Things dying, things newborn

hammy Jo 3.3.16The house fell silent yesterday after our friend, Busy Biscuit, left for home. What larks we all had when we were together during his stay: what barkings, what humpings, what games of chase and fetch and come and go! The place had rarely seemed livelier, or more full of the joie de vivre dogs cannot help but express.  On the beach at Low Newton with the seaweed; in the Bamburgh dunes with the muddy pools; in the garden, down the lane – it was all new to our young friend and he enjoyed every minute of our time together, discharging himself with honour, sleeping at each day’s end right through the night, warmed by the stove in his own, cosy nest, his head full of dreams, and plans of fun and frolic yet to come.

cage 2Upstairs – in his own cosy but ever dwindling world – another tale has, unfortunately, been unfolding: tiny Hammy Jo’s life is drawing to its end. How can such a small decline evoke such heart-rending sadness?  Our previously chubby fellow, with his wonderful pelt, would patrol and organise his extensive demesne on a continual basis but especially throughout the night; accumulating and grading his supplies, according to size and shape; selecting successive latrine sites for reasons best known to himself; seeking out new treats suspended hither and yon; transferring bedding from one living area to another, again for reasons best known to himself. Gradually, over the last several months, however – his second birthday upon him – his perambulations and his aegis have diminished. First he abandoned his other two-storey cage, restricting his activities to the upper and lower floors of the right-hand one. Connecting tunnels lie dusty and unused, like sad pedestrian underpasses. Then he eschewed the mezzanine, where he came of late with increasing regularity to slate his thirst at the smaller of his water bottles and where his little freestanding house, once a burgeoning  horreum stuffed with tuck, where he would shuffle and snuffle and seek the particular nut or fruit he really wanted, now sits empty and untouched. It might as well be boarded up.

Hammy and the boysToday he seems to have stopped eating much at all, even though Kemo Sabe brings him fresh veg, grated cheese and blueberries night and morning, clearing away (what used to be left-overs) on each occasion. For the last two days there has been no need to clear away the shavings soiled with pee or pooh, as he has ceased to eat or drink and all we do is tuck the lovely soft kapok round his frail form, and watch that brave heart beating beneath the straggly fur, once so lustrous. We gather beside his little bed, watching over his final adventure as families have always done since time before memory. While there’s no further need for those clothes pegs, to stop him escaping through the roof, his tiny hands have such a hold on life.The vacant interstellar spaces await a new, tiny presence. He will fill them when he is good and ready.


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.



The greatest Noggs of all

Newman Noggs IThis is Newman Noggs, the original Newman Noggs: the first of the Dickens Dogs. Were the age of miracles not passed, he would soon be celebrating his thirty-fourth birthday and, for everyone who knew him, joy would be unconfined as they remembered his long and extraordinary life and what he meant to them.  For Newman – this Newman – was a force of nature, and of immortal memory. To this day, in his section of the family hope-chest, are to be found wonderful reminders of what he meant to so many people: the birthday cards, gift-tags, notes and letters written after his death, commemorating the biggest, softest, greatest Noggs of all.

In this photograph, taken when Newman was only two and in his youthful prime, there was a game afoot between him and his best friend, a young Boxer called Misty, but he had stopped still long enough for her owner to record what a magnificent creature he was. In those days he was yet to be joined by Uncle Willie (of whom you can read more in the Old Guard section of the blog), and he was living in the dog-centred heaven which is Epping Forest. Every day he enjoyed three walks around and about the many and various wooded routes which spiralled from his house – routes he knew like the back of his paw. More times than she cares to recall, while Kemo Sabe pondered on the events and doings of the day’s work, he dived maniacally into the flooded pools, releasing the methane gases which lurked under the rotting vegetation, and then emerged filthy and dripping, a horizontal line of peaty black showing how deep he had gone. One day, dashing at the gallop past some picnickers, he stole a ham sandwich out of a child’s outstretched hand without missing a beat; amazingly, there was mirth everywhere – only Noggsy could have got away with that! Over his thirteen years, he moved from city to countryside to town, adapting with insoucience both to the change of terrain and, in time, the arrival of Uncle Willie from the Black Country, when he was four. The look on his face when, on collecting young Willie, Kemo Sabe put him in the car is still vivid: ‘What have you got him for?’ Apart from expressing that misgiving, he gave way to little Willie on everything and together they flourished and grew old.

Newman came from a very distinguished line of Golden Retrievers, the Nortonwoods of Old Damson Lane, in the then-leafy part of Solihull, south of Birmingham, and getting him was the most amazing stroke of good fortune, the kind that does sometimes in fact happen to the blissfully ignorant. Of impeccable pedigree, and from a long-line of champions including the lustrous Nortonwood Faunus and Camrose Cabus Christopher, he would never have been available had not the family which reserved him at three weeks decided that, once he’d grown up, a big Golden Retriever would be a bit too big for them. So it happened that the gods smiled and, one wet Friday in March, an on-the-off-chance phone call to a breeder whose name meant nothing but was suggested by a vet the other side of Birmingham resulted in the handing over (on payment of what now seems a derisory sum!) of a perfect eight-week-old pup, and the beginning of a long love story.  That first weekend, when she held the dozing, dreaming Noggsy in her arms, Kemo Sabe was overwhelmed by a happiness hitherto unknown.

Newman and Willie (2)
Newman Noggs and Wilkins Micawber

Brave, strong, gentle and with a strong sense of humour as well as the ability to smile and indeed play jokes, Noggsy could also pout and look morose: words were unnecessary to one so physically eloquent and whose emotional intelligence was so great. In his last few weeks of life, when it became obvious that he would soon have to be put to sleep, he made a progress to visit his most devoted fans, who held him to them for the final time. His death, when it came one frozen January day, when earth lay hard as iron about the grave whose digging he had supervised, dealt a real and terrible blow. Only Uncle Johnny has come near to filling his shoes, the Prince among dogs who was the original Newman Noggs.

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?’

Lights, camera, Johnny

IMG_0168Today is the fourth anniversary of the passing of Uncle Johnny. As if in awe of this terrible day, the winds have been blowing ferociously for the past twelve hours, literally threatening to raise the roof and keeping us all awake with worry, and the skies are as leaden and unpromising as they have been all week. This is the worst weather we have had up here in the north east since our Johnny died. Moreover, we are promised yet another twelve hours of this frightful gale, which has brought the railways to a halt, closed the A1, raised the waters in creeks and rivers alike, depositing it on the fields and golf courses, and kept the lobsters uncollected in their pots at the bottom of the sea.

The picture above shows clearly how different things were the day Uncle Johnny went from us: here he is on the left, wearing his jaunty but ill-fitting Barbour waterproof, and barking in joy at the blinding December sun which greeted him, Newman and Barnaby on the beach that morning. Despite the pain in his tummy, despite the slowness of his gait, he stretched his neck in joy as he always did and, when he returned home to tell me about his walk – I being then a boy of only a few weeks – the sun shone on me too. After all, he said, he had a couple of Alan’s home-made beef pies to look forward to, and a lovely sleep on the sofa before Lucy the Vet was due to come; so cheer up, everyone, it’s a sunny, wonderful day!  Uncle Johnny, like Mr Dick, always set us right.  Whatever the weather.

IMG_0227Another member of our family died last week, so another funeral will soon be taking place. No matter what death and the wind are doing, though, we hold firm to the fact that tomorrow is the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, when from the one light many more are generated; it is also the feast of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, on the celebration of whose day many cultures give and receive their seasonal presents in recognition of his generous goodness. We all keep in mind, though it is often hard to do, that though illness, misery, loss, division, cruelty and darkness of all kinds stalk our days, goodness and light endure and increase, and that ever nearer comes that miraculous turning point in the calendar when the sun moves closer to us again: when symbolism and faith are rewarded in actuality. And in our hearts we remember our dear Uncle Johnny, of blessed memory, whose love of shortbread fingers and the day he stole them makes us laugh still, and whose love for us burns as deeply as ever.


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.

The great British gundog

IMG_3073The World at One, BBC Radio 4’s daily news and current affairs programme, is celebrating its 50th anniversary by asking famous folk for their suggestions of things which make Britain excellent. There have been some terrific responses: Germaine Greer suggested our beautiful native bluebells, Jude Law our country’s theatre, writer Neil Gaiman said that the way we British apologise has become an art form of which nationally we can be proud; someone even nominated British hypocrisy (whatever that is for, as a spaniel, I couldn’t possibly understand).  Our suggestion for The World at One at 50 celebration is ‘The great British gundog’, by which we mean all the wonderful gundog breeds native to these islands, from English Setter to Welsh Springer Spaniel (which is the alphabetical order found in Championship Shows).

IMG_3076Renowned for hard work, dedication, loyalty, determination and love of the countryside, we are also by nature ever-devoted and sweet-tempered, loving and kindly. Beautiful to look at, we come in a range of sizes to suit all kinds of accommodation, in a matchless range of colours and coat-types, typically very easy to care for.  Whether it’s the English Pointer, so elegant and neat, needing little or no grooming, or the Golden Retriever – like the boys seen here with me – with their magnificent heads and swishiest tails, the working Clumber Spaniel, so strong and tireless in the field, or the busy energy of a little Cocker, like yours truly: you simply cannot get away from the fact that we are a group of pedigree breeds without compare.  Not for nothing is Gundog Day the busiest day at Crufts!

Gordon Setter by R. Arkesteyn
Gordon Setter by R. Arkesteyn

It is worth noting that fashion for foreign gundog breeds has led to a sharp decline in numbers of some of our native ones: the beautiful English Setter, which comes in a range of delicate colourways, has dwindled in popularity , with few litters of pups registered at the Kennel Club last year and unfortunately it is rarely seen outside of the show ring these days. If you have never seen one, take a look at this lovely Gordon Setter, a black and tan beauty of such poise and splendour. There is something about our soft and generous mouths, our generous dewlaps, common to our group, which adds to the sense that we are beasts you should trust: you will be safe with us beside you. There is something so tried and true about us all; we have been at the feet of those we love for generations, crowding round their fires and helping them to bring home the dinner, be it rabbit or pheasant, which we are always more than happy to share, of course. Every day Newman and Barnaby make strangers into friends when they greet them, smiling, on the beach; I am always myself, loud and proud to be a little spaniel, but part of a gundog team led by the person we all adore.

If you are interested in The World at One, or in registering your nomination for something British to be proud of, you can find out more on their website:

When the hurly-burly’s done!

IMG_2975 (2)Here is our hero, Horatio, the tiny herring gull baby, who is growing up on the roof, divided from the rest of his family since he fell from the chimney shortly after hatching, but attended lovingly by one parent or another and growing steadily every day, despite gasping for refreshment when it’s a bit too warm, hunkering down when it’s breezy and doing his best to keep dry. His condition is concerning at the best of times – for he is mostly alone and heaven knows what he is thinking; but, after what he went through last night, we really didn’t expect to see him again. Let me explain.

Yesterday turned out to be the hottest day of the year in Britain, though up here on the Northumberland coast we had rather a mixed bag of splendid sun, overcast skies and a continuous blustery wind which kept everything pleasingly fresh. So, while we listened to the out-of-touch-as-ever-when-it-comes-to-weather-forecasts BBC, rattling on endlessly about rail tracks buckling, office workers taking sickies and the wilting folks at Wimbledon, everything carried on as normal here.  However, while the rest of the country got the day-time scorcher, we up here in the north east suffered its after-effects when, at about 1.30 in the morning, the drama of a massive electric storm – unlike anything we’ve ever seen before – began.

In the kitchen, Newman and I dug our heads into our bedclothes, hiding from the frightening flashes of lightning which brought a kind of daytime to the middle of the night. As the heavens resounded with cracks and rolling thunder, I could sense as I stole a peek out the cat flap the eerie stillness which had replaced yesterday’s wind, providing a scary backdrop to the drama of light and noise which tumbled all around us. Nico started barking at his first experience of the truly frightening and utterly baffling, the swathes of white light one moment, the fractured fingers of light piercing the black sky the next.

What could the infant bird be making of all this, we thought; his feeble frame and downy body, his incapable arms? Just when you’d think the night had done enough beneath the enormous moon, torrents of rain began to lash the roof and windows, a downpour in the truest sense, enough to drown the creature utterly, we surely thought. But there was nothing any of us, even a tearful Kemo Sabe, could do, as there never is when the little bird is so far above us and we are so useless below. In truth, though, as our thoughts of him contending with the hours of horror disturbed any chance of finding peace, we commended him to the Great Spirit, praying that somehow, however unlikely that might be, he might be spared.

IMG_3011And, wonderful to relate, he is. The herring gull family has triumphed again, though we shall never know how and, as this morning’s picture shows, all is calm and bright, parent on guard and chicks in order against a cloudless sky. Hang in there, somebody famous once said, and indeed Horatio did. He deserves a hero’s name because, like so many creatures, he faces life’s vicissitudes with equanimity and determination: a Wellington, or a Nelson. If only we could all be so brave.  How ironic that King Lear’s words had never cut so deep:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?

That we could care so deeply about a creature considered by many round here to be so insignificant and two-a-penny, if not a downright nuisance, says a great deal about the capacity to care.

Delicate air (which gives delight . . .)

Michael Palmer
Michael Palmer

When Uncle Johnny, Newman and Barnaby came to live here in Northumberland several years ago, there was a neat little cup of a mud nest under the eaves. Though they hoped to see its owners return to breed in it, no one ever came to claim it and then last summer its remains were lost in the building work for the extra bunkhouse. It was sad that the remnants of what had been a sign of the house being blessed by such special creatures were removed permanently, but that seemed to be that.

What utter joy then, when last week we realised that our little homestead had at last been blessed by a family of house martins who, in what seemed like an eye’s blink, had manufactured a robust, brown home and filled it with twittering offspring.  Hidden beneath the overhanging wooden eaves, if you stand by the house wall and look up you can easily see the perfectly-formed nest so well protected from the elements and, at certain times of the day, watch lots of comings-and-goings accompanied by loud chattering. Though Kemo Sabe’s attempts at photography are pretty woeful, we live in hope of a better shot. It is heartening to think that these lovely birds, who spent the winter thousands of miles to the south of our coastal community, have chosen us for this, their most significant life event – creating a new family. I remember hearing that Banquo, Macbeth’s dear friend, a good man who knows what goodness looks like and says so even when others are blinded by evil, sees the house martins nesting at Macbeth’s castle. He can seem silly when he pays the birds homage, saying that wherever such as they choose to raise their young things are okay. But he is right and the irony is not lost. The innocence of the creatures which choose us for their bedfellows is an inspiration and call to action.  This year, next door’s seagulls have removed themselves to our chimney breast, the spikes having proved too much for them at last. Today, the attentive herring gull parents revealed three tiny chicks, newly-hatched; such a prolific, successful pairing.  Such joy accrues from the bird-life round here, no matter whether mundane, like the gulls, or magic, like the martins. As Banquo himself says:

This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
The air is delicate.

What have we done to deserve this, I ask?