Going, going, gone . . .

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All this week we’d taken it for granted that- – almost overnight – the swallows and martins had left us and had begun their long, perilous journey back to Africa.  We noted the empty skies above our favourite field where each afternoon I retrieve my beloved ball again and again and again; the absence of cheery clacking as the martins twirled and swooped near their nests until the toilet-block eaves. Seemingly, some dreary days had made up their minds to be off. None has been seen in that area, whether over the fields, the dunes or by the sewage plant. That emptiness again! All around, things are changing and the usual seasonal shifts are taking place. Young herons who were born in the little forest behind Bailey’s house still congregate in the early morning light, chatting and checking their individual progress in the survival stakes with which they must learn to contend. But soon they will relinquish the support of their brethren and tackle life alone. Even now each makes a tentative fishing forays along the shore, squawking hello in that delightful way as they pass in front or above our little band as we trundle along the shore.

The curlews have returned to the beach, bringing with them their ethereal cries, so redolent of this coast’s wide open spaces. Only yesterday they were the featured bird on BBC 4’s Tweet of the Day, to which we listened as Kemo Sabe prepared the breakfast bowls before our run.  Within the hour curlews accompanied us as we dodged the high tide along Bamburgh beach, where the going is so tough when the water’s up. Extraordinary, really; how blessed we are to hear daily those voices that will not be drowned and which for so many are a distant dream.

And then this morning, once Kemo Sabe turned the mower off to empty it, suddenly she realised she could hear the unmistakable chatter of house martins – some local ones –  those fighter planes of summer, at least three pairs, still enjoying the feast of flies provided; still, for the moment at least, content to leave departure a while longer. Like the warmth which comes and goes as summer reluctantly gives way to autumn, they are living reminders of time’s passing and, even as we watch their antics, we anticipate their silence. Almost simultaneously, high, high above and way off in the distance, a squadron of geese made themselves heard before coming into focus, returning to the pastures which will sustain them for the coming months.

If you would like to hear the curlew, you will find the recording here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09wvgfw

 

Sleep tight, little bear

20180223_214556Hammy Bumble died last night, some time between eight and nine-thirty. He was still breathing when Kemo Sabe, Barnaby and I left the study for some time by the fire downstairs; he was warm and comfortable in an impromptu nest we improvised for him upon his wheel, to which spot he had moved by first thing Friday morning. When, before bed, we found him still and lifeless, we gently brought him out from under the kapok and shavings and took this picture. First thing this morning, he was buried near Uncle Johnny and Hammy Jo, with Barnaby and me in attendance, close to where a wonderful yew tree is shortly to be planted, and surrounded by daffodil bulbs bursting into life. In his box, for his journey, there are some of his favourite nuts and dried fruit.

20180224_085410And so another little friend joins the others beyond the rainbow bridge in that undiscovered country over which so much speculation has been spent. Looking close-up at last at his beautiful finger nails and tiny front teeth, his minuscule pink pads and once opulent pelt, it takes some doing to dismiss his being as of minimal significance. Once again we are reminded of how tenacious life is, and what a privilege it is to embrace it.

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‘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!