Over the summer I was interviewed by the wonderful Laure Porché for her Moonlit Path podcast series about Storytelling to Touch the Soul. The conversation ranged over Stories for Mid-life and Beyond, Narrative Leadership, Narrative Identity and a host of other topics. Here is a link to access the podcast. I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to know what you think.
Captain Midnight here. Long-time no see.
I notice that Himself has jumped back on the blogging bandwagon. I didn’t want to give him too much of a head start, so I thought I’d better return to the keyboard myself. Otherwise, the shameful story of our recent trip to Ireland may never be told.
Shameful is not a term I use lightly, but the series of gaffes committed by Himself, with blatant disregard for my reputation as his canine companion, was so embarrassing that no other word will do, and I feel obliged to put the record straight.
Day -5, we paid the veterinarian a visit (not my favourite place, as you will understand from previous unfortunate incidents). This visit was planned well in advance to fork out £250 for a Certificate of Health to enable me to travel to Ireland. You may recall the ease with which I was previously able to chaperone Himself abroad thanks to the EU Pet Passport. He complained vociferously about Brexit and wondered out loud whether my company on the trip was worth such a ‘shitload’ of money.’ I confess, my feelings were hurt.
Day 1, we drove to Pembroke Dock in Rosie the VW Campervan, arrived in good time and were ushered through the priority lane as Himself had booked a kennel for me on the ferry. I’m not keen on kennels at the best of times, but these turned out to be bare metal cages strapped to the bulkhead, with sirens going off all around. The noise was ghastly, especially for a creature with sensitive hearing. Fortunately, Himself came back 20 minutes later with the Purser, released me from incarceration, and popped me back in Rosie for the duration. He whinged for the next two weeks about getting oil from the lorries on his best linen jacket, but I considered it a price well worth paying.
Day 2 Part One, we woke up in a campsite near St Margaret’s Beach (one of my favourites) and Himself complained that there was an acid smell somewhere in the van. I could have told him that the day before but he wasn’t in the mood to listen so I kept it to myself. We spent the morning in various garages getting expert opinions, and disconnecting something called the leisure battery, which was having a meltdown. We had no electricity, but apparently this wouldn’t be a problem because we could just treat Rosie like a mobile tent.
Day 2 Part Two, on the way back to our campsite, we made a detour to see if a pub called The Lobster Pot had survived the pandemic. It appeared to be flourishing and Himself then consulted Google Maps to find a good route to St Margaret’s Beach. ‘This one looks nice,’ he said. ‘We’ll be able to see the sea.’ Something didn’t sound quite right but I let it go, it was Google Maps after all. Five minutes later, the tarmac road became a track. Another five minutes, and we had passed under a height barrier (never a good sign) and the track became a rough, sandy trail. Five more minutes, and Rosie was buried axle-deep in a sand dune. Himself had been right though, we could see the sea. It was very close to the driver’s door. An hour later, we’d been dragged out by a nice man on a tractor and were parked up in our original spot as if nothing had happened.
Day 3, the calm before the storm. We had a nice walk on the beach, during which I continued my futile efforts to teach Himself that if he must throw a ball, he should run after it himself, otherwise I have to fetch it so it doesn’t get swept out to sea.
Day 4, things went well until Himself started to complain that he didn’t feel very well and that perhaps he’d picked up a virus somewhere. Hours later, he remembered that we were in the middle of a pandemic and it might possibly be Covid. He stuck something down his throat and up his nose, dipped it in liquid and squeezed a couple of drops onto a plastic thingamajig. ‘Negative,’ he declared. ‘Must be a cold.’
Day 5, he didn’t feel any better and did the throat, nose thing again. ‘Positive,’ he declared. ‘Bugger.’ He sulked most of the day, then rearranged our return ferry for the next morning. I still got my walk on the beach, so that was OK.
Day 6, we got to Rosslare harbour with 45 minutes to spare and this time I asked Himself to let me stay in Rosie for the whole trip. He said that was a good idea and that he was going to get a cabin so he could stay out of the way and have a rest before driving home. The crossing was calm and I snoozed most of the way. The problem came when the loudspeaker announced we had reached Pembroke Dock and that drivers should return to their vehicles. I waited and waited but there was no sign of Himself. Maybe he’s very ill and can’t make it out of the cabin? I thought. Maybe he’s fallen overboard? He wouldn’t just go off and leave me here, would he?
By the time he eventually turned up, there were only a handful of vehicles left on the ship. I gave him my best ‘where have you been?’ look, at which he was obliged to confess that he had forgotten on what deck he’d parked and had ‘lost’ Rosie. How, I still ask myself, can you lose a campervan on a boat? Well, Himself managed that seemingly impossible trick. If you want lessons in idiocy, you know where to come.
Days 7-10, back in Folly Cottage for me to nurse Himself through what seemed to me to be a pretty light dose of the dreaded disease. Lemsip for him, no walks for me. We both slept a lot: Himself to ‘recover his strength’ and me so I didn’t have to listen either to him whining about how rough he felt, or boasting about his ‘heroic dash for home.’ I’m not sure which was more depressing.
I’m glad he’s feeling better now!
Yesterday I caught three carp, including my best ever fish (of which, more anon). Today I caught a fish, a tree, and a chicken.
I should probably explain.
I cast out just beyond the patch of water hyacinth in the picture. A sizeable carp took the bait as soon as it hit the water, which I wasn’t expecting. I put some pressure on the line to burgle him out of the weeds, but he sprang the hook. The entire tackle (hook, line, and sinker) shot into the branches over my head. My nemesis splashed around a bit to rub my nose in it, while I heaved on the line to free it from the tree.
These things happen, I thought. It was a moment’s work to replace the float, shot and hook. I flipped them into the water to check the depth, retrieved the line and slid the float a few inches higher. It was at this point, that a ninja chicken crept up behind me on the pontoon and gulped the baited hook. As I raised the rod to cast again, the chicken squawked. I looked down and saw the line snaking from its beak. I dropped the rod and grabbed the chicken. When it opened its beak, I could see the baited hook, as yet unswallowed. Hanging on to the chicken with all the panache of James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small, I unzipped my tackle bag, rootled around for scissors and cut the line. Next, I attempted to grab the hook with a pair of forceps, but soon discovered that de-hooking a chicken needs three hands: one to hold the bird; one to handle the forceps; and one to open its beak, which was now resolutely closed.
Reinforcements were needed. Forceps at the ready, chicken tucked firmly under one arm, I went in search of its owner. When I found him, I was at pains to apologise for the mishap whilst firmly denying liability for any damage to said chook. I needn’t have worried; when I opened its beak to show him, Exhibit A had disappeared. Either the chicken had swallowed it whole or spat it out. There was no more to be done, apart from going back to my spot, whipping on a new hook, and trying for another carp. But that was it for the day: one fish, one tree, and one chicken.
Oh yes, the best fish ever (day one). Here it is, 24 inches from top to tail and broad across the shoulders, weighing approximately 10-12 lbs. Released safe and sound back into the wild to fight another day.
After the initial panic in March 2020, I went into solitary lockdown in Folly Cottage, with Ted the Cockapoo. For months, there were no vapour trails in the sky and almost no vehicles on the road. The sun shone, plants blossomed, insects buzzed. It was a glorious Spring and our tiny garden became a haven, an oasis of calm, its silence broken only by the chattering of finches at the feeders, the chorus of songbirds in the hedgerows, and the clatter of wood pigeons among the trees.
On a bright May morning, I sat outside with a cup of coffee, rejoicing in the exuberant bluster of a gang of goldfinches scrapping over a container of Niger Seeds, when a pair of pigeons began their aerial mating dance. They shot high into the air, twisted, turned, stunted and dived as if they were writing love messages in the sky, not as graceful as larks ascending but more ardent.
They repeated their performance daily for a week or so before taking up residence in a nearby copse, from where they paid frequent visits, perching side-by-side on the stone walls or strutting one behind the other along the ridge tiles of the garage. I grew fond of those newly-weds with their affectionate billing and cooing, bowing and scraping. Whenever I saw them, I felt my heart expand and a line from Wendell Berry’s poem The Peace of Wild Things came to mind:
“For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
When winter came, I saw less of them, although they would come to drink from the water trough now and again. As the cold weather drove me indoors, I turned my attention inward and I forgot about them until I took Ted out for a walk one grey March morning and saw the female pigeon lying dead in the road. It looked as though it had been clipped by a car, with broken feathers and tufts of down blowing in the wind.
On a fencepost a few feet away, perched its surviving mate. I’ve no idea whether pigeons feel grief, but the bereaved bird returned frequently to the fatal site long after the body had been removed. It mooched disconsolately in the garden and perched silently on top of the Shepherd Hut for hours on end. At first, the other pigeons in the area left him alone, but recently (nearly a year later) I’ve noticed two or three singletons sidle up to him, as if suggesting that it’s time he moved on. He flaps his wings and drives them away.
It’s as though he has forgotten how to be with his fellow-creatures.
I think I know how (I think) he feels.
Captain Midnight here, taking a well-earned rest.
Himself got his first Covid vaccination recently. I thought he’d be leaping up and down with joy but apparently the effort of acquiring antibodies is so exhausting that it calls for an afternoon nap. I suppose I should be grateful that he got out of his pyjamas long enough this morning to take me out for a brief constitutional before climbing the wooden hill back up to Bedfordshire.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m partial to a nap myself. In fact I’m pretty much a world expert in dropping off during the day. Let’s face it, there’s not much else for a dog to do during lockdown when his human spends all his time sitting in front of a computer screen bashing away at the keyboard.
At least if Himself takes a daytime nap I can use him as a pillow. He’s certainly plumped up a bit in the past few months (ha ha). The other advantage, I’ve discovered, is that if Himself sleeps during the day, he wakes up during the night and goes downstairs to make Hot Chocolate, which means he can let me out into the garden to bark at the moon and generally disturb the neighbourhood.
If things go on like this for much longer, we’ll either become completely nocturnal or go into hibernation. Himself says that he quite likes that idea and is making a sign to put on the front door:
“PLEASE WAKE US UP WHEN IT’S ALL OVER”
Captain Midnight here reporting from snowy Kingscote.
I’ll be frank with you, it wasn’t my idea to go for a walk in the snow. Himself said that it was too good an opportunity to miss and that we didn’t get snow that often and that we’d be alright if we dressed up warmly in our padded jackets. He conveniently forgot to mention that, while he’d also be wearing two pairs of socks and insulated wellies, I would be slogging bare-pawed through the white powdery stuff.
Also, not to put too fine a point on it, I am not the tallest dog in the world. Borzois, Great Danes and Wolfhounds might be able to keep their undercarriages clear of the drifts, but I would definitely get icicles where icicles have no business to be.
Himself was dead set on hitching me to a sled. ‘If that dog Buck can do it with Harrison Ford in Call of the Wild,’ he said, with a wild glint in his eye, ‘I don’t see why you can’t give it a go.’
‘Buck was a 140 pound St Bernard-Collie cross,’ I pointed out. ‘That’s 7 times bigger than me. What’s more he wasn’t real.’
‘What do you mean, not real?’
‘Call of the Wild is a movie. Buck was a CGI dog.’
‘Come on, Ted. I’m sure you could do it.’
‘No chance. I’m not a CGI dog and you’re not Harrison Ford.’
Much to my relief, Himself looked embarrassed by my straight-talking and agreed to drop the sled idea. However, it soon became clear that he couldn’t completely let go of the idea of us playing at being polar explorers.
‘Who do you want to be, Scott or Amundsen?’ he asked
‘Scott froze to death out on the Ross Ice Shelf and Amundsen ate his dogs. I don’t fancy pretending to be either of them; couldn’t we stay inside by the fire instead?’
‘Like it or not chum, we’re going for a walk.’
I fully intended to stay put on the sofa, but not to be outmanoeuvred, Himself rattled the housekeys in the lock, waved the lead at me, and yelled ‘Walkies!’ Undone by his irresistible arsenal of hypnotic suggestions, I couldn’t muster the willpower to stop him clipping the lead to my collar.
I’m just going outside and I may be some time.
My name is Ted and I’m a sockaholic
I last had a sock 2 hours 38 minutes ago.
I would have got away with it, if Himself hadn’t caught me in the act of demolishing this little item. He’d hidden it in his Wellington boot for a month, which added considerably to its piquancy. Pretty hard core, I can tell you: the sock equivalent of about a quart of navy strength rum.
Personally, I don’t see the problem with my little ‘habit’. Himself disagrees; he says it’s the sockaholic’s family and loved ones who suffer most. It’s true that his sock hoard has taken quite a battering over the years. I’ve done my best to refrain, and it’s quite a while since I last fell off the wagon. Himself says it’s not a disaster, provided I climb back on pretty damn quick and leave his bloody socks alone (his words, not mine).
A while ago he insisted that I attend weekly meetings of Sock Anon in the Village Hall. You’d be surprised what a high proportion of local dogs turn up. There are Poodles addicted to ladies’ tights, Chihuahuas who can hardly stand up after nibbling a pair of knitted booties, and Great Danes who would demolish a laundry basket full of rugby socks, given half a chance. The best thing is that we all understand the immense attraction of malodorous hosiery and none of us would ever judge another hound for succumbing to temptation. Which is more than can be said for our humans!
It is important to remember that there are some poor mutts even worse off than we are. Rumour has it that there are canines who are addicted to chewing old pairs of pants – the crack cocaine of underwear. Poor bastards, they are so far gone that there’s little hope for them. For the record, I’d like to make it clear that I only do socks.
I did sniff a pair of Y-Fronts once, but I didn’t inhale.
Captain Midnight here, reporting from Stalag Luft III.
There’s a lot to be learned from P.O.W. films, in our present circumstances. If you haven’t seen The Great Escape, then a) what I’m about to tell you might not make much sense, and b) you should… especially the bits featuring my personal hero Steve McQueen as Captain Virgil Hilts.
Anyway, back to Stalag Luft III (otherwise known as Folly Cottage) where Himself and I are currently incarcerated, pending the cessation of hostilities. It’s a pretty comfortable billet but that’s not the point; there’s a war on and we’re living in lockdown.
True to form, while Himself sits around planning concert parties, making models out of old bully beef tins, and waiting for Waitrose to deliver the next Red Cross parcel, I’ve been thinking of ways to get out of here. After much planning and abortive digging of tunnels in the garden (which Himself complained damaged the blackcurrant canes and had to stop) I decided that I would bide my time until I could make a break for it.
For several weeks, I lulled the guards into a false sense of security, by romping around and returning to heel on command when we took our daily exercise in the surrounding fields. ‘You can trust me,’ my behaviour said. ‘I’m a bit of a joker, but I know my place.’ It worked so well that they started unclipping the lead as soon as we got off-road.
Two days ago, crossing a strip of woodland between two open fields, I saw my chance. A bunch of pheasants started up and I chased after them in my usual jolly, inept fashion. But this time, I just kept on going and going, running alongside the fence until I got up enough speed to jump over it and disappear among the trees. I thought I could trust Himself to create a diversion or at least keep his mouth shut while I got away, but he panicked and started shouting.
‘Come back, here!’
‘Come back, you stupid mutt!’
He ran after me, shouting and waving his arms like a demented windmill. I thought the whole thing was quite funny, but Himself was clearly having a major sense of humour failure.
‘Ted. Ted, where the hell are you?’
‘Wait until I get you home, you little bastard.’
I ignored his frantic demands to give myself up and kept on running. Soon, we were both miles off the footpath, crashing through the pheasant hatchery. Unfortunately, this attracted the attention of the local landowner, who charged up the track in his armoured Personnel Carrier, screeched to a halt, leapt out and demanded to know what was going on. Himself, by this time dripping with sweat, and very red in the face, apologised profusely. He explained that his dog had run away, and that he was trying to get it back.
That’s right, he actually called me ‘it’.
They had me in a pincer movement, so I amused myself by chasing the pheasants towards them. Himself jumped on me as I ran past (I had no idea he was so athletic) and reattached the lead to my collar.
Captured. Game over.
Himself had to promise the landowner that he’d keep me on the lead in future. He marched me back to Stalag Luft III and used the hosepipe in the garden to clean the mud off my paws. No warm bath and sitting in front of the fire to get dry. The atmosphere was distinctly frosty. I was like Steve McQueen at the end of the movie: back in the slammer, plotting my next bid to escape.
But without the catcher’s mitt, obviously.
For the past 15 years, I have told people that I live in the countryside
But the truth is that for most of that time, I stayed in hotel rooms or business school accommodation and spent my days in windowless workshop rooms, or else I was on the move in cars and trains and planes. I didn’t really live anywhere, certainly not in the countryside.
This year it’s been different.
Like many people, I have been living in ‘lockdown’ since March, to shield myself from the risk of Covid-19 infection. First, I should say that I am fortunate to have stayed healthy, to have had enough savings to see me through, and good neighbours to do the shopping and keep an eye on me. Second, solitude has sometimes given way to loneliness and that hasn’t always been easy.
Third, I’m a writer who has been saying for years that I would be so much more productive if I had more time to write. I didn’t realise that it would take a global pandemic decimating my work portfolio to call my bluff, but it has and I’m happy to report that my writing life has flourished.
All that said, for the past six months I have truly lived in the countryside, with daily walks across open fields next to the house. My dog Ted, well known to readers of this blog as Captain Midnight, has been living his best life and, in return, his canine sense and sensibilities have kept me moderately sane,
The tiny garden has thronged with life throughout the year. Great Tits, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Robins, Sparrows, Blackbirds, even a Spotted Woodpecker have jostled at the bird feeders. I have watched bees pollinating the plants and butterflies crowd the buddleia. I have seen the berries come into season in turn – blackcurrants, blackberries, and now raspberries – and been here to pick and eat them. The rowan tree is laden with clouds of pink berries that will ripen and feed the birds when winter approaches.
I feel more connected to myself and to the more-than-human world than I have done for many years. The physical restrictions necessitated by the pandemic have paradoxically liberated my spirit and nourished my soul. Of course, I hope for all our sakes that the threat of infection recedes and that the restrictions can be eased. I also hope we can remember what really matters and not close our hearts as we reopen our schools and factories and offices.
When I open my doors again, I want them to open onto a world in which we remember and reward those on whom we depend for the necessities of our lives and those who take care of us when we cannot take care of ourselves; a world whose resources we steward rather than exploit; and one in which knowledge of our common humanity, which has been laid so bare in the face of disease, diminishes our fear of strangers.
I want to remember the birds, the bees, the berries, and the butterflies.
I want to stay living in the countryside.
I want to keep on writing.
Captain Midnight here reporting from the lunacy that is Folly Cottage.
It all began so well back in March, isolating ourselves from the dreaded Covid-19 in our little house in the Cotswolds. I quite liked the routine of our daily walk in the fields, plus regular meals and knowing Himself wasn’t going off somewhere interesting and leaving me behind.
At first, he got up early and did lots of staring at the screen pretending to write, while I lay on the sofa offering moral support. My own literary enveavours had to take a backseat for a while and my usual outpouring of deathless prose dried to a trickle, while he hacked away at one ill-fated project after another. I tried to explain to him that, as my distant relative Virginia Woolf used to say, ‘a dog must have money and a room of his own if he is to write fiction’, but he would have none of it and carried on hogging the keyboard.
After a while, the strain of working out what to ask the neighburs to get at the shops, began to take its toll. Sadly, after 150 days in lockdown, I have to report that Himself has gone barking mad.
He told me the other day that he had become a God.
When I asked him on what grounds he had come to that conclusion, he pointed out that Folly Cottage had become a sort of roadside shrine at which unknown passers-by left offerings.
‘Flowers, vegetables, pots of jam. What’s it all for?’ he asked.
‘Does it matter? Can’t you just enjoy them?’ I responded.
‘But my worshippers might want something in return,’ he replied, ‘like a miracle or some other display of divine power.’
‘They’ll be out of luck then, won’t they?’ I pointed out.
‘What should I do?’ he asked plaintively.
‘Sniff the flowers, scoff the food, and stop complaining,’ I advised.
‘Is that what you would do?’ he asked.
‘I’d probably pee on the flowers and leave the jam and vegetables alone,’ I said. ‘But, unless I’m a latterday manifestation of Anubis, cynocephalic Egyptian deity of the Underworld, which I doubt, I’m just a dog, so what do I know?’
‘Cynocephalic?’ he queried.
‘Dog-headed,’ I replied. ‘Call yourself a writer? Pshaw!’
Foaming at the mouth and muttering dementedly, Himself scrabbled through the dictionary in a vain effort to re-establish linguistic equality.
He might never be ready to leave the asylum, I thought.
But I’ve had just about enough.