Going to the dogs

DSC01455 Yes: it’s that time of year again!  As the ‘Next Big Day’ counter on my home page shows, tomorrow marks the opening of Crufts Dog Show 2014, and that is exciting for us boys for lots of reasons. For some, Crufts has become quite controversial, evoking a wide range of reactions, even within the dog world. Shown for years on the BBC, and loved by millions who adore seeing dogs but couldn’t get to the Show itself, coverage was dropped by the nation’s broadcaster over the scandal regarding health issues which certain breeds are experiencing as a result of dog show judging, the awful results of which had actually been explored in a BBC documentary. Channel 4 took it on, complete with Clare Balding, a great dog-lover herself. Even those whose dogs actually compete at the prestigious event (qualification for entry depends on being in the first three at a Championship Dog Show) are frequently ambivalent about Crufts, where the show dogs at its heart could be said to have been subsumed by commercial pressures and the arrival of the great British public and all that entails. We Dickens Dogs know only too well what a shopping-fest it has become, with hall upon hall of the enormous National Exhibition Centre complex crammed full of canine impedimenta and comestibles of every conceivable kind – so full, both of stalls and of humanity, that dogs passing through on their way to do whatever they’ve come for can hardly get by.  But that, actually, is all part of the joy of it.

DSC01430For it is a doggy bonanza and, at its very best, celebrates the relationship good people have with the dogs of this world:  the joy you see on these Japanese students’ faces – who have at the end of the day to make do with only a toy retriever – is typical of the sheer delight expressed by countless scores of dog-lovers who trudge through the Discover Dogs section, where Newman and Barnaby will be meeting and greeting selflessly for a couple of days.  Onto the stand come all kinds of folk: those who have lost their own dear Uncle Jonny, and are themselves now too elderly – or so they feel – to take on the responsibility of another goldie; they just want to hold dear Barnaby’s beautiful head in their hands, be welcomed by Newman’s enthusiastic embrace or share the photos of their trusted but now departed boy or girl. One person even brought a little oil painting of their old friend with them. Then there are the anxious parents whose children’s desperate desire for a dog doesn’t take into account the regular walks, regular purchases and deliveries of food, regular injections, regular this, that and the other – and most of all the regular ‘being with us’ – which bringing a dog-shaped bear into the home entails. Tactfully trotted out, these home thoughts from an old hand can do the trick and gently help them to shelve the matter, for the time being at least. The Discover Dogs section of Crufts is all about self-indulgence: the miniature smooth-haired dachshund we’d like to pop into the corner of the sofa that’s still spare; Mr Percy Perfect Pug-let telling us all what he thinks; Wendy the German Shepherd, which we have infantilised but are secretly afraid to go near. Then, of course, come Gundog Day on Sunday, there are the setters – English, Irish and Gordon – every one a winner so far as we’re concerned, and the English pointers, so dignified, so neat. There are even our relatives, patient and lovely, waiting for the ring.

Crufts also educates folk about the horrors of puppy farming, which continues unchecked by any law, as well as charities working with and on behalf of dogs who suffer at the hands of the cruel and exploitative. The public also learns about the good dogs do – Barnaby’s own Pets As Therapy as well as Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs for the Blind, to mention a handful, are all there, raising awareness and funds for their wonderful work. But most of all, we boys enjoy the sheer fun of it all, meeting our adoring fans and snacking on the freebies which were Uncle Jonny’s single favourite thing.  Dear old friend: there we would be, chatting away to the salesperson, while he would be digging deep into the display stand and the Fish for Dogs profits!  So, let the grand performers take the stage in their individual classes – that particular thing is not for us – while we gather for our annual doggy bash of a very different sort. Remember: you always take the best dogs home!

Here’s where to go to find out more about everything taking place over the next few days:



The first death


Who’ll be chief mourner?

‘I,’  said the dove,
‘I mourn for my love . . .’

Today the news is justifiably full once again of the catastrophic weather conditions which are currently afflicting this country. Someone or other mentioned in the papers that in fact things are not so bad really, and that what folk have been going through isn’t a major disaster, because as yet no lives had been lost in the waters or wind. Well, here on a sunny rather bracing Thursday –  windy yes, but nothing special for up here; where it’s rained really not that much over the last six weeks and the seas haven’t been that remarkable – you can see a little life that has been lost, our friend the herring gull. His natural beauty, the miracle of his lustrous feathers, even on a sandy plain, moves me to thought and brings me to his side. It makes me ponder the countless birds brought down in these biblical floods; the starving thousands of garden birds, cut off from their food supplies. I can only barely imagine the terrifying confusion of the creatures of the underworld – mice, rats, moles, badgers, voles of all kinds – drowned where they lie before they can even think of trying to run from the homes they thought their havens. What will become of us, the onlookers cry? What does the future hold? Is this the autumn storm, the winter thaw, a spring deluge? The world’s turned upside down. In my warm and snuggly bed, I know that more is coming, that more little souls will die.  Who knows what lies in store, for any of us?

We are shadows

In the midst of twenty-four hours of death and cruelty elsewhere in the world, we enjoyed some peace this morning.  I ruin the quiet by barking for joy as we see the moon in the blue sky, the calm sea lapping at St Cuthbert’s cell in the distance and even further away, the castles of Bamburgh and Lindisfarne.  Only a snapshot; a poor thing but our own.  The tide will be high by the time we return this afternoon, so there will be no shells to collect. Even here the shadows are long, betraying more than just the time of year, it would appear.

New dawn, new day

IMG00085-20110523-1705While embracing life and all it offers means the world to me, every evening I reach a point where I simply long to be allowed to rest. My urgent demand is for the big bed to be put down in the kitchen so that, even if Newman is too asleep to move next door and unready to turn in, I can contemplate the day’s doings as I drift into sleep.  Perhaps it is the time of year, but I feel more than usually touched by things just now. Is it any wonder when you think about the week of contrasts I have shared: the gentle tearfulness of Durufle’s Requiem; memories of a Black Country town which, forty years ago, changed a perspective on life forever; Britten’s 2nd String Quartet, which leaves one with so many unanswered questions; the inexpressible excitement of a Michigan home match; the incomprehensibility of yet another little soul abandoned to his fate in an act of cruelty which doesn’t make any sense to someone who has known nothing but love; a cherry cake, wonderfully fragrant, newly taken from the range; the kitchen floor washed carefully, as I moved helpfully about; the warmth exuded by the sun-drenched score of Lawrence of Arabia – I have watched, listened and learned but, most usefully, I have clung close while others sustained these impressions. For this is what I do.  I have felt the emotions nestling in my fur.  I am very full of words this week.  Yet it is pictures that haunt us. There was a scowling man, swathed in ammunition – what could possibly be in his heart?  A white lion clutching a meal of chicken-filled pumpkin; the disgraced Rasputin, a tiger who attacked and killed his keeper; the magnificent stallion, cursed by gypsies, a white giant throwing an industrial backdrop into relief, shot by his terrifying master.  Yet this morning the sun was warm on our backs, the sea calm and the tide low and so it is natural to revive one’s spirits, find the strength to endure and soon give thanks for the lore we live by.