Precious winners all

IMG_1285In this impromptu shot the gloriously golden Harry, who’d just been judged best of all the Sussex Spaniels at last week’s Crufts, is being lined up for a celebratory snap by a top professional photographer. A father, grandfather and a Good Citizen Dog to boot, Harry is more formally known as Belcam King’s Ransom for Glenbrows and he is both beautiful and bear-like. Straight after this, he was whisked off to the Gundog Group judging where another bonny dog won through, and so she (the only bitch in the final competition) had to IMG_1292hang around for the undeniable honour of taking part in the Best in Show later that evening while dear Harry could return to his latest family of puppies and their mother. Thus it is that the joy of the winning moment goes hand in hand with the even greater pleasures of the everyday to which we all return, as Harry and his proud owner were happy to recognise. In the world of Crufts, where every dog competing is by definition a winning dog, and increasing numbers are superstars from countries far far away, madness lies in thinking anything else.

Here, for example, is one of IMG_1267Newmie’s close relatives, Show Champion Chalksville Autumnal Storm, resting on his bench before competition in the Golden Retriever ring, and to my mind looking an awful lot like Uncle Jonny. Good luck card behind him, his smile reveals a relaxed and patient soul, inured to the waiting which is the lot of all Crufts entrants. But as 599 goldies were entered that day in the competition – yes, 599! – scores of them internationally renowned and decked with titles –  Storm was prepared to be outshone, which was the fate of hundreds of them, in every class.

IMG_1219In another hall we found our family friend, Tomas the Dalmatian – professionally known as Dalleaf Devil’s Disciple – whom we’ve all known since childhood and who has even enjoyed staying here with us. As you can guess from his impedimenta, he’s an outstanding boy who’s won up and down the country, but that Sunday he just missed the top three in his class – that’s the way it goes! And so, at the end of the day, it was home for us all, the pretty and the proud, the decorated and the disregarded. Home, with its comfortable cushions, warm hearth, Boggis-bed, bird-bread at the bottom of the garden, and fun and frolic of the ordinary, everyday kind. Most of all, we returned within the framework of that bottomless love; the love that holds me firm as I fidget in my dreams, trying on for size the stardom which we of the Dickens clan can barely comprehend.

Chance encounters of the canine kind

IMG_1202This thoughtful chap is Claus, a red, miniature smooth-haired dachshund. He is a gem and I would like him to join me on the sofa! What a splendidly serious chap he is, with his vase-y front legs and inscrutable expression – one which seems to suggest that he has seen more than most of us, and been impressed less, too. We met young Claus on hound and terrier day, the second day of showing at this year’s Crufts; with him were his lovely owners, cheerful and very friendly twin sisters over from their native Sweden both to enjoy a holiday and then tackle Crufts. Communication wasn’t a problem for any of us and what was a chance encounter turned into an ebullient time for IMG_1207all. Apart from this trim small gentleman, so pensive in his pose, the ladies had brought with them his litter sister, Lotte, and even tinier ‘little’ Claus, who is a rabbit-sized dachshund – entered as a separate class on the continent. Each dachshund had its own distinctive character: Lotte, a bit barky like me, but unlike me a bit stand-offish (the ladies apologised); Claus-the-Great, dignified, easy-going and sociable; Claus-the-Less, sleepy, cuddly and cute as a button and still only a pup. Four o’clock had come and gone when we happened on this little family in a quiet corner of their hall so most of the dachshunds had been removed from the benches which had been theirs all through the judging. Boys and girl alike agreed that they did not mind not having won a class; it was wonderful to be here, in England, having a lovely holiday before the big occasion that is Crufts, with all its ups and downs, its stress and feelings. We all smiled and laughed and extended our hands – our paws – across the bridge which links such little souls as us to the most prestigious dog show in the world. Good to be here, they laughed; a privilege to qualify; an experience to treasure. Lovely little fellows!

IMG_1214Next door, in the Hound section of Discover Dogs, we found a small a black and tan, with perfect, shiny black claws resting gently on an elbow – nestled in his loving owner’s arms. In the neighbouring booth we found his standard-sized cousin, whose bulk made him much more of an armful: a real dog, as some may say. To this small spaniel, the gentle, inquiring eyes of the variously-sized dachshunds are very striking and the questions they were IMG_1212asking have stayed with me. To the touch they are lovely things: trim yet tough, with good strong muscles; their silkiness is irresistible; their ears simply demand to be stroked; their paws, as mighty as a mole’s, demand to be taken and tenderly grasped; a good strong back, and capable legs. But best of all, that intelligent and intellectual expression, borne aloft the nose from which spring the scenthound’s special gifts!

The glory that is a golden

IMG_1239Bouncing along in a cloud of calling-out , all three of us were utterly joyful once again as we returned this glorious morning to our beautiful beach after several days at the extravaganza which is Crufts. The sun was bright upon the glassy water, the tide-level perfect for our needs, no breeze to speak of:  the magic of the Northumberland coastline on a magnificent morning. Great to be back! Our time away was, however, both bustling and thrilling, meeting new friends and old favourites alike on the Eukanuba-pink carpet upon which Barnaby simply cannot get a grip! This year’s Crufts will probably colour my posts for a while. As a small, simple and impressionable spaniel, the pictures in my mind are very vivid but, in my heart, the most abiding warmth was generated by seeing so many representatives of the golden breed to which my Dickens Dogs brothers belong. So, to begin with, if you haven’t already seen The Southern Golden Retriever Display Team in action, treat yourself to their 2014 routine –  a joyous reminder of the very special qualities of these delightful beasts: gentle, adoring of their owners, bumbling, always happy to please – or try to. Enjoy!

Going to the dogs

DSC01455 Yes: it’s that time of year again!  As the ‘Next Big Day’ counter on my home page shows, tomorrow marks the opening of Crufts Dog Show 2014, and that is exciting for us boys for lots of reasons. For some, Crufts has become quite controversial, evoking a wide range of reactions, even within the dog world. Shown for years on the BBC, and loved by millions who adore seeing dogs but couldn’t get to the Show itself, coverage was dropped by the nation’s broadcaster over the scandal regarding health issues which certain breeds are experiencing as a result of dog show judging, the awful results of which had actually been explored in a BBC documentary. Channel 4 took it on, complete with Clare Balding, a great dog-lover herself. Even those whose dogs actually compete at the prestigious event (qualification for entry depends on being in the first three at a Championship Dog Show) are frequently ambivalent about Crufts, where the show dogs at its heart could be said to have been subsumed by commercial pressures and the arrival of the great British public and all that entails. We Dickens Dogs know only too well what a shopping-fest it has become, with hall upon hall of the enormous National Exhibition Centre complex crammed full of canine impedimenta and comestibles of every conceivable kind – so full, both of stalls and of humanity, that dogs passing through on their way to do whatever they’ve come for can hardly get by.  But that, actually, is all part of the joy of it.

DSC01430For it is a doggy bonanza and, at its very best, celebrates the relationship good people have with the dogs of this world:  the joy you see on these Japanese students’ faces – who have at the end of the day to make do with only a toy retriever – is typical of the sheer delight expressed by countless scores of dog-lovers who trudge through the Discover Dogs section, where Newman and Barnaby will be meeting and greeting selflessly for a couple of days.  Onto the stand come all kinds of folk: those who have lost their own dear Uncle Jonny, and are themselves now too elderly – or so they feel – to take on the responsibility of another goldie; they just want to hold dear Barnaby’s beautiful head in their hands, be welcomed by Newman’s enthusiastic embrace or share the photos of their trusted but now departed boy or girl. One person even brought a little oil painting of their old friend with them. Then there are the anxious parents whose children’s desperate desire for a dog doesn’t take into account the regular walks, regular purchases and deliveries of food, regular injections, regular this, that and the other – and most of all the regular ‘being with us’ – which bringing a dog-shaped bear into the home entails. Tactfully trotted out, these home thoughts from an old hand can do the trick and gently help them to shelve the matter, for the time being at least. The Discover Dogs section of Crufts is all about self-indulgence: the miniature smooth-haired dachshund we’d like to pop into the corner of the sofa that’s still spare; Mr Percy Perfect Pug-let telling us all what he thinks; Wendy the German Shepherd, which we have infantilised but are secretly afraid to go near. Then, of course, come Gundog Day on Sunday, there are the setters – English, Irish and Gordon – every one a winner so far as we’re concerned, and the English pointers, so dignified, so neat. There are even our relatives, patient and lovely, waiting for the ring.

Crufts also educates folk about the horrors of puppy farming, which continues unchecked by any law, as well as charities working with and on behalf of dogs who suffer at the hands of the cruel and exploitative. The public also learns about the good dogs do – Barnaby’s own Pets As Therapy as well as Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs for the Blind, to mention a handful, are all there, raising awareness and funds for their wonderful work. But most of all, we boys enjoy the sheer fun of it all, meeting our adoring fans and snacking on the freebies which were Uncle Jonny’s single favourite thing.  Dear old friend: there we would be, chatting away to the salesperson, while he would be digging deep into the display stand and the Fish for Dogs profits!  So, let the grand performers take the stage in their individual classes – that particular thing is not for us – while we gather for our annual doggy bash of a very different sort. Remember: you always take the best dogs home!

Here’s where to go to find out more about everything taking place over the next few days:


Giants’ robes and a dwarfish spaniel

photo courtesy of Bamburgh Castle

These beetling black figures, viewed from the castle crow’s nest, are not about to besiege or attack Bamburgh but are in fact, even as I write this, busy about their harmless work, peopling the dunes with suitably clad extras for the new film of Macbeth.  Long inky capes are the order of the day, and there are masses of them: a high five to the firm that landed that order, methinks!  Outside the pavilion on the village side of the castle, these dubious figures are gathering in inky swathes, delivered by incongrous mini-vans from the shoot head headquarters in the car park across the road.

Theatrical transformation is so thrilling; the everyday is briefly touched by a dash of stardust and little creatures like us are caught in its sparkle: a  wondrous world wherein, as in a dream, a bush atop a sand dune is easily supposed a bear. We cannot help but wonder what these busy and numerous newcomers, professionals and amateurs alike – with their boredom-redeeming Sudokus, thermal coffee-mugs and knitting – are making of this place, but we hope they like it here.  Knowing that, by the time we trundle along the sands on our familiar way tomorrow, the Thane of Cawdor has cantered on before us, will lend a special magic to our steps. But the reality of routine is what a dog loves best:  a whiff of crushed crab on a slab of volcanic rock I’ve bounced across a hundred times is the true magic; it wrinkles my nose and sends me onward, ever onward – to seek more joy beneath the castle walls.

To report the behaviour of the sea monster

IMG00353-20140214-0757As if by magic, this morning on Bamburgh beach we found revealed once again the old wreck  – a fossil of a most extraordinary kind – which was uncovered after decades under the sandbanks by the great big seas we had up here last November.  Those who study such manifestations descended and reported their findings, working quickly at very low tide and only until the sand shifted over the skeleton once more. Today I was thrilled by its unexpected resurgence and greeted its reappearance noisily, whereas Barnaby boldly and joyfully danced around it, as our little video at the end of this piece shows.

In this world of water in which we now live we are all getting used to seeing things transformed – fields flowing into forests, trees swimming against the tide, boulders breaking through walls and window glass and the rich and famous running from their mansions for the warmth and comfort of the nearest Travelodge, or even a dodgy old lilo in a dusty church hall. In another kind of civil war, our countrymen are fighting their countryside and coast and, once again – as I said yesterday – the world’s turned upside down. As I write, it is still peaceful outside, though the sky is darkening and the radio relates that torrential rain is falling on the sodden west, where the wind is up and what are left of the hatches are being battened down by those who must endure more of the unendurable.

There are many questions we would ask. We seek the soothsayers’ expertise and scrutinise the frown lines in the mirror.  Look within ‘The Dry Salvages’, third of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets – bits of which profound poem Kemo Sabe frequently reads out – and you find much about water and its ways. We little fellows have our own relationship with and thoughts about it, living as we do alongside a coastline not unlike Cape Cod’s: one of lovely beaches and ever-changing seas; seas which throw up shells and seals, carcases of one kind and another, vertebrae wrung from the backs of beasts which once breasted the very waves which bore them; seas which swallow ferries, merchant vessels, crabbing boats and cobles. I have often pondered about looking into the water and today I feel we all must do it now, more than ever.

If you wish to read about the Bamburgh wreck, here is one website of interest:

Our little video shows what a calm and pleasant morn it was on which we found the wreck – such a lovely surprise for us all. As usual Uncle Newmie is out of the picture, tied to Kemo Sabe lest he consume too much seaweed and do himself a mischief.

Raising the flag

IMG_1177Though we are now through with January, the morning darkness retains its grip far longer than I would like.  In our range-side warmth, I look over at Newmie, legs akimbo, upside-down on his big green bed, out to the world. Mornings find him especially patient and submissive and, as he gets more like Uncle Jonny (he will be seven next birthday), we all hope his reward will be more sweetness and less energy. Barnaby has always been a sleepy bunny – even as a puppy, stories tell – so it is only when Kemo Sabe is ready to rumble that he will rise and shine, presenting himself – favourite baby in his mouth – ready for that earnest moment of togetherness which we in the kitchen cannot share. I nip in and out of the garden as the Great Spirit moves me but the water-logged lawn repels me, unless there is bird-bread on the ground, thrown there by the big-breasted wood pigeons who enjoy a good mess as much as I do clearing one up. I stand on the patio in the darkness and listen: for the first tweet of the dawn, for the first song I can put a name to. As shapes emerge from the shadows, friends with feathers hop and dart in hopefulness – dunnocks and sparrows, especially, but our robins and blackbirds too and Christopher, our dear little wren. Our reliability in doling out the delicacies daily is matched by their resourcefuness. Today, during an especially pleasant break in the clouds, they were drinking from the upturned sink plunger beside a jaunty pirate flag: any bowl, however unsavoury, will do, when the feathered ones wish to quench their thirst. Uncle Jonny and the older Dickens Dogs are the stuff of legend in their preference for crinkly water supplies, stagnant and stinky. Such is the golden retriever. Me? I like my water ice-cold and outside, just like the sparrows but, unlike them, always freshly drawn from the tap and in a clean bowl, if you please. Spaniels have standards!

View from a bridge

Jack at SnapeIn this photograph, taken many many years ago  from a little boat on to a shoreline path he had often taken on his four paws, there is one thing missing: the lightbulb brightening above Uncle Jonny’s head when he recognizes the much-loved landscape from an entirely new perspective.  Enjoying his boat trip around the tricky waters of the estuary, dear Uncle Jonny ponders, as we dogs constantly do, the circle of life, the deeds of the Dickens Dogs, and the extraordinary fact that, after all, you can get there from here. Last week we trundled along the muddy waterside again. We stopped in the silence of a misty morning and gazed together out over the flats at the few feathery waders who were still about – gazing out into the beloved eyes of Uncle Jonny in his careful little craft, suspended in time and real and true before us.

IMG_1138The afternoon he had looked towards the strip of beach the tide was high; last week the tide was out: Barnaby bounded joyfully to the very spot above which our dear friend had hovered all those years ago, catching him in his mind’s eye. Time stood still and all the years rolled back: the puppies and the learning and the rolling of the eyes! Can so much time have passed?  The east coast of England is a magnificent and evolving wonder, and Suffolk in particular has a haunting and evocative nature. Our keen ears, wet with sea-salt, are attuned to the calls of our ancestors; the cries of those who have seen it all before but still listen out for us, and who watch for us as we cross the mud-flats, waving to their little boats.

Sun and moon and shining stars

another sunrise 6.1.14Today, the 6th of January, is a day of many wonders. As you can see, our rising sun was a glorious moon, cast like a silver coin above the harbour. This is a day of differences, great and small. Today some can at last celebrate as the one on which the animals witnessed a wondrous birth; others mark it as the day on which mysterious travellers pushed the ox and ass aside in order to peer at the wonder for themselves; others interpret epiphany still more symbolically, opening the ice, diving into the Jordan, replaying rebirth and renewal in baptismal ceremonies.  As divers into the waves, that is our choice. Here it is a quiet day in weather terms and quiet here at home, resting by the fire, the place newly straightened, the decor freshened up: only the intense, intoxicating hyacinths throw the ordinariness into relief. Throughout these dramatic and exhausting times, I have played my part with faithful warmth, grasped and grasping, flopping in a furry bundle into Kemo Sabe’s arms, whatever time of day I’m gathered up. As the year turns in this public way, we Dickens Dogs cling to our simple roles. Barnaby jumps up in joy for his daily yoghurt, his tail knocking everything flying. Newman farts quietly but persistently as he sits lovingly alongside. Me? Head out of the catflap come bedtime, I look above in hope but clouds have spoilt my chance of seeing a promised meteor or two. Still, this little magus is holding on for the month’s second supermoon, brought in with the next spring tide. We will have to wait until the end of January for that. Isn’t life full of wondrous things?

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.