‘Mr Dick sets us all right’

20170524_124526Today is the tenth birthday of our dear friend and biggest brother, Newman Noggs, so just this once – instead of speaking about him – I shall let him speak for himself, on this most auspicious day:

I am not sure why I have been asked to talk to camera but I am always happy to meet new friends and reach out in the hope of recognition. I am named, so I’m told, after a Dickensian character; a gentleman who, down on his luck and against his better judgement, makes terrible mistakes and finds himself drawn into dreadful deeds which play appallingly on his conscience. Sounds awfully like me! Ever since I was a boy, and there were only Uncle Johnny and me in the gang, I’ve got it wrong. Chewing the bathroom carpet, chewing the mat in the back of the car, leaping and bounding after any- and everybody – all in the best possible taste, though, you understand; an irrepressible spirit as sunny as that sunny August day I came Newman and Jackhome with Johnny from my Loughborough kennels and began the life I love. Johnny would look serious, indeed worried, in case anyone might think he’d done the wrongs which were down to me, but his worry turned to dismay and, eventually, acceptance and then real understanding. He was a true friend and I loved him so dearly. I miss him, every day, but see him regularly in my own way.   It’s part of the special way my mind works. Everyone knows I see dead people, like the Vikings drawing their long-ship up the beach at Bamburgh, and the weary departed souls in Nunhead cemetery.  We so loved our daily walk with Kemo Sabe around its perimeter, for the demands of a day at school would often upset my tummy, after bringing a teddy to comfort the tearful and those as prone to getting it wrong as me. It was a stressful world but I made my contribution to calming it, so I have done good in my time. One of my friends even painted a portrait of us together: that was something special. I remember you still, Jonathan.  That was all before we came on this long, long holiday to the seaside and stayed, and stayed . . .

 20170525_064546I know I sometimes leave people dazed and confused but, believe me, no-one is as dazed and confused as me. I wonder sometimes why Uncle Johnny left us, but he only did that after Mr Pip had joined Barnaby in our gang. Perhaps he couldn’t stand any more mess, or silliness. I wonder what he would have made of Nicholas. He’s such a sweet affectionate little soul, particularly to me, so I let him chew my fur as he needs me just as I needed Johnny, to love and guide. It reminds me of my school work and the comfort that I gave.  But now I follow Barnaby, as he is a bear of greater brain, and is cleverer at getting his muzzle off, whereas I’m better at eating seaweed through it! Seaweed and swimming are my best things!

20170525_070027Today, for some reason, there were hot steak pies from the Bamburgh butcher with our dinners and then there was a walk over the dunes beyond the castle, under the darting, chuckling birds that share our lives. And there is something new for me to chew on, too. Everything fits together –  just about – and I am happy to go along with the gang, cheerful and straightforward in my own eccentric way. I do think, though, that I am even more like Mr Dick than Mr Noggs. But I’ll leave you to check that out.

 

 

 

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.

Turbulent times

2013 002Today has brought the worst weather of the season so far: gale force winds, squally, driving rain, and a sky one minute black as night, bedecked with rainbows the next. Rising as always in the darkness, after a night in the kitchen huddled beside NuNu on the big bed, we suffered from a chillier than normal environment because, with the wind coming from the north, it pushed at the cat-flap all night long, and it caught repeatedly, letting the cold air in. The beach trundle was abandoned in favour of an early breakfast and then a trip to the blasted heath beneath Bamburgh Castle, a shorter morning outing to be sure, but sensible in view of the mountainous seas which were not long past high tide. Only a couple of other hardy types were about – dogs like us, utterly untroubled by a bit of atmospheric turbulence. We are remarkable as a species for our ability to keep on keeping on, so long as our bowls are laid down regularly and the routines are honoured by those we love.

Beyond these walls, however, where the warmth of the AGA and the stove in the living room radiate reliably from hour to hour, the world seems fragmented and disturbing in so many ways. Were we boys not loved so much – and held so close – there would be so many reasons to tremble. Wherever we look, there is something to fear. Across the sky tonight there will be fireworks shrieking, terrorising us all, bonfires lit over the heads of unsuspecting hedgehogs and other tiny creatures and all in aid of some outdated anti-Catholic anniversary of something which didn’t even happen hundreds of years ago. Across the country, folk are generally confused and bemused by the nature of government while across the Atlantic our closest allies are tearing themselves apart. Rage, intolerance and lack of respect are everywhere, expressed by this frightful gale.

Kemo Sabe puts a Dundee cake in the oven and pays-homage to the late-rising sparrows by filling their feeders despite the driving rain. A lone wood pigeon rocks tentatively towards the back door, inquiring about a seed or two that may have been overlooked by more agile colleagues. His need seems to typify ours: searching for an answer to a question we cannot even put into words.

The greatness of small things

20161025_113559In our garden, bushes bedecked with bird feeders chuckle with the noisy conversations of sparrows and dunnocks. Chirrups, quarrels, confrontations, reproaches, warnings, laughter and gossipings: they’re all there, creating the hubbub which, at certain times of the day, makes the garden a cathedral of noise. Then, just as quickly as it started, the noise stops, silence falls and the 20161025_113536parliament of fowls disperses as subtly as it formed, the little creatures gone to their rest, or to rootling somewhere else, perhaps. Wherever the sparrows are, it is the same; even last week but a stone’s throw from the Thames, in St George’s Gardens. Here, despite being in the very heart of Shadwell, further east than London’s Tower, nature thrums, and right behind St George in the East – one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s iconic and mysterious churches – the cat seeks out Jenny Wren while her noisy carollings continue. Did that little hunter turn around rather sheepishly as we passed, or were we the embarrassed ones? This ancient graveyard is now the creatures’ playground and they are at home here: as are we.

20161025_102901Many visitors are struck by London’s incomprehensible size, which has the effect of siting its most popular landmarks often miles away from each other; the air on the main streets is choked with diesel; the crowds press on; the traffic and the sirens of emergency vehicles roar. But, to us, trekking on foot along its lanes and byways – our footsteps echoing our ancestors’ –  London is a land of tiny details: a succession of memories from time way beyond memory, a kind of fossil record of an entirely different kind, built in layers of little things and the ordinary things found in the great places.

20161025_113609And thus we find it, again and again on the streets beyond the City, where past meets present in the tread of a cat or the twittering of a bird. Amazing to relate, but despite being ringed round with busy streets, peace and wildlife abound within the award-winning garden on Portsoken, one of King George’s Fields, set up by the Lord Mayor of London in 1936 to honour recently dead King George V. Bat boxes, a wildlife pond and thoughtful seating await patiently the lunchtime seekers of peace and contemplation. During the middle of the day, Stepney Green is an elegant joy and the alleys around Wellclose Square, where Wilton’s Music Hall once again resounds to the human voice, whisper their ghostly secrets to those who listen attentively; once left for dead by a firebomb in 1941, the great white Hawksmoor church now ushers us inside its great wall of glass, candle in hand. Beyond the detail, in the mists of time above the rooftops, the Shard and the Gherkin stand guard: small things in their own way when compared with the conglomeration which is the heart of London – the City and that which lies to its east. A different kind of trundle from the beach, but what a place to walk, and to ponder.

 

 

Strangers and foreign lands

20160928_162254We recently travelled all the way up into Scotland, to Cromarty on the Black Isle, which is two shipping areas above us here in Tyne. This view looks out to sea between the headlands known as the Sutors, where the deep waters of Cromarty Firth open into the vast Moray Firth, and on this beach, blessedly free of the seaweed we are not allowed to gobble, it was a joy to run free and unmuzzled for once.

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Cromarty has one of the deepest anchorages in the whole of Europe which is why, when you look away from the open sea, you will find an amazing array of hardware – massive oil rigs at rest – cradled within the natural harbour: at night it’s like a scene from Apocalypse Now.  The rigs are those currently out of commission – the lower the price of oil, the greater the number – monsters ablaze with light, interlopers from another world entirely and incongruous in every way, save in their centrality to Cromarty’s economy and livelihood.

20160929_125940At Culloden, where the English dead lie vastly outnumbered by the unfortunate Jacobite Scots clans, we found another incongruity: a lone dog pooh bin upon the battlefield, where the car park provides not a single litter receptacle of any kind at all – a first, we have to admit!  Ironically, we were on the sombre moor when the rain finally abated, the sun emerged at last and we were able to mourn the departed clan members whose spirits wander over and around this atmospheric, doleful place.

20160929_150026Cawdor Castle, not far away, afforded an immediate sense of warmth and cosiness, its handy-sized drawbridge and dog-bowl by the front door inviting us in just as warmly as the smell of roasting beef which permeated the dining room within. Lady Cawdor was expected home shortly, we were assured. In the garden next to the castle, a magnificent copper bird-feeder drizzled seed continuously into troughs, as the little creatures fed at will. A place of plenty, this, and with a pleasant seat, as someone famous once said.

Barnaby was beside himself late one night in the garden of the house where we were staying: he found his first hedgehog rootling around the herbaceous border! Both creatures – dog and pig – were alarmed but Kemo Sabe held Barnaby tight and taught him gentle curiosity. In an expansive garden walled in historic stone, we saw the ice house, now used for storage, joined to the main house by a tunnel now blocked against unwarranted intrusion; we saw a note which warned us to beware of stepping on the toads which frolic in the cellarage and we heard that the chickens had been wantonly killed by the local pine martin. We were a long way north of here, and it felt like it!

 

 

 

 

 

In Memoriam: 21st October 1966

aberfan_cemetery_3377910_20634800_geographFifty years ago today, half a million tonnes of waste from the Merthyr Vale Colliery slid down on to Pantglas Primary School, in Aberfan. The slag heap engulfed the school as the children were beginning their lessons, killing 144 in all, of whom 116 were pupils. It was one of the worst peacetime disasters in British history and has stayed in the hearts and minds of our people ever since. Everyone knows to what ‘Aberfan’ refers. The inexpressible horror of the loss of the village children and their teachers has been remembered today with a two-minute silence and many religious services.  The old south Wales, with its pits and mining communities, has changed so much since that terrible morning in 1966. So many memories, of so many lives and livelihoods lost, will be evoked day, all over the country. People of Aberfan, we remember your loss as though it were yesterday.

O the poor grey stone of loss and tears

Which abounds in coal and death in Merthyr Vale,

O the dry tears which fall from childless eyes

And drop into the mud of Aberfan.

In your pristine responses all the cares

Of man unlimited are shown:

Where Welshmen walk sorrow trails behind;

Where human suffering dwells there is the slate.

 

For in that dawn of loss and woe

Brave psalms shall spring anew from souls in fear –

Protect, O God,

Those who remain, and from the anguish of some learning,

Extract harsh lessons for the minds of men.

In Bethania graveyard when the screech owl flies

See where they lie – an epitaph reads:

‘Here is the soggy grave of one unknown

Who died as he was learning of the wise

Beneath the mountain that the wise had built.’

Died –

At the crash and rent of nine o’clock.

In solemn death old Wales has learnt its path

But your black glacier tears the eye in two.

Departure day

 

To the ones who stay

(After the martins have gone and Mahler continues to play)

Up on the wire they congregate

A few left ‘We’re already late’ . . .

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The Jackdaws are the ones who stay

They watch their nest holes every day

They gaze at empty chimney holes

Then grub about for lifeless voles

Reflecting on this Spring’s success

They sneer at all the seagull mess

Forced in between the chimney tops

The clearing up there never stops

They rest where once they croaked and crept

When gulls defended chicks that slept

Perplexed that Autumn brings release

That empty nests mean rooftop peace

They sun themselves and bend their wings

Their brains still full of magic things

They know their nest is safe and dry

Within our walls where wind won’t fly

That through the winter months we’ll stay

As vigilant and calm as they

That if they swoop they’re sure to sound

Out something tasty on the ground

They peer across the cable line

Their job accomplished one more time

Pleased with the sun whose late warmth flings

Substantial rays on parting wings

But not for them the southern way

For Jackdaws are the ones who stay.

 

The Sparrows too are ones who stay

Their endless chatter fills the day

As busy now as in the spring

Ferocity in everything

A swelling crowd both front and back

Their chirruping an awesome craic

Full lives and bellies everyday

No one can take success away

These dress-down omnipresent mates

A Winterful of warmth awaits

Though commonplace and so more known

Than those who’ve felt the chill and flown

Ancestral as this home must feel

Its every corner cranny real

They eye the empty eaves again

Their policy against the rain

They note the muddy nests they’ll fill

With next year’s brood if Nature will

Gossiping endlessly their way

A stand they simply won’t betray.

 

Woodpigeons could not choose to go

This is the simplest life they know

Their lumpen thoughts and lumpen ways

Need cosy lives and routine days

Their wings could never take their weight

To fly so far or follow fate

The greyness of this sky reflects

The silver blue about their necks

This is their countryside and here

They take their chances year by year

With Wren and Starlings leaning hard

They fight and forage in the yard

Tits too emerge again to feed

They have here everything they need

As much our friendship as supplies

They have no wish to cross the skies

They settle for what God may bring

As creatures all together cling

In wind and weather ‘til the Spring.

 

Losses are what we cannot bear

To know that they are over there

Somewhere we cannot understand

A different sun a different land

Where like our children now set free

They live their lives in liberty

So let his music fill the space

Where we once watched them soar with grace

Beloved birds we wait to see

What graceful serendipity

Brings that May moment when we heard

The chuckling of our favourite bird

Again . . .

 

This morning one or two still fly

But this time in a wintry sky

Reminding us they too will go

And leave us sad down here below

Filling the bowls twice every day

For all the homely ones who stay.

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