28 December 2017


Strange time for a cat to go. The news came on 23 December in the form of a phone call from The Farmer. The information had to be embargoed so as not to darken the festivities.

Eleven years ago, Tiger was located online in a search for a Bengal kitten. She was a half-Bengal; our contact with her seller was early enough for the new-born kitten to be named Tiger, our name of choice, from day one. When she was ready, we drove down to Lincolnshire to collect her. At her birthplace, the children of the house seemed sad to part from her; the children’s mother had seemed caring throughout the preliminary contact. “She is a cat that doesn’t purr” she warned us as we left her house. In the car, during the long drive back, we cuddled the kitten, stroked her and talked to her soothingly. Tiger purred.

Back in Northumberland – we lived in the Coquet valley at the time – Tiger’s arrival caused a commotion. Douglas, the slightly older black kitten, was delighted to see us after what had been our longest absence from him – about twelve hours. Douglas ran from K to me and back to K, as if to make sure we were really there. At a suitable time we introduced him to the newcomer. The look on Douglas’s face was something to remember. Thunderstruck first, then incredulous, then hypnotically entranced. His first attempted action was, of course, to come up to her, but his advance was not welcome: Tiger hissed and recoiled. This was the beginning of a difficult acquaintance. Things had not been going badly for Tiger on her journey north; she might have enjoyed her new house by the Coquet, but a needy black cat was more than she was ready for.

For her first night we put Tiger in the kitchen, the warmest room in the house. The following morning she was nowhere to be seen. It took a long search by two people to locate her: she was crouching in the narrow space under the cooker. She had to be forcibly pulled out. As days went by, she showed herself to be a needy cat, quite affectionate if on the demanding side. She did not have the best digestive system. And she remained wary of Douglas.

She grew up to be a lovely cat, with attractive tabby shades and a most elegant white glove on one of her front paws. She seemed inordinately proud of this, judging by her habit of stretching the gloved paw in front of her. She liked to be the centre of attention, and she often demanded this with an imperious miaow that was almost a scream. This was immortalised in a tune K titled after her, Tiger’s First Bird.

Tiger had an unfailing attention-seeker’s instinct, always present when there were visitors, often assuming what she uncannily knew to be her most fetching poses, such as the one with the outstretched white paw. She also ensured she never missed a photo opportunity. I had a goodly collection of images from this time, but it was lost when, ironically, Tiger herself pulled my Powerbook’s cable when the computer was charging, sending it crashing down on the stone floor. This was before the days cloud-based storage became widespread; the loss of this and many other valuable documents marked a turning point in my storage habits.

When, in her second year, we moved to Redesdale, Tiger found herself surrounded by vast fields in which to explore, play and hunt, and more prey than she could catch.  She slowly came to an entente cordiale with Douglas and with Fluffy the dog, and her digestive problems seemed to vanish. Tiger thrived in her new environment.

She particularly enjoyed walking the dog, almost invariably joining in when I or K took Fluffy across the fields or along the river. If the excursion had not started with her, she would demand to join in halfway, announcing herself from a distance with her unmistakable call. Although normal to us, this often caused the hilarity of visitors and passers-by. 

Little by little, though, we became aware of a change: Tiger did not always come home. She disappeared for days, then for weeks, and then for months. More than once we gave her up for lost, but every time she would return. Sometimes she would answer my call around the neighbouring fields; other times she would come back of her own accord. Each time we noticed that her features had become rougher, her voice had grown gruffer and her frame more sinewy. She was no longer a pretty princess: she had become a feral cat.

It would be only too easy to blame the arrival of a younger contingent - Rumble and then Rumble’s kittens - for this change in Tiger’s behaviour. But the fact is that her wandering habit began earlier than that, not dictated by any external circumstances we could see. What kind of inner dictate guided her actions is anybody's guess. 

She certainly was far from welcoming to Rumble when he turned up, hissing at him viciously. Unluckily for her, Rumble grew up to be a plucky fighter, and soon it was Tiger who was in retreat. Rumble acquired a vicious streak of his own, attacking Tiger in and out of the house, sometimes cornering her in such a way that Tiger would start wailing in an uncharacteristically defenceless tone. We found that heart-breaking, and punished Rumble with exclusion whenever we witnessed that behaviour. The tide turned further against Tiger when Rumble had kittens and they grew up, the hostility becoming tribal, and entrenched. Tiger was now a pariah.

We got used to Tiger’s long absences. There were enough cats in the house to look after – four without Tiger, and this only after three of Rumble’s kittens had found new homes. Every now and then, at irregular intervals, when out in the fields, I would hear that imperious call demanding my attention from afar. It was an unexpected joy when that happened, even though the call was getting hoarser every time, and could by now be described as the growl of a wild animal. Sometimes I would pick her up, all wet and sinewy, and would carry her back to the house to ensure she had a good meal and some warmth before resuming her wanderings.

This December, Tiger’s visits became more frequent. She was not an inch friendlier towards the other cats, but she avoided confrontation, and she did not disdain opportunities for human affection or even a nap in a warm place. In the couple of weeks before Christmas, K reported that Tiger had come home almost every day. Was she again a regular member of the family? That would have been a pleasing thought.

On 23 December in the evening, The Farmer phoned to say that he had seen Tiger lying dead on the side of the road. He thought that a speeding car must have run her over. He offered to send a farm hand the following day to give her decent burial. He was insistent that I should not tell K until after Christmas, but K had been in front of me throughout that call and it would have been futile to deny that something was amiss.

Later that night, I decided that Tiger’s funeral should not be The Farmer’s responsibility. When the time came for Fluffy’s night walk, although it was raining I took a shovel with me. I walked in the rain to the spot described by The Farmer, but found no dead body. I walked a long stretch of the road in both directions, but there was no sign of Tiger. The following morning I drove up and down, still to no avail. In the evening, The Farmer dropped by for a Christmas Eve chat. As he was leaving I asked him to clarify where the spot was, but he was evasive; he said he had dealt with it.

So Tiger, the coquettish kitten princess who became a wild animal of the forest, braving foxes, badgers, hostile cats and countless winter nights in the woods – Tiger ended her life not succumbing to any of those extreme dangers, but a victim of a more mundane threat: the stupidity of a human driving too fast.

It is a tribute to this unusual, courageous cat that what overcame her in the end was not any of the dangers she had chosen to face, but the fiercer power of human destructiveness. In the contest between a cat and the forces of nature, Tiger won.


02 September 2014

Bellingham Show 2014

Show day last Saturday, and it was the best I can recall. The elements ignored the baleful forecast, allowing perfectly tolerable weather, and the public turned up in force. There was the usual array of displays, amusements and entertainment. To get the only negatives out of the way first, I starved for lack of any gluten-free sustenance. And the music in the main bar was of a kind calculated to keep the likes of me well out of an exclusion radius of no less than thirty metres. Apart from that, all went endearingly well.

My daughters bumped into most of the people they know. The races were entertaining. The right people won the music competitions, including the endlessly talented Ian Stephenson, who is now devoting a fraction of his time to the Northumbrian pipes. The Farmer went under-recognised with a third prize for the rather handsome hound he entered, but fortunately a tup of his had won first prize earlier in the day, so he was safe to approach by the time I saw him. 

A favourite of the day was the Cumberland wrestling. Very interesting to see the parameters applied at different age and weight levels, the good humour, the mutual protectiveness between the competitors. Not for the first time, Jason Davidson came off unbeaten in his own category and in the all-weights. 

31 May 2013


Yes, sheep!

But we haven’t turned into amateur farmers. The sheep belong to a neighbour - let’s call him G - who is not a farmer either, but a man of many parts. One item in his variegated portfolio of business, activities and animals, is that he keeps a goodly number of sheep. The professional farmers in the area may think G owns only a handful, but for us the number of his sheep is enough to populate our field with a pastoral presence and, more practically, to keep the vegetation down.   

Easter was, of course, a lively time. G showed much devotion tending to the pregnant mothers and, when they came, the new arrivals. Within days, the soundscape became dominated by a chorus of lambs. It would start very early in the morning and die out with daylight. We soon learned to distinguish between a routine vocal expression, a more urgent, presumably hungry cry, and, the one that required action, the cry of a lamb in distress. This was usually due to a little one getting its head caught in the fence. 

The first such incident caused me much alarm and, when my attempts to extricate the head from the fence proved fruitless, I had to run back to the house to call K who, coming from good farmer stock, knew better than I what to do. After that, I was able to cope alone, and a good thing that was, since there followed many instances of young creatures needing to be rescued from garrotting themselves. 

Even when not in distress, our new residents were the subject of much talk and interaction. The children, needless to say, were in a state of constant thrill at the course the events had taken in our field. They were good watchpersons ready to raise the alarm when a lamb was in trouble. And they were always game for a spot of conversation in or around the field with whoever, human or ovine, might respond to their tireless sociability. I suspect G's patience may have been tested to the limit by these overtures. 

26 May 2013


For much of the last year or so, Northumberland has looked like the land the gods wanted to destroy: ceaseless rain, thunder, floods, landslides, unseasonal cold and lashing winds; a varied arsenal of destructive forces was mercilessly discharged on us.

But not today. On this day the gods are looking down on us with gracious smiles, telling us that we are their children and this is the promised land. The sun shines bright and the birds sing hymns of praise. The colours are intense and the breeze gentle. The sheep hardly move for fear of disturbing the warmth. The lambs, usually quite loquacious, are mute now; what’s more, instead of their habitual frisking around they lie on their side, giving the scene an unnatural stillness. There is disbelief in the air; no-one dares do anything that might stir away the state of grace. 

30 September 2012

Full moon in Northumberland

Moon of Northumberland. If more people could see what I see, there would be even less sanity in the world. It can turn the most reasonable person into a berserker. 

It was a large, round moon hanging alone in the southwest quadrant of the sky’s vault at 1840. When a thin cloud slid across it, knifing it in two halves, the memory of Wozzek was unavoidable. The cloud gone, the moon shone in its primeval wholeness and it was again a casta diva, perfect circle, full of grace - the object of worship in Norma or Turandot. A virginal she - la luna - on the Mediterranean, a sinister he - der Mond - in Austro-Germany, the moon is a neutral, remorseless, glacial androgyne in these parts. A cold fire. A burning ice. Wholly genderless, but charged with sex, madness and unbounded strength. It is a fierce, wild force that’s flooding the field with silver flames out there. 

Oh, and on this clear night I could see the tree the moon must have been hiding behind last night. A thick monster of a tree, getting too tall and too heavy for its own good - an unpoetic reminder of how much there is to do around here. 

27 September 2012

A different night

Does Google’s Current Moon Phase gadget take account of your location? You would expect it to, since it knows who you are, and where you are. And yet, at this time in this place I should be seeing a Waxing Gibbous 95 percent of full, whereas in reality the dog and I, on our nightly outing, were only able to observe a hidden glow, with no discernible moon as such behind the clouds. 

The clouds themselves were a thin yellowish layer, far lighter than the thick walling that separated us from the sky for most of the last three weeks. A mist, one could say. Thin enough to let the glow shine through, as if the moon were a presence concealed behind a tree, or a shed, or a hill. But I looked around and there was none of the aura that would betray a hidden moon. 

Last night was different. It was a Northumbrian incandescence like the fiercest unleashings of lunar ferocity ever seen on these valleys. What a world of difference from one night to the next. Like being on another planet.

02 June 2012


One spring morning the girls, who had been playing outside, rushed into the house in some agitation to announce the presence of an unusual visitor on our drive: a snake. I went to check their claim, and found it to be true. 

The creature had a v-shaped marking on its head and an elegant diamond pattern down its back. It lay so still you might think it was dead, but the occasional slow stir indicated otherwise. 

Back in Bolivia, that kind of patterning and colour would indicate that the snake was venomous. I did not think such a thing was possible in Britain, but K confirmed that it was, and that it was called an adder. I knew, in theory, what an adder was, but had not expected to meet one at close range, let alone right outside my house.
As no doubt every reader of this blog knows - even though I didn’t - adders are common on this island. They come out of hibernation in early spring, which is when most sightings are reported. Our adder visited on 19 April, which counts as early spring if one remembers that the previous winter had been one of the harshest in memory.  The Forestry Commission tells us that adders are common in “rough, open countryside” and are to be found in “woodland edge habitats”, which is, I suppose, a valid description of where I live. 

If there is a snake you are reliably informed is poisonous in the vicinity of where your children are playing, what would you do? Had I been better informed, I may meekly have brought the girls indoors, hoping that this meeting was a one-off. But I was not better informed, and it was a glorious spring morning, and the girls had been having a good time outside until the adder arrived. I had not read the Forestry Commission’s clear description of adders, which mentions in passing that they are a protected species. I did what I thought I had to do. I did it with regret, and have since had much occasion to feel guilty about it.