God bless us, every one

20171126_115603One of the first things we hear on BBC Radio 4 every morning – after our beloved shipping forecast that is – is ‘Prayer for the Day’, a surprisingly diverse two-minute slot, presented a week at a time by a wide variety of professionals drawn from all kinds of religious denominations. Unlike ‘Thought for the Day’, which is broadcast before the 8 o’clock news during the stations’s flagship news show, Today, the earlier slot is a true prayer, sent out into the ether on the wings of a carefully considered personal reflection, and all the better for that.

20171130_180249This week’s presenter is Jonathan Wittenberg, in whom we first became interested when we heard him on a previous stint on the programme. Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism in this country, Rabbi Wittenberg has a warmth and a breadth of vision which is expressive of his ministry. He loves, respects and draws strength from all of the natural world, but especially from his collie, the inspiration for one of his books, ‘Things My Dog Has Taught Me: About Being A Better Human‘.

20171226_103025It was a delightful surprise to hear our doggy selves placed at the centre of yesterday’s prayer; what an honour to be the Rabbi’s inspiration; to be publicly acknowledged for our natural goodness and how this can draw those who live alongside us to a more numinous way of being. Do listen, or read the transcript available on the BBC’s iPlayer, available here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09qnfhc

If you would like to read more of the Rabbi’s wise words, his website, Heart and Mind, can be found at: http://jonathanwittenberg.org/

 

He left no footstep

Tommy 2As the old year passes and the new year begins, we remember things about the Old Guard: those wonderful Dickens dogs who have done their bit and gone ahead to join the great Newman Noggs, who himself died at the very beginning of January several decades ago. The day he died the earth was frozen so hard that it took two days to excavate his grave, under mature, majestic trees.  Left briefly alone to carry the banner through a long, harsh winter was Wilkins, the gentlest of bears but never a natural leader.

Tommy 1Shortly thereafter into the clan came young Tommy Traddles, seen here with Uncle Willie in front of Noggsy’s springtime grave, bedecked with daffodils. Were he still alive, Tommy would be twenty-two tomorrow, which is worth recalling, in view of the arc as long as a rainbow  – both familial and magical – which stretches back from Barnaby today, through our own Newman (Uncle Noggsy) to Jack (Uncle Johnny) and thus through Wilkins to the Great Noggs himself. The line of fun, frolic and foolishness remains unbroken to this day, a small but real comfort given that dogs like us live such short lives and our passing causes such pain.

Tommy 3Tommy – or Tonto as he came to be called – was an obedient, gentle creature, emotional and highly sensitive. You can see from his expression here how he hated the sensation of walking on the big pebbles at Brighton with Uncle Johnny, mainly because the unevenness hurt his arthritic joints; he preferred the smaller stones at Southwold, into which he would dig himself a cool scrape to avoid the sun. The palest of the Dickens Dogs, and at a time when it was unusual and not bred for, he had a ghostly, other-worldly air, which made him a sweet companion. As a pup he was a persistent chewer (an uncommon trait for our family), demolishing table legs, plaster-work (a particular favourite) and shoes, all without embarrassment. Greatly loved, his end was made more dreadful by his having two conditions, necessary medication for which conflicted, with dire results. He died at the vet’s, under emergency circumstances, which saddens us all even to this day. He alone of all the Dickens boys has no earthly resting place.

But what we always recall with joy was that Tommy had some time before he was born that January, so many years ago, to learn from the august Noggsy, who to this day maintains an eagle eye on all aspects of the canine afterlife. As we write, friends of ours are mourning their beloved terrier, Alice, recently recalled by the spinner of the years. And we learnt the other day that our dear friend, Bailey the shar-pei, has but a couple of months to live, beset by a terrible cancer which only noxious pills can keep at bay a little while longer. Only eight, she still delights in chasing me madly about, as she has always enjoyed doing when she gets the chance. We are truly indomitable creatures, which in itself makes our passing, when it comes, so much the worse. Dear Tonto, dear Alice, dear Bailey: God bless us, every one.

 

Winter and rough weather

20170910_153823Soon we will look up and there will be no more left – the house martins and the swallows –  though it’s true that already there are fewer now than there were until quite recently. The migration has indeed begun:  the sand martins moved off a couple of weeks ago and so once again their sandy summer home, with its line of nesting holes, stands silent and forlorn. We pass beneath every day, aware of an eerie emptiness, filled now by the curlews’ cry. The air is sad; the vacancy almost palpable. Other hirundines remain – the ones with late broods – taking every opportunity a break in the weather offers to dodge the rain and winds in order to fly high and bring home the insects. The nests near Bamburgh Castle dunes still house several families, posing patiently as afternoon by afternoon Kemo Sabe records their presence in our midst. One afternoon soon, they too will have gone . . .

20170908_162414In one way, saying hello to the autumn is easier because our own family house martins did not return to their nest on the south wall this year, so the pain of absence is less keenly felt because less immediate. But when the martins and the swallows marshall on the wires each morning, or wheel about across the sky each evening – their lovely inescapable routines – we cannot but pause and ponder on what their loss will mean and what we must endure before we are blessed with their return to us next spring. Despite erratic, frequently wet days, our cheerful visitors have graced the skies whenever given the chance and, like hope, have so far yet to abandon us.

Our winds on the north east coast, though notable within our own country, are but breezes compared to the mighty hurricanes of terrible ferocity which currently shake the peoples and places of the Caribbean, Texas and Florida.  We pray for all those affected so far, and those sheltering in fear of what nature has in store; the loss of livelihoods, homes and, indeed, everything.  At this time of the year, which we always think of as the natural beginning of a new year, things change very markedly. Good will and gentleness seem to be in short supply as the blooms buckle and the leaves fall, the stoves lit, the hatches battened and the sun retreats. What were sprinklings of sparrows gather into ubiquities, as the season stirs them to gather in every-increasing numbers. Their evolutionary task accomplished for this year, they fare forward, safe in the knowledge that they have a home and a ready supply of food. Thousands of miles separate the hirundines from their destination and us from our neighbours watching and waiting for the Angel of Death to pass. But we hold them all close to our hearts: ‘Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality’.

 

 

There goes the sun

20170821_060323This 6 am sun, beaming over Bamburgh beach this morning, is the same sun on which our friends in the United States will be concentrating hard today. We wish them a magical eclipse experience, which we believe will be visible from Oregon to South Carolina from 15.00 hours GMT.

20170821_060937.jpgKemo Sabe remembers well that in 1999 she and Uncle Johnny looked up from their work and watched dusk fall at noon, the birds’ chatter stifled in their confusion. That was a major solar event. Since we moved here there has been a partial one, given special significance because we felt its effects within a still, noiseless environment quite different from the bustle of London streets. It was like a visitation.

The natural cycles of our universe never cease to astound, and our little doggy lives are utterly dwarfed by them in many ways, yet comfort always lies in these predictable wonders – like this solar eclipse to which folk have long looked forward. No need to tremble, nor to attribute terrible omens to such occurrences, as Edmund rightly pointed out.

As someone famous once said, the world is all that is the case. All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

‘Mr Dick sets us all right’

20170524_124526Today is the tenth birthday of our dear friend and biggest brother, Newman Noggs, so just this once – instead of speaking about him – I shall let him speak for himself, on this most auspicious day:

I am not sure why I have been asked to talk to camera but I am always happy to meet new friends and reach out in the hope of recognition. I am named, so I’m told, after a Dickensian character; a gentleman who, down on his luck and against his better judgement, makes terrible mistakes and finds himself drawn into dreadful deeds which play appallingly on his conscience. Sounds awfully like me! Ever since I was a boy, and there were only Uncle Johnny and me in the gang, I’ve got it wrong. Chewing the bathroom carpet, chewing the mat in the back of the car, leaping and bounding after any- and everybody – all in the best possible taste, though, you understand; an irrepressible spirit as sunny as that sunny August day I came Newman and Jackhome with Johnny from my Loughborough kennels and began the life I love. Johnny would look serious, indeed worried, in case anyone might think he’d done the wrongs which were down to me, but his worry turned to dismay and, eventually, acceptance and then real understanding. He was a true friend and I loved him so dearly. I miss him, every day, but see him regularly in my own way.   It’s part of the special way my mind works. Everyone knows I see dead people, like the Vikings drawing their long-ship up the beach at Bamburgh, and the weary departed souls in Nunhead cemetery.  We so loved our daily walk with Kemo Sabe around its perimeter, for the demands of a day at school would often upset my tummy, after bringing a teddy to comfort the tearful and those as prone to getting it wrong as me. It was a stressful world but I made my contribution to calming it, so I have done good in my time. One of my friends even painted a portrait of us together: that was something special. I remember you still, Jonathan.  That was all before we came on this long, long holiday to the seaside and stayed, and stayed . . .

 20170525_064546I know I sometimes leave people dazed and confused but, believe me, no-one is as dazed and confused as me. I wonder sometimes why Uncle Johnny left us, but he only did that after Mr Pip had joined Barnaby in our gang. Perhaps he couldn’t stand any more mess, or silliness. I wonder what he would have made of Nicholas. He’s such a sweet affectionate little soul, particularly to me, so I let him chew my fur as he needs me just as I needed Johnny, to love and guide. It reminds me of my school work and the comfort that I gave.  But now I follow Barnaby, as he is a bear of greater brain, and is cleverer at getting his muzzle off, whereas I’m better at eating seaweed through it! Seaweed and swimming are my best things!

20170525_070027Today, for some reason, there were hot steak pies from the Bamburgh butcher with our dinners and then there was a walk over the dunes beyond the castle, under the darting, chuckling birds that share our lives. And there is something new for me to chew on, too. Everything fits together –  just about – and I am happy to go along with the gang, cheerful and straightforward in my own eccentric way. I do think, though, that I am even more like Mr Dick than Mr Noggs. But I’ll leave you to check that out.

 

 

 

Solomon in all his glory

IMG_20170507_150455Yesterday, as we put on our winter woollies for another outing, we heard that the west of England was bathed in sumptuous sunshine. Well, we weren’t up here! Winter, or at least a kind of winter, had returned, with strong northerly winds and persistently grey skies.  Days and days of relentlessly depressing cold beset us and our dogged avian friends – all smiles and nestlings one minute; brooding in the east wind the next. What, we wondered, do they make of it, the magnificent little blue tits (‘I was born in that box!’), dutifully prising individual strands from clumps of Barnaby’s discarded pelt? Undeterred by the vicissitudes of the weather, they hunker down and warm each other in the shelters our demesne affords them, in sure and certain hope that all things will eventually change and that they’ll soon find comfort again, even if only in a rare bit of watery sun. On the beach the sand martins that arrived a few weeks ago had already developed additional nest holes in the dunes, suggesting that their numbers will be even  greater this year. Every morning we try to count them; an idle but compulsive activity to which we look forward, wondering what difference the awful weather would make to their plans to replenish themselves after a three-week flight. We saw nothing of them at all when the wind was at its worst, terribly cold and fierce. Such resilient creatures must have shrugged at such little local difficulties after the dangerous journey they’d made successfully from the south. Huddled safely within their shelters, they must have laughed at our concern, for their spirit – and their faith – are stronger than ours.

And they were right to lean hard, and hold on; for, by this morning, the wind had dropped and, by lunchtime, was coming from the south-east. As if by magic, the first local house martins appeared in the sky above our lane, chuckling with pleasure at the insect life awakening all around them. The nest from which ‘our’ family of martins moved on last June has been commandeered by sparrows, the chirping of whose babes within can be clearly heard from the study window. Yes, we hold the ones who stay very close to us indeed. Other sparrow families have moved in to the man-made martin nests installed last autumn, and a loquacious starling brood is living on a ledge under the guttering above a bay window; rattling calls alert us to the delivery of a new worm, every so often, as the parent tucks itself under and in to the nursery.

Last Sunday, BBC Radio 4 celebrated International Dawn Chorus day with a unique broadcast in which radio stations across Europe joined forces to track the rising sun across the continent from Moscow to Dublin, relaying the aural landscape of birdsong as the creatures woke and staked their claim on the day. This ambitious project resulted in a moving and humbling symphony of sound, to which the wild birds of Europe freely contributed out of sheer joy.  You will find access to the broadcast and episodes from it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08pdfyw

 

 

 

A week of sun and sausages

120px-Sand_Martin_(Riparia_riparia)_(14)The sand martins have begun to return to the nesting holes! Joy unconfined! Proof, if proof were needed, that life is gathering speed in our midst and that we – the watchers and the waiters – are worth the candle.  The wind-blown nesting places which have lain forlorn – and indeed unseen – as we passed beneath them on the 20160425_073658darkest mornings, are now alive with the chattering of the creatures which, with miraculous accuracy, have located them as home for yet another breeding season.  As of today there are at least four pairs, but, when the wind turns southerly again, numbers will shoot up and soon the dawn will be full of their gossiping voices.

20170331_125642Around and about our home itself, our friendly neighbourhood bird life is busy, too. Any returning house martins will be terribly disappointed to find that the boxes erected especially to attract them to our eaves have one and all been commandeered by our fat little sparrows, most numerous of ‘the ones who stayed’. Even the two natural clay martin nests are now providing bed and board to chatty couples, late risers though they be; unlike the sand martins they never celebrate the early morning sun or greet us on our return home after the run. But the dawn chorus of blackbird, robin and the rest is intensifying day by day and the dawn obliterates the moon ever earlier. Our jackdaws have kept an eye on their chimney throughout the winter, and now look set to get cracking with a brood. The feeders are kept full, so starlings newly returned to them can have a mouthful, too and, to the box in which they successfully raised their clutch last spring, have returned our blue tits, busy all day, every day, and so conveniently near the nuts and fat balls.

20170401_141432But if the birds know what they are about, that is more than can be said for the sausages. It says it all about the serendipity which characterises our little posse that a family get-together last Saturday at the Scottish Dachshund Club Championship Show, ended with both Nicholas and his sister, Tiggy, having qualified for next year’s Crufts. Having achieved second place in their respective classes, the terrible twosome will now be heading Birmingham-wards next March, ‘for the experience’, as they say. This picture captures all the chaos of the aftermath, 20170401_120107both from the confused disposition of the certificates (which, in a way, says it all) to the restlessness of pup Frederick, their tiny nephew, whose intervention displaced the intended line up. We are grateful to the friendly judge who found Tiggy and Nico worthy: it was a lovely surprise. Who knows, once he reaches six months young Fred will probably honour the ring with his presence and may even qualify as well!