‘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.




Blood moon and the ball from the deep

20141008_065339At this time of year, with its turbulent and increasingly changeable weather, astonishingly high tides preventing walkers from proceeding along the beach, winds from the continent whipping up the waves, it is the ever-darkening mornings we resent the most. The fingers of the night clasp our shoulders, delaying our fun by degrees a little more every day and we will soon be at that time of ‘no morn, no noon’ of which someone famous once wrote. Yet this undistinguished picture shows something of what this autumnal shift can surprise us with: an orange moon as big and bright as the dawn, blessing us with its morning glow as, facing it from over the North Sea, the sun itself slides up from the horizon.  Such a phenomenon came as a splendid surprise, a kind of pumpkin to remind me to change my Next Big Day widget in preparation for Hallowe’en.

This is a time of year when things are afoot, and no mistake. Attached to the house has grown of late an opulent kind of bunkhouse, both upstairs and down, giving NuNu and I much more room for our sleeping bags and, for Barnaby, the prospect of a sunny room where his enormous memory-foam bed can fit. Patiently we three have watched and listened as the work has speedily progressed; I have inspected it and found it all good. I have not wandered when the side gate disappeared – what need have I of wandering? Rumours abound that a Dickensian name suitable for an addition to our clan may shortly need to be decided on; a long name, perhaps, for a small pup. Within a few weeks we will undertake a journey to see to which he seems most suited. This is my best thing for a very long time.

Except that this morning, as we clung to the rolling waves on the tide-filled beach, before my feet rolled out of the surf a perfect sea urchin, whole and entire, thrown up into my path with remarkable ordinariness as though such bounty were commonplace. Thank you, Great Spirit, for the kaleidoscope we call our days: on a dark and dingy morning, to find the perfect ball.



Meet the Mantalinis

IMG_1599‘What a demnition long time you have kept me ringing at this confounded old cracked tea-kettle of a bell, every tinkle of which is enough to throw a strong man into blue convulsions, upon my life and soul, oh demmit,’–said Mr Mantalini to Newman Noggs, scraping his boots, as he spoke, on Ralph Nickleby’s scraper.

‘I didn’t hear the bell more than once,’ replied Newman.

Then you are most immensely and outr-i-geously deaf,’ said Mr Mantalini, ‘as deaf as a demnition post.’

There is no way our Newman – or anyone in our house  – could miss the noisy arrival of the Mantalinis, who make their way into the front garden at least twice a day – sometimes flying in but usually waddling up the road and into the drive with real determination, announcing their presence with loud and incessant quacking which is simply demanding dinner of the very finest quality. The noise, demmit, only stops when the seed box comes out, and the washing-up bowl for refreshment and bathing is moved to their liking into the centre of the grass. If the Mantalinis are in the garden when we get back from the beach,  Newman and Barnaby both boom out a bark of recognition and like the chance to bounce over in their direction, if they’re not stopped.  Neither of the boys means any harm, of course; it’s all just noise and nonsense, a kind of throwaway greeting of the golden kind on their way to the next bowl of jellies. And no offence has been taken, either; back the Mantalinis soon come, for another lengthy feed.

IMG_1595The story of our Mantalinis began one early evening last summer, with the wind whistling unseasonably wild and things outside all frightening and uneasy, not a night to be out in, or to stand up in, come to that – especially if you’re a clutch of ten tiny ducklings.  Continuous baby cheeping gave notice of the presence of unusual bird ,life somewhere about; but it took a little while before Kemo Sabe was able to identify the source of the song, right near the front door. After searching in storage Jeoffry’s cat-carrier, Kemo Sabe gathered the little ones up and made a towelling nest where they settled at once on the kitchen worktop and, utterly exhausted, went to sleep immediately.  Later, an upturned dustbin-lid filled with water made an ideal kindergarten pond for the little folk, who neighbours across the road took in and raised (as they had no bouncy dogs like us) until they sought their independence in the village. Now it looks like one or other of them, suitor in tow, has returned, knowing they will always get a welcome up this way.

The miracle which is a mallard is easy to overlook, especially up here where we have so many creatures of wondrous plumage and exceptional song; seeing them on a regular basis, qua-qua-quacking among the dandelions and plaintains, snootling in and out of the leeks and under the hebe, throws their opalescent glory into relief: Mr Mantalini is – true to his namesake –  an obvious and complete dandy, though in truth the original looks more like me, with his black curls and moustache; his lovely buxom wife (she her when her crop is full!), admired by many suitors and untroubled by jealousy, unlike her Dickens original is tastefully pranked up in the glistening colours of the thrush.  As Mr Mantalini would have said, ‘My senses’ idol!’

If you have not come across this extraodinary couple before, you will find them and their dressmaking business in the pages of Nicholas Nickleby. Though an early, episodic Dickens novel, it is touching, heart-breaking and hilarious by turns, and the people it brings to life are still out there today, even impersonated by our friendly mallards.


Mist on the marshes

IMG00380-20140430-0803On yet another dank and dimpsy morn, I cannot forbear but to begin with a quotation from a novel which follows me round rather more than most spaniels. Day after day recently, as we all began our routines, I felt I was moving within the text provided by my name-sake.  As Pip recalls:

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village – a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there – was invisible to me until I was quite close under it.  The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me. This was very disagreeable to a guilty mind. The gates and dykes and banks came bursting at me through the mist . . . The cattle came upon me with like suddenness, staring out of their eyes, and steaming out of their nostrils, “Holloa, young thief!” One black ox, with a white cravat on – who even had to my awakened conscience something of a clerical air – fixed me so obstinately with his eyes, and moved his blunt head round in such an accusatory manner . . .

Yet I – as we say round here in a particular tone of voice – have done nothing wrong! Nevertheless, the concentrated stare the cattle gave us challenged Newman’s inordinate consumption of seaweed (which had made him boke over the weekend) and Barnaby’s crafty downing of slate (which does nothing for his digestion).

Over the past few days our part of the coast has been coated in this swirling and persistent mist, which has come and gone only in intensity, sometimes moving with exceptional speed and at others creeping slowly up on you, like a phantom out a-haunting. Yesterday afternoon the wind batted it across the mere, creating will-o’-the-wisps of the terns and ducks dangling on it. As I write, it has enveloped us again, not quite a London pea-souper as it’s entirely the wrong colour, but bringing that quiet resolution to the moment in which mystery thrives and dark deeds get done. All in all, we like what it does to our world: there’s a chill in the air but a gentleness too, as though the ordinary things have been wrapped in cotton wool, from which they peer, reminding us how special they are.

This morning, before the mist encroached still further, Kemo Sabe captured a few moments on the beach, as you can see here:


Boy named Jo

IMG_1308 (2)I am writing respectfully, quietly – forming my thoughts with a whisper –  lest I wake the tiny bear upstairs who is covered with a comforting ball of woolly stuff, tucked up warm in his circular nest.  And this is because we have a tiny new friend; a new member of the Dickens clan: a sweet little hamster called Jo. How, we wonder, could this young orphan, with his opulent arrangement of living areas and jungle gyms, labyrinthine tubes, extension pods, alfalfa totem poles and carrot batons, get in touch with his inner crossing sweeper? Arguably Dickens’s most poignant creation – and certainly one to whom we have always wanted to show what home really means – the Jo of Tom All-Alone’s is hard to pin down, and in this respect only is like his little namesake, as this shaky action shot, mid-juice-drink, well shows. But unlike our velvety Jo, with his lustrous white and lavender-brown coat, the Jo Bleak House-Jo-Gwho dies in Allan Woodcourt’s arms has not even a cage which he can call home. How fortunate we beasts are, to be loved and cared for, each according to his special needs: little Jo, left to sleep the day long, visited respectfully by an overjoyed Newman who contains his exuberance with only the greatest difficulty; watched admiringly by Barnaby who has so longed for his presence; visited silently by Jeoffry, who creeps in and out without comment; guarded by a small spaniel who – I think I can truthfully report – has maintained the perfect balance of curiosity and vigilance regarding our new friend.  Last night, at his busiest, little Jo ate half his food supply, his growing appetite an acknowledgement that this is home, where he can relax and enjoy himself at last.  When our humans look back on their lives with us, they hope that we will say of them, ‘He wos wery good to me, he wos!’, as Dickens’s Jo says of Mr  Nemo, the one man in passing thousands who showed him kindness in his brief, disastrous life. All of us must be good to our little Jo and make worthwhile a tiny miraculous life – which too will blaze across our sky quite briefly – however small his world may seem.

If you are interested in Dickens’s original Jo, you will find him peeping through the grime, hunger and illness on the streets of Bleak House. You may also like to read these little articles about him at: