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!

 

A new year and a new boy in town

andrews-boat-in-2017-storm

The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

                                                                                  from T S Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages’ Four Quartets

It’s been an event-crammed couple of weeks, since we turned the page over to the new year. A lot has occurred but there’s been less time than ever to ponder on it properly.  No sooner had the festivities ended than I mysteriously pulled something in my right front leg (something I’ve done twice before) dodging about the dunes, as I habitually do each morning. I’m a brave little soul, not given to creating imaginary mountains where only molehills exist so, when I was unable to bear my own weight, no matter how I tried, Kemo Sabe  – at some physical cost  – came to the rescue and carried me to the car and then, when a day’s rest had made no difference, to the vet. It was the same old story, x-rays and painkillers, and indeed the same diagnosis: nothing broken or fractured; nothing that a few more days’ confined to barracks wouldn’t cure. And so it proved. Normal routines were resumed within a week but more drama was soon to come. Last weekend a potentially catastrophic tidal surge threatened the entire east coast of the country, bringing high tides which tore at the dunes, rearranging the sand and dragging rocks  – long since hidden – back up into view. Much further down the coast, in Suffolk and Essex, folk were expecting and preparing for the worst, abandoning low-lying coastal communities and taking shelter against potential flooding in schools and sports centres. Even here, cottages around Seahouses harbour were warned to expect an inundation. The wind we battled on the beach that Saturday was from the north-west but, though strong enough to streamline the ears, we’ve known it far worse. Nevertheless, one outing was enough  – at low tide – on the day of the surge. Despite all this, though, no harm was done, as Prospero well knew.

img_0874The northern blasts did, however, herald another kind of transformation in the person of the young miniature dachshund called Freddie. Lokmadi Frederick is one of Nico’s relatives and also has the look of him; he has gone to Edinburgh to befriend Nico’s sister, Tiggy, who lost her dear Pupkin just before Christmas. The joy of his arrival does so much to banish the sadness of Pupkin’s loss, without ever diminishing the reality of his existence. Like the storm which sweeps through, leaving scars upon the landscape, the presence of the lost endures. Freddie has much to learn and we have much to learn of him, this ‘baby figure of the giant mass /Of things to come at large’. We thank providence divine that the tempest abated in time for him to be brought north in safety. Another miracle: welcome little friend.facebook_1485027703455

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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.

 

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.

From this . . . . to this!

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Sebastian with his siblings

It’s a wonderful feeling when you begin – at last – to feel the pulse of life returning (ever so gradually, it has to be said) to your veins. After a winter which has drearily defeated us with its dullness and drizzle, today at last the sun has beaten back the clouds and, collectively, we are all feeling that bit more positive. Though the back grass is still far too wet to cut, it feels as though we have turned a corner at last.  It’s been nearly three weeks since my operation and I am back to my usual routines: the morning run, the mad retrieving, the constant presence at Kemo Sabe’s right hand. We know the puffins have returned to the Islands; when, we wonder, will our martins arrive? Above us on the dunes, as we trundle along the beach each morning now, the skylarks and warblers are in excellent voice. The tits are checking out Christopher Wren’s nest box whenever the sky clears, picking at the boys’ golden fur we’ve left for them under the rose canes, so perhaps today they’ll commit to a new home and begin nest-building inside in earnest. What a joy it is to look beyond one’s own little world. As someone famous once said, ‘Minding your own business is like minding your own health: the surest way to make yourself sick!’

177(1)So, in celebration of the coming better weather and a more hopeful time of year, take a look at this charming young man – Buffrey Incognito by Dalleaf JW- better know to us as Sebastian . Though the day of his great success seems ages ago now – illness having taken its toll on our writing routines, and many deadlines having passed unfulfilled as a result of enervation – I can at last put on record the enormous pride I felt when watching dear Sebastian take Best Puppy in the dalmatian ring at Crufts this March. Despite the noise, the crowds and the palpable tension which prevails from start to finish, Sebastian sailed effortlessly through a very long day – one which turned out to be crammed with unexpected incident. It was exciting to be standing next to his very proud owner, The Lady in the Van, at the very moment his future was judged to be the brightest.

Unlike dear Barnaby, I have never before witnessed a friend win such a prestigious award (Barnaby never lets us forget that he saw his cousin win Best Puppy golden retriever a few years ago), so that Thursday will always be special for me. Though Kemo Sabe held me firm and on a short lead, I wanted to join in the noise-making, particularly as all the show dogs in the ring were behaving with such self-control.

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Sebastian at five months

Although born in the Midlands, Sebastian lives with his uncle, our old friend Tomas, of whom I’ve written previously, and his grandmother Jasmine in the south of England and, we can divulge, when not on his best behaviour, being all formal and professional in the ring, he gets into a great many scrapes. We must remember that, as well as being a magnificent dalmatian who gained his Junior Warrant within a couple of months of starting his showing career, he is still only a yearling, so transgressions must be treated with forbearance. Or so he tells Tomas and Jasmine (not to mention the ever-patient Lady!).

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Buffrey Incognito at Dalleaf                         (Copyright 2016 Anne Hurst)

Here he is on the day of his triumph, with his breeder and handler, Sally-Ann Neath-Duggan. You can read more about him on Sally-Ann’s website: http://www.buffreydalmatians.com

He is competing regularly at championship shows throughout the country and all of us ordinary chaps are hoping to have him up this way in a couple of months. I wonder what it’s like to be a star!

 

 

 

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_jackdaws_on_an_old_chimney_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1375599. . .  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.

 

 

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.