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.

 

The night and a thousand eyes

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Recent snowfall at Bamburgh: photo by Alan Leightley

The deep mid-winter is upon us and with it the utterly dark mornings, in which we habitually run along the beach. Even when the wind is extreme and the tide unusually high, as it has been this last couple of days, we negotiate its difficulties with careful confidence; we respect the wildness and know where we could seek shelter, if need be. No photograph could record the strange world of shadows that is currently ours, but this one shows our castle sprinkled with snow, as it was at the beginning of this week.

The recent spring tides coincided with a sharp decline in temperature, snow on the sand and hazardous ice on the rocks which form part of our route and which cannot be avoided. This has been a dramatic week weather-wise for the British Isles, with more snow in some areas than has fallen in many years. Here we get just a smattering but it has been icily cold. On the worst days, it would be folly to venture forth until it is properly light, mainly because the road to Bamburgh is treacherous. Nevertheless, whenever we possibly can – and that means most days – we enter the world early. We pull together (just the three of us in conditions like this), Barnaby watching and waiting for Kemo Sabe as she picks her way gingerly across the rocks; me, usually getting in the way, so devoted am I, but otherwise ahead of the game, always within ear-shot and always attentive to the whistle. Our high-vis jackets do their job well, and Kemo Sabe’s head torch can easily pick us up as we skip about.

We haven’t seen a sunrise in weeks. If we are lucky – that is, a bit late in setting off – and depending on the cloud cover, we will eventually see a marginal lightening of the southern sky as we draw to the end of our run. Such mornings are accompanied by a sky-full of stars, and magic moons, sometimes as big and as colourful as an orange. Today there was even a shooting star, pointing our way southward.  Usually though, utter darkness is all there is. And we are placed in it, the sea to one side, the sand beneath us and the dunes to our right. In Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, folk would know their way about their territory by listening to the rustling of the different trees and shrubs which mapped their countryside: the scratchy holly bush, the smell of the bay, the furriness of the evergreen. They had no eyes but saw well enough, and so do we. We feel the nearness of the sea and the tables of the tides by the variation in hardness of the sand beneath our feet. We hear the ferocity of the approaching waves and get on towards the rocks, before its too dangerous.

From the dunes pairs of yellow eyes occasionally peer down on us as we pass by; foxes, patrolling their territories beyond the castle, minding each other in their desperate hunt for food and watching us in silence, rather eerily as we pass.  Last week in the darkness one trotted in front of us, the whole width of the beach from the shoreline back up to the dunes, having found no carrion which would have helped to sate his appetite. This was another first for us and, respectfully, we held back, watching thoughtfully as this independent spirit made its way back into its secret world. We know there must be others out there, of whom we are unaware, not all of them foxes, either.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance . . .

20171111_213346.jpgIt is almost as if Ophelia is advising whenever dinner’s being prepared now – there is so much to consider; not so much about symbolic significance as what harm potential ingredients might do. We Dickens Dogs have always benefited from having all kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbs as extras on our meals: apple, banana, orange, coriander, mint, cabbage, carrot, blueberries, rice, porridge – as long as it is wholesome, it is fine with us and eagerly consumed. Things are now more complicated; separate administration is required.

For the three bigger boys there’s still no problem but, in the light of Nicholas’s results, suddenly precise knowledge of the world of herbs, plants, grasses and fungi has assumed great importance. Now everything from which Nico might eat has to be examined in order to avoid the foodstuffs to which we now know little Nico is definitely allergic. On careful reading, we now know that nearly every tin of Lily’s Kitchen, every bag of high quality or even specialized dog kibble, every packet of hypo-allergenic snacks, or otherwise super-duper dog food seems to contain something or other on his banned list. And it is quite a list, so Kemo Sabe has to be really careful and refer to its contents every time a meal is prepared which might casually include a few tasty spoonfuls from a source innocuous to the rest of our gang.

20171112_145757.jpgThe expanded results from the testing laboratory reveal that, when it comes to meat, only chicken, turkey and venison – as well as white fish – can be eaten by the little soul without any risk of reaction. But salmon, whole milk, eggs, soya, and oats all produced a positive reaction. Potato is one of the most common fillers used in prepared dog food, whether wet or dry, and we now know it’s one of Nico’s real nasties, as well as its close relatives, sweet potato and tomato: deadly nightshade family, all. As for the lilies of the field, so to speak, it’s as though the very greensward itself was determined to wage war on Nick’s immune system: bluegrass, perennial rye grass, timothy, English plantain, mug-wort, ragweed, cockle-bur, dandelion, golden rod, nettle, pig-weed. These carpet the heath we walk on every afternoon behind the castle and there are more plants there which adversely affect him than do him no harm, though right now their pollen is no problem, of course.

But Nico himself is in fine form, and his skin has settled down well. His kindly vet will see him again in a few more weeks and then we will decide what, if anything, to do next. Mr Pip will keep you posted but, in the meantime, meal preparation remains a protracted affair, with lots of fiddling about and rumination and reference to lists behind closed doors: unendurable for one as excitable as I!

 

 

 

‘What lovely behaviour . . . ‘

20170718_101406Overhead, as the afternoon comes to an end amidst a warm glow, the sky is full of  shrieking gulls cheering their children on their maiden flights. Gathering confidence, the tyros swoop and hover, embracing and enjoying their freedom more, encouraged by their relatives’ masterly manoevres. Our seagull family has this summer produced three healthy offspring – Teresa, May and Boris – whom they attended with customary attention to detail and aggressive protectiveness. This week, without much in the way of the attendant drama to which we’ve grown accustomed over the years, all three have quickly quit the chimney cradle and local rooftops and headed into the summer sky.

Adult herring gulls take their parental duties with Biblical seriousness, putting many human families to shame. Now that the tourist season is in full swing, some words from No Country for Old Men come to mind: ‘Who ARE these people?’  The piles of astonishing litter replicate daily: little ones’ hats, shoes, sandals, spades, kites, flags, plastic toys, are cast on to the sand, and lie there for days – of little worth and given less thought. Children run hundreds of yards ahead of their elders – focused on their phones or chatty friends – along perilous ground and into unanticipated dangers. Should they break an ankle in a rabbit hole, or gash themselves on another’s broken glass, their parents wouldn’t know until it was too late. Screaming as they run in panic towards doggy-kind of whatever size and shape, cut adrift from parental guiding hand, too frequently they seem more an encumbrance than an integral joy. We trundlers, on our afternoon and early morning routes, held on our leads lest we offend, simply by being there, stand to attention and patiently let them pass, sometimes for ages. No one is really thinking at all, or thinking of anyone else, come to that! Hey ho!

20170728_112659.jpgIn the black elder in front of the house, a collared dove sits quietly and utterly relaxed upon what looks like a really comfortable bowl of a nest. Yesterday while gardening with Barnaby for company, Kemo Sabe glimpsed the tufted baby peeking over the edge, its parent away temporarily to find a bite to eat for them both. Attentive and always alert, yet peaceful in its gloriously comfortable little home, we are thrilled by its presence and honour it silently.

These things, these things were here and but the beholder/Wanting, as Gerard Manley Hopkins – whose birthday falls today – once said.

 

 

‘Out of this wood do not desire to go . . . ‘

20170618_174941.jpgTiny achievements and homely happiness have done their best to counterbalance the awful uncertainty from which this country as a whole has suffered over the past several weeks.  When we learnt that young Frederick had won his class at the Border Union Championship Dog Show (beating his own breeder’s splendid young dachshund to boot); that the very next hannah rccday at the same show our dear Dalmatian friend, Hannah (Buffrey Hanky Panky by Dalleaf) had won her class, having only recently won the reserve Dalmatian Bitch CC and Best Puppy at the Scottish Kennel Club Championship Show; that our blue tits have, as we suspected from the silence surrounding their now-abandoned box, successfully fledged – a deep feathery mattress being all they’ve left behind; that Kemo Sabe has decorated the 20170401_105338circumference of our pond with fossil-encrusted swirls, and paved under the garden bench and made the composter more approachable as a result; that we are, as of now, all well and free from medication (a daily benison – good health – and we thank God for it); when we catch sight of the soaring martins chasing dreams across the whitewashed walls, gobbits of mud in their beaks, charged by the sun’s intense rays to build something and build it now, now that their tummies are full and the time is ripe; when we welcome friends and laugh with them, and choose 20170618_174857.jpgnew tiling and consider floors; close the new shutters against the beating afternoon sunshine, and cut the fragrant roses, pale and creamy, for beside the bed; feed Hammy spindly pea shoots and fresh basil, which he dips into day long. All these things and many, many more. Well then the strife, the discord, the amazement of recent events begin to diminish in intensity, becoming merely part of what there is, the ‘remote continents of pain’, as someone famous once said. So, you that way, we this way. Remember: I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee.

 

‘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.