Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Dogs, and history

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

This morning, in the sudden autumn brightness, The Brother and I went for a walk. We were slightly melancholy. We talked of our dad. We miss him.

Just as we were contemplating most serious matters of life and death, a blue streak shot past us at forty miles an hour and hurled itself into the burn. It was the dog of the Older Niece and The Man in the Hat, who is being dog-sat while her humans are away.

Her entry into the water caused a very loud splash. She turned and looked up at us as if to say: what do you think of that?

For some reason, it made the Brother and me howl with laughter. We shouted with mirth, doubled over, as if we were in a cartoon. I can’t really explain why.

‘Oh,’ said The Brother, ‘I see. It’s: well, I’m going in the burn, I don’t know about the rest of you.’

The dog looked at him gravely, contemplated for a moment, surged out of the burn, rushed towards him, and shook all the water on her body onto his trousers.

‘Oh, oh,’ shouted The Brother, vainly running away. ‘No, no, that way, over there, go over there.’

The dog then leapt back into the burn, stared at us to make sure we had the full effect, scrambled out, picked up a fallen branch which was about eight feet long, and still with all its minor branches and leaves attached, and raced off across the grass with it in her mouth.

‘Oh,’ said The Brother, still helpless with laughter. ‘So now we’re going to find the biggest branch in the entire place and run about with it. That’s marvellous. No, really.’

The dog-sitter arrived and observed the scene.

‘That dog,’ she said, sternly, ‘thinks she is the boss, and that will not do.

She looked at us, as if we were in collusion with this terrible inversion of the natural order.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I quite see that. It will not do at all. It’s not funny.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘It is not.’

I think she is a bit of a whisperer. She has already taught the dog to give back a stick once it has been thrown, which has never happened on the compound before.

‘It’s a matter of will,’ she said, seriously.

The Sister’s poodle, who is also being sat, rushed up and started barking.

‘Oh no,’ said The Brother. ‘Not the special high-pitched barking. Not that.’

‘If you can train the Poodle to stop barking,’ I said to the dog-sitter, ‘I’ll buy you a bunch of flowers.’

The sun shone. The first of the autumn tints are growing more serious. My sister’s swifts have gone, but an antic gang of pied wagtails has come to take their place. The Brother and I looked at the sky and the hills and the trees and felt better.

My friend Bob arrived, a bit later, to do the lawn. He told me tales of his farming days, forty years ago, down near Echt. He has a most lyrical turn of phrase, something you find a lot round here. It comes with the Doric, I think, which is our local dialect. (I have written of this before; heert for heart, fit for what.)

Speaking of a man with supreme self-confidence, he said: ‘Ah, he was delighted with himself, you ken.’

Later in the conversation, he described a great landlord at a party: ‘And all the crawlers and creepers were crawling up to him,’ he said. ‘And he would have none of them.’

He thought for a moment. ‘Yes,’ he said, smiling. ‘He was a top of the line fellow.’

He spoke with pride of his grandson, who is in college at the age of fifteen, and keeps cows (‘he made £700 last year from the cows’), and also works for the local builder. ‘No rioting or nonsense for him,’ Bob said, laughing. ‘I could not drive a combine harvester now, no I could not, it’s all buttons and switches and lights, but he just gets in and presses the button and he is off, as he likes. He was brought up with work, you see.’

I could have listened to him all day. But the lawn had to be mowed, and I had books to read.

Bob leant down and patted The Pigeon, who gazed up at him with shameless adoration. She knows a good auld fella when she sees one. ‘Ah,’ said Bob. ‘You’re a bonny wee thing, aren’t you?’

The Pigeon, who is adept at taking a compliment, did not disagree.

My researches took a turn for the better today. Sometimes I have to read about things in which I do not have a screaming level of interest. I need the facts, which are often hedged about with dullness. Or a tract is dry or poorly written, and I bash on through, with a low resentment.

Today, to widen the cultural reach of the book, I started Barbara Tuchman on the Middle Ages. Although I read history at university, I never did much on the Middle Ages. I did a bit of Anglo-Saxon, some Angevin kings, and then seemed to leap straight to Charles II. Then on again to the late 18th and early 19th century, where I had a whale of a time with the Reform Acts and the French Wars and Napoleon and all those crazy European revolutions of 1815 and 1848.

I think I always thought the Middle Ages slightly boring. I was so, so wrong. Tuchman is an absolute genius. The book is a work of sustained scholarship and serious research, but it also reads, variously, like a thriller, a bodice-ripper, and a wild satire. (The part about the selling of indulgences during the Avignon papacy, where bishops and priests sat about the Papal palace openly counting piles of cash is worthy of Swift.)

I look her up on the Google. To my amazement, she was a self-taught historian, and an American. I say that not because Americans do not write brilliant history, but it seems slightly surprising that one would have chosen to know so much about the society of France, Italy, Germany, Bohemia, Scotland and England during the fourteenth century, when America had not even be invented.

I realise this is an idiotic thought; one does not have to write only about one’s own culture, and it would be stupid to suppose that people are that narrow and inward-looking. But oddly, before I found out Tuchman’s nationality, I was thinking how much of this history was culturally familiar to me, even though it was not a period I had ever studied. The threads from those times still pull today, in modern Europe. I had actually wondered that if one was from a younger country, like America, whether one would view it in an utterly different light.

Also, as far as the teaching of history goes, it can remain slightly parochial. Although I learnt a lot about Garibaldi and Bismarck and Talleyrand and Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the majority of my historical study was that of England, and, after the Act of Union, Britain. I suppose it is important that one knows the story of one’s own place, but all the same, it can leave terrifying gaps. I can tell you in minute detail about the South Sea Bubble and the Massacre of Peterloo, but almost nothing about the American Civil War. Practically all I know of Canadian history is General Wolfe madly scaling the cliffs to capture Quebec. If you asked me about the Ming Dynasty, I would change the subject very, very quickly.

Anyway, I bless the day that Mrs Tuchman decided that Europe in the Middle Ages would become the focus of her study. I wish I could write to thank her, but she died in 1989. You can find a link to her majestic book here. I salute her. She has made today’s work a thing of sheer pleasure.


Now for the pictures of the day:

At the start of the morning walk, The Pigeon decided to bring her ball with her. Here it is, look what a lovely ball:

7 Sept 19

Won’t you throw it, just once?

7 Sept 20

All right, in that case, I’m buggering off:

7 Sept 21

Then The Brother and I stopped in front of this view. He actually said, out loud, looking at it: Oh, well done. Whether he was talking to the gods, the mysterious powers of the universe, evolution, plate tectonics, or the hill itself was unclear:


7 Sept 1

The there was the whole dog in the burn thing:

7 Sept 2-3

Then some light and trees:

7 Sept 3-3

7 Sept 4-3

Then back to the garden, where my little blueberry bush is putting out its September pomp:

7 Sept 5-3

The most perfect blue geranium:

7 Sept 6-3

And the purple one, whose name I do not know:

7 Sept 6-4

The little shrub roses:

7 Sept 7-3

The tips of the cyclamen:

7 Sept 8-3

A tangle of box, geranium, and hydrangea:

7 Sept 8-4

Sun on the salvia:

7 Sept 9-3

The view I love perhaps the most, when it is sunny and all the colours start singing, over my garden wall, looking due south:

7 Sept 10-3

The AMAZING violas:

7 Sept 11-3

And talking of amazing: this is what The Pigeon looks like when she has had fifteen minutes of ball-throwing from the very kind Brother:

7 Sept 17-3

Just happy all over:

7 Sept 18-3

And the traditional view of the hill, from my front door:

7 Sept 22-3

PS. Just re-read this and want to make very clear that when I call America a 'young country' this is a mere statement of fact, and not that awful sneery thing that Britons occasionally cannot resist. Look at us, with our King Offa and our Dark Ages, some otherwise Ordinary Decent Britons are sometimes prone to imply. Just so we have that quite clear. Tone sometimes gets lost on the internet.

And talking of my cousins across the pond, my thoughts are with my Texan readers, who are contending with terrible drought and raging wildfires.


  1. We did the Ancient Egyptians and the Tudors over and over, then leapt to Gladstone and Disraeli. All I remember is something about Disraeli being inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity.
    Might the plant be geranium dissectum?

  2. Well, remember that Tuchman's ancestors actually were IN Europe during the Middle Ages. My own came over here very early on (many of them Puritans), and I have always loved the time period of the Middle Ages above all others. Maybe there is some sort of mitochondrial pull...

    Some books you might also like to take a look at (maybe not Tuchman, but then, not everyone can be):

    A Small Sound of the Trumpet—Margaret Wade Labarge (women in medieval life)
    A Medieval Book of Seasons—Marie Collins & Virginia Davis (daily life throughout the year)
    A Vanished World—Chris Lowney (medieval Spain)
    The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England—Ian Mortimer
    The Theatre and its Double—Antonin Artaud (a rather gruesome account of the black plague in the first chapter)

    A particularly lovely view of the hill today.

  3. Thanks for thinking of us in Texas... worth noting that our beloved Governor Goodhair, as Perry's detractors know him, cut the funding for the fire departments by 75 percent right before the fires broke out, and now is crying for federal aid for the second time in a year, though he disapproves of anybody else receiving any. (Bitter, sorry. Also worth noting that plenty of people who probably voted for Perry-- volunteer firefighters from as far afield as Abilene and Lubbock-- are streaming into Central Texas to help, so).

    Also, nobody thinks you scorn America as "young" country-- we ARE a young country!


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