Friday, 9 November 2012

Bugger the cows; or, in which I find my one good thing in a slightly unexpected place

The writer brain and the dog brain have an argument.

The writer brain says: ‘Go on, give them something really good today. Give them some dancing prose. Turn a phrase, why don’t you?’

The dog brain says: ‘Are you mad? It’s as much as I can do to put my socks on.’

The writer brain says: ‘Yes, yes. But you could be poetical about it. You don’t want this turning into a misery memoir.’ (You should imagine this last being said in tones as dark as pitch.)

The dog brain whimpers and goes to hide behind the sofa.

I sometimes think I admit too much to all the different voices in my head. I imagine students of psychology reading this and nodding knowingly and diagnosing multiple personality disorder. But I am grateful to the voices. They keep me up to scratch.

The writer brain has, I discover, the famous sliver of ice at its heart of which Graham Greene wrote. Even in a season of grief it is still saying: write it well. It is not at all sure that I should be recounting all this (can’t you tell them something amusing? it says, crossly), but if it cannot stop me, it at least insists that I pay attention to the sentences. You can’t just hurl undifferentiated sorrow at a page, it sincerely believes; you must shape it and craft it and make it worth something.

The dog brain is too sad to worry about any of that. It just hopes that there are other people out there, on Dog Island, understanding what it is on about.

I maintain my morning routine. I go up to spend gentle time with my mare. She does her touching, daily thing of standing quietly next to me, resting her head against me, and letting me be. I am pretty calm. I find her sweet, still presence amazingly soothing. I think how lucky I am that she chooses me. She could walk away at any time; she is not tethered. But she decides that the place she wants to rest is by my side. Just as I am feeling reassured by this, a wave of missing hits. I remember this too, from last year. There are small stretches of normality, of being almost fine, and then - whack crash boom smash - out of a clear blue sky it comes.

I lean against the mare’s neck, making idiot wailing sounds. She is a fine thoroughbred, with all the temperament of her ancient breeding; she can be startled by a cow moving four fields away. She has a princess and the pea aspect to her, in that way. But this horrid noise does not faze her. She stands, staunch and stalwart, and takes it. I think: what great stroke of fortune sent me this miracle horse.

I go then to the newsagent to get the dear Stepfather’s paper. My favourite news lady is in. I have been slightly dreading seeing her, because she is on Dog Island too, and we have talked in the past about our delight in our canines, and I would have to say the words out loud, and whenever I do that my voice breaks and I find it hard to speak coherently.

She asks how I am. I tell her.

‘Very sad,’ I say. ‘I had to put my lovely girl down.’

She nods. She tells me that she had to do the same for her old lady, three weeks ago.

‘Oh,’ I say, ‘I am so sorry’.

Tears shoot out of her eyes. We stand there, in the tiny shop, talking of our dear departed.

‘Look what I’ve done now,’ I say, trying to make a little joke; ‘I’ve made you cry at work.’

Luckily the shop is empty. She wipes her eyes and describes a watery smile. The other newsagent looks serious. ‘I haven’t dared mention it,’ she says.

My favourite news lady says she doesn’t think she can get another dog, because her heart is too broken and she is not sure she can go through all this again.

I had been wondering about this myself. Last night, wandering about on the Facebook, I found a clutch of beautiful black Labrador puppies for sale. I suddenly terribly wanted one. In fact, I don’t actually want a lab; I like the collie cross of my girls. I like mutts, in general. I have an odd prejudice against pure breeds. With that particular cross, you get all the sweetness of the Labrador with all the cleverness of the collie. You avoid the problems of in-breeding. So this sudden desire was slightly surprising.

In the absolute irrational spaces of my mind, I think that I can’t get another dog yet, partly because, like the news lady, I am too bashed up to contemplate the love and the loss, and partly out of respect. This last is very nutty indeed. The dogs are gone, into wherever it is that the departed go; racing free over some celestial prairie, or in a parallel universe (I have lately been thinking about the several worlds theory of physics), or just in the dark of non-existence. They really, really would not mind. But I mind. I mind like hell. They are not replaceable. A space is demanded; respect must be paid.

My fingers pause over the keyboard. The writer brain shakes its head. I have not been poetical, or turned much of a phrase. Someone, somewhere, is going to ask for their money back, and they would have a case. Outside my window, the thick amber autumn sun comes out from the clouds, and brings the beeches to singing life. Everything is very quiet. I cast around for my daily good thing. Every day, there must be One Good Thing.

Luckily, there really is one today. Yesterday, I told you of the lovely racehorse Hunt Ball. Part of the reason that his story is so touching is that he really was not bred for greatness. He was not one of those prancing French horses that bloodstock agents buy for hundreds of thousands of pounds; he cost, as his owner told the Racing Post, about the same as a second-hand car. He is not owned by a corporate titan or trained by a household name.

But it turned out that he did not know he was not supposed to be a star. He jumps and gallops as if he were destined for glory; he has a wonderful zest for racing, and a lion heart. In recognition of this, Fontwell racecourse has done a really rather eccentric thing. It is having a Hunt Ball day. The horse will parade in front of the stands, all the races will be named after him and his connections, and if your surname is Hunt or Ball they are going to let you in for free. I think this is one of the sweetest and funniest things I ever heard.

The other reason people have warmed to this horse is because of his owner, Anthony Knott. Knott regularly bursts into tears in his post-race interviews. He hugs the presenters, laughs uproariously, speaks without shame of his love and pride in his great, galloping horse.

After Hunt Ball fulfilled the ultimate dream of storming up the Cheltenham Hill, Knott was asked if he would be getting up at dawn as usual to milk his cows.

‘Bugger the cows,’ he said, live, on national television. (You should imagine this in a lilting west country accent.)

Today, on Twitter, as people talk about the Fontwell day, they are exclaiming ‘bugger the cows’. It is making me laugh a lot. It is, without doubt, my One Good Thing of the day.


Today’s pictures:

Are mostly of trees:

9 Nov 1

9 Nov 2

9 Nov 3

9 Nov 4

9 Nov 5

9 Nov 6

9 Nov 7

9 Nov 7-001

9 Nov 10

Myfanwy the Pony:

9 Nov 11

Red the Mare. This is her moochy face, which she does when she ambles across the field to stand by my side. I love this face:

9 Nov 12

Pigeon, from the archive. I love this face too:

9 Nov Pidge 20th May

The wonderful Hunt Ball, with his smiling owner on the right:

Photograph by Tom Jenkins for The Guardian.

And in glorious action. See how he points his toe:

Cheltenham festival day 1

Photograph by the very talented Edward Whitaker for the Racing Post.

Rather blurry hill:

9 Nov 20


  1. I say, get a pup. The best advice I ever got from a dog person when I began my own dog journey, is that if you know you'll always have dogs, get one, and then another about two years before the other's last bit of old age. It sounds terrible written out that way, but the new pup starts a spark in the middle age dog, so that is a plus, but also, you do not have to go through the loss alone, you do not have to worry about it being too soon to get another. For dog people wanting another dog in your life is an inevitable itch you're going to eventually scratch. Do not feel guilty about it, it is what Pidge would want. She wants you to be wildly happy and sometimes I believe that happiness can only come from a dog.

    1. Oh yes! My thoughts exactly. I've been wanting to bring up the subject of puppies or rescued dogs or whatever canines but didn't dare. Getting a new dog is not disrespectful, it is not flippant. I agree that Pidgeon would hate to see you sad. Not that the new dog in your life wipes away all the pain and sadness, but it does give such moments of joy and a feeling of continuity. (And keeps you busy wiping the puddles...) Sending love and best wishes from Finland. Another Anonymous who loves your blog.

    2. I agree very much with the above, whilst being so so respectful of your feelings.
      I, here on cat island, *had* to tackle this and sooner not later because I didn't think I could go on with the emptiness and terrible silence, that visit to Haworth Cat rescue was the best thing we ever did. We gave two abandoned kittens a forever home and they healed a little of our broken hearts.
      Nothing can ever replace Fig, I miss him and cry for him still, more often than I dare admit; but the spirit and life and cheer that Jasper and Boo brought to our home...I thank the stars for that every day.
      Sending such love as always
      and much thanks for your lovely comment.

  2. Such wonderful pictures of your countryside. Autumn colours are the most beautiful by far. I have no idea whether you should get another dog or not - just follow your instinct, surely. These are difficult days and you write so beautifully in spite of the sadness. So thank you, Rachel

  3. Thank you for posting the beautiful photos of the Pigeon. I know how utterly bleak it is to lose a dog. For me, the reluctance to think about a pup would be from fear that it somehow meant I didn't love the one I lost enough. Which is daft really. If there are rescue dogs near you, it would be more a question of doing something for the dog rather than for you, if you see what I mean. I feel for you in your grief.

  4. Your blog is one of the best things I've found via Twitter. You write so beautifully and with truth. I don't think it's nutty to pause about getting another dog. I think there needs to be a period of mourning and I agree that it is out of respect, though out of love more. It's six months since I had to have my cat put down and I am only just beginning to think of getting another. I looked at a website about kittens this week but had to close it down quite quickly. I think you'll be able to do it when the time is right for you. And any dog you get will be lucky to live with you.

  5. Don't worry about your voices - I am going to say something that probably makes me certifiable: The Synchronicity of The Universe always sends The Dog People a dog, when the time is right.

    I have a great deal of difficulty squaring my tendency to employ magical thinking with my love of empirical evidence. It will be my life's work. Enjoyable though, just as is reading your blog, even in the midst of the Pigeon sadness.

  6. I too felt that it would be almost disrespectful to "replace" our lovely cat M after she died at the end of last year - she'd been a part of our family for almost 18 years and we all loved her dearly. Emotions don't always make much sense really do they? We do now have 2 kittens and there's no question of them replacing her - they're each their own wonderful, quirky, individual personalities in their own right and they just add to the love.
    I also lost my Dad a few years ago, and I still get bleak days but on balance I think if the pain of losing someone is the price you have to pay for having had them in your life, it's a price worth paying...Not always easy to remember that though some days.
    Hugs, Jo xx

  7. Oh please PLEASE get another dog - get two so that you're back to full strength numbers-wise. I urge this because you are obviously such a great person to have dogs - and so many dogs are desperately in need of a home. It would be downright selfish of you NOT to have one (or preferably two!
    Seriously - the new dog(s) won't replace Pigeon and your dear old Duchess - they'll make their own space and place in your heart. You'll still grieve for the old ladies - but that doesn't mean you can't - or shouldn't - love the new.

  8. Even though they were sisters (if I remember correctly), you had more than enough love for both The Duchess and Pigeon, one wasn't a "stand-in" for the other. They will never be "replaced" (or, for that matter, displaced by your affection for another animal).
    I really second (third? fourth?) what others have said: if you know you're always going to have dogs, why wait? (This coming from someone who put off getting another cat for nearly eight months when a dear cat-loving friend "foisted" on me a found kitten she couldn't keep! As soon as she entered my life, I thought what took me so long!?! My home had been so empty minus a four-legged friend.)

    And, what a gift you gave your news lady! How awful for her that she thought she couldn't talk about her loss...

    Autumn in Scotland looks glorious. Here in Belgium it's just too gray...

  9. I was holding off mentioning a puppy, but I've been thinking it at you across the ocean for days. I'm sort of against buying dogs and cats, because there are so many wonderful mutts that need to be adopted, but I also subscribe to the universal rule mentioned by makemeadiva, which brings the right animal to the right person at the right time.

    Perhaps it's enough that you've started considering it. Now the cosmos will hone in on your receptive state and fill the gap with the perfect pup.

    Looking forward to further developments!

  10. Like other commenters, I too think that a dog will come to you. I lost my beloved mare more than three years ago and still grieve for her constantly, but the goddess Epona obviously thinks I'm too old now for another horse so she keeps sending me cat . . . after cat . . . after cat. They're not a replacement, they're there because I have a lot of love to pour out and they're cats who need love. I'm sure you too have a lot of love and there's a dog (or two) out there needing it.

    I really love your blog and the chance to say something in more than 140 words . . .

    To finish - Voler La Vedette! What happened?

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