Somewhere out there – soaring with the birds

20160920_070433-2Sometime earlier this year, at the height of the summer when our sky was filled with the life and light of the bustling birds, when hope was heavenly, when flowers curled around the stems, toads multiplied and martins chattered in the eaves, I listened to and wrote about Mahler’s music as I pondered their comings and goings. Now, at the end of a year, when we pass in the darkness before dawn  beneath the cliff with its empty sand martin nest-holes, when wind chases our heels as we run and whips our friends from our lives; now – in the depths of winter, and as storm after alphabetical storm tears across the sky, when nightmares haunt closed eyes and sleep eludes open ones; when everything is temptingly sour to the soul – it is time to listen and to be encouraged again.

Hearken to William Walton’s First Symphony, which is readily available online, if you do not have it at home. Listen to the questions posed, the answers given, the intensity without sentiment, and then imagine where are soaring the ones who’ve gone  – the singers of the songs, the little dogs who ran alongside us (two lost this week alone), the friends of yesteryear – and all that lies before us as we struggle on, as we must, to honour all those we have loved and lost this year. So very many, until it seems we can bear no more. But we must. For us there is only the trying, as someone famous once said.

You can find one excellent recording by the London Symphony orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, at this site:

Posted in Death, House martins, Music, Seasons, Weather, William Walton | 2 Comments

Because the beginning shall remind us of the end

20161224_114530And so we are blessed to have arrived at another Christmas Eve which, unusually, this year coincides with the beginning of Hanukkah. We have all out lights ready, inside and out.  Light of the most profound kind will be everywhere, and increasing gradually, too, as the days lengthen and the runs we currently undertake in pitch dark become illuminated by gorgeous dawns again. This week the sun made its move towards the northern hemisphere, the very day after we lost dear Pupkin and we thought  – as the day’s ration of light began to be more generous – of the symbolic significance of St John the Forerunner, especially at this time of Christ’s birth, which the Western Church marks six months after his cousin’s. Increase and decrease: all one continuum, of which we must never tire and within which we must find our comings and goings, our ups and downs. As someone famous reminds us in his poem, we must cultivate our faith, as well as the spirit and meaning of this time of year.

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to the children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

T S Eliot, ‘The Cultivation of Christmas Trees’

 

 

Posted in Big days, Christmas, St John the Baptist/Forerunner | Leave a comment

Pupkin passes

20161220_124446Rest in Peace, tiny Pupkin, who died last night after an emergency admission to the vet’s. He was inordinately loved and, as you can see from this picture, taken only yesterday afternoon on his last visit to us, a miniature dachshund of consummate flair and self-possession. Nearly sixteen, he had lived a full and active life in a loving home in Edinburgh, a city suited to his genteel ways. Mentor, protector and best friend to Tiggy, Nico’s little sister, he always enjoyed coming to see us all in the madhouse here, every visit marked by a warning that this might be the 20161220_144228last time we saw him, so frail was he getting. Yesterday, as though transfixed in catatonic fascination, he watched Nico and Tiggy tumbling and chasing like baby otters, all the time guarding their space on the rug provided for his extra comfort. When lunch arrived, he ate it purposefully and with as much pleasure as ever: food was the love of his life. We watched as he meticulously 20161220_144518pursued  a piece of cucumber around his bowl (a bowl designed to slow down gobbling eaters!), identifying it by scent rather than sight – his eyes being weak. At last he found it and, with that, rested once more. It was clear yesterday, however, that he was thinking about moving on; that Uncle Johnny had a special place ready for him and that his family and friends (particularly Uncle NuNu, who adored him) would soon have to say farewell. He gave us all the privilege of sharing his last full day with him and we will never forget his stoicism and loving presence. God bless you dear little friend.

Posted in Big days, Dachshunds, Dickens Dogs, Dogs, Dogs and people, Golden Retrievers, Pupkin passes | 5 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Dickens Dogs, Dogs and people, Northumberland, Poetry, Routines, Seasons, Spaniels, Thomas Hardy | Leave a comment

It’s the little things . . .

Jack in Brighton 2005 . . . and not always the good ones, either, which bring us close to someone in our hearts. Monday next will be the fifth anniversary of Uncle Johnny’s death, at the age of nearly fifteen. A splendid beast and friend, only two failings marred an otherwise steadfast and reliable character. The first was his chronic susceptibility to gastric incidents, an affliction common in golden retrievers – known for their intestinal sensitivities. From a relatively young age he would, from time to time, but on a regular basis, be afflicted by an upset stomach and it usually struck in the middle of the night, when he would summon Kemo Sabe to the back door – where she would find him standing ready to go outside – with a single, insistent ‘woof’.  There followed a protracted wait, while he dawdled and dragged himself around the garden waiting for his insides to sort themselves out and he was ready to crouch and produce something. Sometimes the wait went on and on. There was no point insisting he come indoors before  he was ready, as he would only have to repeat the call to action again, often just as (eventually) Kemo Sabe had finally managed to drop off again.

Jack's blanketThe number and nature of those lost and broken sleeps are still vivid, but for a different reason. At the end of his life Uncle Johnny and Kemo Sabe developed a routine: every night she expected his call and, when it came, downstairs she went and let him into the garden. It was no bother; there was no work the next day and, besides, Johnny seemed keen to pop in and out quickly. When he no longer called her and, when he no longer could do so – having left us for a life without incontinence – the aching emptiness was acute.  Similarly his other little quirk: a devilish refusal, from time to time, but on a regular basis, to come and be put on the lead at the end of an outing. The hilarity of this defiance was an obvious and utter joy to him, though it drove everyone mad, with hours spent trying to ‘catch’ or corner him as he ran mockingly just out of reach, evading all comers. These were his ‘faults’, what made our old Uncle Johnny what he was, though it was easy when he was with us to wish him otherwise. But, when we think of him, it is these funny ways we remember first. The curious individualities which cause rows and drive our infuriated friends and family away are the lifeblood of the single soul we know and love. Dear Johnny, we tell young Nico (who knew you only before he came to us from that other world, where you grasp every creature to your furry chest, before birth and after death), all about you and your last day with us – the beef pies, the bowl of tea, the walk on your favourite bit of beach, Lucy’s kind gaze and gentle hands. And when she thinks of us boys with our irritating ways – my excitability and noise, NuNu’s vacancy and obsession with seaweed, Barnaby’s clinginess and tendency to sulk if he can’t have the baby he wants – Kemo Sabe ponders a time when all of these odds are made even, but the world will have gone awry, since nothing will be but what is not.

So, we salute you our dear, dear friend! Let us love each other and our foibles, and be glad.

Posted in Big days, Dickens Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Uncle Johnny, Uncle Johnny (Jack Dawkins), Uncle Johnny's anniversary | 2 Comments

Much of the hearing of it but little of the marking of it

20161118_071043In yesterday’s eerie pre-dawn light, with a ribbon of cloud running right along the horizon behind it, Inner Farne was transformed: our perspective on it altered, as though we saw it from above, surrounded by the sea, instead of set upon it, against the horizon – the way it actually looks, because that is the way things actually are. It took a goodly while to work out what was awry; why its dimensions and position were so changed. Bishop Berkeley would have been amused; or so Kemo Sabe said. While she pondered, we set about our routine exploration of the scents at the top of the beach, both shrouded and heightened by the extreme darkness the last vestiges of the night permits us before we set off towards Seahouses, and the strengthening rays of the sun. Truly it is indeed easy to imagine a bush a bear by night!

We anticipate the arrival in a month of the shortest day – our favourite day of the year –  while currently things are darker than ever and we leave for our trundle under a starry sky and crescent moon. No wonder we can’t see clearly. Yet, we muse, how many moguls of one kind or another have mistaken and misprized things this year, seemingly despite all the reflection in the world, the considered outpourings of the ablest minds, or most experienced analysts. So much noise, so little sense – or so it seems. All of which media-noise is so unlike dear Uncle NuNu, apparently deaf to Kemo Sabe’s repeated calls each morning; the same calls we all understand and respond to, and always have; he knows exactly what those noises mean; he hears them but does not mark them, as it were. We forgive him on account of the fairies, with whom he is away.

20161123_073348This sorry sight eloquently expresses the arrival of winter on the north east coast, first with Storm Angus and now with persistent zero temperatures. The sands are crisp with frost, the outdoor dog bowl is solidly iced over and Kemo Sabe simply cannot keep up with refilling the bird feeders.  Cold, enduring and profound, has tiptoed in the footsteps of the gale force winds which banked the sand in new dunes and forced a roiling sea to disgorge this mother and child high on the beach, having rung the life-force from them both. When first spotted, the mother seal was still watching her baby wearily through exhausted eyes, but she too gave up the fight lying beside her dead little one. This was our first sad sight of the winter months.

20161118_072949But life has to go on and, while the winds roar round, putting us all on edge, and the sparrows had to brave the terrifying gusts in order to build themselves up for another night huddled together in the hedges, and the cat flap closed against the north wind meant neither I nor Jeoffry could have our freedom, Newman had to make his important visit to the vet: after a whole day without food, and nearly twelve hours without a pill, he underwent his annual blood test to check how he and his liver are coping with the Epiphen he takes for his funny turns. The answer is: very well, as it happens. All except for his disinclination to pay any attention at all to commands the rest of us jump to obey. Like the media, he is in his own little world, where delightful lift-music prevails and ifs and ans are pots and pans.

 

Posted in Big days, Dickens Dogs, Dogs, Epilepsy, Golden Retrievers, Love's Labour's Lost, Northumberland, Seals, Seasons, Storm Angus, Weather | Leave a comment

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.

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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.

 

 

Posted in Big days, Birds, Dogs and people, London, Sparrows, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

20160929_222007

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Big days, Birds, Cocker Spaniels, Cromarty, Culloden, Dogs and people, Geese Migration, Golden Retrievers, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in Aberfan disaster 1966, Big days, Uncategorized | 4 Comments