Beowulf on the beach

June 2010 180By nightfall yesterday, glorious sunshine had given way to thick mists, encroaching deep inland from their watery origins. By morning, everywhere was swathed in wonderful white, visibility was down to a few yards, the islands had disappeared into a lost landscape and the beach had become a world of mystery and magic.  How appropriate that this week ITV is filming for a 13-part adaptation of Beowulf on the very beach at Bamburgh where this time last year we greeted the fiendish Thane of Glamis in the person of Michael Fassbender. We never know whom will next encounter, particularly when running in and out of a haar. Young Nicholas is frightened lest we see Bear-Wolves for he is as yet a child in literary terms. From the sands beneath the castle we sniffed the fascinating smells of strangers human and equine, carried beneath the rolling white cloud. Reluctantly we drew away to get on with the struggle into the unknown; we then heard the echoing clomp-clomp of hooves coming from inside the massive horse transporter, signalling to the grooms that these warhorses were eager for their day’s work to begin. Slightly alarmed by the eeriness of it all, I wondered if we would be followed on to the beach, or whether the warriors would canter out of the clouds towards us, bearing another world into ours, which – today – we could hardly see, let alone recognise. Had Hrothgar be visible upon the battlements when the mists eventually dissipated, we wouldn’t have been surprised though we were concerned lest Grendel should be lumbering along the shoreline where the high tide wetted our paws, leaving no room to escape.

June 2010 178Today’s thoughts are therefore full of our favourite Anglo-Saxon hero, Redwald, King of the Wuffings, who is thought to be buried at the wondrous site of Sutton Hoo, above Woodbridge in Suffolk. Uncle Jonny loved his regular visits there: the circular wooded walk where beechnuts could be picked; the legendary slabs of home-made cake available in the National trust tea room; the burial mounds, like giant mole hills; the ghosts that whispered in the clear morning air. One day I should like to take young Nicholas there, with the big boys, so he too can gaze across the thin membrane which masks the past. Like Bamburgh, Sutton Hoo is a thin place, where past and present stare at each other just as Redwald’s meadhall is tangible still at nearby Rendlesham,and Botolph’s presence remains at Iken’s anchorage.  It is good to have our English hero Beowulf riding among us for a day or two, blazing through the mists of time in heroic reality. That is what drama’s for.

To learn more about the exceptional importance of and wonders to be found at Sutton Hoo, look at these webpages:

. . . but a bone is only a bone

IMG00020-20110402-0915One of Uncle Jonny’s annual routines was standing silently and attentively within the Gothic shell of Nunhead cemetery’s funerary chapel – an ivy-entwined stable ruin creeping with majesty  – each Remembrance Sunday, one of a handful of witnesses to the little service of hymns and prayers (a mere ten or fifteen minutes of anyone’s time) offered up within an acreage which held a quarter of a million souls, including Commonwealth soldiers from the Great War.  Nunhead Cemetery was the boys’ favourite pondering place, whose colours and charms were palpable in all weathers, where the paths were well trodden, the spirits usually peaceful and the names of the dead as familiar as friends.  On what turned out to be his last Remembrance Sunday in London, Uncle Jonny and the tiny congregation waited in vain for the vicar to turn up; the occasion had slipped his mind, it seemed. There was to be no singing of ‘For all the saints’ that darkening afternoon, despite there being one in everybody’s midst. In a little over a year Uncle Jonny himself had left us and now his resting place beneath the hedge merges increasingly with the sward surrounding it, though a stone spaniel sits beside him, a symbol of loyalty expressive of feelings too complex to convey.

Copyright Martin Pettitt from his Flickr page

Next Sunday, as happens every year, all over the country folk will gather by their local war memorials to remember the lives of those lost in successive wars. After the anniversary of Armistice Day itself, dismantling will begin of the installation at the Tower of London of the 888,246 ceramic poppies which cascade down the wall into the moat, one for every British fatality in the First World War. One of these poppies will then, eventually, be coming here: a single flower to remind us all of two great uncles who died too young, as so many do, every day. Perhaps because it has caught the public’s imagination and drawn huge crowds, this flowing sea of red has been castigated by one journalist as an unworthy jingoistic artwork, ‘fake, trite and inward-looking’, a ‘deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial .  . . all dignity and grace’. To mean something, the moat should have been filled with barbed wire and bones, it was stated. Surely not.

War stalks the world right now with ever greater determination. Its realities spring up every day at the tap of a screen; horrific brutality has never been so visible, so commonplace. But the sight of brutality leads nowhere and achieves nothing good.  We know what they are doing and if we have any sense, we turn away. We honour the dead’s nobility, their humanity. We are not memorialising our brutality. As someone famous once said, there are no surprises in logic. But a poet’s words can pierce us, so let the image speak. We manage what we can: we count our own dead and leave other nations to count theirs, mindful of the numbers as they mount and our shared sadness, our common failings.  A single poppy symbolises what needs to be said . . .

And if one brown seagull should accidentally fall . . .

IMG_1730One of Uncle Jonny’s nicknames (and he had any number, ranging across the gamut of his funny ways, talents and naughtinesses) was The Seagull.  One of his particularly loving young friends always referred to Uncle Jonny by this soubriquet, which was indirectly derived from a rather pretentious little book popular years before our dear old friend was born. Maybe for this reason, as well as for its own venerable qualities, the seagull  – more properly the gull, as a pedantic bird watcher insisted – has always had a place in our hearts, standing in as our living ones do for our late lamented brother with his own inimitable kind of fun and games.

It looks as though the saga of this year’s intense rearing is finally drawing to its end, with yesterday bringing the crisis in which the cherished siblings started their vertical jumping with simultaneous arm-flapping, imitating the action of a helicopter hovering, however briefly. As a result of this discombobulation, Peter ended up a little further from home than he had intended, landing on the slope of the roof, down which he slid backwards, arms outstretched, until he braced his flippery feet against the guttering, all the while facing towards the tiles, hanging on for grim death. The final IMG_1727indignity came when he dropped a storey, to land on top of the front bay window, where he has now been for over twenty four hours, by turns standing to attention and curled up sleeping.  This charming drama was watched with engaged excitement as it initially unfolded yesterday morning by the visitors breakfasting across the road, who shouted their encouragement to poor Peter as they downed their Full English Breakfasts.  It is almost impossible to see this dear creature as a ‘flying rat who should be shot’, which was a local’s denunciation of this child struggling for independence from its doting parents. They have continued attentively to feed and sit with Peter where he landed, no doubt hoping to tempt him back to their eyrie but he won’t be persuaded and he seems quite happy where he is until he gains the confidence for his first flight.  While patient Paul remains in situ on the chimney breast, Mary’s helicopter routine landed her on the roof ridge, just a hop away from the place of her birth, and there she has squawked her way through the day. As I write, I have only noise to report about, but fear not: both we and the kindly neighbours have tinned mackerel ready should extra rations be needed, or should one or other of the triplets fall further. Our arms are ready!

Place in the sun

IMG_1710A new addition to the stumpery is this reclining stone spaniel, probably as heavy as I and now placed not far from Uncle Jonny’s grave where they can keep an eye on each other. It is old and lovely and, from a distance, incredibly life-like. I am thrilled to have been commemorated in my lifetime and shall do my best to be thought worthy by continuing to deliver the daily canine goods to all I meet.

IMG_1705As I write, England is expecting a heatwave, though up here where it never swelters, we should only get to the mid- or high seventies Fahrenheit. This morning, on a very high tide with very little beach left to run along, we all skirted the gentle foam as the fingers of the sea reached to catch our ankles and Newman was allowed a morning swim against the prevailing wind and tide, which helped to tire him out, though in this picture he is gazing up at Peter, Paul and Mary (who are merrily peeping continuously and maturing everyday). Up in their own sunny little world.

IMG_1712My small band of loyal readers includes a person in Brazil, and we all wonder what  someone in such an enormous and fascinating country could find of interest in my pitiful ponderings. Lately of course Brazil has been much in our minds, and we have tried to find out more about it; with every change of venue during the World Cup (O good, it’s Costa Rica tonight, we would shout!), we would check the atlas and locate the stadiums of the day in their disparate locations, so far flung, so exotic – the humidity, the sun!  Despite the woeful awfulness of our own over-indulged footballing side, we enjoyed others’ efforts in the sun hugely and saw some real heroism on occasion, too.  Running for the ball into the sea had never seemed such fun (‘And today I was Klose’, I began to compose in my head).

My little world is currently lush and green, with plenty of grass to chew and bees to watch and listen to, against the aural backdrop of Jussi Bjorling and Victoria de los Angeles at the end of La Boheme. The overwhelming emotions evoked by Puccini’s music throw into relief the fact that our dear Jeoffry is looking thinner these days and that, like the rest of us, he is not getting any younger. But at least he has the sun to sit in, as do we all.

And to our reader in Brazil: a special greeting and thank you for being there!

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:



A dog’s life

Newman and JackToday is the birthday of our extraordinary, ebullient, energetic, affectionate, infuriating, incorrigible brother, Newman Noggs.  It is seven years since he entered the world, on a day and in a way none of us saw or knew about, in Leicestershire – a long way from here –  in a canal-side home with his siblings. Then nine or ten weeks later he came into our family, and in particular, to Uncle Jonny’s embrace, for he welcomed him with his open heart, making him his devoted friend for the rest of his own blessed life. Immediately Newman was introduced to Uncle Jonny, a moment captured in this picture, it was admiration at first sight, as you can no doubt see. When just over four years later his friend and mentor died, Newman was characteristically resilient and took on the mantle of senior dog to Barnaby and me in his own individual way.  We have all celebrated with him today, with a wonderful swim in his favourite pool by the rocks, extra treats at dinner time and reminiscences of his time on this earth. Newman’s single-mindedness marks him out: when he is focused – whether on the possible danger posed by another dog (he is very sensibly quite a coward) or the possibility of finding a mouthful of something or other (not necessarily edible, let alone food!) – only the most determined command can interrupt his concentration. Despite his size, he loves to sit on Kemo Sabe’s lap, cuddle and fall asleep. He really is a big, soft dog. Happy Birthday dear friend, now a Veteran in dog terms.

As birthdays notch up I cannot help thinking about how precious is each day, a dog’s life being such a fast and furious thing, particularly for a spaniel. When we take our leave of our beloved family, as I know from Uncle Jonny’s passing when I was a pup that we must, an ineffable bond is sundered in one sense but, in another, a different one is forged. This week we heard that our friend Tomas the Dalmatian (see the March post called Precious Winners All) lost his lovely grandmother, called Abby, aged twelve. She was taken seriously ill unexpectedly and was treated by the vet who discovered that her dramatic decline was caused by inoperable cancer, so she never returned home. Her daughter, Tomas’s mother, who is also with him with their own Kemo Sabe, is troubled by the inexplicable loss and the hole which has opened up within their special family. At such times our humans are full of self-reproach for the times they’ve ignored or reprimanded us, but they should not worry so:  their mourning is a tribute to the place we fill in their lives, lives we love and share and will do for ever, whether there in person or not. We salute you, Abby, gone to rest after a lifetime of love, friendship, puppies, shows and fun; now you live on, forever lively.


Jack’s poem about spring

IMG00017-20110402-0914Today, after a few days away from pondering, wandering free beside the byways of Stepney Green, bathed in warm sunshine, the chilly north east to which we have returned urged us not to get ahead of ourselves, to wrap up again, re-light the fire and turn our minds to the footfalls of history. We have heard many familiar voices, emerging from abandoned courts behind historic churches, from under cobbles where cabbage leaves were once strewn – things that have hardly altered at all, and others gone without a trace, except the imprint which time always makes and which cannot be eradicated.

Summer 05 043Under the circumstances, it’s a really good day to turn again to Uncle Jonny, our dear Jack, and the love he bore us. Let him speak for us today about a glorious past. Regular readers will know what a legacy he left us – we who knew and loved him. Here he is, mud-besplatted, in his prime, many many years ago – about the same age as  Newman is now.  Jack’s thoughts came to him on an ordinary day, made extraordinary for him by the brilliance of the light and warmth which flooded into his heart when he entered Nunhead Cemetery for his daily perambulation. As we grow older it often becomes more difficult to express our deepest feelings, so here is a snapshot from Jonny’s favourite album, a testament to love, joy and the Dickensian belief that something good will always turn up.

Jack’s Poem About Spring

sun on the cemetery
sun on my golden face
my smile a ray
broadening like footprints across my Mummy’s heart
mirroring her
bright like a living daffodil
bouncing stride
it’s back
another season’s yolk
for me to suck the juice from
the dew gone
come morning.

(Taken down for me on 21 March 2000)