The dews of comfort

It has taken a very long time – and it’s been a tedious and painful haul, for everyone involved – but I am now almost completely over my horrible abscess. Lancing the enormous thing left a gaping hole at least two inches in diameter, through which my chest wall was clearly visible. Kemo Sabe winced as she ensured it was completely clean every day, checking for any signs of another infection taking hold. Since returning from my weekend at the vet’s weeks ago I’ve been wearing a veterinary t-shirt, which is tight and buttons right over my haunches, to keep the 20170301_103809dressing over the wound in place, but I’m glad to say that as of yesterday those two layers have now disappeared because the hole has miraculously mended and, moreover, my own furry suit is growing apace over the top.  All that is left is the distinctive doughnut, which provides comfort as well as protection, and I am hopeful that we’ll soon be doing away with that, too. The capacity of the spaniel body to heal itself is truly astonishing; in three weeks, not only has the skin regrown and knitted over the muscle but the lovely pigmentation of my blue roan ancestors is clearly back as well.

20170317_190519Last week I resumed the beach trundle with the others in the morning – such a pleasure to feel part of things again – though I’ve been keeping close to Kemo Sabe lest I pull anything and cause further bother. I’ve also began a love affair with the bed in the spare room, a goose down resource I must confess I have previously overlooked but which I am having troubling appropriating, despite its offering a superbly comforting nest. Disappointing to admit, I often find the door closed now, so I turn instead to the merino wool bed brought back from Crufts especially for me. This was a consolation prize: the abscess prevented my attending Crufts this year, so Nico kept me company back home.  Though I am still fighting infirmity a little, I am deeply struck by the love and care my family has provided throughout all this. I have seen and felt all sorts but couldn’t adequately communicate anything useful about it, when my temperature was so very high that all I could do was lie and lean upon the Lord, and the throbbing of the swelling across my elbow and chest was utterly unbearable. I have been there and back and, I think everyone agrees, it has in some ways changed me. But nothing of this is wasted, as that extraordinary seer, Thomas Hardy, explores in his poem, ‘A Wasted Illness’:

Through vaults of pain,

Enribbed and wrought with groins of ghastliness,

I passed, and garish spectres moved my brain

  To dire distress.

 

  And hammerings,

And quakes, and shoots, and stifling hotness, blent

With webby waxing things and waning things

  As on I went.

 

  “Where lies the end

To this foul way?” I asked with weakening breath.

Thereon ahead I saw a door extend –

  The door to death.

 

  It loomed more clear:

“At last!” I cried. “The all-delivering door!”

And then, I knew not how, it grew less near

  Than theretofore.

 

  And back slid I

Along the galleries by which I came,

And tediously the day returned, and sky,

  And life—the same.

 

  And all was well:

Old circumstance resumed its former show,

And on my head the dews of comfort fell

  As ere my woe.

 

  I roam anew,

Scarce conscious of my late distress . . . And yet

Those backward steps through pain I cannot view

  Without regret.

 

  For that dire train

Of waxing shapes and waning, passed before,

And those grim aisles, must be traversed again

  To reach that door.

Let there be light

barnaby-watching-attenboroughMid-winter is here, the days are depressingly brief and daylight itself is definitely rationed. Though it’s exciting, checking out the daily change in temperature and wind speed before we begin our trundle, some days it looks as though the sun will never rise but usually  – at least by the time we get to St Aidan’s Dunes at Seahouses – there is a glimmer across the horizon, and illuminating hope returns, if only for a few, unimpressive hours. This is the time of year when our routine days begin with a run entirely in darkness and, depending on the cloud cover, this darkness that can feel quite unyielding. Getting ready takes a good bit longer: quite apart from the various layers to keep her warm and dry, Kemo Sabe now must wear a head-torch over her beanie hat so we can see her, whereas we four are decked out in dashing, high-vis jackets so she can spot us running round. Strangely though, she complains because we tend to stick beside her, threatening to trip her up, transfixed by the shadowy, flickering something in the beam of light which shines before her – our lighthouse in more ways than one. This is not a time to be especially adventurous.

Despite the defining darkness, every morning is slightly different. Some are eerily still and misty; some are windier and more hostile, initially at least; so far, few have been perishingly cold. But, whatever the prevailing atmospheric conditions, once in our stride (which means with Newman back on the lead and, indeed, back on task), it’s all rather familiar and, in its own way, unremarkable.  These dark, December days are undistinguished and, for that, we are most grateful. We like these days of waiting; these ordinary days. In a world blighted by more than one kind of darkness, where all around worry and suffering supervene, we are lucky that our fireside calls us and we creatures wait for the day we can light our first candle and celebrate the turning of the year – in joy, and not because we lack warmth. How out of sorts this earthly state must be, that change is so eagerly anticipated when what is needed more, to calm and comfort so very many, is the ordinariness of which it is so easy to tire. In which regard, let us ponder the complexity of this poem by Thomas Hardy, ‘A Commonplace Day’:

The day is turning ghost,
And scuttles from the kalendar in fits and furtively,
   To join the anonymous host
Of those that throng oblivion; ceding his place, maybe,
   To one of like degree.

   I part the fire-gnawed logs,
Rake forth the embers, spoil the busy flames, and lay the ends
   Upon the shining dogs;
Further and further from the nooks the twilight’s stride extends,
   And beamless black impends.

   Nothing of tiniest worth
Have I wrought, pondered, planned; no one thing asking blame or praise,
   Since the pale corpse-like birth
Of this diurnal unit, bearing blanks in all its rays –
   Dullest of dull-hued Days!

   Wanly upon the panes
The rain slides as have slid since morn my colourless thoughts; and yet
   Here, while Day’s presence wanes,
And over him the sepulchre-lid is slowly lowered and set,
   He wakens my regret.

   Regret–though nothing dear
That I wot of, was toward in the wide world at his prime,
   Or bloomed elsewhere than here,
To die with his decease, and leave a memory sweet, sublime,
   Or mark him out in Time . . .

   –Yet, maybe, in some soul,
In some spot undiscerned on sea or land, some impulse rose,
   Or some intent upstole
Of that enkindling ardency from whose maturer glows
   The world’s amendment flows;

   But which, benumbed at birth
By momentary chance or wile, has missed its hope to be
   Embodied on the earth;
And undervoicings of this loss to man’s futurity
   May wake regret in me.

 

Flowers in the bud that will never bloom

Photo : Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons
Photo : Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons

One of the things we love about this part of Northumberland is sensing the nearness of history, ancient footsteps beneath our own. Every day as we trundle along the beach, the imprint of the past provides our pathway. Saints Oswald, Aidan and Cuthbert travelled around this area all the time and knew the ways we walk; in our own humble way, we feel we can reach out and touch them when they come to mind wherever we are, but also that they are still reaching for us long after our selfish concerns have forgotten them. One of our standing jokes is the idea of finding a precious, previously undiscovered jewel in the sand, or some untarnished Anglo-Saxon torc coming to light on an incoming wave after centuries wrapped in seaweed offshore. Something to form a tangible bridge between that world and ours: that would be something indeed.

Guards Chapel, Wellington Barracks, London
Model for new Waterloo monument, Guards Chapel, Wellington Barracks

On what was the battlefield of Waterloo,  where thousands upon thousands fell on a rain-soaked June day – this very day, two hundred years ago – the detritus of war is turned up daily: musket balls, bayonets and the bones of the warriors are so commonplace when the soil is turned over that it is hardly worth mentioning. Where fields of beans now grow, in a flat landscape marked by a vast mound from which the battlefield can be viewed, the past pokes out repeatedly, reminding the locals of that terrible but deeply significant day, when more fell than on the first day of the Somme.

Colours of the seven Guards Regiments
Colours of the seven Guards Regiments

Before the confrontation began, the Belgian fields bounded by the farms at Hougoument and La Haye Sainte, the woods, the country roads and paths were as peaceful as our little bit of Northumberland, where the yellow rape harvest forms a covering for nesting pheasants and darting hares, and young cattle breath clean, sea air beside freshly-shorn sheep watching over their maturing lambs. In The Dynasts, his long dramatic poem about Waterloo, Thomas Hardy is characteristically sensitive about the utter confusion wrought on the innocent flora and fauna of the battlefield when he writes:

Yea, the coneys are scared by the thud of hoofs,
And their white scuts flash at their vanishing heels,
And swallows abandon the hamlet-roofs.

The mole’s tunnelled chambers are crushed by wheels,
The lark’s eggs scattered, their owners fled;
And the hedgehog’s household the sapper unseals.

The snail draws in at the terrible tread,
But in vain; he is crushed by the felloe-rim
The worm asks what can be overhead,

And wriggles deep from a scene so grim,
And guesses him safe; for he does not know
What a foul red flood will be soaking him!

Beaten about by the heel and toe
Are butterflies, sick of the day’s long rheum,
To die of a worse than the weather-foe.

Trodden and bruised to a miry tomb
Are ears that have greened but will never be gold,
And flowers in the bud that will never bloom.

We things of nature, simple and expendable, feel the suffering although we cannot understand it. As Wellington said, when he saw at what cost the day had been won, but thanks to the trust the allies placed in each other, ‘I would wish for no more fighting’.

Go find it, faeries

IMG00358-20140218-0758The lighter mornings are upon us and today the sun came bursting up into our lives. On the early news we heard with warm hearts that in the south the flood levels are dropping a bit. As a boy who cannot bear getting my enormously furry legs wet for less than a really decent retrieve, I can barely conceive what it must be like to sustain life under the conditions which are currently so common. But now the real work must begin: the horrible discoveries of loss and destruction; the protracted process of getting some kind of normal life back, and trying to find ways of making ends meet. It is a new beginning, but not a very joyful one. Coming through the dunes to the beach this morning, however, we all detected a definite feeling of renewed hope in the air. As we rounded the little gate, into the scrubby field where the Exmoor ponies greet us every day, we couldn’t help but feel one of those thrills which the smell of spring – be it ever so faint – instils.

Skylark59 When Kemo Sabe was making her tea, we heard the skylark singing its gracious and sustained song on ‘Tweet of the Day’. Suddenly above us hovered the sound of summer months, even earlier outings and the solitude of the dunes. This blessed and inspiring song transported us through time as we crossed its currently empty habitat. We remember Thomas Hardy’s tribute to this ‘tiny piece of priceless dust’, the memory of whom, like a gentle phantom, brushes over us as we pass. You will return, sweet creature, and we will be waiting, on dry, bright mornings like today when still more of the sorrow has evaporated on the gentle breeze.

If you would like to hear this morning’s ‘Tweet of the Day’ about the skylark, you will find it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03tht7c