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.

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’.

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.

Once by men and angels

20170801_061033Yesterday morning – and a damp and increasingly unpleasant morning it was –  we found a new best thing on the beach. There it lay, on the tide-line, no one about the see it and no one had been there before us, only the ancient castle walls which rose up in the distance behind it. We sniffed its well-proportioned body, noting its arrival, but otherwise respectfully moved on without disturbing it or making a fuss. Not since we found the squid some years ago has there been anything like our octopus, a perfect specimen thoughtfully blended into his sandy surroundings. These are the passings that we mourn whenever they are brought to our attention, through tiny windows into a bigger world of creation of  which we are only dimly aware: the great North Sea, with its chilly secrets and quiet deaths. Why this little fellow died and was cast ashore – so perfect and so peerless – remain a mystery, but we are grateful for the joy of coming upon him first and bearing witness to his life.

20170801_0611061.jpgWhereas zoologists celebrate the octopus’ ingenuity and unique intelligence, unfortunately in poetic terms they are more likely to be fodder for the infant, the matter of limericks about multiple legs and arms, seemingly lacking the gravitas of the giant squid, immortalised so powerfully in  Tennyson’s poem. Octopus  – of which of course there are numerous species, ranging from tiny to terrible – live for only a couple of years at most and as incarceration in an aquarium is stressful and life-shortening they aren’t readily found in them, though Brighton Aquarium once was graced by the presence of a lovely Giant Pacific Octopus of considerable distinction. Kemo Sabe will always recall the moment in the darkness when, eyes adjusting to the light, she became aware of the presence of this eminence grise in what had previously appeared to be empty tank. Like some alien balloon, adhering to the back wall of its glass home, it seemed reluctant to relax in its surroundings, pondering on the loss of the serendipity in the open sea. Lowering, yet endearing, in its kittenish vulnerability, it has stuck with us, as it were. Our Brighton friend’s time is long up by now, of course, as has that of the little one we chanced upon who, like the kraken, once by men and angels to be seen,/ In roaring . . . shall rise and on the surface die. Though there would have been no roaring at his demise, there did come the moment when mutability was insufficient and all else failed. And thus we found him, first along the shore.

‘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.

 

 

 

Crufts around the corner

fb_img_1486239315855Sometimes the frustrations of life in a family can be overwhelming, the delicate balance lost between the demands of dogs and the requirements of our owners. Kemo Sabe certainly has a lot to put up with! It’s easy to get annoyed at Newman, what with him eating everything in sight – or trying to, if he possible can – and especially seaweed, of course. It’s all too easy when you’re on the phone to get annoyed with Barnaby, for clinging so close you think you’re going to burst with claustrophobia, or indeed with yours truly when I tumble downstairs and jump over the handset, risking a cut-off, mid-call. It’s really easy to get completely sick of Nico’s barking as he alerts us all to the arrival of our friendly delivery persons or runs yapping straight at the heels of male joggers on the beach. Oh, and I can see that it would be entirely understandable to have had enough of my hyperactivity,  always on tenter-hooks as I am for the next exciting event in our daily routine, whining like mad with anticipation, rushing around from one room to another as the tension mounts, urging everyone else to join in the mayhem. Yes, all of us – apart from Hammy Bumble, whose chubby patience and simple needs humble us all – are really very irritating indeed. Fortunately, however, along comes Crufts and, as if by magic, everyone sees the light, as they gaze at the wonder which is the dog and ponder on the qualities which make us the world’s favourite companion animal. Only a couple of weeks to go now, and it’s well worth the wait for the reflected kudos it brings us all.

20170212_120857For our part, we boys probably take much more from those we love than what we give back.  We are the centre of their lives, running our families ragged with our constant focus on the fun to come. Life is such a hoot, after all ! Why won’t everyone join in? What is the point of holding up the walk in order to comb out the clumps in Barnaby’s coat? Why must I go to Donna-Marie’s for a serious haircut to keep the curls out of my eyes and ears. And all those booster injections, what’s all that about? We have nothing other than fun and frolic to think about; nothing other than dinner once breakfast is over and bedtime snacks once the afternoon walk is done. They, on the other hand, have other of our interests at heart; time-consuming tasks often costing considerable sums, designed to keep us looking and feeling our best. Training to do; discipline to keep; puppies to educate for safe, long and happy lives.

Next Tuesday when we welcome young Frederick – pictured above with Nico’s sister, Tiggy  – we’ll be able to see how he’s getting to grips with the politics of family life.  He will be accompanying her to Crufts, for which she qualified some months ago. More anon, as I always say. Apparently, he has wheedled his way into her affections, which isn’t surprising, and she – apparently – puts up with a lot from him. As everyone in this house would surely chorus: don’t we all?