10 October 2019

Dreamed lake? Dreamed river?

And here is the famous Ve’ulai.

It is a poem written by Rachel (1890-1931).

Also known as Rachel Blaustein, or Rachel Bluwstein, Rachel is often referred to as the national poet of Israel, even though she was born in Russia and technically she never set foot in Israel, since, although she emigrated to Palestine, she died there well before Israel’s foundation in 1948.

She wrote her early works in Russian. She grew up speaking Yiddish. The works of her maturity – if one can use this word about somebody who died at forty – are in Hebrew. She knew hardship, rejection and illness.

Rachel’s poetry records the life of hard work and idealism of the early Zionists in Palestine. It also deals with her own sense of displacement, loss and unfulfilled dreams. Although she deals with some of the deepest questions of life and death, those who know her and her language tell us that she uses simple, conversational Hebrew.

Lake Kinneret – the Sea of Galilee – features recurrently in Rachel’s work. She loved it. She asked to be buried near it  in a poem, as a matter of fact: If fate decrees. Upon her death, her friends and followers complied with her wishes.

I discovered Rachel before I turned twenty and fell in love with her poetry, first in Spanish translations. I set three of her poems for choir in 1976.

Why am I saying all this here and not, for example, in my composer’s blog? Read on.

I have been keenly aware of Rachel and her work lately. Some aspects of her life make her a sympathetic companion to think of. In particular, Rachel’s best-known poem, Ve’ulai, has been haunting me in the context of thinking about my much longed-for Redesdale home.

Although I have not been assiduous, I have written a fair amount in this blog about life by the Rede. Rachel uses many fewer words, but she expresses better the kind of feeling I have struggled to convey.

Ve’ulai is not one of the poems I set in 1976; that would have been redundant, since there was already a beautiful setting of it by Yehuda Sharet. I wrote an arrangement of Sharet's song in 1983 and a reconstruction of that arrangement this year – just completed. Another humble homage to Rachel, and another way to say “I love you” to the place and the people I think of so obsessively.

In more than one way, the land of my memories and dreams has rejected me. Even though recent developments would suggest that I may not be setting foot on that blessed place again, I find that impossible to accept.

There is no guessing how things will stand by the time I die. In any case – since I am, almost literally, borrowing a leaf out of Rachel's book – I want to say that, "if fate decrees" that I should stay away, when I die I would like to be cremated and for my ashes to be scattered into the river Rede. Ideally from the spot of the riverside fires of yore, by the rock where my children sat and played. 

If the house's occupants at that time object, then from the Rede Bridge, which is a public place. 

I will leave no tangible trace that may inconvenience anybody. I will pass, like the river. But first I will have returned, even if only for an instant. The prospect of that eventual return will reassure me, for the remainder of my days on this world, that all that life, all that love and all that work by the Rede were not just a dream. 

Or, as Rachel puts it:

If fate decrees
that I should live far from your space
- I shall return, Kinneret, 
to lie in your resting place!

Ve'ulai (And Maybe) 
a poem by Rachel

And maybe these things never happened?
And maybe I never rose at dawn to the garden
to work it by the sweat of my brow?
And never on long and blazing days of harvest
atop a cart full of sheaves
did I raise my voice in song?

Did I never cleanse myself in the calm azure
and innocence of my Kinneret?
Oh my Kinneret! Did you exist?
Or did I dream a dream?

25 August 2019

Last Sunday of August

Gorgeous, bright, sunny morning. Tomorrow’s bank holiday adds an extra luxuriance to the sense of here and now. The future can wait; the present is here.  

A tone-poem of colour is playing outside, with clear pre-echoes of autumn. The birds sing their part in this anthem of celebration with only a hint of elegy for the departing summer. The morning air, still crisp, heralds the warmth of the day with the safe certainty that noon will follow morn. The river, not at its quietest but well down from its recent disquiet, plays its gentler counterpoint of stony, light-reflecting, life-giving melody.  Even the old dog, resigned to his duty to walk, looks, smells and listens with curiosity at this miraculous symphony of the season.

“Daddy, may I come with you?” – “Only if you let us listen to the sounds of nature”. My free hand receives and holds the trusting, warm, comradely hand of the angel of my days. Behind us, there may be a pair of eyes sending us off with approval.

Off we go, to meet the day. Everything else can wait.

07 April 2019

Rumble and his offspring

I should not delay any longer writing a tribute to this other cat. Time is moving along and soon this diary’s claim to  being “a composer’s impressions of life in rural Northumberland” may start losing credibility, becoming more of "a composer's memories ...". And, speaking of memory, my recollection of details will turn fuzzier, as is happening already, at least on some of the matters of secondary importance. 

As many people know, K is a lover of cats. She has had a succession of them, each leaving an indelible mark in her psyche. At the time Rumble’s story begins, or rather in the story’s prologue, this cat love was well catered for by two strong, interesting individuals: Douglas and Tiger, each of them eulogised in their own entry elsewhere in this diary. 

But one of K’s friends, an extraordinary musician working abroad (I don't know if she would like to be named here), seemed to hit on the idea of amusing herself with K’s weakness for cats. She - the friend - began to send random pictures of cute kittens, with thinly veiled allusions to the joys of having a kitten. K played along, knowing it was all a big joke, although perhaps a slightly cruel one. One of these images was from an advert about two young siblings from Hexham, going free to a good home. One of them looked conventionally pretty, with a tabby pattern of silver and white not unlike our existing half-Bengal; the other was a curious kind of kitten, with a face where black, white and brown patches combined in what looked like a harlequin mask. 

The sustained campaign of photos and hints must have worked its effect on me, since I volunteered to drive to Hexham to meet the siblings. I took very young human company with me, guaranteeing an intense experience. At the siblings’ house, we were told that Mr Harlequin was spoken for already, but that Mr Tabby was still available. We met Mr Tabby, we stroked him, he purred, we said we would consult, and we left. We reported our findings to K when she came home. Still not sure of what we were going to do, we all drove to Hexham. K must have found Mr Tabby satisfactory, since the drive back home was with Mr Tabby in the car. His purr was so uninhibited, so profuse, that there was only one possible name for him: Rumble.

Rumble proved a sweet cat. He purred, he played with the girls, he tried to be civil to the other animals, even though Tiger did not welcome him. Indeed, the newcomer’s arrival exposed a mean streak we had not known in Tiger. In spite of Rumble’s evident disadvantage in size and strength, Tiger hissed and made as if to attack him. Little did Tiger know that she was digging her own grave with this behaviour; it would not be forgotten. 

But right now Rumble was the undercat, and he needed protection and affection. He got them, and, inexplicably, he seemed especially receptive to affection from me. And I seemed to have something of a soft spot for him too. “He’s your cat!” K would say, with surprise but without a trace of envy. 

As he grew, Rumble lost the cute kitten’s endearing qualities, but Tiger’s relentless hostility toward him and a certain nerviness in Rumble’s developing character endeared him to me. Maybe he was my cat. Then came the issue of Rumble’s gender. 

It would take only a little dose of poetic licence to sum up the story thus: when he seemed to have reached the right age and size, Rumble was taken to the vet for neutering. “I cannot neuter this cat” was the vet’s reaction. “because he is in fact a she”. As if this were not surprising enough, he added “and, moreover, she is pregnant”. 

The combined news of gender reassignment and early pregnancy came as a minor bombshell. Rumble female? Rumble pregnant? The mind reeled. Some psychological realignment was required of us, and some of us did not quite manage it. Rumble had come to us male, had behaved like a male (whatever that means) and I found it hard to alter my idea of him. He would stay male for me, even if he was pregnant. This was to cause some disagreements within the family, particularly with the young contingent, but only as regards terminology. We were all determined to support Rumble through pregnancy and motherhood. 

Rumble’s bulk increased only slightly, but his temperament altered. He became nervier still, as if always on the alert for danger, both in and outside the house. We guessed that he might be fearing a return of the cat who had stolen his virtue. And, of course, danger was only too real in one respect: there was an enemy within. It was not long before Rumble stood up to Tiger, hissed back and, where necessary, used his claws in self-defence. Mindful of his delicate state, we were quick to support Rumble in cases of conflict, putting Tiger out of the house. To what extent her repeated evictions hastened Tiger’s self-exclusion we will never know. 

As full term approached, Rumble began moving heavily and with an exploratory attitude, as if looking for the right place. K made preparations for catbirth: a cardboard box with cushions and old clothes for comfort. A balance between spaciousness and the private confinement cats like was sought. We rehearsed various locations; I am not sure we had agreed a final one, when Rumble took her own decisions. Although he had been showing a partiality to me, Rumble began to follow K around. There was little doubt who Rumble wanted for midwifing duties. And he chose not the specially prepared box, but a dark corner in a wooden wardrobe in our bedroom. 

It was a dramatic time and I wish I remembered more of the details. Were this a piece of fiction I could add in touches for atmosphere and transitions between the scenes. But this is a diary, and I must stay close to the facts as I remember them. 

The next scene memory records is of K kneeling down and bending over into that wardrobe, taking one kitten after another, in slow and painful succession, out of the dark and into the cardboard box. I cannot remember the order of appearance; only that four kittens came out, of various sizes and colours, and that after prolonged labour both K and Rumble were about to breathe their relief, when they realised that all was not yet over. Needing some extra help from the midwife, a little afterthought came out. This was the quintessential runt of the litter, and very unusual colours it had too. 

The naming of the kittens was straightforward, even though some of them took a bit of time to settle into their names. Our young contingent had, of course, a part to play. Ginger was uncontentious; so was Stripy. Mackerel had an earlier spell as Snaky, but he grew into Mackerel. Baby Dee obeyed some reasoning of K’s I never quite followed. The little runt, for whom K was quick to develop a special affection, was named Tiny. 

Life was a riot with five kittens, three grownup cats and one dog. The children amused themselves endlessly with the kittens, cuddling them, talking to them, teaching them their names, devising toys for them, teaching them how to use the toys and so forth. 

Rumble turned out to be a surprisingly devoted mother. In spite of his modest size and, surely, limited milk-production capacity, he made himself always available for feeding, and the kittens showed insatiable greed. He was less solicitous with the grooming, but he did some of that too. And he was, of course, fiercely protective of the kittens when Fluffy the dog or Douglas the cat came anywhere close. As to poor old Tiger, he knew by now it was best to make herself scarce and to stay that way. 

Soon I began to feel sorry for Rumble. Having coped with early pregnancy, he was now a long-suffering mother of five. The children’s attention had switched to the kittens, depriving Rumble of his former role as the spoilt darling. His childhood had been short, and his premature adulthood was marked by the strife with Tiger. 

I should have been a stauncher defender of Rumble, were it not for his attitude towards Tiger. What had started off as Rumble’s legitimate self-defence, soon after the kitten’s birth became a vicious animosity. Rumble was now no smaller than Tiger - if one discounts the latter’s fluff - and Rumble revealed a fearsome streak. He would hiss, growl, cuff and chase until poor Tiger was a helpless wraith. This dented my affection for Rumble, at the very time he most needed it. I do regret that now, Rumble, old friend. 

Fortunately Rumble did not seem to take it too personally. He settled manfully into his new status as a mother, no longer the littlest beauty. And, just when his strength might have begun to desert him due to the bottomless hunger of his rapidly growing offspring, their number began to dwindle. 

Baby Dee went to Donkleywood, Stripy went to Wark under a new name borrowed from a local character, Ginger went to Lee Hall to become, of all things, Tiger. We kept Mackerel and Tiny. Rumble did seem to wonder at each reduction of his family, looking here and there in seeming search of the missing ones. But the lessened mealtime demands must have come as a relief. 

As Mackerel grew into a strapping youngster and even Tiny became a nimble, self-confident little madam, the supremacy of the Rumble family over old Tiger was assured. Any lingering concern would have been removed once and for all by Tiger’s demise. Relations with Fluffy and with Douglas were cordial. I would like to think that Rumble’s life took a turn for the better. He was firmly ensconced in his Redesdale domain. 

More recently, one more thing was to supervene to make Rumble’s life even better: he became somebody else’s favourite. For reasons no one quite understood, the youngest human in the house chose him as the subject of her predilection, giving him a special place on her bed - when allowed - in her games and in her conversation, where his name pops up often in the refashioned form “Rumboy”. It is not clear to me how much Rumboy appreciates the privilege. He is an enigmatic cat, hard to figure out behind his residual neurosis.

This leaves Rumble’s Redesdale children left to deal with in this diary. Mackerel and Tiny are two characterful, attractive, endlessly amusing cats. Much as I love them, and special though it feels to have watched them being born, I don’t know if I am the right diarist to chronicle these characters. It may be better to leave the story unfinished, as so much else, in the hope of resuming it when the circumstances are right. 

14 January 2019


Tributes should be paid while people are alive - or cats - and when the tribute can be read by the subject - even if cats can’t read. So here is my tribute to our most long-serving cat, Douglas. 

In the prehistory of K and I, sometime in 2004 or 2005, when she was only a colleague I admired from a distance, I had a dream. In the dream I went to K’s house, somewhere in the country, and a mutual colleague came to the door in a gatekeeper’s capacity. I reassured her that I was only coming to help looking for “Xx” - the two-syllable name of a dog. It was clear from the context that K had lost her dog and was upset about it. I was, so to speak, coming to the rescue. Memory has not kept the outcome of my mission, if any. But the dream was vivid enough to leave a strong impression. When I woke up, I could not help writing to the colleague with the history of my dream. She found it hilarious. I also wrote to K asking if she had a dog or dogs, or was fond of them. Her reply, for all I remember, may have consisted of a single word: “Cats.” 

Later, but not long after, when K and I were a reality, I came to discover that she did, in fact, live in the country, and that she had recently lost her beloved pet - not a dog, but a cat, Percy. As things progressed, the time came when she felt ready to replace Percy. 

We went to the then cat-and-dog shelter on Newcastle’s Claremont Road. We saw dogs of all shapes and sizes, most of them visibly desperate for human attention, dying to be taken home. Some of the dog’s tails wagged so madly that the wall-side of their cages was marked by red tail-shaped marks. The barking was a crazy polyphony of anguish and rage, a veritable chorus of canine lunacy. We were shaken by this bedlam scene. 

Not far from the dogs were the cats. The diversity was also considerable: fat cats, thin cats, some large, some small, some cute, some fierce. And we came to a cage inhabited by a family of parentless black kittens - three or four of them. The expression on their little faces was one of the most heart-rending visions ever: they were beyond scared. We were looking at the distorted faces of victims of the most unspeakable horror. Their eyes told a tale of dangers too cruel for such young lives. These kittens were the survivors of an unimaginable war, very likely involving human inhumanity. I was reminded of the Romanian orphanages that had been receiving much press attention at the time. We immediately set our hearts on these black kittens. They had been rescued in Benwell, we were told. They were a very recent arrival, and if we wanted one of them we would have to come back in two weeks. Agreed.

Back in the car, K began sobbing uncontrollably. What we had witnessed touched too many of her innermost strings. Although she was unquestionably a cat person, she grieved for the dogs as much as for the cats, all innocent victims of abandonment or neglect or abuse, all living witnesses of the evil side of human nature. 

When the weekend came, although I was not the cat person, it was I that sneaked back to Claremont Road without telling K. I had spent days haunted by those horror-stricken little faces and I needed to see what effect, if any, the safety of the shelter had had on the newly arrived black kittens. Much to my relief, I found them playing, their faces composed into more serene expressions. 

When we returned two weeks later, we found a much more settled set of siblings. K knew she wanted a male cat. As we became acquainted with them one by one, the carer was checking their gender. One of the kittens climbed up K’s arm and lodged itself in the hollow of her neck. “I want this one”, she said. The carer observed that she was yet to check if that one was a male. “I don’t care” was K’s reply - “I want this one”. We paid our due and we took the kitten who had chosen K. He was a male, and K named him Douglas, as in Black Douglas. 

All the kitten pictures of Douglas are in the hard drive of a laptop computer that was terminally damaged in an incident involving Tiger, the companion we were to find for Douglas. That was before the days of cloud storage, so I have not been able to retrieve the images. I hope the carcass is still somewhere in Redesdale, waiting for the advent of the super-smart technology that will bring it back to life.  

Douglas was a kitten of a nervous disposition. He darted across rooms, hid behind plants, jumped up and down unpredictable places. He seemed to be reenacting the dangers he had been exposed to back in Benwell, perhaps exorcising them from the safe distance of a warmth and quiet stone house in Coquetdale. 

One of the peculiarities of Douglas the kitten was his predilection for being right between K and me. He was happiest there, settling peacefully and purring as loudly as his little lungs would allow. The day we went down south to collect Tiger, he gave us an excited welcome back. Before he realised the precious baggage we had brought back, he ran from K to me and back to K in a clear effort to reassure himself that the family was still together. 

When we unveiled Tiger to him, he became petrified. He had not seen another cat for some time, and without a doubt he had never seen as beautiful a cat as Tiger. He was thunderstruck. And then he became obsessed. He was determined to make friends with Tiger, but Tiger would have none of it. Rejection caused Douglas visible bemusement. It was a saddening sight to see his efforts to play, to be kind, to offer affection - all spurned by a conceited belle. The story we were witnessing had touches of the beauty and the beast, compounded by the social chasm between the spoiled southern princess and the rough Benwell boy. 

The relationship between Douglas and Tiger never quite flourished. Douglas chased and tried to be affectionate, but Tiger ran away, or hid, or hissed or, if cornered, cuffed. That and what, for want of a better term, could be referred to as his mental health issues, amounted to a less than ideal first year for Douglas. Our black cat was a bit neurotic, and distinctly luckless in love. 

The move to Redesdale marked a new beginning. No sooner was he released into the fields than he became a hunter and an explorer. He feasted on the organic fresh products now at his disposal; he ran across fields; he climbed up trees; he had plenty of distractions from his spurned love; he came back home tired and he slept soundly. We had thought Douglas had grown to his full size in his first year back at Coquetdale, but soon we noticed a fresh spurt of growth. He became taller, longer and rounder. To say that he also became more beautiful might perhaps not stand up to cold scrutiny, but whatever he may have lost in sveltesse he gained in strength and confidence. Besides, we were not scrutinising our cat coldly: we were delighted to see him happier, more expansive, more settled, more comfortable under his fur. For it was about this time that he developed one of his most precious assets: his lush, shiny, thick coat. After a day or a night out in the fields he would come back smelling of turf smoke, and what a treat it was - it is - to sink one’s fingers into that thickness. Or one’s nose, for that matter, for maximum enjoyment of the catborne fragrance of the fields. 

That Douglas became a happier cat on moving to Redesdale is undeniable. And yet, in absolute terms one could be forgiven for describing him as lugubrious. His voice, for one, never lost its doleful tone. His miaow has a long, plangent sound that is difficult to dissociate from the omen of a sibyl, a portent of impending doom. You have to know Douglas to understand that, behind the aural appearance of a ghostly shriek, his wail is a greeting, or a call, or a request for food, as the case might be. But one can be sure that Douglas won’t waste his breath on idle conversation. His utterances are considered, purposeful and single.

Douglas’s overall demeanour is another factor of gravitas. He has never been known to show a cheerful disposition. Even when he is playing or purring with pleasure at being stroked, his face keeps the same serious, slightly solemn expression. His movements are on the slow side, ponderous even, devoid of the unseemly haste of lesser cats, except when he has pressing business to do, such as catching prey or answering K’s call. Whether looking into the house from  outside the French window waiting to be let in, or sitting statuesquely in front of the house like a grave sentinel, or even walking up to his dear ones, the deliberation of his steps and the look on his face give the invariable impression of the utmost concern.    

Less adventurous than Tiger was, Douglas does, nonetheless, also come out to the field. You may be walking the dog and be surprised by Douglas’s lugubrious call, followed by the slow progress of that portly figure towards you. He would then rub his side against your leg, inviting a reciprocal sign of affection. Occasionally he might hark back to the neurotic days of his youth and, when you bend down to stroke him back, he might run away as if you were a dangerous attacker. There is no telling what goes through Douglas’s mind at such times. It might even be one of his ways of being playful. 

For yes, despite everything, Douglas can be playful. At least, he can make us laugh, even if there is no guarantee that that is his intention. His dignified gravity seems to vanish when he lies down in any of a range of postures - some prone, some supine - he is fond of experimenting with. He is at his most amusing when he lies on his back, displaying the only part of his coat that is not black, namely his pubic region. Sometimes he luxuriates in a relaxed belly-up sunbathing attitude. Other times he stretches to his full length, forelegs in a hands-up extension and hindlegs equally straight, parallel to his tail. He must enjoy this yoga stretch, judging by the length of time he can stay like that. And he must know the entertainment value he provides on such occasions, since no-one who finds him in this kind of recumbency can resist calling another family member to enjoy sharing the view. 

Another facet of this fascinating cat’s personality is his generosity. Neutered as soon as it was recommendable, he is, of course, childless. But, when kittens arrived, Douglas took it upon himself to groom them, spending inordinate lengths of time on securing the cleanliness of the young. He did this even at times when he was weakened by poor health.

Douglas is no less caring with humans, particularly with K, with whom he has a very special bond. He has an uncanny knack for sensing when she is unwell or in need of moral support, and he rarely fails to provide it. His deep, rattly purr; his lavish, silky fur; his thoughtful, grownup presence - these are the ingredients of a fairly infallible formula for consolation.  

As the household’s makeup consolidated itself, Douglas’s parent-like selflessness to other cats, his ability to get on with them and with a dog four times his size, his best-friend’s dependability towards K and his dignified personality positioned him in a preeminent place: he became the patriarch of the house.    

Perhaps one should not sanctify Douglas. He is no saint. He can be demanding too, jumping on one’s lap when one has other things to do, making it plain that he wants attention. Is it paranoia, or does he single me out for this kind of demand? The frequency with which he sits on the very page of the newspaper I am trying to read, or puts himself between the floor and my chest when I am trying to do press-ups, seems more than coincidental. With shame, I admit to groaning with dismay or uttering profanities at some of these times. Were I to go beyond this and remove him physically from where he wants to be, his discomfiture would be visible in the asymmetrical angle of his ears and that gait we have come to recognise as Douglas’s annoyed walk. 

Another spot on Douglas’s perfection is his scant respect for other family members’ food. He is no stranger to helping himself to the contents of the dog bowl, to key ingredients one is about to cook with, to dairies inadvertently left out of the fridge, or even to sweets, cakes, biscuits or chocolate - especially chocolate. Yes, our Douglas does have a sweet tooth. There was a time when, as a negotiated theft-prevention strategy, I got into the habit of letting Douglas lick any yogurt remaining in my breakfast bowl. Let’s admit it, this was not purely for his sake; it was also an enjoyable form of bonding, and not unhelpful when it came to washing up. It also reduced wastage to let him empty the pot of yogurt before throwing it away.      

One evening, Douglas was seen sitting outside in an awkward bending posture. I noticed it, but thought nothing of it; he is, after all, an eccentric cat. K had noticed it too. Soon it became apparent that Douglas was retaining liquid. He was visibly uncomfortable, we were worried and we were not enjoying the smell. I won’t forget K’s phone call to me after the vet’s appointment. She was in despair. Douglas’s condition was serious and he was being kept in the clinic. The vet’s forecast was not optimistic. For the first time, a thought that had been an unspoken, unthinkable improbability - a world without Douglas - became a possibility, a likelihood even. To say that this was difficult to face would be an understatement. When I saw K that evening she was calmer, but there was no disguising her anguish and the sense of impending doom. There were things to discuss and decisions to be taken. We even made reasonably detailed mental arrangements - verbal, rather - for Douglas’s funeral. Let’s not go into that. 

A couple of days later, I believe, Douglas was dismissed from the clinic. He had made friends there and the staff spoke very fondly of him. We were sent home with a special kind of food for him, with instructions to be strict about his diet and with the tacit advise not to put our hopes up. We were religious about Douglas’s diet, and this was no mean feat given that there were another four cats in the house, none of them entitled to the premium specialist fare. We watched his movements; we gave him affection and care - an unusual inversion of roles for this most caring of cats. Slowly, but steadily, Douglas recovered, and within a few weeks he seemed to be behaving normally. The worst fears proved unfounded. Douglas’s old self - solemn, attentive, greedy, adventurous - was back. The relief of it took a while to sink in, although the fear was quick to return whenever Douglas failed to come home. But every time, even if it took him a day or two or sometimes more, he returned. He is here, the patriarch of the household, the one with the moral authority to command respect, with the generosity to lavish care, and still some sense of humour in him to amuse the family - and K’s Twitter followers. 

Another lease of life, another chapter in the deservedly long, mysterious story of this unique individual. That he should be still here, seemingly to stay, is one of the things that are well with the world. Few times has life seemed such a miracle of resilience and goodness as this time, this life, this twelve-year-old miracle - and counting.