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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Enemy within

20160826_062148First thing this morning, ten days after my operation, I re-joined the others on our dawn beach trundle. To welcome me, a golden yolk of a sun crept above the horizon and blessed our little band, reunited once more. It seemed so long since I was last on the sand with the boys, that Thursday morning when I felt so utterly poorly that I merely trotted along disconsolately behind Kemo Sabe, the spirit willing but my tummy weak. Of course, she could tell and we went again to the vet, who first made me dream and, while I was dreaming, made me better.   Inside me he found a terrible thing, stuck in my small intestine. No wonder I couldn’t stand the idea of eating my meaty meals and, though tempted with all sorts of trifles, I could stomach nothing. I was not physically sick; I had no diarrhoea; I was simply not myself.

20160819_174306And when you see how big the foreign object was, it’s not hard to see why. The vet explained that seaweed, the cause of this particular obstruction, doesn’t show up in X-rays but years of experience enable them to interpret the shadows and bulges in the bowel as trapped wind around it, betraying its presence. Having removed this horror – almost as thick as it was long – he felt three more pieces making their way along the colon but left them for Nature to take care of (which it did on the Saturday night). One doesn’t want to dig further into the bowel than is absolutely necessary.

20160820_070146Seaweed is many dogs’ favourite naughty thing up here (it is Newman’s favourite thing in the whole world!) and it’s much more to the retrievers’ liking than mine; it is unfair, and ironic, that I should have been the one to suffer so when Newman and Barnaby have eaten so much more of it, all of it apparently having passed through their systems, no matter how challenging the size of the pieces.  But that week I admit did rather go for it and now I understand why its consumption makes Kemo Sabe so angry with us and why I, too, now have to wear the ghastly black Baskerville muzzle, two sizes smaller than the bigger boys. Only little Nico is still free of the indignity and long may that continue.

Though wearing a muzzle gives the wrong impression and isn’t attractive – apart from anything else, they look faintly ridiculous on gundogs – they do the job and that is what matters much more than undergoing major operations on a regular basis, with all the danger that entails. Only last week at my first post-op check-up I met a Jack Russell who’d had three ops for blockages, the latest for a peach stone, and in the paper there was news of a dog who’d had the better part of his intestinal tract removed in order to rectify the damage done by a corn cob he’d stolen from a barbecue. Many dog owners are blissfully ignorant of the dangers of seaweed – which together with corn cobs and fruit stones are the single biggest cause of operations on dogs locally – so let my story be lesson to you. Surveillance of our every move has intensified still further, but that is because we must be guided towards our own good and, though humble creatures of exceptional gifts, these do not include a sensible approach to snacking!

Going for gold

20160814_194327I have not been well these last few days. In fact, I have been as unwell as I can ever remember: unable to eat, unwilling to jump the small distance into my place on the sofa and, when we went out yesterday morning, for a shorter trundle than usual because Kemo Sabe knows me so well she could see I still wasn’t myself, I jogged along several sedate paces behind her – demeanour and pace both entirely alien to me. As I dictate this, I am recovering. Though the vet had initially thought there was nothing much wrong a couple of magic injections couldn’t rectify, yesterday morning when it was clear I still felt really poorly, Kemo Sabe took me back in for an x-ray and, before I knew it, I was recovering from an abdominal operation during which a long, thick piece of seaweed was removed from my small intestine. There are still small bits to be passed naturally, but they are in the colon so it’s only a matter of time now I’m back on the dinners again until they emerge naturally. How I long to be back with the boys, looking up at the wonders on the television, with all the routines in place once again.

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‘Swimming!’

My emergency has overshadowed the production and tone of the piece I was preparing about how much fun we’ve all been having watching and responding to our amazing Olympic team. As we’re coming up to the last few days of competition, I  thought I’d share some pictures of Barnaby with you, enjoying a range of activities and national achievements. Above you see him enjoying the golf, for him an unmissable spectacle as it includes the use of a single ball whose progress across the greensward is punctuated by visitations of capybara and cayman: what a hoot! 20160808_202702As one after another the various disciplines unfolded, and the medals mounted in events as disparate as badminton, diving, dressage, gymnastics, kayaking, swimming, sailing, taekwondo, hepthathlon, not to mention the cycling – with all those races with funny titles – our interest has been held and our knowledge of human determination deepened. Hats off to all those who work so hard to become consistent performers in their field. On Wednesday, before my first abortive visit to the vet, my mind overcame matter as I ran out to retrieve my beloved ball. My return was slow and my deliberation rightly read by she who knows me better than anyone as the best sign yet that something was really, really wrong. I hope that when I am fully fit I will enjoy my running again for, truly, it is my metier and I am a champion in my own right.

 

One season following another

20160609_173255Although the heathland meadow behind Bamburgh Castle is bejewelled with wild flowers of all kinds and though it is only the end of July, you can feel that summer is already preparing to move on – particularly when the weather’s dull or drizzly and rather sorry for itself – and the ebullience of the busy season is beginning to yield to the thoughtfulness of autumn, and that’s before August even begins. T S Eliot is right, about time past and time present; his words echo thus in our minds.

20160719_064455Last week’s sweltering heat, so very unusual up here, dissipated after a few days and fresh and fragrant air returned to residents unused to airless humidity. As normal temperatures resumed, signs of times changing were apparent all around.  While we set off at six for our morning run now that the school holidays are here, and the influx of holidaymakers makes even a coast as open and vast as ours feel crowded, you can’t help feeling as you run across the sand that everyone is living on summer’s borrowed time. Near Monk’s House on the beach, we even noticed an errant curlew skating overhead on its way back inland for a few more weeks, having, no doubt, had a cheeky look at the seashore he’d been missing since he took to the uplands a few months ago. Pause for thought. Though there are still plenty of puffins for the tourists to photograph out on the islands, the ones who choose to leave early for the North Atlantic will soon be gone and, gradually, the nesting colonies of guillemots, terns, kittiwakes and gannets will begin to decline. Though holidaying humans still have several weeks left to litter the shore with plastic gewgaws and unassimilated bags of dog pooh, the young sandmartins and housemartins are fledged and growing ever stronger, and it won’t be long before they abandon their aerial practices and begin their long trek south. In no time at all, things will be quieter all around.

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Things are packing up in the garden where, despite the ripening apples, foliage of all kinds is looking worse for wear. This year’s gulls have fledged and shifted, accompanied by a chaos of calling from the entire flock; the chimney breast, and the nesting material there, is now for the jackdaws’ taking; peace has returned for them at last, now the gull fledglings are busy tackling their various tests of flying the coast and foraging for food for themselves: a rude awakening, once the security of their adoring parents is withdrawn. So, while we enjoy long, long days, with regular flashes of the northern lights after bedtime, the light is gradually diminishing, day by day. And though we cannot see it, we can feel it, all around: though summer is here, it is already moving on.

Away with the fairies

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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.