A dog’s life

Big brother
Puppy Pip and Uncle Barnaby

By human standards, dogs’ lives are considered very brief, something their owners’ lives will encompass and have to move on from, the awful effect of death of a beloved canine so unendurable that many humans afterwards proclaim: ‘I can never go through that again.’  Yet when you consider their lifespan more carefully, even just taking a decade as a conservative estimate, it’s striking what changes in their family circumstances our canine companions have actually witnessed and, of course, the powerful effect they have made on us resonates well after they have left us. Just think what you were doing and where you were ten years or so ago.

Newman and Willie 5 months
The Great Noggs and young Willie

When the Great and Original Newman Noggs was born, the Jaguar Land Rover plant was a bustling place near his family home but curiously still quite rural in its own way for a Solihull kennel. In moving to London, he benefitted from the last vestiges of a social system Mrs Thatcher soon dismantled but he ended his days back in the Midlands in a lovely Victorian house, buried in a private bluebell wood within the garden where he lies to this day. Willie, his closest friend, was born in the Black Country, enjoyed regular visits to a country cottage but soon came to live in London too, always happy within Epping Forest and, like Newman, was a school dog through and through. The last few years of his life were spent making people smile within a south of England grammar school, enriching the daily lives of the students. In a final twist, he was laid to rest in a little London garden south of the Thames. Such is the whirligig of time and place.

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Johnny, Newman and puppy Barnaby

The biographies of Uncles Johnny and NuNu create their own memorial kaleidoscope of joy and sorrow, economic change, views and viewpoints, ups and downs. All of them have eaten their dinners in extraordinary places, watched by a whole host of friends and called all parts of the country home; remembering this makes remembering them poignant and often painful, but it is part of the measurement of our relationship with them all.  When we contemplate the eventual death of a dear dog – which will happen several times over a dog-owning lifetime – so much of  life is brought into sharp relief. Such is the unique bond from which both species benefit and which makes experiencing such sweet sorrow so worthwhile.

Winter’s midnight

Inside two of this year’s Christmas cards came  awful news one dreads: of the death of two individuals with whom one has only yearly contact but whose continued existence reinforces one’s sense of identity. From season to season we trust that life will somehow simply continue on its way, onwards and maybe even upwards, as we confront the chaos and confusion that beset us all from time to time. We unthinkingly assume those we knew along our way are striving manfully alongside us, albeit at a distance, from year to year; a gracious presence, imperceptible yet strong; a network of shared experiences and memories holding us all, far and near, together. But alas it isn’t so and, as we grow older and the losses increase, people we took for granted leave the stage in the personal theatres of our lives.  Reading of the deaths of those we recall fondly – some once very close to us, before time, space and circumstance intervened – is especially sad within the context of receiving a Christmas card, but in another way so to do is actually quite in keeping.

For this, the shortest day of the year comes, in liturgical terms, at the close of a mournful period of waiting – to the secular world, the overlooked season of Advent – which, like Lent in the Orthodox Church, is marked by weeks of fasting and prayer in preparation for the celebration to come. This period of waiting – longing even – is pointedly evoked in depictions of St John the Baptist , slumped upon a rock, the birds going about their business oblivious to his quiet distraction, even boredom, waiting for the end of the beginning. His expression is a picture in itself.

In Bosch’s painting above, as in this by one of our very favourite artists – Geergen tot Sint Jans – natural images abound – birds and trees, flowers and shrubs, even hills and water. The life that endures, even if only underground. We here at the darkest and most depressing time of year, also desperately search for light of all kinds, especially when those we know and love are far away, some now beyond worldly reach. On Christmas Eve it will be exactly six months since the celebration of the birth of John the Forerunner and Baptist, a Saint so central to the Orthodox faith that he has no less than six feast days. His miraculous birth, to aged parents, comes at the summer solstice when the sun is high and strong but since then it has decreased and nature has lost its confidence. Only now, when so much seems sad, in this season of contrasting joy and sadness, when divided friends and families lean towards each other, does the hidden glory begin to increase. The Forerunner knew this: whatever our struggle, we would do well to emulate his quiet patience, indeed his fervent hope. For beside him lies the little lamb, waiting just as patiently for him to gather his thoughts and get on with his purpose in life.

Dog days?

20180715_092554Jeoffry’s hut, as it is called, has really come into its own lately. During the last few weeks of sweltering heat I have taken myself inside, rearranged the bedding and made myself a nest, much to the consternation of all. I don’t know which was worse: the unremitting intensity of the sun – something to which none of us up here is accustomed – or being forced reluctantly to accept that we simply would have to take notice of what the England team was up to in the 2018 World Cup! For, amazingly, England’s young team astounded us all with their achievements and, as always, the media’s attentions swerved from initial cynicism to unrealistic expectation in double-quick time. No one could ever have predicted we would come fourth, and that one of ours would win the Golden Boot. As a great believer in the power of the ball to bring folk together, I can only applaud. But the summer temperatures have been a trial for us all and, despite the fun provided by young Nico’s apple-shaped paddling pool, we Dickens Dogs are glad that at last things are beginning to cool down. Today we even had some much-needed rain.

DSCF1049But dogs want to keep going, their routines uninterrupted, no matter how hot it gets, so it takes loving owners to intervene and make sensible choices on our behalf; to allow us our fun, but prevent us from hurting ourselves. On a very hot Sunday, when we thought the event might be called off because of the heat wave, Nico’s sister Tiggy still enjoyed winning the Weiner Race during the Dachshund Walk and Fun Day at Musselburgh Racecourse. Astonished to find she was allowed to chase something for once – a fake squirrel  – she blew the opposition out of the park.  Afterwards, though, she was showered with cool water and she and Freddie left soon afterwards, as the heat intensified, her prize left unclaimed. Better safe than sorry. Yet still we hear every day about dogs dying locked in parked, airless cars in soaring temperatures while their wanton owners idle in the shops, ignorant or careless of their fates, whatever is more reprehensible.

IMG_20180715_153315This week we also caught sight of our new friend, Honey, the Shar-Pei pup, who has arrived in the family of our old friend Bailey, who died earlier in the year. Being only three months old, she needs her final inoculation and another week before we get to greet her properly; we only saw her through our car window very early one morning, taking in the cool sea air and the magic of her new environment. She was like a kind of exotic piglet, with tiny, trotty feet.

Molly and Annie on B's 8th birthday
Annie and her daughter Molly on her and Barnaby’s 8th birthday

And now to something sad but also something wonderful. We heard this week that Annie, Barnaby’s wonderful mother, had died, having never properly recovered from the removal of a mammary tumour. In her first litter, from which Barnaby came, there were ten puppies, including the inscrutable Scriggins (whatever became of him, destined as he was for an older couple?) and Molly, who was chosen for future breeding and thus remained with her mother and the older girls who now, one by one, have trundled over the rainbow bridge, over the years. All have gone except Rosie, who was only a puppy herself when Barnaby and Molly were born.

 

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Annie and Wren, now Mummy Tilldawn’s shadow

Now these two Tilldawn-bred girls alone remain with their inestimable Mummy, whom we all love and respect so much for the care and intelligence she has brought to her decades of breeding such gloriously well-adjusted Golden Retrievers. Though she must indeed have thought her puppy days were over, Uncle Johnny was looking out for her as, not long before Annie died came Wren, a Goldie-cross with a long story behind her. Annie’s last few months were distinguished by providing little Wren with the loving mother she never had and now she grows apace, happy and well-adjusted in her warm and loving new home, with her adoptive sisters, Rosie and Molly. It just goes to show, as someone famous once said, ‘Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn’.

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.

 

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.