Spring made everyone sad and sorry. Every day for the last 20180430_070254month we have carefully checked the natterjack toad pool for signs of spawning, and every day we found nothing except a dead adult male a couple of weeks ago; and so we passed on and waited. Instead, the beach was strewn with plastic detritus and dead creatures, like this poor dolphin, washed up having half-delivered its calf – an eloquent image of time out of joint. Thus it was that April passed into May, and nothing much changed, except the daily to and fro of rain and chill and mist and murk.

20180508_064739But, at last, the Spring ‘clad all in gladness’ has indeed burst upon us and ours are the riches. As if by magic, the brackish toad pool was early this morning chock full of tadpoles and by the afternoon the sky above the dunes swirled with an ever-increasing number of martins, feeding furiously and staking their claim on last year’s mud nests under the sewage works eaves. Our faith is awakened: no matter how dreary our routine seemed, Spring has indeed banished Winter’s sadness and, even though we know the clouds will gather and the showers intervene, for all things must pass, there’s no denying this tremendous step-change in the seasons. No matter how transient life’s joys, it is in recognizing them that we are blessedly human, as Touchstone knows and Jacques cannot admit. Indeed, this is a moment for unalloyed celebration, an As You Like It moment, and here expressed so simply and so optimistically, with music by Thomas Morley, in Shakespeare’s song from that glorious pastoral comedy. Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity:

 

 

 

 

Stranglers on the shore

20180404_070742The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men.

T S Eliot makes it sound so beautiful, and so poignant, here by the relentless sea. Indeed it is but, increasingly, it is more than a repository of discarded and lost fishing tackle with a tale to tell: it is a world of plastic and the enduring legacy of umpteen needless purchases which have woven themselves into our environment, abusing it and threatening the wildlife in myriad ways.

20180329_071300Recent reports came in from the National Trust warden on the Isle of May about spotting near the coast a seal enmeshed in rope. It is not surprising at all. More extraordinary is that we see so few of the effects of the polluted sea upon the creatures within it, caught up in the twine and the balloon ribbons, choked by the plastic toys, applicators and multi-coloured nurdles.  For we, who are among the first on the shore each day, witness an ever-increasing quantity and range of stuff cast up along the shore. We are no longer surprised by what we find. Sad to say, dead guillemots defeated by the recent storms seem normal and utterly acceptable by comparison.

20180404_071211Some jetsam is more troubling than other stuff and the sheer20180404_070917 variety can be utterly baffling. Recently a shipment of fine wooden planks was cast up on the north east and Scottish coast; this chemical toilet probably came from a boat, and we took it for a boiler cover until we gained a closer look. Nothing would surprise us.

20180401_072118However, the shipwrecked oddities which once had meaning and real purpose in everyday life are part and parcel of the big weather events, are to some extent expected and, of course, are usually easily removed. Not so the blanket of plastic rubbish of all kinds which is simply enmeshed in the seaweed and dune grass. The rubbish is ubiquitous and the task of eliminating it as a threat both to wildlife and the aesthetic enjoyment of our coast is obviously Sisyphean. Several of the morning dog walkers routinely collect what they can, bringing bags for the purpose as their dogs gambol and amuse themselves nearby. It is, of course, a hopeless task but as they say, every little helps. And today, reports in the Times suggest that since the charge on single-use plastic bags was levied in British shops, there are indeed fewer in the sea around us.

Now that the holiday season is about to begin, to what there is already will be added the additional throw-aways of the tourists: the barbecues, the full nappies, the plastic water bottles, the buckets and spades, the bags full of dog pooh – so carelessly discarded. After the BBC broadcast David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II this winter, the population of these islands responded with horror when they saw the effect of plastics in the world’s oceans. Perhaps the corner is beginning to be turned. Let us hope that what we undertake really does begin to make a difference.

To learn more about nurdles, go to: https://www.nurdlehunt.org.uk/

To read about the Isle of May in David Steel’s blog, go to: https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/author/davidsteel2015/

 

 

‘Dr Watts, of course!’

99px-Isaac_Watts_from_NPGWhen asked about unjustly neglected novels, we have no hesitation in answering Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett, first published in 1910. Hugely prolific, the once popular chronicler of Staffordshire’s Potteries –  the Five Towns – Arnold Bennett’s reputation and fame have declined since his zenith in the early twentieth century for a variety of reasons, one simply being that he wrote enthralling narratives about ordinary people’s lives. Perhaps he is just thought too accessible for modern literary circles. He nevertheless remains one of the most acute readers of the human psyche and the Clayhanger trilogy shows him at his best: recording thwarted human ambition, the prickliness of finding love and the dreariness and responsibilities of work. Its characters are complex and their tribulations, particularly their interior ones, utterly real.

One of Bennett’s most perceptive and moving scenes has direct relevance to today, which is Good Friday in the western church, though the scene itself takes place on a gloriously hot day, the characters sweltering under their layers of Edwardian clothing, as the little Potteries town comes together in carnival atmosphere to celebrate the centenary of founding the Methodist Sunday School. Edwin Clayhanger, the young hero of the trilogy, now a successful businessman –  but in the family printing business he was obliged to join by his overbearing and domineering father – is in love with Hilda Lessways, the mysterious independent thinker to whom he is tentatively drawing closer both intellectually and emotionally. This day proves an education for Edwin, and for the reader, though for different reasons. Thrilled to be in her company, Edwin’s mixture of insecurity and growing poise are powerfully evoked as Hilda and he are subsumed within the distasteful sentimentality all human beings will recognise from their own experiences of mass hysteria on such occasions.

To the heat of the sun, and the massing of the crowds and the various brass bands, with their banners and dignitaries, are added one by one the hymns – as Bennett puts it in an aside, ‘None but the classical lyrics of British Christianity had found a place in the programme of the great day’ – each refulgent with references to the blood of the Paschal lamb. Emboldened by Hilda’s sophistication, worldliness and religious scepticism, Edwin – who knows every line and the implication of every line – contemplates the contrast between these outpourings of communal certainty and the fate of those across the world served by missionary zeal, and his own agnosticism, to him the mark of a man of the world. Hearing the words ‘Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood’:

A phrase in the speech loosed some catch in him and he turned suddenly to Hilda, and in an intimate half-whisper murmured—

“More blood!”

“What?” she harshly questioned. But he knew that she understood.

“Well,” he said audaciously, “look at it! It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square!”

No one heard save she. But she put her hand on his arm protestingly. “Even if we don’t believe,” said she— not harshly, but imploringly, “we needn’t make fun.”

“We don’t believe!” And that new tone of entreaty! She had comprehended without explanation. She was a weird woman. Was there another creature, male or female, to whom he would have dared to say what he had said to her? He had chosen to
say it to her because he despised her, because he wished to trample on her feelings. She roused the brute in him, and perhaps no one was more astonished than himself to witness
the brute stirring. Imagine saying to the gentle and sensitive Janet: “It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square—”.  He could not.

They stood silent, gazing and listening. And the sun went higher in the sky and blazed down more cruelly. And then the speech ended, and the speaker wiped his head with an enormous
handkerchief. And the multitude, led by the brazen instruments, which in a moment it overpowered, was singing to a solemn air-  

‘When I survey the wondrous cross

‘On which the Prince of Glory died

‘My richest gain I count but loss

‘And pour contempt on all my pride.’

Hilda shook her head.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, leaning towards her from his barrel.

“That’s the most splendid religious verse ever written!” she said passionately. “You can say what you like. It’s worth while believing anything, if you can sing words like that and mean
them!” She had an air of restrained fury. But fancy exciting herself over a hymn!

“Yes, it is fine, that is!” he agreed.

“Do you know who wrote it?” she demanded menacingly.

“I’m afraid I don’t remember,” he said. The hymn was one of his earliest recollections, but it had never occurred to him to be curious as to its authorship.

Her lips sneered. “Dr Watts, of course!” she snapped.

He could hear her, beneath the tremendous chanting from the Square, repeating the words to herself with her precise and impressive articulation.

Monument_To_Isaac_Watts,_East_EnclosureAnd so that chapter ends but treat yourself and read the whole novel and think about Bennett’s accomplishment in this scene for yourself. Dr Watts, with whose name we perhaps should all be familiar, is buried in Bunhill Fields, near Old Street in the City of London, the non-Conformist cemetery which is also home to John Bunyan and William Blake.

His greatest hymn will be sung throughout the world today. Here it is sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

 

 

Things newborn – meet Flora Finching

20180316_205316Out of this month of blizzards, loss and hair-raising journeys, the stress of Crufts and the passing of our old friend, Bailey, at least some sunshine has supervened. Our newest family member has arrived: Hammy Flora. Early days yet, but she seems a friendly, gentle little soul, relaxed and happy in her new environment which she is busily making her own under cover of darkness. Every night, once she’s up and doing, Kemo Sabe makes a point of bringing her a bowl of fresh vegetables, taking the opportunity to get her used to human touch. So far, so good. She is extraordinarily open to being stroked gently, and never flinches in fear.

20180320_171931Whereas Hammy Bumble was easily disturbed and slept very lightly, Flora is flat-out from dawn to quite late in the day, which makes meeting her a bit of a challenge. Although she has explored all her extensive demesne, she seems to be concentrating on two out of three areas, and has taken to rolling up in a ball to sleep in the connecting tube, plugs of wood shavings and kapok above and beneath her. She is but a baby, of course – but eight weeks old, we think – and obviously feels more secure there, despite in one way being so exposed. This morning, before she curled up for her daytime sleep, Kemo Sabe managed to grasp Flora gently but firmly (and without any hint of a nip!) and bring her out of the cage for her first proper cuddle.

20180316_205455The colour of pale caramel or biscuit all over, Flora takes her Dickensian name from the warm-hearted character in Little Dorrit who acts (and dresses) much younger than her age. As we write this, our Flora is dreaming and making tiny noises in her idiosyncratic nest. Many hours remain before she is ready for her nightly interaction with the rest of the gang; it’s early days, but so far everyone is pleased with her integration into the complicated world of beds, bowls and feeding opportunities which constitute being one of us.

Goodbye old friend

20180307_072255This has been a stressful few weeks, noteworthy especially for the terrible weather we have experienced so late in the winter. Today the wind and snow are at it again, tearing into our chests as we pound the beach – the only ones around. And, sad to say, things have changed for ever; for our dear friend, Bailey the Shar Pei, will no longer be there to greet us as we reach Seahouses, ready to chase Mr Pip, as she has done every day for many years. This picture was taken the day her cancer finally caught up with her and the decision was made to release her from the illness the magic pills had done so much to help. She poses, pensively, the dawn behind her, upon the sand she loved, as if aware she cannot struggle further; she is ready to call it a day; leaving her family behind, baffled by her loss. God bless you, dear Bailey: rest in peace and without pain at last.

 

Sleep tight, little bear

20180223_214556Hammy Bumble died last night, some time between eight and nine-thirty. He was still breathing when Kemo Sabe, Barnaby and I left the study for some time by the fire downstairs; he was warm and comfortable in an impromptu nest we improvised for him upon his wheel, to which spot he had moved by first thing Friday morning. When, before bed, we found him still and lifeless, we gently brought him out from under the kapok and shavings and took this picture. First thing this morning, he was buried near Uncle Johnny and Hammy Jo, with Barnaby and me in attendance, close to where a wonderful yew tree is shortly to be planted, and surrounded by daffodil bulbs bursting into life. In his box, for his journey, there are some of his favourite nuts and dried fruit.

20180224_085410And so another little friend joins the others beyond the rainbow bridge in that undiscovered country over which so much speculation has been spent. Looking close-up at last at his beautiful finger nails and tiny front teeth, his minuscule pink pads and once opulent pelt, it takes some doing to dismiss his being as of minimal significance. Once again we are reminded of how tenacious life is, and what a privilege it is to embrace it.

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Spinning that wheel

20180202_075638It seems that little Hammy Bumble’s life is maybe drawing to a close. Over the last month or so he has withdrawn into himself, slowed right down and, as we write this, he is where has has remained recently, in the new-found bedroom he (and we) have put together for him in the part of his labyrinth nearest to the computer. He was making the occasional venture between his various houses until last week but now he has, it would seem, taken to his sick-bed, and indeed we can hear him cough very quietly to himself, now and then. In early February it actually seemed as though he had developed a really serious infection, so stressful was his breathing and so confused his demeanour. But he seemed after a couple of really bad days to overcome the worst and rally into a kind of extreme old age, bed-ridden and with little desire to move far.

20180202_075643It is about two years ago since Hammy Jo went. His was a truly gruelling end, probably a form of pneumonia, and we all hope that Bumble is spared that dreadful gasping, long-drawn-out finale. He still raises his beautiful head and pokes about in his vegetable bowl a couple of times a day, but all the usual routines are now abandoned and he is actually eating very little. It’s unlikely he can endure much longer, as tiny as his resources are, if he persists in this way of living, so like our elderly relatives who withdraw to the comfort of bed, pull the covers up and wait for the call. Mostly his eyes remain at least half-shut now; he is obviously weak and has lost interest in the world he has called his own for so long. Nevertheless, we continue to prepare and serve him every day with his favourite herbs, fresh veg, dried fruit and nuts – never did another hamster eat quite so well as Bumble, who always seemed so anxious about food. Habitually he emptied every bowl, wasting so much because so much of it was hidden, lest anyone else should take it (one can only ponder quite who that might be, in his little imagination). Now most of it gets thrown away, when a fresh selection is offered. Such sadness, once again. Such a dear, sweet, tiny little soul. Doing what all living souls must one day do.