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. 

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.