Just one of those days

20170710_064337This morning, trundling along the beach (so far, so routine), it felt different. It was just one of those days: magic, despite evidence being to the contrary. Rather grey and utterly still; the sea quiet, and almost indistinguishable from the sky. A tide drawing ever nearer (by the end of the week, we’ll be watching our step), but plenty of sand still stretched ahead of us, and the waters themselves touched the shore tentatively, gently. Looking about, you might expect it to be chilly, were it not 14 degrees and so a good five more than yesterday, when the sun was bright and clear. Obviously, the clouds were on our side. The unexpected nature of perfection can surprise us; it is true that – often – we get what we need.

20170710_064625.jpgIt seems months, and probably is, since we left the dark morning runs and Kemo Sabe’s vital head-torch behind. It will be several months until they resume. Meanwhile we sustain an ever-growing number of holiday-makers for whom a morning such as today’s, and the deterioration in conditions which followed it, is usually a disappointment, deterring all but the weather-hardened from the beach, and crowding the coastal castles, their galleries, gardens, grounds and tea-rooms instead.

20170510_074634On such a morning, there’s a kind of hush, as though a great juggernaut has just past by, as visitors sigh and rest a while longer on their pillows, gathering their thoughts and changing their plans in the face of the weather forecast, while the locals quietly look about them, the veil lifted in the peace.  Above the kitchen window, some resident sparrows  – who’ve already raised one brood (pictured here) in their house-martin box – decide to mate again, committing themselves to each other for more weeks of tireless work, placing their faith in something bigger, and another day. Part of the joy of this area of England is the changeability of the weather, sometimes from hour to hour. Only this Saturday, it was sweltering and the place was full of folk. But this morning was magic and then the rain came, and the birds took to the mere, bringing the bird-watchers joy. ‘The Poet sees!/ He can behold’, as Longfellow writes:

How beautiful is the rain!
After the dust and heat,
In the broad and fiery street,
In the narrow lane,
How beautiful is the rain!
How it clatters along the roofs,
Like the tramp of hoofs
How it gushes and struggles out
From the throat of the overflowing spout!
Across the window-pane
It pours and pours;
And swift and wide,
With a muddy tide,
Like a river down the gutter roars
The rain, the welcome rain!
The sick man from his chamber looks
At the twisted brooks;
He can feel the cool
Breath of each little pool;
His fevered brain
Grows calm again,
And he breathes a blessing on the rain.
From the neighboring school
Come the boys,
With more than their wonted noise
And commotion;
And down the wet streets
Sail their mimic fleets,
Till the treacherous pool
Engulfs them in its whirling
And turbulent ocean.
In the country, on every side,
Where far and wide,
Like a leopard’s tawny and spotted hide,
Stretches the plain,
To the dry grass and the drier grain
How welcome is the rain!
In the furrowed land
The toilsome and patient oxen stand;
Lifting the yoke encumbered head,
With their dilated nostrils spread,
They silently inhale
The clover-scented gale,
And the vapors that arise
From the well-watered and smoking soil.
For this rest in the furrow after toil
Their large and lustrous eyes
Seem to thank the Lord,
More than man’s spoken word.
Near at hand,
From under the sheltering trees,
The farmer sees
His pastures, and his fields of grain,
As they bend their tops
To the numberless beating drops
Of the incessant rain.
He counts it as no sin
That he sees therein
Only his own thrift and gain.
These, and far more than these,
The Poet sees!
He can behold
Aquarius old
Walking the fenceless fields of air;
And from each ample fold
Of the clouds about him rolled
Scattering everywhere
The showery rain,
As the farmer scatters his grain.
He can behold
Things manifold
That have not yet been wholly told,–
Have not been wholly sung nor said.
For his thought, that never stops,
Follows the water-drops
Down to the graves of the dead,
Down through chasms and gulfs profound,
To the dreary fountain-head
Of lakes and rivers under ground;
And sees them, when the rain is done,
On the bridge of colors seven
Climbing up once more to heaven,
Opposite the setting sun.
Thus the Seer,
With vision clear,
Sees forms appear and disappear,
In the perpetual round of strange,
Mysterious change
From birth to death, from death to birth,
From earth to heaven, from heaven to earth;
Till glimpses more sublime
Of things, unseen before,
Unto his wondering eyes reveal
The Universe, as an immeasurable wheel
Turning forevermore
In the rapid and rushing river of Time.

The vicissitudes of life

 

20170221_130308A week of ups and downs; of Freddie Frankfurter and ‘Doris’ Day. Kemo Sabe laid low with illness; the weather swinging wildly between winter and summer, throwing everything at the country on one mad day; an enchanting encounter with our newest relative and me, your gentle author, in pain once again. What a week it is proving to be.

20170219_072818At first it was so extraordinarily mild. 16 degrees and still only February, we thought! Daily, the eggy dawn illuminated our morning run reliably once again. Truly, we have turned winter’s worst corner, we thought for, whatever the storms to come – whether rain or snow – might throw at us, we have regained the early morning light and our hearts swell to be united with it once again. Our high-vis vests and Kemo Sabe’s head torch have been stowed away until the depths of next winter. Leaving the house first thing takes a good ten minutes less than it used and, except for the muzzles, we are free to bounce on dunes we can see and clamber over rocks without fear. The wind careered forcefully, but warmly, from the west and we looked around and were pleased. That is, until I injured myself in that mysterious way of mine which nobody has ever witnessed and, hors de combat, I was left alone, at home, while the others got on with things. It is depressing and, indeed, I look very depressed by my incapacity. What is there to enjoy for a spaniel like me If I cannot run free and enjoy trundling again with the boys?

20170221_130429All of this happened after we said goodbye to our tiny nephew, Freddie, with whom I think it’s fair to say that we are all smitten. Maybe I pulled something playing with the fearless little chap on the floor. Nico couldn’t get enough of him,  latching on to his writhing form and arching his back with delight as the childish one gazed in admiration, fascinated at his size and similarity. The siblings and their little nephew have such a lot in common and look like a family. Beloved sister Tiggy watched on in dignified silence – utterly ignored – as did I, at the furious and fearless antics as Freddie and Nico rolled and darted and squirmed and chased about, their eyes only for each other. Come back soon, we say.

img_3tet8wStorm ‘Doris’ threatened us with snow but, in the end merely chucked a day of rain at us and some moderately high winds – miserable certainly but nothing terribly dramatic, unlike other locations, particularly to the west. The next day, by contrast, the sea had settled and the sun was out, crisp and clear the air. Our garden birds, as hungry and ever, waited for refills in the feeders, nyger seed providing the veritable flock of goldfinches we now entertain on a daily basis the sustenance they need to see them through.  Their plumage is wondrously bright, new minted, one could say. How wonderful to look and feel so well.  As for my poorly shoulder, or whatever it is, I will leave it in Kemo Sabe’s prudent hands, as it were. I have enjoyed some lovely meaty meals today, and extra biscuits, too, hand fed by her, as I lay prone and disinclined to put any weight on my left front leg. Perhaps another couple of days’ enforced rest will ease things up; if not, it’s the vet’s again, I suppose, and who knows what after that. How we long for ordinary times again.

 

 

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?

 

 

 

Ordinary times

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If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

It’s a funny time of year; neither here nor there, if you like. Recent early morning temperatures have been all over the place. Over the weekend, crossing the rocks in the dark was utterly treacherous, requiring slow, deliberate and precise footwork, especially for Kemo Sabe who is two-legs-down on the rest of us and has Uncle NuNu on the lead (for reasons which will be obvious to readers of this blog). But on those icy days, crisp and clear, it was wonderfully bright daylight all the way from Bamburgh.

20170130_120334By contrast, this morning and last the leaden sky and drizzly darkness before grudging dawn were back again and, by midday, mist had swamped us.  After lunch, the sea  became increasingly tempestuous and had begun to swell, sending a beautiful red ball on to the sand where – being muzzled – I could do nothing about it. I guarded it as long as I could in the hope that Kemo Sabe would help me to add it to our collection but, for some reason, there was nothing for it but run to catch up the others. One of her regular kindnesses is to put these strange treasures in her pocket so we can play with them later at home; our favourite thing about storms is that in the aftermath we find the beach strewn with the lost and discarded playthings of so many dogs, but there are also other, greater wonders, like this lovely, sunny star whose remarkability, you might say, leads us on through the gloom to something out of reach.

20170118_154207Here we are on the second day of February, the Feast of Candlemas, which marks the formal end of the celebration of the birth of  Christ, in the ordinary time leading up to the next big penitential season. This is the day which commemorates the meeting of the old and the new in the Temple of Jerusalem long, long ago.  Today we stood before dawn at the foot of the sand-martins’ cliff, the rising tide pushing us against the rocks beneath their empty and cheerless holes. Empty and cheerless – for now. We  – who have lost another member of our human family this week but are shortly to welcome little Frederick on his first visit here – are blessed that the routine days stretch before us in this ordinary time as we watch and wait, live and breathe. And, if you seek some comfort, wherever you are reading this consider the weather on this day  and then consider the proverbial words above.

For further reassurance at this ordinary time of year, here is ‘The Charm’ by Rudyard Kipling:

Take of English earth as much

As either hand may rightly clutch.

In the taking of it breathe

Prayer for all who lie beneath.

Not the great nor well-bespoke,

But the mere uncounted folk

Of whose life and death is none

Report or lamentation.

 Lay that earth upon thy heart,

 And thy sickness shall depart!

It shall sweeten and make whole

Fevered breath and festered soul.

It shall mightily restrain

Over-busied hand and brain.

It shall ease thy mortal strife

‘Gainst the immortal woe of life,

Till thyself, restored, shall prove

By what grace the Heavens do move.

Take of English flowers these —

Spring’s full-faced primroses,

Summer’s wild wide-hearted rose,

Autumn’s wall-flower of the close,

And, thy darkness to illume,

Winter’s bee-thronged ivy-bloom.

Seek and serve them where they bide

From Candlemas to Christmas-tide,

 For these simples, used aright,

 Can restore a failing sight.

These shall cleanse and purify

Webbed and inward-turning eye;

These shall show thee treasure hid,

Thy familiar fields amid;

And reveal (which is thy need)

Every man a King indeed!

 

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.

 

Away with the fairies

20160415_102303
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.

Babies by the bin

Blue_Tit_-Cyanistes_caeruleus_-inside_nest_box-4aIn addition to the daily excitement provided by our family of house martins, busily getting on nicely under the front eaves of our house, we are now focused on the activity in and out of Christopher Wren’s old nest box, where the blue tits are busy with their babies. Since our wren last used it, this little box – put up on the fence by the oil tank long before we came here – has mostly stood unused, though every year tits have shown an interest, preparing bedding, cleaning the entrance hole and even, one year, laying their lovely little eggs but then abandoning the unfinished job of rearing them.

DSC01664This unprepossessing and rather old nest box, which is only about four and a half feet from the ground (we would never have sited it there ourselves!) and lies just to the right of the rubbish bins,  has really taken the tits’ fancy. The site is just outside the kitchen window behind the sink, so perfect for bird-watching; though we thought they’d given up on the idea of nesting there, when the tits seemed to disappear to an alternative spot after several weeks’ attentive action around and about it, recently the feeding frenzy began, alerting us to the joyful fact that this was now indeed the chosen home to their new family.

Before it became obvious from the incessant to-ings and fro-ings that child-rearing was underway inside, and when we were all convinced that the box’s curious location had probably been its undoing, Kemo Sabe ventured a peek inside, just to see what they’d been up to – if anything. And there, in a small nest at the back (a tiny nest of felted  feathers and fur from Barnaby), was a little group of chicks, newborn, all giant, opaque eyes, stock still, playing dead. Not so much as a gaping mouth.

All day long the faithful parents come and go, bearing nutritious caterpillars, midges and tiny moths, their flight path typically taking them up and over the buddleia and into the woods beyond where the pickings are rich.  The wild roses covering their nest-box provide both superb cover and a useful perch from which to re-enter their home, every movement done with artistry and efficiency. When the pair meet outside, they beat their wings behind them with intense energy, speaking silent thoughts and communicating wordlessly, perhaps urging each other to take a break and call in at the fat ball feeder for a little something. Darkness, up here in north Northumberland, comes very late in June, long after we’re a-bed. By nine, activity around the nest has long ceased. As we wash the last cups of the evening, we imagine the family hunkered down within their cosy home, well provided for, safe within their thorny hedge. We know that with any luck all our lives will remain intertwined for years to come, as their surviving babies join them and the community of other fowls at the feeders in much, much harder times; when our house martins have thrown themselves upon the mercy of the wind in ways which none of us could ever have the courage to do.