It’s Metal’s Shorelines weekend and I am participating tomorrow.
In a rather obvious link, here is the dog leaping up onto a jetty a few weeks ago – the image is sadly flattened out so you can’t appreciate the monumental leap he made onto the green seaweedy slippery wall…
In lieu of a camera
In the park, at eight this morning
A men’s singles tennis match skids
Along wet asphalt, volleying
And far off commuters hiss
Their way to work
Through thick sky spray.
One, fat, wood pigeon
Takes a short-cut jacuzzi
To puddled bedragglement.
Sodden roses hum
An old show tune
Whilst bruised petals
Fading fast, fall…
As I walk,
At these sinful feet
My mud soles
Soil in my toes
From bringing in
barefoot 4 a.m. washing
As MC thunder interrupted
To announce the rains
Now that the beach is closed to dogs and their walkers until October, my mission, on at least one of the days at the weekend, is to find a place to walk where there aren’t too many people, or other dogs. It is not that the lurcher of mine is unfriendly as such, rather he can be choosy about the company that he keeps and he generally chooses not to keep the kind of company to be found in an urban park on a spring to summer *bleak laughter* Saturday or Sunday. It seems as if, no sooner have you got rid of the hordes of footballers (teams to give them their technical name) churning up the ground with their studs, than they are replaced with Staffies and toy breeds and pushchairs and children and all kinds of people with picnics and blankets and ball games trying to have a good time *sigh*.
I realise that I sound like a terrible old curmudgeon, but there is nothing that I long for more than to be able to walk over fields without having to worry about disturbing someone else’s equilibrium or mine. So that, on a Saturday, after I have dropped the girls off at their Irish dance class, is my sole purpose. There is no particular problem with finding fields round here, but there is a challenge in finding a place to park and a suitable path that the farmer has not made uninviting (they use various methods, fierce thorny overgrowth, unfriendly signs, confusing the walker by not leaving the path clear and so on). This is why today, in search of a suitable field, I ended up once again walking the sea wall near Barling Creek. The salt water was out, so the mud flats were exposed on one side, to the other there was a rich grassy wide bank down to a ditch, with a field on the other side and a farm in the far off distance.
We set off along the footpath, which is elevated slightly, giving a good view of the surrounding marshes, creeks and farmland. It was only a few minutes into the walk before we came across delinquent dog #1. This is often the case when you seek out solitariness: you come across other dog walkers whose dogs’ behaviour demands it. The first miscreant was a Jack Russell (it was a terrier on a similar walk last week too), but the owners had it on the lead. I caught hold of Rudi and we passed by peacefully, although the Jack Russell woman gave me a fierce sort of glare as if my being there had ruined her walk, although she was clearly on the homeward leg by then. Anyway, no-one owns the sea wall, so, tough. After a few more minutes we came upon dog #2: an insane black labrador, of the working type, also on a lead. The walker was young and friendly, but very silly about dogs in general, so I was rather glad to get clear of them as quickly as possible. I was also very cross with my own dog by now, as in the point between meeting dogs #1 and #2, he had done a poo which I was forced (as a responsible owner) to pick up. Whilst I was doing this, he charged past me and hit the side of my head with some bony part of his canine self; probably his skull, maybe his spine. Anyway, it gave me a shock and it bloody well hurt. What is it about a blow to the head that makes one want to cry? Is it just the shock? Anyway, I didn’t cry, or indeed kick the dog, but for the briefest of moments I could have easily done either.
With me now rubbing the side of my head, we continued on past a small brown and brackish, elongated tear-drop shaped pond. A little egret was fishing from the bank but it soon took off as we approached. I have seen them hunting down on the foreshore before, they have a walk like a tyrannosaurus-rex, all stiff-legged and urgent, but I had never seen one in flight. It turns out that the most elegant thing a little egret can do is stand stock still. In flight, as in their walk, they are a little ungainly. They can’t climb high, but they make heavy weather of the ascent. Their wings look like they are really working hard to make any progress. Flap your wings! In case you don’t know what the hell I am talking about, here is a picture of one.
It flew round in a big circle, coming round over its fishing spot on the bank before landing on the field on the opposite side of the ditch, where it commenced its hunched over, awkward looking walk. I felt quite pleased to see this bird, you don’t see them every day and because I had forgotten my glasses the birds have to be pretty big, or fairly close for me to be able to even notice them. The Latin name for the little egret is marvellous, it is called egretta garzetta which sounds like some kind of fantastic fashion model from Milan.
Once my bird eye was in, so my ears followed. I noticed a pheasant’s distinctive crrrriiuuckk! And a cuckoo’s unmistakable cuckoo. I saw neither. I noticed swallows flitting low over on the muddy side catching the many insects, and a huddle of mallard ducks, looking like they waiting for the tide to come in. Pretty good going for a hard of hearing myopic. I had forgotten about the dog whacking my head so hard earlier, and he had redeemed himself by not going in the mud, although he had fallen headlong into the brackish pond accidentally and dramatically, causing me some amusement, but also now having to carry his now sodden wet, smelly coat. He is worse than a kid at times. Half of me hoped I might hear a lark singing way above. The lark is the bird, along with the lapwing, that symbolises my fenland childhood.
After nearly being concussed, the walk had now taken a turn for the better, but if there is one thing I have learned after nearly six years of owning this dog, it is not to push your luck; rather to leave when the going is good. We turned round and headed back the way we had come. I was mindful of the time, not having any sort of device on me and needing to collect the dancing child. The dunking had not dampened his enthusiasm for thundering up and down the narrow pathway, and he had impressed me when I felt he had gone on too far ahead, by returning to my side after the merest whistle. My goodness, I thought, this dog really has got the hang of it, after all this time.
A pair of them. They flew up from almost under his paws with a squawk, they had probably been nesting in the long grass down the bank. Like little egrets, partridges can’t do great altitude quickly, but they had the natural advantage of an elevated bank to fly up from, as their pursuer had to take the land-based route down the steep bank. Which he did. And then he hurdled the ditch and was off across the farmer’s field in a cloud of dust. I stood watching his backside receding into the distance at over twenty miles an hour. Like the whack on my head, it had all happened so quickly. If I hadn’t had the thought of needing to fetch the dancer and not having a phone on me, I might have enjoyed the sheer magnificence of the dog’s hopeless pursuit at top speed across the field. He must have covered over half a kilometre before he stopped, and only then because the farm was in his path. He was so far onto the horizon that when he stood still I could no longer make him out at all.
I had visions of me having to drive round trying to find the farm, and the stupid dog by road. Or visions of never seeing him again. At times like these, I will be honest and there is a part of me that thinks, well maybe I can live with that… But I shouted as loud as I could and waved my arms a bit and sure enough I see this fawn dot hoving into view, travelling back in my direction, albeit like the egret, a little circuitously. He does not cover the ground as fast as he did in the original pursuit, but it is an impressive job nonetheless. I feel a bit touched that he does want to come back to me after all, even if I am a poor substitute for a brace of partridges. He arrives at the edge of the field. There is now only the ditch and the wide bank to climb back to where I am waiting, my fingers already twitching on the clip of the lead. He hesitates. The ditch is too steep and wide and wet he seems to say to me. I can’t get across. This is the same dog that not five minutes ago cleared the natural obstacle in one wide Irish lep (we can say that because he hails from Navan). I tell him something to that effect. I might add that he is a stupid fecker. It seems to do the trick and he scrambles over, hunts up the bank and then walks up to me very apologetic-like: head, ears and tail down like he is expecting me to give out to him.
To my own surprise, and his too perhaps, I laugh. I have in my mind all those of us who own sighthounds and are brave, or foolhardy, enough to let them off their leads to do what they do best. To those of us, like me, who drive their dogs miles out of town to find a suitable place to stretch their legs at upwards and over of twenty odd miles an hour. To those dog owners who risk having their head knocked off its block every time they bend down to pick up a shit, and to those owners who own dogs that speak to the wildest and most natural part of their hearts, the part that the world has no time or use for. As I laugh, the little egret that had vanished from view, flies up in its laboured way, up over the field. Even higher above that is a cormorant, heading north. I haven’t seen one of those that high in the air before. I only recognise the dark outline of it’s long neck and beak against the light grey clouds. The birds seem to be telling us something. The show, is over.
The quiet dog goes back on the lead and follows me all meek and mild back to the car. Still, I wouldn’t trust him an inch. A Persian cat hunkers down as we pass by its front door. I tell it, it is wise to do so, given what I have just witnessed. Even my wild-at-heart heart has had enough of all that mad freedom and kicked up dust for one day.
I am trying to Get On. I thought I was getting on with finishing a project, but when I went back to it today, I realised it was almost entirely off-topic and not at all suitable for its intended purpose. Fifteen hundred words of meander. I think it defies an edit, so, it’s going on the compost heap – which is the blog.
Sometimes, I don’t know where my brain goes off to. I really don’t.
I write this final part, part five, as the London Olympics 2012, takes place. It seems apt somehow and compels me to get to the finish line of my own project; something which, I admit, I have begun dragging my heels on a little since June.
The dragging has been for many reasons and yet no particular one. Firstly, there is the business of putting one’s work ‘out there’ – alone and bare without the collaborative efforts of an editor, or a proof-reader, or a publisher who has believed in you in the first place. Independent publishing, although much vaunted as the way forward, is at its very essence an act of extreme hubris, perhaps. Writers, who have not been professionally validated, sticking it all out there anyway. This is not a criticism, I am one myself, but self-publishing, with few sales and even fewer reviews, let alone positive ones, is not for the faint-hearted, or the writer who is not prepared to accept that their craft is far from the finished article. I am quite sure that, if my wafflings were subject to a proper editing process, what I have just written and what I am about to say would be the first cold cut of the day.
Anyway, it’s just me, self-publishing away and The Olympics is proving the backdrop for my writing at the moment. Yesterday the cyclist, Bradley Wiggins, cemented his position as one Britain’s greatest Olympians when he won his 7th medal, making him our ‘most decorated Olympian’ ever. That’s the phrase the pundits favour, personally I think it makes him sound a bit like a chintzy lounge. (Chintz is a word that has haunted me since I wrote the episode about the terrapins. I proofed and proofed and then published and immediately noticed that the terrapins own pink chintz palace was missing a ‘z’. ( The Shame.) What ‘most decorated’ means is that our Bradley has won the most medals of all colours, of all our athletes ever. I don’t think Bradley would mind me pointing out that the British record for the most gold medals ever remains our rower the great Sir Steve Redgrave. And, as soon as I typed that, Sir Chris Hoy picked up his 5th gold medal to equal Steve and I think exceed Bradley in the decorated stakes; except that Hoy had the good grace to point out that Redgrave did it the hard way, in consecutive Olympics. Fair point.
The point that I am trying to get to about Bradley and the Olympics is something he said yesterday in his immediate post-race interview. The race was a road time trial around the south-west of London and into Surrey and he cracked through it in a sub 51 minutes time, taking nearly a minute out of his nearest rival. After the immense effort, instead of joining his fellow medallists on some over-decorated purple and gilt thrones to match the occasion, in front of Hampton Court Palace, Bradley hopped back on his bike, that instrument of both torture and glory, and spun off down the road from whence he had come only a short while before. You could sense, here was a man, trying to take it all in; a man trying to imprint the experience, like a mother tries to sear the first impression of her new baby into her mind forever. When he had finally cycled back to the fold, in the interview he said that he could not remember the Beijing Olympics, ‘perhaps I was too young…’
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Those huge events in our lives, and alright, I know that for most of us it’s not going to consist of winning a medal of any kind, let alone our ninth Olympic one, they just don’t always go into our heads in the way we are so certain they will at the time. Or if they do go in, the retrieval doesn’t work neatly in the way we would like. How nice if memory was like a set of show reels, labelled alphabetically placed on a great big mental shelving unit. It’s not though. Even someone like Bradley, lucky enough to have his great moments filmed for posterity, may have trouble filling in the emotional memory gaps in future, even when the events are played before his very eyes.
And that is all a very long way of saying, that the one reason my writing has slowed down is that I realise I only have two, very hazy round the edges, memories to turn into a part five. The hope is, and this sometimes happens, that once the retrieval through writing gets going, the brain starts making links and associations and manages to pull memory rabbits out of hats. The problem with this particular period I am trying to recollect is that at the time everything felt hazy anyway. I am writing about my last month of pregnancy, a time when nature wraps you mentally in bubble wrap anyway. There was no film camera, no bicycle by this point, no post-walk interviews and certainly no medal, but there was a baby at the end of it all, and their was a dog called Benji, so I’ll make a start down the home strait and we’ll see what arises from the recesses of my mind.
And then, instead of writing about that, I wrote this:
A strange thing happened, as I walked the current dog home just now on a route I have taken hundreds of times. Firstly, I walked up the opposite side of the street to the usual side I take, and it struck me, from this side, everything looks so… different. Which made me think then, that even if we can never walk in another person’s shoes, we can at least cross over the road, and that that small act in itself can change our perspective completely.
And after I had thought this and was waiting for the lights to change so I could cross a busy road, a man with crutches also stood waiting. I crossed quicker than him, and carried on up the street, but a few moments of stopping to look in a shop window allowed him to gain on me, and I began to hear the rhythm of the crutches clattering the pavement and the sharp intake of his pained breath as he drew closer, until I walked on again. I had, that day, been vaguely thinking about what the writer, Will Self, had said about the Olympics, that he viewed it as ‘horseshit’ and that he felt likewise about performance sport, describing that through the prism of winning and losing as ‘functionless’. I didn’t disagree with everything he said, but this idea that winning and losing was functionless jarred me up a bit. As I heard the man pounding along on his crutches, I thought:
That surely winning and losing is what makes this man get up and go down the road on his crutches, when it is hot and obviously painful for him, when it would be easier to just sit in a chair, somewhere. It is true that Olympic athletes are sponsored large sums but their endeavours are surely the distillation of that human spirit, to simply, live. The product is the race, there has to be a winner, that’s the narrative, the winning then is the result for one, but the will to live is exemplified in all the competitors. I wonder how that can be horseshit. I wonder how, if a child is inspired to tell themselves a story of achievement and endeavour and to perhaps, one day, succeed, how can that be horseshit?
And as I was mulling all this over, the strangest thing of all happened. I felt, as I had always, normal, usual and commonplace. And I realised all the changes that had happened to me over all the years that I had walked with dogs, from childhood with the dog Toby, to the one today, had left something in me still untouched. I looked and felt different, a lot; I was a mosaic of all the changes, but there was a quiddity I could not remember, but I recognised in that moment, that remained.
And I looked at all the other people, on bikes, in cars, walking home and I thought of them, just like me holding their own changes but also staying the same somewhere underneath it all, both ordinary and extraordinary in their own ways. And I thought to myself, they for this period of the Olympic Games in London, are Olympians themselves. And in that way that we always second guess ourselves, I thought, well now you are quite mad, calling them Olympians and so on when they are simply going home from work. But I looked at them again and I knew that every so often, from time to time, each of these people, including me, would excel themselves. There would be no medal, or one of those plaudits Will Self says he wouldn’t turn down, for most of us, but every so often, on a regular day, every one of us will get up and do something just a little bit better than we needed to, for the benefit of no-one and nothing or everyone and everything. We can’t know when, we can’t always plan it four years in advance, but like the man walking down the street on the crutches, or Katherine Grainger winning the Olympic medal she called the ‘People’s Medal’, it happens.
And I thought to myself, in the end, that is what it is all about.
There’s a Where we Walk post and photo from one summer somewhere on this blog; it features the girls and Rudi with his tail curled unattractively like a pig in it. This is the same place and we haven’t walked there for months due to the cold. Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day so Rudi and I took our chances. I was going to walk all the way along the bottom of the fields by the brook, but if you carry on along there you end up at a small lake and I had visions of Rudi doing a bad impression of an Ice Road Trucker on the surface, and us both dying as a result of the rescue. So, instead I swung left up the hill towards the big tree and when we got to the crest, this is the sight we were greeted with.
No jokes about Cruellas please, these ladies were lovely.
Their youngest dalmatian had been recently rescued, with a broken tail, from an evil puppy farm. Ahhh.
Involved Rudi treating the park like his own back garden, so no chance of shots of said lurcher in the snow. Whilst the kids and I were prancing about trying to catch the little bugger I saw these. I do a like a distressed half-dead flower, the bird was an accident. I wish I had taken the proper camera now as this was a phone job.
Sometimes, in extremis, I take Rudi for a quick whizz around an old cemetery. My heart is always in my mouth as it is filled with trip hazards and holes for him to put a paw down. Now I run the risk of being fined if I let him off the lead, thanks to a load of byelaws being passed earlier this year.
I’m not saying I do let him off, mind.
Anyway, I have taken this particular headstone before because it is striking and sad, having five children’s faces carved into the marble. Some are in better condition than others. The last time I took this subject it would be fair to say that the angle of the girl’s head and the eyes tilted downwards put me in mind of something from The Exorcist. Yesterday she had ice in her eyes and it somehow brought them to life.