Lighting the lamp

Pozieres 2
Pozieres War Cemetery, Picardy, France. In memory of Rifleman Horace Postlethwaite 1899-1918

This morning, as is our custom, we trundled along the beach once again, hearing the waves gently kissing the shore and greeting the few folk who were about with a gentle word. We are lucky. Ours is a peaceful, quiet life, cushioned by routines. A lovely run on which I found a perfectly formed tennis ball to add to my collection – always a treat – was followed by a lovely breakfast, with jellies and pate. Everything was as it always is: I am loved, cared for and safe in the home I love.  Now we are full and resting, and I ponder further on what was running through our minds as we were trundling across the sands which have seen so much conflict in the distant past; we only have to gaze across at Lindisfarne to remember what havoc the Vikings perpetrated there and we do indeed just that, often. You do not have to look far to find a fight.

150px-Stoswaldaskingnyplspencer1f89rToday, the 4th of August 2014, is the feast day of St Oswald, the warrior-king of Northumberland. This seventh century leader, known for his prayerfulness and generosity, defended Christian values and the independence of the north when he led his polyglot army under a Christian banner against the ambitious British leader, Cadwallon, defeating him in battle at Heavenfield, near Hexham.  He fought and it was ugly, no doubt. Thus was established the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, its capital being Bamburgh, under the ramparts of which great castle we enjoy Oswald’s peace each day.  Peace, care for the poor, the ministry of St Aidan and the monks of Lindisfarne – all flourished because of Oswald and the fight he’d undertaken. No saint, they say, without a past.

Today is also the day on which we commemorate the United Kingdom’s declaration  of war on Germany a hundred years ago, when Belgium was invaded. It is a day of enormous solemnity and thought. So many people were affected by that conflagration – a total of 36 million, either killed or wounded – and the lives of countless others touched by the loss of those they knew and loved. In Kemo Sabe’s own little family, great uncles on both sides brought down in their youth. Names on memorials we will never see; a grandmother’s losing her only younger brother she will have a hundred-year lifetime to mourn.

Today we all can hear the prayers said and hymns being sung. As light falls, to commemorate the lamps going out a hundred years ago, households in this country have been asked to light a single flame. There are no words a humble soul can utter which would adequately express the overwhelming emotion of this terrible day, when the dogs of war (so alien to my simple self) were unleashed. No sinner, they say, without a future.


One very special Dalmatian

DSCN0005This is Abby, about whose sad and unexpected death I wrote briefly last week. She is the mother of Jasmine and, in turn, the grandmother of Tomas, and was herself the daughter of Joshua: all of these beautiful creatures were bred, owned and shown in the ring by their loving human, who is still struggling to get used to a bed bigger by one big Dalmatian girl. No words can really serve the purpose, except to say that everyone in the world knows what it feels like to say goodbye to a beloved; there are no words and none are needed – as someone famous once said.  Dear Abby and her family had not that long ago moved to a special new house with a really big garden and a special room for the Dallies to relax in just to themselves, new sofas included. But rather as happened with Uncle Jonny, she had too soon to move on and leave everyone wondering which woods she had wandered off into on that next bit of the journey we must all undertake one day. Her time came, unexpectedly as it turned out, but she was very seriously ill and thus was quietly let go as the extent of her cancer was detected.

The finality of death is chilling and therefore some folk go to really extraordinary lengths with the help of ingenious and innovatory veterinary science to postpone the parting as long as is possible. However, I know that when Uncle Jonny began to fail everyone saw it at once and it was natural for us to let him go, rather than intervene, operate or whatever, in order to keep feeling we were doing something useful and so have him with us for perhaps only a few months more. Kent’s words about Lear come to mind:

Vex not his ghost: O! let him pass; he hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

In Supervet, the ground-breaking work of the truly-heroic orthopaedics specialist Noel Fitzpatrick brings worthwhile life back to animals who have been broken by disease, accident or congenital abnormality. We all sit fascinated by the stories and comfort Kemo Sabe when she cries. But every now and then we wonder who is best being served by complex and repeated operations on some of the fragile, broken bodies old enough to long for peace and rest at last.

As a young, small spaniel I still do not know when I will be called to leave Kemo Sabe and the boys, though I hope it will be years to come. But what we as best-loved beasts want most of all is the chance to die in our own homes, in the arms of those who have always held us, in good times or in bad. We want the inevitable and appalling sadness on both sides to be respected; for our all-too-short little lives to be celebrated upon the lips of those whose lives we touched and be held in their hearts until they in their turn shuffle off into the woods themselves. So Uncle Noggsy, Uncle Willie, Uncle Jonny, and many more – as well as Hennessy and Simon, the other beautiful Dalmatians in Abby’s clan – reach out to us who knew them (or who know someone who loved them) just as year after year in casual Crufts encounters, countless retriever folk reminisce about the lost loves of their lives on the golden retriever stand.

For her part, Abby will never be forgotten: God bless you, dear girl.

If you would like to watch some of the truly amazing work down by Noel Fitzpatrick, you will find the series here on the Channel 4 website:



The first death


Who’ll be chief mourner?

‘I,’  said the dove,
‘I mourn for my love . . .’

Today the news is justifiably full once again of the catastrophic weather conditions which are currently afflicting this country. Someone or other mentioned in the papers that in fact things are not so bad really, and that what folk have been going through isn’t a major disaster, because as yet no lives had been lost in the waters or wind. Well, here on a sunny rather bracing Thursday –  windy yes, but nothing special for up here; where it’s rained really not that much over the last six weeks and the seas haven’t been that remarkable – you can see a little life that has been lost, our friend the herring gull. His natural beauty, the miracle of his lustrous feathers, even on a sandy plain, moves me to thought and brings me to his side. It makes me ponder the countless birds brought down in these biblical floods; the starving thousands of garden birds, cut off from their food supplies. I can only barely imagine the terrifying confusion of the creatures of the underworld – mice, rats, moles, badgers, voles of all kinds – drowned where they lie before they can even think of trying to run from the homes they thought their havens. What will become of us, the onlookers cry? What does the future hold? Is this the autumn storm, the winter thaw, a spring deluge? The world’s turned upside down. In my warm and snuggly bed, I know that more is coming, that more little souls will die.  Who knows what lies in store, for any of us?

To mark a friend’s remains . . .

Image (2)Were he still alive, the Great Noggs would be thirty-two next week: unbelievable! Where have the years gone, when our lost friend has in so many ways remained alongside us all, referred to and deferred to, kept as close as close can be? One of our golden retriever friends recently lost his elder brother at the age of fifteen. It has been a telling time for him; he himself is only a couple of years old, so the mantle he must bear is huge and heavy. Our own Uncle Jonny was fourteen when he had to go. These are good ages for a biggish dog to notch up in good health and we must not complain. But the Great Noggs, whose mark has seemed indelible, missed his thirtenth birthday by a few weeks, which seems more than usually early really, but then he had had several nasty lumps removed over the years and finally his strong shoulders eventually gave way. Just the round twelve to show for it, then, but what a lifetime his was. Those who knew and loved him from his babyhood still speak in hushed tones of his heroic, even legendary life; the changes that he wrought in people’s hearts: such a big, soft dog, and yet so magisterial in his manner. He lies to this day in a very distinguished grave in a very distinguished garden which is a part of history, a grave dug in the very depths of winter, in a wooded area awash with bluebells in spring. Pilgrims came to this spot to plant roses and herbs of memorial, so special was this beast.

Ray Teece

As Lord Byron reminds us in this splendid paean to his Newfoundland, the footprints that a loyal and loving dog leaves on us all too quickly sink into the sands of time, while man’s meretricious nonsense is memorialised. How wonderful that such a wordsmith should have shown himself so loyal and loving to our kind! Paradoxically, Byron gave immortality to Boatswain, who lived a brief five years. I cannot hear Byron’s epitaph without pondering on the likelihood that, by comparison, he would have considered his own fame quite unjustified: ‘all the virtues of man without his vices’, as he sums up the dog’s fine qualities. Such sensitivity and insight transcend any roguish reputation and place Lord Byron on a pedestal for all dogs and those who know and love us. You can well imagine that when he finished penning, ‘For we’ll go no more a roving’, it was to his gentle giant Boatswain that he clung thoughtfully, content to know the love that truly lasts and will never, ever, die.

Four swans a-flying

IMG_1112[1]Here I am, a little sand-blasted, resting on the sofa just before I started writing this. We had a wonderfully lengthy run this mornng, as insurance against another bout of appalling weather which is due later on today. Although it’s been a peaceful week, free of visits and outings and dashing about, weather-wise we have endured the strongest winds in our experience up here and they have certainly taken their toll, even on one of our chimney pots. On the beach we found the body of one of the family of swans from the mere the other side of the road from the dunes. Buffeted beyond belief, driven down despite its wide and wondrous wings, it was still too puny to withstand the forces sent against it; exhausted, out of control, an ungainly and dramatic fall had shattered its beauty and broken its body in two. I could not resist carrying the snow-covered head gently in my mouth for an exhilarating couple of minutes and considered hiding it in the dunes, as I do with tennis balls: such is the pride of spaniels, for whom the shooting field is always more than a collective memory. I soon forbore to run, and began to ponder. This poor creature was probably one of this year’s babies, of which there were three, now indistinguishable from their parents.  Day by day we would see them swirling around the mere, sometimes rustling in their nest-site, always within sight of each other as they feed on the neighbouring crops, undisputed aristocrats among all other water creatures. Content with their lot, they are a close-knit family. Or, rather, they were. Now that nature has dealt them a terrible turn how, I wonder, do they account for their loss? Are they as reflective as we, pondering on the changing colour of our landscape? Yesterday morning, a windless respite from recent drama, the remaining four flew in an effortful arc over our heads: it was just after dawn and the horizon was streaked with blue and peach as the foursome breasted the dunes, way above the body of their dead relative, and drove on towards the castle, in effortful flight. We watched in silence, hearing their cries: they said it all.

Our praises are our wages

IMG_1088 Yesterday there was a gathering, and words of praise and thanks were spoken for a life that had touched ours. The resting place is quiet, peaceful and troubled only by the wind and rain from above and the badgers and foxes from the neighbouring fields. The words of George Herbert were sung over a simple wicker coffin and we banished hobgoblins and foul fiends from our minds, as Bunyan bade us. A long life and a good one.

IMG_1090Today we wrestled with the wind, a bit further down the coast by way of an outing. We boys freed our minds and tested our jaws on a new seaweed crop, under the distant shadow of Dunstanburgh Castle. Bright sun, icy chills and penetrating rain alternated, wetting our fur and coating our faces with sticky sand: all in a day’s work for a native Northumbrian, of course.  Christmas, with its frills and furbelows seems a long way away, but I am hopeful, for the twinkling tree of blue by the front door, and the sparkling fence of white alongside it suggest some further fun ahead.

IMG_1084If, when you look into my eyes one day, you can say I did all well – in good heart – and only got it wrong because I didn’t understand or hadn’t been taught better, then I will have been the best I can – like Uncle Jonny, or Uncle Willie, or even the great Noggs himself. Heaven knows he made enough mistakes, and he a legend and a lesson to us all. He had been known to frown, and even growled quite threateningly when infirmity began to catch his sides with pain of which he couldn’t otherwise speak and no one could suspect.  Barnaby wants too much, of love and everyone’s attention; our Newman wants his own way, or he sulks. I am noisily impatient for life’s riches. We are all flawed. But we cling on and are let in under the table where the sandwiches are laid, and shelter found. Despite our faults, we find a place with Lazarus. As someone famous once said: for us there is only the trying; the rest is not our business.

The ravell’d sleeve of care

IMG00315-20131211-0838 The day after Ten Blankets died, the dawn was gloriously bright despite the fact that there had been woeful little sleep that night and minds were numb.  The sun’s blush can be seen here kissing Newman’s neck, as he sits that morning thinking about another kind of altered landscape in our lives. We have earned our keep this week, I can confide, and that frame – like Barnaby’s and mine – has done its share of burden-bearing.

IMG00312-20131211-0837Here my tail is wagging to the left, which –  as someone famous said – indicates my  own insecurity and unhappiness that dawn, something I rarely feel as I usually have an irrepressible joy about me which expresses itself in the song of spaniels. Every night this erupts noisily as I anticipate the moment when I can collapse exhausted on to Boggis, boney biscuit downed in a couple of bites. Then I am out like the proverbial light. It is, I realise now, not so for them. Lately there have been terrible stirrings all through the night: kettles boiled, milk warmed, herbs 13 and 14 weeks 003infused, lists compiled and – even more extraorinarily – the computer turned back on despite the unearthly hour. I have attended sensitively, alert but unobtrusive on my furry bed, one ear cocked lest I should hear a sob, occasionally and very tactfully drawing attention to myself by the odd brief sally back and forth through the catflap. But Kemo Sabe has wandered in her mind, staring abstractly and stirring regularly, alone in her imagination. All I can do is to offer my warmth, as she holds me to her during the evening, and I fall asleep without even trying. I pray wordlessly that her day will end in longed-for rest. Even a spaniel can be silent when he must.


IMG_0327Today’s date is so remarkable that there will not be another one like it in any of our lifetimes. And yesterday was an important day, too: on it Old Man Ten Blankets passed quietly into memory. When Kemo Sabe returned from her daily visitation, it was clear that things had changed, changed utterly. After nearly a hundred years, and of course that means all her considerable lifetime, he was no longer alive.

Jack at St BeesThe finality of death is striking and shocking; as those who read my ponderings regularly know, Uncle Jonny’s passing still plays upon my mind, and I am but a humble spaniel who knew him only briefly. What is also clear is that he lives here still, every day in our thoughts and words, our laughter and our recollections. Such is a life: springing up and falling, a fountain of possibilities. It is late but she is still here with me in the kitchen; I am the only one awake and listening to her heart. I will make sense of it for her, for all of us.

The day that Jonny died

IMG_0163 What a gorgeous day it was, the fifth of December two years ago, when we knew that in the afternoon we would have to say goodbye to Uncle Jonny. We all trundled down the path between the dunes, under a brilliant winter sun, the wind invogorating and the sky that gorgeous shade of blue we often see up here. The final walk with Jonny: he who had walked so many hundreds of miles in his long lifetime and seen so much in so many places. One last donning of the ill-fitting Barbour jacket, at which the gusts tugged so cheekily, as if drawing attention to Jonny’s being too big for it and how mean we were for not getting him the next size up. IMG_0177

The tide was way out so there was lots of room for fun and frolic, that special kind of  dressage which is retrievers at play. Barnaby gambled in and out of the surf, and Newman looked for his beloved seaweed on the shiny sand. Jonny himself, still up for it despite everything which was bringing him low, threw up his head in one final bout of high-pitched indignant barking. This was fun! But the long shadows haunted us all and were not to be outrun. Careless of the consequences, there was one more gaudy night of feasting for Jonny: he watched in awe as two freshly-made steak pies were cut up for him, while the bowl of tea stood ready to wash it all down. Delicious!

IMG_0212After that it was all friends and relaxation. A deep sleep of contentment on the sofa, surrounded  by the babies he had known and loved all his life. It is an image which inspires us every day, the first thing we see when we go to write the blog. A beautiful day in every way, on which to say farewell: sunshine, clarity and warmth which lasts forever, transforming the sadness into a strength to draw from – his legacy to us.

But today, the second anniversary of his death, has brought a great storm to the northern part of the country, from the Fens to the top-most tip of the kingdom. Storm-force winds have stomped across Scotland, bringing down the roof at Glasgow station and turning out the lights across the Highlands. Trains will cease, roads and bridges close; probably some poor soul will perish. All along the east coast, warnings are in place for the biggest tidal surge in thirty years, some ready to leave their homes for safety. And here we are breakfasted and wait patiently for an outing that may not be possible all day. Instead – when we can – we must make do with the garden and bother whatever birds are snatching at the feeders and dashing out for the bread between the frightening gusts. As I write, the rain is running down the windows and charging hither and yon as the storm intensifies over us in Northumberland. In his realm, Jonny is thinking about his friends in dear old Aldeburgh and Orford, hoping that at Smugglers’ Cottage they have made good preparation against the flood. He, though, is with us here in the warm security of home, where he will always remain.  Let us hunker down together on this day of days.

Into the unknown

DSCF2304When we set out on our morning run, as we just did, we always have a vague idea of where we are heading and are confident we will soon be dreaming about everything we’ve seen, safe and warm with our breakfasts inside us. My experience teaches me that their world is not so certain; that our dearest friends go out to and come back from mysterous destinations, smelling of all sorts. We cannot bear their sadness and mop it with our fur. Kemo Sabe will be away again today, at Ten Blankets’ bedside a fair few miles from here. As we boys cling to the fire and listen to the wonderful Britten music coming from Snape – one of our favourite landscapes, of which we think every morning while looking out to Inner Farne (how strange is the imagnation) – we will be waiting for that return; ready to listen, comfort and warm. What more can I, a little spaniel, say? It is like Uncle Jonny all over again.