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

DQv55Z9UMAAwo0q.jpg large
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?

 

 

 

A new year and a new boy in town

andrews-boat-in-2017-storm

The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

                                                                                  from T S Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages’ Four Quartets

It’s been an event-crammed couple of weeks, since we turned the page over to the new year. A lot has occurred but there’s been less time than ever to ponder on it properly.  No sooner had the festivities ended than I mysteriously pulled something in my right front leg (something I’ve done twice before) dodging about the dunes, as I habitually do each morning. I’m a brave little soul, not given to creating imaginary mountains where only molehills exist so, when I was unable to bear my own weight, no matter how I tried, Kemo Sabe  – at some physical cost  – came to the rescue and carried me to the car and then, when a day’s rest had made no difference, to the vet. It was the same old story, x-rays and painkillers, and indeed the same diagnosis: nothing broken or fractured; nothing that a few more days’ confined to barracks wouldn’t cure. And so it proved. Normal routines were resumed within a week but more drama was soon to come. Last weekend a potentially catastrophic tidal surge threatened the entire east coast of the country, bringing high tides which tore at the dunes, rearranging the sand and dragging rocks  – long since hidden – back up into view. Much further down the coast, in Suffolk and Essex, folk were expecting and preparing for the worst, abandoning low-lying coastal communities and taking shelter against potential flooding in schools and sports centres. Even here, cottages around Seahouses harbour were warned to expect an inundation. The wind we battled on the beach that Saturday was from the north-west but, though strong enough to streamline the ears, we’ve known it far worse. Nevertheless, one outing was enough  – at low tide – on the day of the surge. Despite all this, though, no harm was done, as Prospero well knew.

img_0874The northern blasts did, however, herald another kind of transformation in the person of the young miniature dachshund called Freddie. Lokmadi Frederick is one of Nico’s relatives and also has the look of him; he has gone to Edinburgh to befriend Nico’s sister, Tiggy, who lost her dear Pupkin just before Christmas. The joy of his arrival does so much to banish the sadness of Pupkin’s loss, without ever diminishing the reality of his existence. Like the storm which sweeps through, leaving scars upon the landscape, the presence of the lost endures. Freddie has much to learn and we have much to learn of him, this ‘baby figure of the giant mass /Of things to come at large’. We thank providence divine that the tempest abated in time for him to be brought north in safety. Another miracle: welcome little friend.facebook_1485027703455

img_0841

 

Pupkin passes

20161220_124446Rest in Peace, tiny Pupkin, who died last night after an emergency admission to the vet’s. He was inordinately loved and, as you can see from this picture, taken only yesterday afternoon on his last visit to us, a miniature dachshund of consummate flair and self-possession. Nearly sixteen, he had lived a full and active life in a loving home in Edinburgh, a city suited to his genteel ways. Mentor, protector and best friend to Tiggy, Nico’s little sister, he always enjoyed coming to see us all in the madhouse here, every visit marked by a warning that this might be the 20161220_144228last time we saw him, so frail was he getting. Yesterday, as though transfixed in catatonic fascination, he watched Nico and Tiggy tumbling and chasing like baby otters, all the time guarding their space on the rug provided for his extra comfort. When lunch arrived, he ate it purposefully and with as much pleasure as ever: food was the love of his life. We watched as he meticulously 20161220_144518pursued  a piece of cucumber around his bowl (a bowl designed to slow down gobbling eaters!), identifying it by scent rather than sight – his eyes being weak. At last he found it and, with that, rested once more. It was clear yesterday, however, that he was thinking about moving on; that Uncle Johnny had a special place ready for him and that his family and friends (particularly Uncle NuNu, who adored him) would soon have to say farewell. He gave us all the privilege of sharing his last full day with him and we will never forget his stoicism and loving presence. God bless you dear little friend.