Mr Jonny sets us right

Jack at St BeesToday I learnt that when Uncle Jonny wasn’t travelling light, teaching the young or lending a supportive shoulder, he loved to consider the fun he was having and he would write a poem about it. Perhaps I have somehow inherited this desire for expression through my ponderings. Anyway, I’m going to try to hunt down some of these poems – there’s one about Spring, I know for sure – because we could do with some of his characteristic cheeriness, not to mention his wise words, at this dark and turbulent time. I would like to emulate his kind of optimism! Here he is, overlooking gorgeous St Bees, smiling broadly from the cliff at the beginning of the Coast to Coast Walk. He always managed to look happy, which is a real gift. The Great Spirit obviously moved through him when he was with us, visible in all our pictures of him where joy is unconfined. What a loving boy he was. A slave to his digestive incidents throughout his long life, he certainly knew what it was to suffer from his tummy and many’s the time he would woof once in the night to summon help so he could trundle into the garden to try to find relief – often long in coming – as Kemo Sabe kept watch through the bathroom window to see if it was time to call him in. Talk about chimes at midnight, eh Jack? Just the one woof; nothing unbridled, like me. Class. At the time this picture was taken his tummy was particularly bad, and the search was on for food which would soothe and suit him better. Though he was bleeding as the irritation was so bad he was still full of glee, despite the lady vet’s thermometer which made him squeal. Hardly a holiday without a trip to the vet’s, they’d say. Why do we think of you so much, dear Jonny? On Sunday, your great-nephew, Barnaby Rudge, will be four. He will not get the hamster he has long wanted and hopefully added to the weekly shopping list but he will be keeping the Tilldawn flame alive, dutifully dawdling among the elderly – among them Old Man Ten Blankets – bringing a golden glow to complexions pale as milk. Contorted limbs will reach to cradle his beautiful head as we so often cradled yours. The sparrows chirrup for the seed on your grave each day, in Dostoevsky’s way. We know who to ask if we don’t know what to do: the communication just goes on and on.

What passing bell?

Jack Flodden 2009 Today has been both busy and bustling as well as sad. Bags have tumbled down stairs, packing and unpacking done and we boys left by the fire to think it all through – the stench of death is everywhere. In keeping with the zeitgeist of 11 November, I am posting a picture of dear Uncle Jonny, raising a rebel yell at the site of one of the most awful battles in English and Scottish history: Flodden Field – where fell the flower of Scottish youth, including their King, James IV. Flodden Field is near the village of Branxton, not far from us, and is overlooked by a tall monument, surrounded by fields fertilised by the thousands of dead  – easily estimated at 20,000, or even more – who have long lain beneath the crops.


They say every family in Scotland lost a member that day. Whatever the cause, whatever the right or wrong, what remains after all the intervening years – and as of this year there have been exactly 500 of them – are the loss and the memory of that loss. You cannot run across that landscape, as we boys have done, with the wind in one’s ears as one breasts the summit – so exposed, so good for wearing bones dry – without calling across the years to all those who have fallen in such fields, whether wind-blown or blasted by the sun. Northumberland is the least populated part of the country but this hill-top brings us face to face with a terrible kind of crowd. We will remember them.

At the risk of being whimsical . . .

IMG_1031[1]. . . the next Big Day is almost upon us, as today’s picture suggests! We love spiders and have a couple of really large black ones in the front room: one lives behind the bookcase and comes out to check the fire occasionally; the other’s home is the waste paper basket, where it lives in peace. Every now and again we see these members of the household, poottling about when their fancies take them – despite our fondness for them, it’s always a bit alarming, though, when they spring into our world. This purple species, seen here embracing dear and very patient Barnaby, is of course just a silly one – part of the Hallowe’en-iana, now down from the loft, with which we’re decorating the place. We hope the real spiders feel at home and enjoy the fun as much as we will. Newman’s role is at the front door to greet the Trick or Treaters when they call by; they know we are expecting them because the terracota pumpkin outside will be alight with candles and across the windows pumpkins and cobwebs aplenty will be flickering in anticipation. Newman’s good at excitement and seeming rather frightening, because he is big and bouncy and driven mad by the smell of the sweets (or indeed anything remotely edible), though everyone who calls here knows he’s as harmless and sweet as Bobo near whom I sleep and around whom Newman wraps. 003 From what I hear, most cultures and their religions find expression for the ideas behind this festival in their folklore and practices; for a little spaniel like me the numinous is very real and, as one who is afraid of very little but looks for the meaning in everything, I embrace tomorrow’s fun, so long as it is gentle and silly: let the more plangent possibilities speak for themselves, I say! Uncle Jonny shows us that the veil between this world and the next is thin anyway, and even more than usual at this time of year, standing as we do upon the threshold of life and death, summer and autumn, wondering what to do for the best. Newman and Jonny told me about the time in Nunhead Cemetery when they were looking at the primroses flowering in December and approaching footsteps on the gravel were distinctly heard by them all when nobody was there. Nobody else at all: just the distinct sound of someone being there. Newman himself often saw beings unseen to others and wouldn’t walk up paths, stopping resolutely and digging in his paws. Nunhead is a beautiful Victorian place and the boys went there everyday without fail; there was nothing horrid about it, nothing at all, but it still held secrets among its quarter of a million buried souls, including a mysterious old man in an 2013 October Pip 016outdated pin-striped suit with distinctive buttonholes, who was one minute scrutinising an abandoned grave and the next gone without trace.  Outside on Jonny’s grave the flowers are dying at last – something which makes perfect sense. From beneath what remains of them, however, reaches up a real presence whose power is funny, wise and strong, though dead two years. Glee made a living thing!

. . . and sausages for tea

IMG00290-20131016-0755First, another glorious Northumberland sunrise! Such a peaceful, windless morning – calmer waters and gentle air about our ears – deserves to be recorded after what we’ve been through lately. As a routine, the daybreak outing sets the tone for the rest of the day, hence I often feel moved to dwell on it as I gather my thoughts on other things. But both wind and rain have set in now – nothing too dramatic, just very English dreariness.  By contrast, though, our lives were brightened by a dinner time when gorgeous bits of sausage replaced the usual jellies in our bowls.  The smell is legendary and utterly scrumptious! Perhaps I should explain: jellies, I now understand, are pieces of beef heart.  Breakfast and dinner consist of them, on top of vegetables and wholemeal bisquit. Lovely!

IMG_0227Though this kind of dinner is a complete first in my little life, Uncle Jonny used to have sausages every day in his later years and I remember when I was a tiny boy smelling them browning gently in the oven –  so savoury, so tempting. One day I shall write about the legend of the sausage about which all dogs learn by instinct and which is now generally thought to explain why we joined forces with humanity thousands of years ago. Jonny’s digestive incidents were certainly legendary, but it was sausages which kept his tummy on a surprisingly even keel. Whether we will see any more of this ambrosia I cannot tell, though I noticed the jelly box had been washed out and is lying empty on the shelf. When we grow old, as Jonny did, we can eat what we like so long as it keeps us well. This lovely picture was taken after he had enjoyed a meal of two steak pies freshly made by the local butcher, washed down with a bowl of tea. That day, none of us had to worry what the consequences might be as, when he woke up on the comfy sofa, lovely Lucy was there to take the pain away for good. He saw her and was glad. Remember what he told us: ‘Do not worry. I am very happy. I will always still be here.’ And he is.

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.

Readiness is all

IMG_0327Yesterday we learned that one of our oldest friends on the beach had died.  He was a great pal of Uncle Jonny – two old blokes together they used to be, trundling slowly and breathlessly (in Mac’s case) along with thirty years of life experience between them.  His loved ones told us that his breath quietly forsook him as he lay before them one afternoon; the spirit moved him away but he too now has a grave in the garden and an everlasting presence in their hearts.  Ours too, indeed.  We will always remember his enormously furry feet and smiling, shining face as he shuffled towards us, against all odds it must be said, long after Jonny had gone.  As it happens, today I move into another phase of my own life, a little older but a little sadder.

Sun and regeneration

I think I need a haircut again.  Does the warm weather make it grow?  I am patient and upside down (mostly) when the scissors come out and then the lawn is trimmed, which also does for collecting my fur.  Next door they are cutting down two mature fruit trees, a plum and an apple. The sound of the chainsaw is really terrifying and we are all sad as we see the sky take the place of leaves and purple fruit.  The warm glow in this photo reflects the presence of our dearest and oldest friend on the day she passed out of our lives. She went far too young and full of life right up until the end, despite her illness.  My fur will grow again soon but she and the lovely trees are gone forever.