Yesterday 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.
Some 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.
Since we all returned from Crufts we’ve been under the weather and no mistake. Speaking for my own medical case, I know this is not a good look, but at least I’ve been spared what Barnaby calls ‘the cone of shame’. I like to think of this soft, protective cushion as the doughnut of comfort and so far it’s served me nicely, stopping me from nibbling my wound and giving me something reassuring to rest against. I acquired it on returning home after a day at the vet’s for what – everyone tells me – is a routine operation. I note with interest, however, that none of the others knows anything about it. I am sore, though, and feeling more than a bit delicate which is empathetic of me, bearing in mind how ill the humans have been for the last couple of weeks.
Like my own poor Kemo Sabe, however, I can at last feel the life force returning, in recognition of which I’ve now been allowed to exercise with the others in the morning once again. Oh the joy of smelling the salty sea air! The fellowship! The fun! Being a responsible boy, I haven’t pushed myself too far and, as the nurse at the vet’s said during my check-up yesterday, things are healing nicely. The humans have really had to stagger through this winter, with its record grey skies and mild temperatures; it’s no wonder these virulent germs have been so difficult to vanquish and I have had my own down days, too. The sun has all but abandoned the country this winter – a record-breaking year of days without sunshine – and in particular the post-Crufts weeks have been a kind of twilight zone for us all, overshadowed by Hammy Jo’s empty cage and the lassitude that overwhelms the unwell: sleeping badly, coughing madly and yet – ironically – longing always for bedtime! How sad it makes us to see them brought so low.
Thus, despite returning home after our Crufts adventures dying to tell the big news about what happened to our friend, Sebastian the dalmatian, fate intervened and, one after another, the troops went down and I have laid aside the composition of my paean of praise for a couple more days. As I write this, Hammy Bumble is as active as ever in his demesne. Whatever the time of day, whenever we enter the study, he is always awake, or ready to rise, never fully relaxed, always ready to run around madly, his own particular silliness being to roll over and over, as though doing somersaults. Bit by bit he is learning there is nothing to fear, as must I, in my comfy doughnut. We must hope and move forward, despite the darkness, despite the unknown fear. For despite everything, day after day our fragrant meals have been provided promptly morning and afternoon; our routines honoured; our needs met – Hammy’s initial training included. How blessed we creatures are to be put first, and sometimes at such cost.
The 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.
Upstairs – 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.
Today 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.
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 winter: 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 inspire 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.
This 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.
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 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.
But 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?’