‘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.

 

 

 

Solomon in all his glory

IMG_20170507_150455Yesterday, as we put on our winter woollies for another outing, we heard that the west of England was bathed in sumptuous sunshine. Well, we weren’t up here! Winter, or at least a kind of winter, had returned, with strong northerly winds and persistently grey skies.  Days and days of relentlessly depressing cold beset us and our dogged avian friends – all smiles and nestlings one minute; brooding in the east wind the next. What, we wondered, do they make of it, the magnificent little blue tits (‘I was born in that box!’), dutifully prising individual strands from clumps of Barnaby’s discarded pelt? Undeterred by the vicissitudes of the weather, they hunker down and warm each other in the shelters our demesne affords them, in sure and certain hope that all things will eventually change and that they’ll soon find comfort again, even if only in a rare bit of watery sun. On the beach the sand martins that arrived a few weeks ago had already developed additional nest holes in the dunes, suggesting that their numbers will be even  greater this year. Every morning we try to count them; an idle but compulsive activity to which we look forward, wondering what difference the awful weather would make to their plans to replenish themselves after a three-week flight. We saw nothing of them at all when the wind was at its worst, terribly cold and fierce. Such resilient creatures must have shrugged at such little local difficulties after the dangerous journey they’d made successfully from the south. Huddled safely within their shelters, they must have laughed at our concern, for their spirit – and their faith – are stronger than ours.

And they were right to lean hard, and hold on; for, by this morning, the wind had dropped and, by lunchtime, was coming from the south-east. As if by magic, the first local house martins appeared in the sky above our lane, chuckling with pleasure at the insect life awakening all around them. The nest from which ‘our’ family of martins moved on last June has been commandeered by sparrows, the chirping of whose babes within can be clearly heard from the study window. Yes, we hold the ones who stay very close to us indeed. Other sparrow families have moved in to the man-made martin nests installed last autumn, and a loquacious starling brood is living on a ledge under the guttering above a bay window; rattling calls alert us to the delivery of a new worm, every so often, as the parent tucks itself under and in to the nursery.

Last Sunday, BBC Radio 4 celebrated International Dawn Chorus day with a unique broadcast in which radio stations across Europe joined forces to track the rising sun across the continent from Moscow to Dublin, relaying the aural landscape of birdsong as the creatures woke and staked their claim on the day. This ambitious project resulted in a moving and humbling symphony of sound, to which the wild birds of Europe freely contributed out of sheer joy.  You will find access to the broadcast and episodes from it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08pdfyw

 

 

 

Pictures of Lily

IMG_0192The Dickens Dogs know that we are very lucky to be loved so much. No matter what befalls – as with my big op last week – we are always taken care of and a way through found. When Barnaby’s cousin Rosie had her second litter, six months ago, this household paused for thought about whether we should put our names down for another golden bear. After all, Uncle NuNu had had his ninth birthday in May and Barnaby (always thought of as a youngster, simply because he is the youngest retriever) will be seven in November. We came to our senses and resisted the opportunity to bring another golden Tilldawn into our care but the comparative infrequency of a Tilldawn litter makes the possibility of securing one of the pups something one has to decide on without undue delay: they are an incomparable line of golden retrievers, whose temperaments and handsome good looks distinguish them in a world awash with indiscriminate breeding, motivated by income: a regular supply of litters obviously means more sales.

IMG_0226One of the bitches in Rosie’s litter turned out to be very special. Little Lily was born with a deformed front leg, the paw turned over permanently, making it impossible to put her left foreleg down on to the ground. Though occasionally a puppy fails to thrive, this deformity was a first experience of such a thing in a lifetime of breeding, furthermore, it presented a dilemma, especially when the local vet confirmed the suspicion that Lily would never be able to use her leg properly and would always have to balance on the other three. Adult golden retrievers grow quickly into big, heavy  dogs, weighing over seventy pounds, and it doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate that the manoeuvres a tiny puppy finds manageable would place inordinate strain on adult skeleton and musculature. The best, but most difficult, course of action would seem to be to euthanise sooner rather than later; easier said than done, though, even if thought to be in the pup’s best interests.

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Molly (Barnaby’s sister) with ball, Sophie, Annie and Rosie

But hard-headed decisions and financial considerations are not the Tilldawn way. Love and care and thinking things through are the Tilldawn way, even if it means a great deal of stress for the humans in charge. So it is that now, nearly six months old, Lily is very much alive and well. Her breeder kept back a little boy puppy to grow up along with Lily (there are lots of aunties available to love Lily but they’d not be much good for fun and frolic, would they?), so she and Travis had a wonderful childhood together, as these pictures show. Lily has now been found a permanent home,  and was given to a kindly and experienced family with a cockerpoo she plays with constantly, up and down stairs, in and out of the garden. Life is amazing for her, a real little character.  And that isn’t all. Lily will shortly be accompanying her breeder and new owner to see the orthopedic genius, super-vet Noel Fitzpatrick, to see if he can work his magic with a reconstructive operation. Thought British viewers are used to gasping at his bionic wonders, nothing like that would be thinkable for Lily. If her mobility can be improved by some intervention, Noel is the man to know. More about how Lily gets on anon.

You can learn more about Fitzpatrick referrals on their website at http://www.fitzpatrickreferrals.co.uk/ and catch up on the Channel 4 programmes about his work on http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-supervet

 

Away with the fairies

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Uncle Newman with his devoted little Nico

‘Has Newman had his pill?’

This question, asked morning and evening, is one to which Uncle NuNu himself now greatly looks forward (if he hasn’t yet shouldered his way into position before it’s even asked) when he hears the words, so keen is he to get a treat at the same time as the dispensing occurs. In a recent post about him, I recalled Uncle Willie’s epilepsy, and this has prompted me to write about dear Newman’s own experience of his own faraway world  – a world of goodness, innocence and inability to concentrate. This is because he has what the vet calls ‘epilepsy-type symptoms’ and, as a result, has a small twice-daily dose of Epiphen.

Newman and Willie 5 months
Willie with a young Uncle Johnny

In Uncle Willie’s case, epilepsy made itself known when he had his first seizure at the age of two: a dramatic Sunday lunchtime, that, with nobody really knowing what to make of the poor dear creature who had been fine one minute – resting quietly on the mat – and then rigid and out of it the next. By the time he was rushed to meet the vet at the surgery, Willie was fully conscious again and it seemed obvious what he’d experienced. Over the next few years Willie’s fits came with increasing frequency, following the characteristic  pattern of initial faraway look – eyes open, senses shut – and then the rigidity, the shaking. They were never dramatic or distressing to witness and they could be astonishingly brief: moments of contact with the angels in a world quite wild to the rest of us.  Eventually the vet said it was time to medicate and, though the first dose of phenobarbital seemed worryingly strong, after the second he was back to his old self and he went on to take it thereafter without its diminishing his fun one jot. To this day he remains the only Dickens Dog to have died without euthanasia, dropping dead of a heart attack aged thirteen, just before he tackled his dinner.

20160712_134649Uncle NuNu’s case is rather different. He had a couple of petit mal experiences over the years – standing still, eyes fixed: absence seizures, as they are often now called. Sometimes it’s really hard to get his attention; he’s not deaf, and he’s not disobedient; it’s just that he’s away with the fairies, lift-music playing soothingly inside his head. Then he starts gulping madly, as if he’s feeling sick – a classic symptom Uncle Willie shared. This distresses him to such an extent that nothing can calm him and he simply must go into the garden; once there, though, he simply looks around for grass and has never, ever even tried to be sick. More than anything he needs calming and reassurance, which we all try to give him. He’s been on the pills for several months now and the gulping and sickness episodes have become very few and far between, though occasionally you can tell Newman feels agitated and can’t work out why. He’s had all the tests and the vet is happy for his symptoms to be controlled by medication.

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Upside down fun and frolic

We often wonder what goes on in his magical head, when he’s rolling madly with joy or sitting pondering on nothing much at all. In Nunhead Cemetery he was often haunted by the presence of the others the rest of us couldn’t see; those whose lightning-quick appearances he returned with a thoughtful glance and, very occasionally, refusal to follow a pathway through the graves. As a noisy spaniel, I wish I had his depth and mystery but as he once was quite extrovert too, perhaps I shall become more like him – and learn from him – as the years pass. When I came along, it was Uncle Johnny who took me under his wing; Newman was much younger then, less interested in avuncular duties: he has always let little Nico do whatever he likes to him, endlessly patient with his fur-chewing and comfort-seeking, even if it means his fur gets wet and a bit thin in places.

Newman adored Uncle Johnny and probably speaks with him most days, down the bottom of the garden, where the sparrows chirrup and leave him bits of fat ball to snack on – a joke they share, no doubt. Together, they compare notes about what Uncle Willie’s funny turns were like. Johnny will have told him that when he was a few months old he ate one of Uncle Willie’s pills by accident, but with no ill effects – just as the vet had predicted!  We used to find the odd pill on the floor, fortunately before any of us had hoovered it up; the bit of bread NuNu has with it ensures it goes down properly. Another routine: just one of so many in our carefully crafted daily lives. One that keeps our dear furry friend grounded a bit more than he might otherwise be.

Wilkins Micawber

Willie BWWilkins Micawber, known as Willie, was the second of the Dickens Dogs. Willie was wonderful: big-boned, furry, gentle, sweet-natured and enormous fun. Uncle Johnny told me that when he was just a little puppy on holiday up here in Northumberland with Willie they had such a great time together – running, tumbling, letting go; every day was an adventure. Although Uncle Tommy was nearer in age to young Johnny, it was dear old Willie who was fun and, though Willie wasn’t a very bright crayon, in many ways he shines brightest of all because he was simply so very good. He was a kind of saint – the Prince Myshkin of Dickens Dogs.

He was born in the Black Country, in Tipton, laughingly called ‘the Venice of the Midlands’, one of ten pups, out of which litter one died. I expect he used to think about his lost litter-mate: I would have done.  When he was collected in the spring, and was being lifted gently into the car, Old Noggsy (the original Newman Noggs) gave a look of resignation and generously made room in his world, thereafter allowing the new family member to have whatever he wanted. He was like that. In fact, I have noticed how all golden retrievers share this exceptional open-heartedness. They are very kind dogs.  Very content in their essential dogginess; very centred.

Willie and Newman became a good team, moving around the country as lives changed: as a duo they were a by-word for reliability. Indeed, like all goldens, they were always there! When Willie was two he took a funny turn and the vet said he had had an epileptic fit (I said he was like Prince Myshkin). Though he went on to have more from time to time, he didn’t need medication until he was about six. As it turned out he was really suited to the pills and the rest of his life passed without incident. He lived until he was nearly thirteen and to this day is the only Dickens Dog to have died in his own time: he had a heart attack and dropped down dead in his garden.

Willie’s greatest love was swimming and he was terrific at it.  This was discovered when he was really young, on his first break away at the Devon seaside, one winter’s day when the wind was wild and the waves were rolling in. Because Uncle Noggsy didn’t like getting into water much, and certainly wouldn’t have ventured in under such appalling weather conditions, they were staggered when Willie became incredibly excited as they descended the steep path to the little cove. He gathered pace and began to bark in anticipation as the smell of the sea drew closer, much to everyone’s amazement, and when he finally got on the shingle he ran into the water, into the massive waves, as though fulfilling his destiny.  Astonishment! The size and ferocity of the waves concerned him not a jot: it was love at first sight! After that, though he didn’t live by the sea himself, whenever he got the chance he was straight in there, and was never happier than when joined by one or other of the family.

Newman and Willie (2)
Old Uncle Noggsy and Willie

Willie had a lovely temperament, ever gentle and loving, ever happy and positive – his simplicity and goodness are a lesson to us all: in no way could being more intelligent have improved him one little bit. Right to the end of his life, when his back legs had failed miserably and the arthritis made running an impossibility, he still leapt out of the back of the car ready for anything, having forgotten he’d only get about ten yards before his rear end gave way. It didn’t matter to him as he lived every moment to the full. He was a glorious golden boy and we will always remember him with enormous love. Once towards the end of his life, when his hearing and eyesight had deteriorated, a person who didn’t know him well got annoyed that his big frame was in the way in a narrow corridor and they smacked him for being there. There was much dismay and the person concerned eventually left the Dickens Dogs’ lives. Uncle Johnny never forgot that. He said it was a betrayal and one of the most indefensible acts he ever witnessed.

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.