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. 

11 November 2018

Two autumns

Yuku ware ni
Todomaru nare ni
Aki futatsu

For I who go
For you who stay 
Two autumns

This haiku’s authorship is posthumously disputed between Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) and the much earlier Buson (1716-1784). My knowledge of Japanese is not enough to understand why over a century’s distance cannot be ascertained from the choice and the use of the words. But then, that may be one of the wonders of the genre; its sheer bareness of superfluity and its tightness of expression probably give the language a timeless quality that defies dating even by the experts in the field. 

Ever since I discovered this haiku, back in Komagane-shi in 1983, and had it explained by Mizawa Sensei, a teacher at the local middle school (is he still alive, I wonder?), it has always struck me as a miracle of conciseness. Pithiness, of course, is a quality common to all great haiku. But this particular haiku has a special immediacy, an urgency that is propelled by the contrast between the wrench of a difficult farewell and the restraint of the utterance. Emotion is contained by deflecting it away from the two subjects towards the land, the landscape, the season. This is a device that Shiki or Buson uses to maximum effect, deflecting our response away from his deflection and back to the two characters, the subjects of the painful separation. In this way nature is turned into a mirror of the inner world, and vice versa. I wish I had that mastery; it would come in useful right now.

However poignant this haiku may have seemed to me in the past, at no time has it been more poignant than now, in the autumn of 2018. My centre of gravity is firmly in the autumn of Redesdale, with all it contains, while my eyes see and my nostrils smell an altogether different world.

For the first time in many years, the reality that matters to me is not in my surroundings. Instead, I must resort to an inner gaze to conjure up the autumn that fills my thoughts. The turning colours, the shorter days, the edgier chill, the warier drives, the slippier paths, the stiller birds, the homier cats, the fluffier dog, the thicker clothes, the heartier meals, the cosier fires, the falling leaves. All the jobs I’m not there to do, all the warmth I’m not there to give, all the needs I’m not there to meet. Two autumns indeed. One of them is not even an autumn, but that is a different story. 

Though the season is so achingly fractured, wholeheartedly my heart is with you, land of my loved ones. Not a minute goes by when I don’t hope, yearn, pray, trust. Sooner or later life must make sense again, and the world must be one again, one season at a time. 

24 August 2018

A Northumbrian Anthem

The organ piece I completed yesterday (23 August) was written to very precise specifications by the commissioner. In the event it proved a more than suitable vehicle for the feelings outlined in the final paragraph of the last entry, below. It is an anthem of love, gratitude, faith and hope. 

As special thanks for their interest and for a limited period, readers of this Northumbrian Diary can have a sneak preview of the computer simulation here

20 August 2018

Paradise Lost

Living in rural Northumberland is a conversation with the place. Its landscape, with its mesmeric soundtrack, engages you inescapably. It claims your attention, it speaks with a voice you cannot ignore, it acts on you and it intervenes in your life. It takes over.

In one of my earliest incursions into this magic domain, back in the summer of 2005, I remember a late-night drive up the A1 and then west, past Rothbury. The moonlight was flooding every visible object, moving or inanimate, and it was saturating the air with such intensity that it seemed to make a sound. Wherever you looked there was life, throbbing life. The landscape on both sides of the road was a riot of activity. There were the creatures you knew, some of which you could actually see - rabbits, lambs - but you could also sense other forms of life you did not know, could not see and could not put a name to. They were plural, diverse, and collective. Elves? Giants? Spirits? Tutelary deities? I didn’t know, but they spoke to me. It was not an aural hallucination I was having, but it seemed so clear that I was in no doubt as to what I was hearing.

‘Beware’, they said to me. ‘You enter this kingdom on sufferance. You may be wheedling your way in by means we had not foreseen, but this is not your territory. You watch your step, because we will be watching you.’ I noted the warning, and I drove on, on towards the magic. I entered this fantastical land with full awareness of my alienness and of the conditional nature of my presence here.

And yet, at every step from then on I felt drawn in. This realm of haunted hills, giants and fairies beguiled me. If they were not so imposing and otherworldly, I might say that they were playing with me. In spite of the forbidding tone of their warnings, they also called out for me. I could hear their intoxicating chorus among the trees, behind the hay bales or by the river, on sunny days, on balmy evenings, on moonlit nights or in the rage of storms.

Did I watch my step, as commanded? I did, I am fairly sure on that. I gazed on the landscape with awe and affection, I loved my loved ones to extremes of devotion, I respected their elders, dead and alive, and I cared for the young. I even worked to promote the music of this land, in ways I am touched to see still echoing. I remained alert to the voices of the land, even though soon louder ones inside the house would drown them out for much of the time. One soloist bird, whose name I never had the chance to find out, sang every May and June a playfully melancholy solo with variations, at dawn and at dusk. Five lovable cats called, wailed and growled with an expressivity better than any human’s. A dog sneezed with pleasure. The Northumbrian pipes resounded with a depth that awakened every giant, saint and tree that ever stood on this land. How I loved all this.

One reverse of fortune was the hill. An already narrow passage separating the hill from the back of the house began to get narrower. This seemed to be the result of rainfall and erosion. Rocks and mud would build up on the ground, requiring work with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. I did this a number of times, but before long the rocks and mud would be there again, in ever larger quantities. This became a battle between a man and a hill, and the hill was winning. Eventually the passage disappeared under a heavy mass of rocky soil which was pressing right against the house. I lost peace of mind and many nights’ sleep about this. K was always calmer about things of this kind. Eventually inspiration struck and a strategy was devised, involving diggers shovelling dirt and rocks up from the top of the hill. This made it possible to remove the accumulated matter and to correct the angle of the slope to prevent further erosion. We planted various plants and trees to give the hill cohesion and we built reinforcements at the bottom, at a generous distance from the house. The expense was high, but the problem was solved, and the battle won.

Life went on, happier than before. Kids grew, dog sneezed, cats were born, pipes resounded, music was composed.

The floods of the winter 2015-16 were the second reverse of fortune. We got off lightly considering what was happening elsewhere in the area, but the situation was worrying nonetheless. My error was to think I could fight back again. A battle between a man and a river? It seems comical now. I followed the runoff routes, I studied the river’s behaviour, I called in experts for advice. We implemented as much of the advice as seemed practicable to make the house safer. The fact was, it was a freak year and nothing remotely like that ever happened again, and, judging by statistics, it seems safe to say it won’t. But the unequal fight shook the roots I had been putting down in the place. It took us a couple of years, this place and me, to resume a normal dialogue. Come the summer of 2018 the relationship had been fully restored. The season started blissfully. Day after day in May and June, the word ‘paradise’ was hard to avoid when describing the warmth, the brightness, the beauty of the place.

Then came the third reverse of fortune. It was much more catastrophic than the first two, and this time I made the opposite choice: I did not fight back. I took what came with a resigned fatalism. Was that another error, a graver one which may have cost me everything? Did I have a choice? I am trying to figure that out. Nothing more can be said here. Only that the warnings heard thirteen years back seem to have been fulfilled, and that this time I seem to have lost my place in paradise. I can imagine the wise old men, the giants and the elves shaking their heads. “I always knew it”, they will be saying. “Once an alien, always and alien”. But I knew otherwise, and I still do. I am the only one who knows, and my lips are sealed.

Voices, deities, creatures, spirits: you know I have revered you. With all the respect due to you, I do not accept your verdict. Your paradise is my territory. Its soil is sprinkled with my sweat and my tears. I put all my energies into loving its occupants and caring for them, stealing also some time to sing your praises with new music. I lived and worked in this paradise with intensity of commitment. I came into it motivated by love, and I was true to it. Even where I failed I was doing my best to contain worse damage. I do belong in this paradise. It does belong in me. It will never leave me, and in my heart I will never leave it.

I thank this blessed land for the beauty showed, the inspiration given and the lessons taught. I thank The Farmer for his friendship. I thank the other local figures who helped with some practicalities and who enlivened things with their character. I thank those wonderful cats and dog that enriched life with their playfulness and their readiness to receive and give love.

And yes, above all, I thank that very small nucleus of the main protagonists in this story, the ones who were and are my world. Strange to be addressing you in this way. You mean everything to me. Your safety and your happiness are what I most want in life, and I will not stop working for them. The last word in this epic has not been written. I have faith. Paradise lost can be regained, and for me, ultimately, paradise is wherever you are. Meanwhile, my love and my loyalty are with you, always.

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.