Dispatches From The North

Tania Kindersley lives in the North East of Scotland with two amiable lab collie crosses and one very grumpy Gloucester Old Spot pig. She co-wrote Backwards In High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female, with Sarah Vine.

Stanley

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Tania Kindersley
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on Monday, 03 December 2012
The snow is absolutely belting down outside. I just got over the hills before it came in; looking at it now, I wonder if I would have made it back if I had driven a day later. As it was, I roared home yesterday in a glittering minus six, with only the high mountains covered in white. Now the sky is a dirty dun colour and we are in blizzard conditions. I am making traditional Scottish mince for warmth and strength and praying that the lights do not go out.

Home is wonderfully comforting and familiar. But it has one new thing in it. It has a four-year-old brindle lurcher called Stanley.

I was not going to get another dog for a while. I thought I needed time and space for my heartbreak. A few years ago, I would have been shy about using such a word about a canine, but I discover that dogs crack the heart just as much as humans do, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. I thought too I might like a moment of liberty, of not having the responsibility, of being able to travel on a whim. I was going to get my passport renewed and go to St Petersburg and Copenhagen and perhaps to see the Fjords.

What a lot of nonsense that idea was. A house without a dog in it turned out to be a thin, sad place. I kept seeing the ghost of my darling old girl in every room. I hated not having anyone to walk. And there was Stanley, staring out at me from the internet, as if pleading for a good home. I have a good home; it seemed rude not to take him. So I went to Somerset and got him and put him in the car and drove him to Scotland, and now he has his first big northern snow, which he seems to regard as a tremendous joke.

stanley

He is different in every way from my soft lab-collie crosses. He is lean and fast and compact, like a racing dog (there is greyhound in him), and he is comical and playful where they were elegant and gracious. He has their same talent for making friends, though. As we stopped overnight at the motorway miracle that is Tebay, complete strangers came up to speak to him and stroke him. He has such a nice face that people see him and smile. This gives me profound delight.

It’s funny, having a new dog again. I have to get to know all his quirks and habits, his loves and hates. I have not yet found his sweet spot, although it is not for want of looking. I have to invent a routine that shall suit him, and work out exactly how we shall fit together. I shall map his character, from day to day.

Despite being a rescue, he is quite independent, not nervy or needy as I had feared. My last dog would lie down next to my feet as I worked, as close to me as she could possibly get. She would follow me gently from room to room, like a faithful shadow. This one has taken himself off into the next room, clearly regarding the writing of words as a thing of no interest. He is curled politely on his special new sheepskin rug, which I bought from a nice man in Tetbury market whilst I was in the south, quite happy on his own, waiting until I should see fit to take him out again, into all that larky snow.

The rescuing of a lost dog is not what I thought would happen to me now. It was a sudden, imperative whim. I am gladder than anything that I followed it. I have a dog for Christmas, and for life.

Where the heart is

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Monday, 26 November 2012
It’s strange how one changes, as age marches on. When I was younger, I was a careless traveller; I thought nothing of leaping on an aeroplane at a day’s notice, and running off to Manhattan or Cochin. Now, leaving home is like a physical wrench. I like to imagine I am a citizen of the world, but sometimes I think if someone told me I would never again be able to leave Scotland, it would come as a slight relief.

As I come to the end of the first week in the south, staying with the cousins I visit twice a year, there is the usual sense of bittersweet. It is enchanting here: a charming house, a happy family, delightful dogs, green fields to walk over, a rambling garden to explore. I have all possible love and comfort; there is good conversation and good jokes and good food and fine wines. There are even horses to divert me, since the cousin’s husband runs a polo yard. I go outside to see his summer stars, all dopey and furry and relaxed in their winter coats, enjoying their lazy months off.

Things I miss number one: the mountainThe things I am missing. Number one: the mountain

Yet the sight of them makes me miss my own mare, and my own field, and my own equine routine, which has become such a defining part of my daily life. Getting out before breakfast to do the feeding and grooming and riding and groundwork has become the most meaningful part of my day. Writing, which is my job and my love, obviously gives its own definition, and I could not exist without it, but, oddly, it is the hard physical work, out in the mud and the air and the elements, which currently gives me the most joy. It’s not necessarily what I would have expected.

Slowly, slowly, for all the joy of being here, I feel the homesickness build. I am so dug into Scotland, I even find myself missing the mountains. There are no mountains in the south; I scan the horizon fruitlessly. I miss the glacial valleys and the dark Scottish woods and the blue hills and the weather coming in from the north-east. I did not grow up there; I had almost no knowledge of the place until I moved north, on a complete whim, fourteen years ago. Belonging is such a curious and nebulous concept, but the very landscape has stitched itself so deeply into my heart that leaving it, even for a short time, creates a slight gap in me, as if something is missing.

The things I am missing. Number two: this faceThe things I am missing. Number two: this face

This does all sound a bit flaky. It’s just a horse and a few hills, after all. One must get out in the world; I have hermit-like tendencies which should not be indulged too much. But then I imagine the thing as if it were the other way round - if I did not miss home, if I had no sense of belonging, if I did not yearn for the mountains - and I think how awful and arid and sad that would be. It might make my social life rather more complicated, but I wonder perhaps it is not a great piece of luck and privilege, to find a place where I am so deeply rooted. They really are my hills, and I lift my eyes up to them, and find my strength.

The secret life of dogs

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 13 November 2012
Secretly, surreptitiously, I start to look for dogs on the internet. I had thought that, along with the sorrow, I might feel liberation, when this moment came. My dog was old. I knew that she would not be with me forever, even though, when the blow fell, it was as shocking as a punch in the stomach. I had thought of this time, in a vague, hesitant way. Perhaps, I had wondered, it might be freeing to be without that daily responsibility. I could travel again, get on aeroplanes, go to Italy or St Petersburg. I would no longer have to worry about arrangements, fret about the poor old lady.

It’s not liberating at all. It’s horrid. The house is quiet and empty and my walks through the beautiful autumn trees are marred by the lack of a faithful black shadow. The missing pulls at my chest, setting up an ache there that will not go away.

Two old ladies who will be impossible to replaceTwo old ladies who will be impossible to replace

Everyone says: get back on the metaphorical horse. I had an idea that I should not do that, out of some nutty idea of respect. My girls were not so easily replaced. I had had a rare love with them, I could not just go out and get some more of that as if I were going to the shop.

Yet, I find myself, like a thief in the night, stealing into dog rescue sites and canine advertising spaces. There are so many dogs. There are the posh puppies, KC registered, all bells and whistles, going for hundreds of pounds. There are the old-timers, accompanied by heartbreaking messages – won’t someone give this dear old boy a forever home? Sad eyes stare out of the internet, telling nameless stories of neglect. There are the young abused dogs, and the circumstance dogs, where the owners are changing jobs or going abroad. One of the oddest recurring themes is that of couples breaking up, and the remaining single feeling unable to keep the canine.

There is also the hidden epidemic of the Staffordshire Bull Terriers. I had no idea, until I started looking about. By far the biggest number of homeless dogs are staffies; it’s an extraordinary majority. I look them up. I discover that far from being the fierce attack dogs of myth, they are a breed famous for intelligence, affection and loyalty. The problem, apparently, comes because people illegally cross them with pit bulls, and then train them for aggression. Even the sweetest dog will turn sour if treated badly, and I suppose a dog as strong and muscular as the Staffordshire will be more difficult to deal with than most. Whatever the reason, there they all are, colonising the hard-pressed shelters and rescue centres, looking at the camera with pleading faces as if to say: don’t believe our bad reputation.

The other oddness is that people abandoning dogs at the vet is a thing. In particular, owners take their bitches in for spaying and never come back. Why would someone do that? I don’t understand any of it.

But alongside the human badness is overwhelming human goodness. There they all are, the rescue volunteers and the shelter owners, the foster carers and the dog walkers, stretched to the limit, taking in the orphans and strays and giving them love and care. It is incredibly touching.

I don’t know yet about getting a new dog. There is a very nice fellow called Stanley near Frome. It seems stupid to live in a place that is dog heaven, with acres of grassland and woods, with rabbits and mice to chase, with open air and mountains, and not save one of those poor mutts. I have the time and the place. It is almost a moral duty.

My secret fear is that my sleek, black, clever, funny, dear sisters were once in a lifetime dogs. Nothing else shall ever come close. I fear that any other canine could only be second best. But perhaps that is not a good enough reason. I go back and have another look at Stanley’s questing face. I think: Stanley really is a very splendid name for a dog. I think: when my heart really is mended, I could get another one and call it Dr Livingstone. I think: we shall see.

So we beat on

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 08 November 2012
The sun shines, out of a pellucid Scottish sky. The beeches have turned a colour for which I have no word. Scarlet would be paltry and insulting. Outside, men are doing manly things, mostly involving tractors and those huge machines with the vast digging claw at the front. I just ran into two fellows who were chopping up socking great trees. They were so pleased with their own manliness that it made them laugh.

I’m always a bit startled by this sort of thing. I spent most of my life surrounded by metrosexuals and homosexuals and trannies, before I came up here. Admittedly, I did grow up amongst hardy racing people, but all my brothers and most of my male cousins are tremendously camp. The butch male in full cry is mildly surprising to me.

I try to get on. I run errands. I make mushroom soup for my mother, in a blatant attempt to get to the top of the children’s list. I think about work. I do not actually do any work, but I think about it, which is a humming step in the right direction. After my father died last year, I could not work properly for three weeks. All my concentration was shot. I am in awe and wonder of those people who quickly get back to normal after a bereavement. Robert Peston lost his wife not long ago, but there he is, on the BBC, still knowing everything about the economy, his distinctive voice strong and steady, even making jokes with the presenters. That’s real Blitz spirit, I think.

I’m not near normal yet. The world swings on, but mine has a space in it. I really, really miss my dog. I veer between thinking this is perfectly normal and scolding myself for overcooking the whole thing. She was with me every day for ten years, I suppose. That’s a lot of companionship. Because I work from home, and rarely venture far from Scotland, in terms of sheer hours I probably spent more with her than with any other sentient creature. Even in the house, she was my faithful shadow, following me from room to room, patient and questing. I miss odd things, like the sound of her paws on the wooden floor, and the sheer beauty of her. I am suffering an aesthetic lack, so I stare very hard at the hills to get my share of loveliness.

On the other hand, I am aware that this is a most ordinary, small grief. I once looked up the number of human deaths in Britain each year, for a book. It was around six hundred thousand. I remember being astounded by the thought of all that mourning. That’s an awful lot of funerals. That’s a lot of empty rooms. And yet everyone goes on, without making a fuss. I must not make a fuss, I think.

In the flower shop, in the chemist, in the newsagent all the kind village people remark on the weather, which is fine, and ask how I am. ‘Very well, thank you,’ I say, lying. I want to say: MY DOG DIED. But you can’t say that, because it sounds silly, and no one knows what the correct response is. The dog people get it, but everyone else would not really understand.

The horse gets it, oddly. Horses are amazingly telepathic. She follows me about the field, whickers sweetly at me, lays her head over my shoulder, gently pushes her forehead into my chest. She is as soft and dopey as an old dog herself. The furry Welsh pony, on the other hand, has no time for sentiment. She just wants the pony nuts she knows I have in my pocket, and cooks up four different plans to get them. This ruthless streak makes me laugh.

I cast about for a good last line. There must always be a good last line. My old teacher, Mr Woodhouse, taught me that, when he was training me to write history essays. I don’t have a good one, so I’m going to steal a great one. This is what just came into my head, from the end of The Great Gatsby, a book I used to read once a year, when I was in my twenties and quite obsessed with F Scott Fitzgerald. ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ Yes, I think; that will do.

Dog days

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 01 November 2012
My darling old dog is in her last days. She has developed an incurable condition and the vet has said the dread words: she shall have to be put down. It may be this week, it may be next, but it is coming.

I fall at once to pieces, overwhelmed by idiot grief. Her sister died last year, and the thought of an empty house, with no glorious canine presence in it, is almost unbearable. It never ceases to amaze me, the animal love. The four-legged creatures trot and canter their way into my heart, and set up shop there, and it doesn’t matter how many times I tell myself that it is not the same as a human, that there are much greater griefs out there, the sense of loss is dark and deep.
tania nov1
Then I pull myself together, because life must go on. In order to distract myself, I write some grant proposals for HorseBack UK, a local charity which I support.  It does sterling work with men and women who have been wounded in war. I can’t remember if I have told you of it before. It is an extraordinary organisation. The veterans come and work with American Quarter Horses, in the blue Deeside hills, and the combination of the beauty and peace, the equine therapy, and the fact the courses are run by those who have been injured on the front line themselves, produces an amazing healing effect. Working with the horses in particular seems to restore a sense of self. Men with no legs can get up and ride out into the hills; a veteran with acute post-traumatic stress told me the other day that he had his first proper night’s sleep in six months.

This proposal thing is a new kind of writing for me. My default writing mode is quite emotional and even, on occasion, a little flowery. If in doubt, I go for the poetical. If I can cram in some Shakespeare or Eliot, so much the better. But if you are asking a serious organisation (in the most recent case, the British government) for money, you can’t do hearts and flowers. In my own personal writing, I dare risk people thinking I am a bit of a flake, but if someone in the Ministry of Defence thinks it, then the jig is up.

I have to learn to rein in my excesses, and be businesslike and empirical. At the same time, because what HorseBack does is so out of the ordinary, I have to try to express that. The sentences cannot be bog-standard, because the organisation is not standard at all. I flip back and forth between the extravagant and the workaday; I ruthlessly examine adjectives for utility.

I am so impressed and enchanted by this operation that I have become quite zealous on its behalf. I dream of meeting a billionaire at a party, and so bewitching him with tales of horses and soldiers that he will at once donate half his fortune to the cause. This is unrealistic on several levels. I rarely go to parties, and I have never met a billionaire in my life. There aren’t too many of them running round the Aberdeenshire hills. Still, that appears to be my new dream.

In the meantime, I apply to foundations and government departments, hoping that if only I can get the words right, the cash may come. It is the most serious form of writing I have ever done. Until now, all that was at stake was my amour-propre. Now, something I type on a page may translate into an actual good, for actual humans, who really need it. It is the best corrective I have ever found for a burdened heart.

The old dog is sleeping beside me. She chased her stick this morning. As long as she does that, I know there is a little life force left. I shall make these last days as sweet for her as I can. I am profoundly sad, but she has given me so much joy. She owes me nothing. I wish she could live forever, but when the time comes, I must send her gentle into that good night.


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