Barnaby, who is Uncle Jonny’s great-nephew, has wonderful relatives and an extended family of lucky girls of all ages whose home is in a quiet Warwickshire village, not far as the crow flies from the magic of the Malverns. His own mother, Annie, still lives with one of her daughters – Barnaby’s litter sister Molly. Together with the older girls, they all enjoy that special security and warmth which comes from nuzzling up on a daily basis to those we know and love best. This lovely picture is of Rosie, Barnaby’s half sister, who as a pup herself used to jump in and out of the whelping box when Barnaby was small, fascinated by the tiny additions to the Tilldawn family. Rosie would fuss round Annie when she was still carrying Barnaby and his brothers and sisters inside her. You could see she would be a super mum herself one day. She had her puppies towards the end of last year, to a very handsome and special sire.
Rosie was four when she gave birth to her only litter to date: old enough to withstand what happens to your body and feelings when you are the only one who can respond to ten wriggling healthy little fellows and it’s your job to care for them patiently, lovingly, until they are good and ready to make their way in the world. Although she may have another litter one day, it won’t be soon. One day we hope Barnaby’s sister Molly will have her own babies and that we might bring one into the Dickens Dogs family. That will be when the time is right – for Molly, who is soon to be four herself. I am thinking about Rosie because other dogs are not treated with such respect: their rights and needs are ignored, their bodies are mangled and exploited because of people’s greed and cruelty. Dogs deserve gorgeous lives. We heal others but can be healed by them in turn; true heroes, who look our suffering in the face and do something about it. We have signed a government petition against puppy farms, have you?
The world is full of wonders! Look at the sky this morning! Earth and heaven distinguish themselves by a different union, with magic clouds whispering overhead. Bronzed by this blaze of light, denied to the absent camera club – poor souls – our spirits lift, our heels kick up, Newman gnaws his seaweed and Barnaby runs amok, for a while at least!
What joy when under an impregnably grey sky we came upon a very low tide this morning! This gave us an opportunity for extra whelking with nobody about. The routine was changed today – breakfast, rest and only then to the beach, and to a different stretch, too – because the night had been bad: too hot by the fire after a brisk scouring wind; too full of memories, and disconnected dreams; too many interruptions of one kind and another. A ponderous overload. So we missed our daybreak slot, always a sadness. But what could have been disappointing turned out well. By the time we got to St Aidan’s, the wind had dropped and a long way off, crashing relentlessly towards us at a very safe distance, there was the sea, bringing the whelks in as the tide turned. You are forgiven for thinking every picture I post looks the same. But this is a big sky state, our own Montana, where what is seemingly so constant is really full of mutability. We creatures of habit thrive in the giant framework that sky, sea and sand give to our lives, while our noses – especially mine – focus on the tiny variations in shape, smell and seaweed, which change as the moon’s phases evolve, turning our life forces within each one of us. Though I am youngest, my responsibility is rewarded with freedom denied nearly always to Mr Seaweed (who cannot restrain his obsession) and frequently to Mr Sensible (who forgets he must go easy on his knee). Loner that I am, and spaniel that I feel, I dive and jest, snort and shout, raising the scent with my outstanding ears – ever attentive because of them to the whistle or the call of my name. Within what is indeed a sunless but also in effect a cloud-less landscape, where sea and sky elide, unblinking we embrace our thoughts and breath the warm air in. So much to think about today: the death of one moon, the birth of another; the death of one season and the arrival of the next; the end of one life and the beginning of another, whenever that day comes.
A dead seal greeted me as I ran from the dunes first thing, the first casualty of crueller seas. Bless its bulkiness, its simple smile. What could have brought it so low other than perhaps the affliction of weariness to which Uncle Jonny succumbed. To every thing there is a season. Along towards Bamburgh, on the other side of the rocks, a camera club amazed us with their unexpected encampment on a normally deserted stretch of sand. Six tripods topped with cameras all pointed towards a non-too-promising dawn – their chosen exercise, it would seem. We hoped they hadn’t travelled too far for the watery manifestation which developed over the next twenty minutes. Nothing special, you might think, but a miracle nevertheless, and nothing to take for granted, as Bertrand Russell once said. Later, another act of faith brought us to a green and pleasant hill among the Cheviots. The cows were surprised that we had found such isolation to interrupt but watched in welcome as we drove to the top to find the hermitage with its Byzantine chapel. Like a miracle, it transforms a ruin into a place where saints and sinners meet. As a small, simple creature, my place is always in the heart of those who love me and who seek for truth, whether by sight or sound or in the imagination. Like a king or prince before the Lord, I saw St Cuthbert with his otter and raven, also looking up in expectation towards the light on this dim and dingy day. We were not disappointed.
Our praises are our wages, as Shakespeare said. And today I have been praised. Exhausted from my passive endeavours I now lie asleep, having discharged myself with honour and smelling literally of roses. Today the boys and I have been on a quest, a seventy-mile round trip at the mid-point of which I was bathed, shampooed and cut, very carefully and very thoroughly, by a nice woman called Julia who said I was one of the very best dogs she had ever worked on – better even than her own. Her astonishment at my behaviour – which I didn’t think that singular – makes me think that some beasts must be very intractable indeed. I took great pleasure in having a professional, with the utmost patience and very sharp scissors, unknot the fur beneath my Charles II ears, as thick as carpets. I now smell delightfully fresh and clean but without overpowering anyone (by contrast, a product called ‘Hiz’ of which I have experience is not recommended in that regard). This all took place in a low-lying spot beside the River Coquet, just across a little bridge from quite deep woods. There Newman and Barnaby climbed up from the river until they breasted the top of the valley where they ate blackberries from brambles beneath bright red hips, and delightedly dashed by gorse and small blue scabious into broad fields the harvester had recently shaved. They filled their lungs with air less salty and rolled in the grass, considering the blessed unexpected change. Praise indeed.
Without Uncle Jonny, I should not understand as much as I do. He made me part of the collective memory, ensuring I too know the meaning of everything and everyone who came before us. When this afternoon we heard Terence Stamp choose Elgar’s Enigma Variations on Radio 3, the line of beauty evoked by his pictures revived stories of Great Malvern, one of Uncle Jonny’s favourite places; a world of wonder known well to Barnaby and Newman too, who are Midlanders unlike me. There were picnics by the British fort; walks round about it, once you got to the top – ears like banners in the wind – lunch at the Malvern Hills Hotel or tea at Warwick House or in the railway station with old-fashioned trains; and remember, if you were driving, it was not far to Ledbury and beyond, to Stoneberrow House, from there. The plantswoman’s garden, bordering on an overgrown canal now housing piglets fit to pop; wild daffodils along the Poets’ Walk, the perry at the pub. Memories just kept coming, on cue cards showing faces from a dim and distant past: legendary Dickens Dogs, long taken from us, but yet to be written about, sleeping inside an ivy-clad hotel, walking in wind and rain; the greatest friend we ever had, taken from us, long gone and far away. The chain of thoughts runs down the spine of England as Nimrod fades away, long and glittering, like letters to Gascony from distant Northumberland; living, pulsing memories of the dear old friend, dead a full year after Jonny, with whom all this is twinned. Eyes fill with tears, the sobbing starts and the paint brush is rested for a while. ‘The last composer to be in touch with greatness,’ someone said of Elgar, and what we felt showed it was true.
These last couple of days have brought unexpected turns of event: both busy – painting, reorganizing, dutifully travelling on one another’s business; days by turn pleasantly warm and miserably drizzly. Enough rollers for a surfer or two yesterday and today a calmer sea, low tide and a glimpse of weathered rock. I was gazing into the horrid pool when this chap and his companion were spotted bobbing like seals beyond the rocks. It brought a touch of California to a chilly Northumberland afternoon when each in turn stood upright on the waves, though his ride was short-lived and the vicarious fun all too fleeting, a dangerous collision on the cards. Only Newman would have joined the lads, fearless and skilful both, not to mention already wet through. What lies beneath holds no fear for him and he throws himself into the pool as readily as a cheery cove. For me, though, the mysteries of the horrid pool can never be fathomed: its waters once blue-black like oil, sometimes absinthe green; the tiny bubbles popping to the surface as it breathes. After clearing completely through the high tide’s good offices, it is darkening and beginning to murmur again. Creatures are caught in the strata which enclose it: maybe they can explain why some act while others watch.