Something about Jo

IMG_2079As we prepare for the tail-end of hurricane Gonzalo, the first strong winds to be predicted this Autumn, the sun is shining but, despite some gutsy gusts, we’re not too concerned as yet. On the beach this morning we ran towards Newman’s pool in the murk, the sun having another half an hour to lie-in before he needed to be up. Sand scudded across from Monk’s House, where the dunes decline and there’s no shelter to be had, but despite a recent haircut I feel warm and wonderful – no need to place my head upon the hearth as yet as it is unseasonably mild. Out on the islands, National Trust warden David Steel is battening down the hatches, and the growing seal pup population is leaning hard against the rising tide, even as I write.

But though we are led to fear and to prepare, and the news is full of dread, betrayal and pestilence, tiny chinks of glorious light are always visible: the goodness in a human hug, leftover casserole gravy – all rich, delicious vegetables and meaty mouthfuls – on our dinner, a bright blue sky above me as I race to catch the fig leaves as the wind blows them into the pond; the thought that someone smaller than me may soon be joining us; knowing the sand will be rubbed away from my eyes, that they will think of it before it troubles me.

IMG_2077Within his convoluted labyrinth, within his considerable demesne –  which stretches by way of lengthy tubing between two large ‘cages’, over six levels where he can rest, feed or doze as the whim takes him – tiny Jo sleeps:  downstairs today, in his enormous bed, directed by the same logic which day by day leads him to sort his food stores by size and quality within a tunnel, or move them round to suit the mood. Corn kernels, stripped from tiny dried cobs, shelled peanuts, sunflower seeds.  Tiny and perfect life form, blessed creature, be happy and content, cleaned and tended daily, you the smallest and, as some might say, the least of us. All is safely gathered in. A happy harvest festival of his own.

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?

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.

That was the storm that was

IMG_1075After the terrible storm last Thursday – which brought to the country the worst tidal surge since 1953 – we have enjoyed quiet and increasingly warm weather. Up here in the extreme north east we’ve been lucky. Warnings in place, we boys still went out for a run on the beach as the winds gathered their forces around mid-morning; it was bright and clear, the tide was still out and the sand swept low as we charged headlong into it, delighted to be out at all as an outing certainly wasn’t expected, the forecast being so dramatic.  As if on cue, once we were back, everything deteriorated quickly and, by tea-time, when these pictures were taken, the sea was out to get at us and all down the eastern side of the country coastal folk were hanging on for grim death waiting for the high tide to power their way.

IMG_1066As we looked out over the harbour, by the lifeboat station where our heroic crew were keeping watch, the North Sea was crashing over a non-existent harbour wall. We watched in horror as one by one the boatmen’s huts – such folly to have left them unstored against the winter – broke free of their footings, electrical cables springing dangerously free from the wall and into the watery air. Like cardboard boxes they swayed hither and yon at the whim of the waves. A steady stream of witnesses, cameras in hand, gingerly ventured down the steep harbour approach, safe in the knowledge there was no possibility of Neptune capturing them there.

IMG_1070From the Farnes, from where the Longstone light shone bright, the National Trust wardens had already tweeted that all the baby seals had been swept into the sea from the smaller islands usually safe from rising tides. Looking towards Bamburgh, all we could see were massive rollers pressed right up against the dunes: all land, all sand lost to the tempest. But there was no rain, no rain at all.

As quickly as the storm had risen, it was gone. The following morning, cleaving to normality, we innocently made our way through the dunes towards our little path to the beach. It was gone! All that lay before us was a twenty-foot drop, which I would have embraced athletically had not Kemo Sabe anticipated the possibility of a problem and held me fast on the lead. And that was just the beginning of it:  twenty foot of beach had been lost, marin grass was strewn like hay, feet deep all along, and access was completely denied. People in the village had not seen a storm like it. ‘Twas a rough day. But no one was flooded, the lifeboat crew did not have to set out, the harbour walls withstood the force of the sea and, for some strange reason, in the pictures that we took, the sun appeared to shine, even though it was dark and growing ever darker.

No morn, no noon . . .

2013 002The weather up here has been appalling, ever since yesterday afternoon when the squally wind got up and bursts of violent rain began to hit us, both driving from the north – the worst direction of all. This is an epic storm.  In keeping with the pathetic fallacy, turbulence is everywhere: the cat flap blocked overnight; a cold blast driven through our kitchen where warmth from the range is usually constant; the morning run abandoned perforce; that feeling of impending doom pervading everything. Out on the islands, the wardens are worried about the safety of the baby seals, so mountainous are the seas which are obscuring land. With neither electricity nor running water on Inner Farne life is always harsh for the National Trust workers but in conditions like these it is frightening, as the fear within tightens its grasp on the guts and the claustrophobia of helplessness intensifies. Sometimes they are stranded out there for weeks at a time, reduced to a few bars of chocolate to get them through. Here, battling as we do against the elements in our own little House of Shaws, dismissed in half a sentence by the BBC radio forecast, we focus on a private need for fortitude and patience, that most mature of virtues. Somewhere deep within the bushes, our little sparrow friends are holding fast with locked knees, longing no doubt to feed once again on the various provisions they expect to find. Where do the chunky wood pigeon hunker down, so proprietorial and stately? Unable to move the world on one jot, or extend a life one day by worry, we all busy ourselves by leaning hard and cuddling up. Good that the feeders – with their nuts, nyjer seeds and fat balls – are swinging in waiting. Good that the bread has been crumbed, ready to be put out when the wind abates. Good that more logs were delivered and despatched into the store early yesterday morning, before the chaos came – it was never predicted by anyone. Good that we are warm and dry and the new roof has passed its first test; that we have a full mixer bin and the butcher will have new jellies for us today. Good to have decided to stay put, there being strength in numbers, when all one can think of is the past and the future seems so uncertain. In circumstances like these, everywhere else seems so far away from our little corner of the world but while they are here with us, there is nothing to fear. As someone famous once wrote:

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit, tu-who: a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Without bad weather, we would never be able to enjoy a fire!

Somewhere over the rainbow . . .

Giacopazzi's in Eyemouth
Giacopazzi’s in Eyemouth

We have only visited the celebrated ice-creamery called Giacopazzi’s once, not that long before Uncle Jonny died. It seems like a lifetime away, although that rhubarb cone has become a bit of a legend in what has always been the admittedly thin catalogue of treats we have had on outings.  On the quayside in Eyemouth the boys watched langoustines being landed in crates, all destined for the continental market, where they are more appreciated and sought after than here. In the harbour a friendly buoyant seal caught our eye as he dodged in and out of the boats but we watched in vain for more whereas, on the beach beyond, Newman and Barnaby rushed into an extraordinarily calm sea, pushing out beyond the weed, for a relaxing and extended swim. Jonny watched from the beach, barking hoarsely, in that funny way of his, to show it was all the sort of everyday we fun we like more than anything. Snapshots were created: the darkness of the afternoon; the chandlery where the log basket came from; the seamen’s mission with its sermons in stones; the miniature lobster creel, handmade to make a bit extra by men who’ve seen monsters both scaly and watery; the glass-bottomed boat put ashore for the winter – a little bit of magic cast up in exchange for reality; a little world complete and entire into which we dipped for an hour or two: why are so many memories so meaningful? And why did we think about it all today? IMG00143-20111031-1542This morning, the wild wind from the north-west was whipping the tops of the waves into fine white spray – white ponies everywhere but not that much swell. We ran straight towards Eyemouth, catching its exhaled breath, and wondered when we might see it, or somewhere new like it, again; whether the wind is indeed changing direction at last. Routines which comfort us will continue mostly unchanged but within the warm framework I can foresee much of the pondering to which I am prone in the faces of those I love. Looking back on a short life so far, I can see things pretty clearly for what they are; it is all so simple for me. I shall soon be running free along the glorious beach in the late afternoon glow of a falling sun, gathering the scents with my ears and following the feet with my nose, looking in the rain for Jonny’s rainbow. Our fun is guaranteed and our happiness so easy to preserve, with jellies for tea after that. Somewhere out there remains the rest of our lives: in which direction, boys, shall we run? I do all I can to grasp you as we run along, holding fast with all my heart and all my soul. Come on Jonny: what flavour shall we have?

All is calm, all is bright

28.10.13That was our experience upon waking in our warm beds this morning and indeed upon our run towards Bamburgh, where the particular peace was almost palpable, as this picture portrays. Whatever the south of the country had been going though, we had had none of it. In fact the night had been sprinkled with gorgeous stars, the air clear and quiet, and the dawning – well, you can see what it was like.  Yet the BBC tells us that from Cornwall to East Anglia there are no trains; that at least two unfortunates have been killed by falling trees; that there has been flooding, damage to houses, lives lost at sea and in freak explosions. It is all true and it has mattered: what doesn’t matter is whether the wind and rain was slightly more or less intense than the experts suggested they might be; or indeed whether all this has more or less significance because it affected the south rather than the north. For now that the calm after the storm is beginning to descend, we hear the twittering in the eaves, and gossipy sparrows are complaining about whose suffering is more worthy, and indeed whether the soft southerners shouldn’t toughen up and take things in their stride a bit more, as we do up here  – where the wind rages fiercely frequently and no one further south neither knows nor cares. What use, I ponder, is such kibitzing? Today a nice Hungarian lady, carrying her first baby inside her, visited the house; she was full of warmth and interest in an old man’s needs even though he was as yet a stranger and a foreigner to one born a thousand miles away upon the plains. What a joy! Cockney and Scot, Magyar and Northumbrian (not at all the same as Geordie, mind!): just like the Dickens Dogs and me – pulling together, into the wind, trying our best to get where we have to go; prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.

Here I eventually see and ponder the passing in front of Inner Farne of the Trinity House vessel, Galatea, setting off for a day’s work cleaning buoys around the islands and Lindisfarne, the Holy Island.  Isn’t it peaceful (except for me – sorry!)?

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.

Home, James!

ej9g3002appBarnaby swam across a little inlet this evening and insisted on swimming back again, though the tide made it hard for him. It helps his knee, after his operation, but the cold wind from the north made him shiver and we turned tail soon after. Autumn’s on its way and we had fish at home – a treat from who knows where.