‘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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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’.