Bird in the hand


Today, with another magnificent sunrise, all are gone; well, apart from one or two very late migrators, that is. As the light gradually emerged, it was the sparrows and ducks we heard overhead  – not the sandmartins: their nesting wall was silent and abandoned, though basking in the autumnal sunshine as we passed beneath it this morning.

Film crews and stars have also packed up and 20160920_065657-2left us, after taking over all the car parks and bringing record crowds and traffic to the area over the weekend. On Sunday morning, the sky hummed with helicopters filming up and down the sands; only the security crew guarding the equipment and our little band were there, looking up into the dull, pre-dawn light at these extraordinary events, these sophisticated arrivals. But where there had been such frenzied activity and pavements-full of autograph-hunters, now there is only a forlorn line of lights, the last bits of kit awaiting collection, with nothing and no-one of note to illuminate any more. Yes, once again, things are very very quiet round here.

20160920_105243Yet, just up the coast, as we approached the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, there befell a small epiphany: a busy little bird suddenly swooped all amazingly through the open door of the barn-cafe where we we just about to sit with our elevenses and fell in confusion at Kemo Sabe’s feet. Like all truly miraculous moments it happened off-camera, like the reunion of Leontes and Perdita.  Kemo Sabe picked up the dazed little creature and held him to her, something she could never have imagined doing; steadying and encouraging him to overcome this setback and get him about his business, quietly astonished at the paraclete’s descent and the fact that it did indeed eventually revive, regain its equilibrium and fly away.

20160920_115954 On Lindisfarne itself, where seals were playing in the shallows near St Cuthbert’s hermitage, we were greeted by plentiful late swallows and martins feeding up in the ever-darkening sky (for the clouds were forming and the sun crouching as the weather front began to approach from the west). We were visiting as a kind of celebration of my recent fifth birthday, in honour of which Nico and I enjoyed a tiny bit of ice cream and, returning home, sausages with our dinner. But my magic day was made by a magic martin who said hello and goodbye in one fell swoop, an ineffable privilege which blessed us as we could never have hoped. So with Paulina we also say: ‘It is required you do awake you faith.’






Going for gold

20160814_194327I have not been well these last few days. In fact, I have been as unwell as I can ever remember: unable to eat, unwilling to jump the small distance into my place on the sofa and, when we went out yesterday morning, for a shorter trundle than usual because Kemo Sabe knows me so well she could see I still wasn’t myself, I jogged along several sedate paces behind her – demeanour and pace both entirely alien to me. As I dictate this, I am recovering. Though the vet had initially thought there was nothing much wrong a couple of magic injections couldn’t rectify, yesterday morning when it was clear I still felt really poorly, Kemo Sabe took me back in for an x-ray and, before I knew it, I was recovering from an abdominal operation during which a long, thick piece of seaweed was removed from my small intestine. There are still small bits to be passed naturally, but they are in the colon so it’s only a matter of time now I’m back on the dinners again until they emerge naturally. How I long to be back with the boys, looking up at the wonders on the television, with all the routines in place once again.


My emergency has overshadowed the production and tone of the piece I was preparing about how much fun we’ve all been having watching and responding to our amazing Olympic team. As we’re coming up to the last few days of competition, I  thought I’d share some pictures of Barnaby with you, enjoying a range of activities and national achievements. Above you see him enjoying the golf, for him an unmissable spectacle as it includes the use of a single ball whose progress across the greensward is punctuated by visitations of capybara and cayman: what a hoot! 20160808_202702As one after another the various disciplines unfolded, and the medals mounted in events as disparate as badminton, diving, dressage, gymnastics, kayaking, swimming, sailing, taekwondo, hepthathlon, not to mention the cycling – with all those races with funny titles – our interest has been held and our knowledge of human determination deepened. Hats off to all those who work so hard to become consistent performers in their field. On Wednesday, before my first abortive visit to the vet, my mind overcame matter as I ran out to retrieve my beloved ball. My return was slow and my deliberation rightly read by she who knows me better than anyone as the best sign yet that something was really, really wrong. I hope that when I am fully fit I will enjoy my running again for, truly, it is my metier and I am a champion in my own right.


Come unto these yellow sands

20160506_070626Yesterday was, for us up here in the extreme north east of England, the first really lovely day of early summer. After a few weeks in which winter’s temperatures returned with a vengeance and, whatever else was happening with that light in the sky, it remained cold and windy, yesterday we all felt we had at last crossed the boundary between one climate and another. Today the sun’s warmth fulfilled its promise, rising cheerfully and posing charmingly above the islands and the sea. What wind there had been had dropped overnight, maybe to a 2 or 3 on the Beaufort Scale (there was no shipping forecast on the radio this morning, so Kemo Sabe says we can’t be sure); the beach was deserted, the tide a way off, the rocks revealed and the sands as comforting as the beams which warmed them.

On such a morning, as we all gaze in wonder out towards Holy Island and Cuthbert’s hermitage on Inner Farne, blessed beneath such an expressive sky and such promising light, sparkling with possibility, it’s not hard to see why this place has a magnetic quality and transformative power, too. One’s imagination fills with words from that poignant creature, Ariel, about how the sea brings home its riches, some of greater worth than others, to such a shore as this. The famous words are sung here as they were at Stratford for the RSC in 1978 by the much-missed actor Ian Charleson, with music composed by Guy Woolfenden, who died only recently and whom we will always remember for bringing the songs of our favourite famous poet and dramatist to life in memorable and unique ways.



Too clever by half

20160418_110158Some scientific half-wit, we hear, has come to the conclusion that hugging dogs makes them feel threatened.  I shall simply pause now to allow those of you who did not hear this latest research when it was reported on the news and in the press last week to consider this possibility, and then have a good laugh.  Unsurprisingly, dog owners have responded with incredulity. On what kind of dogs was this research carried out, they cry? Cayotes, dingos, wolves, African wild dogs? Only a silly soul would try to hug a dog they didn’t know! But that was not how the results of the study were presented.

We Dickens Dogs, and indeed every dog we know, absolutely loves to be loved, and being loved means being held; having your special person wrap you in their arms and bring themselves as close as close can be, so we can smell and feel them properly. We love cuddling each other – little Nico climbing aboard Uncle NuNu every morning after our run and ensuing breakfast for a reassuring snuggle; Barnaby thrusting his head defiantly beneath Kemo Sabe’s arm, sometimes spilling her tea, insisting – yes, insisting – he gets a hug. To substitute for this physical closeness we gum our fake-fur dollies, seeking a second-hand solace in their soft familiarity. But it’s nowhere near the real thing.

In our loved ones arms we feel safe and secure, reminded of the unique bond which brings two utterly different kinds of beings together. To our loved ones I would say, on behalf of all my brothers: we know how busy your lives are; we see events speed past, filling you with surprise and sometimes dread, happiness and horror; we cannot offer words of love or encouragement, reassurance or reflection; to bark would be to bully. All we can do is lean against your side and hope your embrace will pull us into your world, for merely moments if that is all you can spare. We are not in the way. We love you, and we need you; we are waiting; we are here.

Notes from the underground

20160323_181238Since we all returned from Crufts we’ve been under the weather and no mistake. Speaking for my own medical case, I know this is not a good look, but at least I’ve been spared what Barnaby calls ‘the cone of shame’. I like to think of this soft, protective cushion as the doughnut of comfort and so far it’s served me nicely, stopping me from nibbling my wound and giving me something reassuring to rest against. I acquired it on returning home after a day at the vet’s for what  – everyone tells me – is a routine operation. I note with interest, however, that none of the others knows anything about it.  I am sore, though, and feeling more than a bit delicate which is empathetic of me, bearing in mind how ill the humans have been for the last couple of weeks.

Like my own poor Kemo Sabe, however, I can at last feel the life force returning, in recognition of which I’ve now been allowed to exercise with the others in the morning once again. Oh the joy of smelling the salty sea air! The fellowship! The fun! Being a responsible boy, I haven’t pushed myself too far and, as the nurse at the vet’s said during my check-up yesterday, things are healing nicely. The humans have really had to stagger through this winter, with its record grey skies and mild temperatures; it’s no wonder these virulent germs have been so difficult to vanquish and I have had my own down days, too. The sun has all but abandoned the country this winter – a record-breaking year of days without sunshine –  and in particular the post-Crufts weeks have been a kind of twilight zone for us all, overshadowed by Hammy Jo’s empty cage and the lassitude that overwhelms the unwell: sleeping badly, coughing madly and yet – ironically – longing always for bedtime! How sad it makes us to see them brought so low.

20160325_102133(1)Thus, despite returning home after our Crufts adventures dying to tell the big news about what happened to our friend, Sebastian the dalmatian, fate intervened and, one after another, the troops went down and I have laid aside the composition of my paean of praise for a couple more days. As I write this, Hammy Bumble is as active as ever in his demesne. Whatever the time of day, whenever we enter the study, he is always awake, or ready to rise, never fully relaxed, always ready to run around madly, his own particular silliness being to roll over and over, as though doing somersaults. Bit by bit he is learning there is nothing to fear, as must I, in my comfy doughnut. We must hope and move forward, despite the darkness, despite the unknown fear. For despite everything, day after day our fragrant meals have been provided promptly morning and afternoon; our routines honoured; our needs met – Hammy’s initial training included. How blessed we creatures are to be put first, and sometimes at such cost.

Metamorphosis or Spring is in the air

20160217_114955 Things are looking up! After a couple of weeks of really ghastly wet and windy weather, everything has settled down wonderfully and, for the last ten days or so, up here in the north east we have seen calm and peace at last; clear, crisp mornings and delicious morning runs. Also, the recent storms have brought whelk shells a-plenty into shore for us to gather on the afternoon walk and, thanks to Kemo Sabe’s efforts, new trees have been planted in the front garden and wood chippings spread around everything. After a particularly traumatic seagull season last summer, steps have also been taken to prevent another nest being built (much squawking from the disgruntled parents who are already scouting about for a nursery), in the hope that our neighbourhood  jackdaws will resume habitation of the rear chimney. This familiar pair is already up there balancing on the chimney pots, scouting around, daring the gulls to come down. Down near the ground, behind the oil tank, Christopher and Jenny Wren are tripping about in and out of the wild rose stems, checking the air temperature, and possible homes for this year’s family.  We have often thought about the wrens during this long and dismal 20160217_092425winter: notoriously bad-tempered and feisty little birds, who will fight for their territory without any hesitation, in cold weather they cast all animosity aside and cling to each other closely, huddling in big groups throughout the night so as to keep toasty within the shrubbery. As I watch the ordinary creatures of the air  respond to the smell of Spring – however faint as yet – I am reminded of the words of someone, once humble and overlooked but now justly famous, whose love of creation imbues everything he wrote. Though we only have the jackdaws, John Clare was lucky enough each Spring to see ravens, those giants of the corvid world (like our dear Berry downstairs) mark out the routines of the year, and thus giving the passing time a special meaning. Year by year, Clare saw . .  two ancient birds at their old task
Repairing the huge nest–where still they live
Through changes winds and storms and are secure
And like a landmark in the chronicles
Of village memories.

Spaniels like me are currently abounding in the vicinity – it being the half term holiday –  and on the BBC, I think I saw myself carried in Pierre Bezukhov’s arms, an image so endearing it was reproduced several times in various newspapers, as War and Peace drew to its conclusion and we could all at last say hurrah for happiness. The simple devotion shown by fluffy, floppy little Greycoat to the prisoner of war Platon Karataev –  frozen paws, empty stomach notwithstanding – helps Pierre to begin to see the world differently at last and, for someone like him, who has looked under so many philosophical stones over the course of so very many pages, this epiphany is long deserved and all the more welcome for that. I feel proud to resemble the creature whose loyalty and love could 20151225_105617inspire Pierre’s resurrection of spirit; I only wish that my own heartfelt devotion could be as well understood. I love my family and, in truth, ask very little of them – though I admit I ask it far too noisily sometimes. I am grateful for the joy they give to us Dickens Dogs – the comfort of our beds, the delicious and regular bowls of dinner, the security of loving arms.  I know that if Kemo Sabe had to trudge through freezing snow, like Pierre or Platon, and all we had to share was a single potato, I’d be there alongside, with Barnaby, Newman and Nico. There is nothing else for us boys except the present moment – the here and now – with all its joys and liveliness, and we feel it in the routines which gently unfold, surprising in their regularity, new every morning, with more light every day.



At the turning of the year
Curlew and Redshank photographed by Sylvia Duckworth

At five o’clock yesterday afternoon the sun started to move closer to us again and, from today on, there will be a little more light for us to enjoy at either end of the day. Although it will be a while until this increase in sunlight is very noticeable the fact is that, week by week, we are gaining ground gradually and by about February, the difference will be palpable. I was surprised and disappointed, therefore, to find that our afternoon walk today was swathed in premature murk just as profoundly as it was yesterday and that the beach as desperately lonely as the curlew’s cry would suggest. We see and hear them every day.

As one carols overhead, I love nothing so much as an empty stretch of sand on which to gambol and race. Nicholas and I are particularly fond of a trial of speed, the little fellow belying his size as his powerful nose helps him to track me instinctively, barking as he chases. He is a devoted dachshund, and Bamburgh beach is the playground on which I have learnt to respect his courage and persistence, however early in the day.

IMG00259-20131002-0745But the darkness, morn and night, curtails our fun, bringing us to Kemo Sabe’s heels, where although we can prove to be a bit of a nuisance, we are safe and can keep her sound. We haven’t seen a sunrise like this one for over a month now; no wonder the street is alive with tiny sparkles, hung from bushes and in windows – now is the time for humanity to bring its own kind of light to the party, whatever the time or place.  Glittering fairy lights throw the darkness and the waiting of Advent into relief.  The grass in our back garden is sodden and slippery; none of us wants to go out there and walk on it much. The sparrows have only a few hours to fill their tummies with fat-balls, seeds and bread before they disappear into the ivy, where they cling on through the hours of darkness, their knees locked against the wind. As we hunker down for sleep in the radiant warmth of the kitchen, the tiny brethren outside shrug and ask, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’

Time to fly South

20151009_07373720151009_073756Nearing the end of our run this morning, the first enormous skein of geese we’d seen announced their approach with their characteristic carolling. Drawn in squiggles across a Poussin sky, just after a classic egg-yoke sunrise, hundreds of wonderful and welcome winter visitors moved high overhead. Beyond the harbour, towards Beadnell they persevered, coming to rest in some cabbage field or other, some newly-harvested patch where the grain pickings are good – according to their trusty scouts. I love to see them arriving and, as they do, all our minds go to the little housemartins from the nest at the front of our house whom we hope are now far, far to the South – a different kind of South from ours, though, which these pioneer geese have successfully attained. It all depends what makes one happy, doesn’t it; home being where the food bowl is, as we spaniels always say.

Sunny sausage and thoughtful bear

20150924_073033This has been the most glorious Autumn day. On the beach this morning, a brilliant sunrise was enhanced further by the garish jerkin my tiny sausage friend was wearing for the first time.  Designed to make his whereabouts unmistakable in the murky mornings to come, today he became a veritable daffodil springing up behind this rock and that on the deserted beach. On morning runs, young Nico follows my lead with unerring dedication: on such exploratory missions, we are collaborators, that’s for sure, and this morning I treated him to a real bun fight, with lots of growling and rolling about. Once we get home, though, it’s another matter, and the sunny sausage cleaves to our biggest brother, Newman, who can do no wrong in the little dachshund’s eyes.

20150924_073025Despite the glory of the weather first thing, Uncle Newman seemed distracted this morning; more than usually self-absorbed and more than usually oblivious to both direction and correction. He had to stay with Kemo Sabe for nearly all of the run, unable to stay off the seaweed for more than a moment whenever released from the lead; what has got into him? NuNu is the sweetest golden bear: a kind of overgrown school-boy, to speak true, but also gentle and patient, especially with ‘the little fellow’.  He wants more than anything to love and be loved. In this he takes after Uncle Wilkins, who was one of the Old Guard, apparently always away with the fairies and, when having an epileptic episode, on an entirely different plane all together. I know that Kemo Sabe wonders whether NuNu also has more than a touch of Prince Myshkin about him; sometimes when we lie down to sleep in the kitchen at night, the moonlight through the window catches him full-length, upside down and out to the world, his innocence almost palpable as he dreams, once again, of the seaweed which makes Kemo Sabe so annoyed. When out for walks he stares into the distance, particularly at people walking quite a way off, as if hoping they will understand the language he alone of us can speak.

IMG_3245This afternoon Kemo Sabe did not understand when I refused to pose on Uncle Jonny’s grave. His spirit of great obedience and trust inspires our daily doings and I, for one, feel unworthy alongside him. Even Barnaby and Nicholas can tell they let him down. When I overcome the schadenfreude of seeing Newman reprimanded fiercely for  – what amounts to – not being able to remember for very long, I think of the faults each of us would do well to eschew: if I were half as compliant as Uncle NuNu (where all but seaweed is involved), I would be a blessed spaniel indeed. As it is, for us there is only the trying (as someone famous once said) . . .

Barnaby’s new Biscuit

20150918_181234We were back on the beach this morning, after more than a week’s holiday, running ahead of the forecast rain which we did in fact beat back to Seahouses with only some drizzle on our fur. As a spaniel tried and true I love routine, but I also enjoy the opportunity to meet new friends in new places – as dear Barnaby did last week in Somerset. For there he met busy little Biscuit (a spaniel cross) and for the first time in his life he has an admirer, who hero-worships him devotedly and missed him greatly when he returned home. It is a huge responsibility for Barnaby to be adored, especially as Kemo Sabe says that he is spoilt and who – unlike me – has up until now been largely ignored by Nico. But Barnaby will soon be six and a dog to look up to.

20150918_181338Barnaby and Biscuit hit it off from the moment of arrival at the little puppy’s cottage home, deep in the rolling countryside which borders three counties. Biscuit immediately invited Barnaby to enjoy chasing him up the hill, across the lawns towards the fence from where they could stand and stare at the black and white dairy cows in the farmer’s field. Biscuit plunged enthusiastically into the raised flower and vegetable beds, hoping that big Barney would have a still more devastating effect on the carefully tended flora and fauna.  O tempora, o mores! as someone famous once said. Now that I am four I can barely recall what it is to be mischievous!

An aged Uncle Jonny and a very young me
An aged Uncle Jonny and a very young me

Biscuit has fallen on his considerably furry feet (which we have in common). He is wanted and loved, and has loads of space to run around; he responds with delightful enthusiasm, directed by Barnaby’s deliberations over leaf and log as if he was reading the revelations of a seer. Such are the benefits of having a mature dog around a baby one, so long as the older is indeed more sensible and a teacher to treasure. Up Ham Hill they went together, nipping ripe blackberries and sniffing the rabbit holes, playing hide and seek behind the standing stones and, a full twenty eight miles in another direction, gazing up in wonder at triangular Alfred’s Tower and all those bricks. A puppy life so new and so enchanting inspires us all; we who are older must remain patient, and remember the devoted love from older dogs, now gone, in whose wisdom we glowed, and grew, in the special times we shared together.