Times they are a-changing

2013 October Pip 029‘Never regret the good that you do’ is my favourite Jewish proverb. It helps console when things have gone awry, when tasks are burdensome and the heart not in it.  We have had much of that of late. Few will have cared or noticed that I have been silent for several days; days during which we have gone about our daily routines – beach time, breakfast, sleep, the lighting of the stove, the beach again, Strictly and Downton – and so on. Throughout all this, of which there is much, I have felt more reflective than usual: there is a tightness, a churning in my chest – knots, you might say. There have been secret tears and holding on to Barnaby, that best of bears closest to the collective beating heart.  Yes, Barnaby feels it, Newman and I know it, but I know best: I am aware that something big may be about to happen. All I can think about is family.

PIp 099Upstairs I heard talk of brothers and sisters, as if the parting were about to come.  I still remember mine: Jack, Finlay, Sergio, Flora and Leah – she whom I yet might meet one day – whom I can still smell on Little Brown Dog. Sooner than most, we leave them all behind. Barnaby was the first to leave Sophie, Molly and his other bossy sisters, as well as Oscar and the boys, including the wonderful Scriggins, the Tiny Tim 001of his family, whom the girls knocked over and left dazed and confused in the whelping pen but who found his feet and grew in size to fill his role in later life.  All of us have found a place in the families we didn’t ourselves choose; life found us, as it were: we had no ambitions to fulfil, save to be loved for being ourselves. And to love and love and love, without question. Even in times we cannot fully comprehend.

Newman and JackThis lovely picture was taken several years ago when a young Newman was introduced to Uncle Jonny for the first time.  Metaphorically carrying his backpack with just a few personal belongings, he jumped into the back of the car without a hint of fear or apprehension and immediately sat like a hare gazing up at the sun.  Like most dogs, he never knew his father; having left his mother’s warmth some time before, he clung delightedly to Jonny straight away for there was much to learn, and for Uncle Jonny to put up with. Such are the ways of families.  Newman’s sunny boyish ways, enthusiasms and energy fly in the face of a rather lonely babyhood, I feel.  The families we find ourselves in are miracles when all goes well. When our humans love us dogs they love our fathers too. I am told my father was a Scots gent of the Lynwater line, and I have seen some relatives at Crufts – very comely they are too, much furrier than I. When they love me, they love my father too, though this is never really noticed or remarked.  I do not understand what binds humanity and dogs together if it is not love, since love is all I know, and the trust that love will always see us right.

Save our sardines

IMG00279-20131011-0752By this morning the wind had at last lost some of its power, after about thirty-six hours of terrible intensity. From listening to the weather forecasters on the radio, who view the country from upside down and who just referred to it casually, you wouldn’t understand what we in the north east have been going through. At least it didn’t rain that much.  As it was the sparrows had to huddle in secret on boughs bent to breaking for hours upon hours, all possibility of reaching the fat balls, nyjer seeds or nuts being out of the question as their tiny frames on their even tinier legs stiffened in the blast. We only ventured out once to see what the gods of the wind had been doing, when the sun came out and a Jonny rainbow arching in completeness over the islands drew us like a magnet as we doubled over against the force from the north west.  By chance we hit upon low tide – great joy – and a harvest of jolly whelk shells, all unlooked for. Then the sky blackened, rain began, and all joy was swept away, like the dead seal rolled up to the dunes.

(Evelyn Simak: WikiCommons)
(Evelyn Simak: WikiCommons)

First thing today the tide was frightening high and still encroaching but we carefully made our way along what remained of the narrow strip of beach, towards and over the rocks, dodging the water as it drew up to our ankles, foaming like beer drawn freshly to the lips. The sea foam gathered in enormous billowing puddles on and around the horrid pool, wobbling like living flesh.  A tiny fish flapped fearfully on the shore, abandoned by a careless wave.  It swung energetically back and forth, almost knocking itself out in its fervour. We picked it up and threw it back, hoping he would find enough depth and strength to swim to safety. Gentle little soul, so innocent, so fragile! One from so many such, selected for particularity. The least of these and one to care about. We think about the seals out there and how things are: whether they can rest yet, or at all, knowing as they now know, what the sea can do. A desperate cry from near the look-out post convinces us that someone is warning us to go no further. Turning round we see overhead a mighty skua in the midst of others, fighting with his fellows for a fish.  We stare and wonder.

Here is a weather warning

Post-haircut warmthThe weather is about to change they say. The stove will be lit again and my jumper will once again be needed to compensate for fur taken from me last week. It is hard to credit, today having been so temperate, so sunny and the sea so calm.  Gale force winds are expected, we are told; our world will grow smaller, the horizon seem nearer.  This morning two seals were fishing just offshore, playing with us as much as with each other, turning the chore of existence into one of their games. The results of their efforts have been much in evidence lately: how we thrilled to see the foot long fish shot vertically into the air – torpedoes fired by undetected seal submarines. Out on the islands the first seal pups have been born. But they do not as yet know they are born, as the saying goes, as so far Neptune has only rolled over a couple of times and he has guarded their resting places carefully. Soon though, we are told, he will lose control, and so will we. We will not know what to expect once we leave the cosy hearth, how many layers to wear, what to stack and what to store for safety. The darkness will descend and the owl will have it all his own way. Now that the geese are here, it can begin.

To be small is a gift

Rosie and her pupsBarnaby, 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.

Barnaby, son of Annie, at eight weeks
Barnaby, son of Annie, at eight weeks

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 protecting veil

IMG00259-20131002-0745A 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.

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Hermitage of St Mary and St Cuthbert © Andrew Curtis, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Into the woods

IMG_0976Our 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. IMG_0970There 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.

Variations on a theme

Jack's blanketWithout 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.

Sharks ascending?

IMG_0958These 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 IMG_0953me, 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.

Hang in there!

St Cuthbert's cell Only yesterday a thick fog clung to the shore, out of which a single curlew leapt into life, peeping his call as he flew over.  Nose to the sand, I ran in pursuit of life as is my custom but I could feel the damp on my back and a sadness on the silent sea.  The oystercatcher nodded but he was all alone as well; the heron, once again, a miserable wretch fishing lanquidly, all interest lost, between the rocks. All of us wet from that jungly drizzle, there was much melancholy then.  And yet this morning, as once again day dawned, a golden sun warmed and filled the dunes with light the colour of Lucozade.  A new haircut, a favourite trip out, the arrival of some special soap, the chance to paint some more – such tiny bits of grace but all the more delightful for their inconsequentiality: these are in my mind as we trudge home and I chance upon a dead tennis ball with which to tease poor Barnaby. Happy are we who take each day in our stride, leaning hard and looking out to sea, towards the east, no matter what the tide brings:  ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo’.