Thursday, 24 March 2011


Some of you may have noticed that I have removed the two most recent posts (Australia – Parts 1 and 2). This is because, in my opinion, they weren’t working. I may redo them and repost them – or then again I may not.
I shan’t be adding anything to the blog until the week after next, the week beginning 4 April. See you then! (And I’ll explain my absence.)
Have fun and enjoy the weather.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Who's training whom?

We knew Ellie was trouble from the start. When we first adopted her, at nine weeks old, we took her to three puppy parties at the vet’s. The humans watched instructional slide shows and received instructional leaflets while the puppies fought over a heap of toys in the middle of the floor. For the first half of the first meeting, Ellie hid under Frog’s chair. By the end of the third meeting, she had moved all the toys to her corner of the room and attacked any other puppy that came near.
            Because of this, and because Frog and I had major rows over the training of our first dog, twenty-four years ago, we sought professional help. The vet recommended Dogs R Dogs and I liked the rhyme on their website:
‘Always be kind to animals
morning, noon and night.
For animals have feelings too
and furthermore, they bite.’
            This seemed appropriate as, not only did Ellie attack other puppies, she attacked Frog and me too. Her favourite sport was to run in circles around us, growling and lunging at our legs. It was frightening, you couldn’t catch her, and – when she did manage to sink her teeth in above the protective wellies – painful.
            ‘She’s a control freak,’ said Leanne the trainer, scarily efficient with her short haircut, perfect skin, and sports clothes. ‘It’s the collie half. They have to control flocks of sheep.’
            ‘You’ve got to get to grips with it now. At this stage she’ll just give you a flesh wound. It’ll hurt but it won’t be serious. When she gets older, she’ll be able to inflict real damage.’
            ‘My dog took a chunk out of the back of my leg when he was a puppy,’ she laughed. 'I’ve still got the scar to prove it.’
            She must have seen my look of terror.
            ‘And if you don’t think you can deal with it, give her up now. The sooner the better.’
            I cried all the way home in the car. Even though it was hell looking after Ellie, I didn’t want to give her up.
            ‘We’re not going to let that little ratbag get the better of us,’ said Frog.
            Frog learnt about dogtraining when he was a child. In those days, you jerked leads and forced dogs to do what they didn’t want to do by dominating them and making them frightened of you. Not only did that not work on Ellie – she laughed at Frog when he shouted at her and barked back at him even louder. Sometimes she even pawed the ground with a front foot, like a bull about to charge - but times have changed, thank goodness.
Now, you get dogs to use their intelligence. You get them to ‘offer’ you behaviour.
‘The first thing she needs to learn,’ said Leanne, ‘is self-discipline.’
Wow. I wasn’t sure I’d learnt that lesson fully but within the space of five minutes Leanne had taught Ellie to sit and wait for food.
‘She’ll extrapolate that,’ said Leanne. ‘She’ll use it in different situations. ’
            And she did. Her default behaviour, if she wanted something, was to sit down and be quiet (once she’d remembered, and once she’d managed to calm herself down). It was extraordinary. How many humans could make those sorts of connections?
            The key to the lunging business was to move in closer to the piranha-like jaws. Ellie was to trail a lead behind her at all times and when she lunged you stepped on the lead and slid your boot up the lead towards her head so that she was pinned down. You had to be quick and you had to get it right. The other option was to grab her by the collar and hold her under the neck, again making sure she couldn’t get at you.
            ‘And what do I do if she’s coming straight at me?’ I asked, trembling.
            Leanne laughed. ‘You stick your boot out, look her in the eye and say “Don’t you even think about it”.’
            So, Ellie had to learn self-discipline and empathy. Frog had to learn patience and subtlety. And I had to learn to be brave and to stick up for my own rights.
            And how are we getting on?
            Well, we’re all still together. And my legs are clear of wounds.
And that’s all I’m saying.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The red ball

Last Monday was a beautiful spring day so Ellie and I went further than normal on our morning walk. On the outskirts of the village we met a man walking a wolfhound. Ellie and the wolfhound hit it off immediately and raced round and round the field together while the man and I talked. I told him about my experiences with the stuffy people at Branscombe at the weekend.
            ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘you want to go to Exmouth.’
            His dog was the same age as Ellie and wants to play with every other dog he meets.
            ‘It’s such good training there,’ said the man. ‘If you call them away from one dog there’s always another one for them to play with so because they remember that they’re more likely to come.’
            Er, yes. It still took us half an hour to prise Ellie and the wolfhound apart.
            Exmouth is not normally somewhere Frog and I would go. For us old curmudgeons, it is too trippery and built up. In fact the last time we went there was during the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001 when beaches were the only places you could walk. Yesterday however, for Ellie’s sake, we decided to give it a go. She needs to learn how to behave with both other dogs and people.
            As soon as we got out of the car, Ellie began to whimper with excitement. The tide was out and dogs swarmed over the vast expanse of sand, catching balls, jumping through waves, and tussling with each other, while children and their fathers flew kites.
            For half an hour we walked eastwards towards Sandy Bay, while Ellie played with dog after dog.
‘Thank you for letting her play with your dog,’ we said cravenly to human after human, expecting her high spirits to be frowned upon.
‘No problem,’ they said. ‘She’s young isn’t she? What a lovely dog.’
As we left the town and the dogs thinned out, I found a red ball on the edge of the sea. I started to throw it for Ellie, watching her streak along the sand and then wheel round in a wide arc to come back to us. I could see her collie ancestry so clearly.
‘She’s getting too excited,’ said Frog.
So on the way back he gave her some much-needed lead training.
When we got back I left the red ball on the sea wall. It wasn’t mine. I’d found it. It was only right that someone else should find it and play with it. Then, as Frog carried on with the lead training along the esplanade, I stopped to read the notice boards: ‘The Jurassic Coast’, ‘What to do in an emergency’. A young boy came up to me.
‘Excuse me,’ he said nodding towards the sea wall. ‘Is that your ball?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I found it on the beach. You take it.’
He went on to the beach with it and started throwing it against the wall and catching it. I wondered what he was doing on his own and why he didn’t have anything of his own to play with.
I passed him as I walked back to the car.
‘Thank you for the ball,’ he called.
‘No problem,’ I called back. ‘I’m just pleased to see you enjoying it.’
And I was. I really was.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Being and not being

In my book New Age Encyclopaedia I mention the physicist David Bohm who suggests that reality is made up not simply of matter and energy but of matter, energy and meaning. In human terms, you could think of this as ‘having’, ‘doing’ and ‘being’. Science tends to ignore the dimension of meaning and we in our lives forget the importance of simply being. We rush around buying things, ticking off items on our ‘to do’ lists and trying to be successful in our work and then we wonder why we’re so unhappy. That is the way we’re taught to be, that is the way our society is arranged, and I hope I’m not being pompous in presuming I’m not the only person like this and in speaking for others as well as myself.
            In a previous posting I mentioned artists’ dates. I took myself off again two days ago. I went for a walk. But not any old walk. I left the dog with a dogminder and I left my writing notebook and camera at home. As I trudged up the muddy footpath behind the house, I realised that my walks, which I had always thought of as my relaxation, were in fact far from relaxing. Not only did I have to keep an eye out for the dog (Will she chase those sheep two fields away? Will she get stuck down that badger hole? Will she go and jump all over those nice men putting up a fence whom she adores?) but, even if I wasn’t actually writing and taking pictures, I was forever doing so in my head. How would that tree stump look in a photograph? How would I frame it? How would I describe that yellow leaf in the middle of the path or that ivy trailing down the bank? What words would I use? It took the absence of camera and notebook for me to realise that.
            It was Frog, as ever, who gave me the clue.
            I have a secret vice – I LOVE clothes – which for somebody who spends their life in jeans, fleeces and wellies is rather sad. The biggest treat I can give myself is to wander round clothes shops and buy myself something new. Or so I thought. Increasingly over the years however I have enjoyed my shopping trips less and less.
            ‘I can’t find anything I like,’ I would moan to Frog as I collapsed at home, footsore and empty handed.
            ‘How would it be’, said Frog a few days ago, ‘if you told yourself you weren’t allowed to spend any money?’
            And of course he was absolutely right. Spending money is just another obligation. What I really enjoy about shopping is gazing at colours and shapes, and feeling fabrics, and dreaming about clothes I might wear or how I might adapt the clothes I already have, and coming across something totally new that gives me all sorts of ideas for the different sort of person I could be. Without the pressure to spend, browsing round shops could become fun again.
            I didn’t need to acquire clothes and I didn’t need to pin down whatever I experienced on my walks and turn it into something else. I didn’t need to be productive.
            Like my cafe lunch last week, I didn’t notice finding the walk in itself particularly relaxing. My brain may not have been planning pictures and writing but it was still whirring away. What shall I cook for supper? Could I wear that with that? But later, as I stirred the supper, I felt different inside. I felt a sort of dark strength, like a blackboard behind me propping me up. I felt like I had an inside, instead of being a nothing pulled from the outside in all directions.
I thought of one of Roselle’s blogs ( ) (and I hope she won’t mind me quoting from it). Roselle is a writing teacher with a difference. She doesn’t so much teach you technique as how to put yourself in the right frame of mind for being creative. She talks about ‘finding ways to slip in to, and maybe even dwell in, that space where words might arise, but haven’t yet’, about waiting for ideas and words to arise naturally from the unconscious, about feeling the tug on the line that signals an idea, words ready to be written. Creativity arises from the unconscious she says, the mind’s wilderness or rainforest. Not from the suburban garden of the conscious mind.
I realised that being - not-doing and not-having – was probably one of the most productive things I could do.
            I’m into the third month of a six-month on-line novel-writing course taught by Roselle. So far I have chapter one, a rough plot and some characters, but I haven’t added to the text for a fortnight – or at least not rainforest stuff. How long do I have to wait for the next tug on the line?
I’ve realised something else though. I don’t write to please teacher, nor even to produce a brilliant, best-selling novel. I write to be a happier and more complete person. ‘Writers’, says Roselle, ‘need to cultivate tolerance for entering and staying in these wordless places for as long as it takes.’ I must try and remember that next time I panic about being a sort of writer who doesn’t write. Even if I’m not adding to the novel, I’m learning about ‘being’.
And at least I came up with the idea for this blog entry (or 'post' as they call it).

Monday, 7 March 2011

Are you gonna leave that there?

I’m now going to have a rant, so block your ears if necessary.

A few years ago I was walking on cliffs at Branscombe in East Devon. With me was the dog I had then, a lurcher called Penny. When Penny squatted to do what dogs do a distant hiker raced towards us.
            ‘Are you gonna leave that there?’ she demanded, standing in front of me and blocking my way.
            It took me a few moments to realise what she meant and then another few to find an answer.
            ‘But . . . but it’s the country,’ I said.
            ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself,’ she continued. ‘I’ve got a dog and I’d never do a thing like that.’
            I couldn’t see any dog but a man was hanging about behind her trying not to catch my eye.
            I was walking at Branscombe again this weekend with Ellie. The hillside swarmed with hikers so I put Ellie on a long lead – she’s only eight months old and still inclined to jump up at people. Halfway up the hill we met a man with a medium-sized brown dog, also on a lead. The dog and Ellie started to play.
            ‘Call your dog off,’ shouted the man, wrenching his dog away and lifting it in the air by its collar.
            The last part of the hill, up to the fields at the top, is steep and steps have been cut into the hillside. The steps are the only way up. (There used to be a more gradual and wider side path as well but the National Trust has blocked it for some reason.) Ellie and I were halfway up the steps when a teenaged boy and a middle-aged woman appeared at the top and started to descend. The steps are narrow so I leapt into the gorse bushes at the side and start reeling Ellie in. Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough and she jumped up at the boy. The woman scowled.
‘Could you possibly put your dog on a short lead,’ she said.
I’d had enough. When I got to the top, I turned left and scrambled down the blocked path, through the brambles and over a gate topped with curls of barbed wire. Then I made my way back to the car.
OK, so Ellie is slightly out of control, but so are most dogs (and children). OK, so dogs**t isn’t very nice and obviously on a path or a pavement or a lawn or where the landowner has requested it, I do clear up. But otherwise isn’t it better left for nature to dispose of than wrapped in plastic and added to landfill (or, even worse, wrapped in plastic and abandoned)? Perhaps the woman wanted me to vacuum up the cowpats and the sheep and rabbit droppings while I was about it.
The countryside isn’t a suburban garden. Its inhabitants are unpredictable. It’s dirty and sometimes dangerous and often uncomfortable.
Nature is not there for our amusement. It has its own reasons for being. It’s wild.
And I like it that way.
But I'm beginning to feel increasingly like an endangered species.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Artists' dates

'All right, all right, Trouble,' said Frog the other morning to the cat clawing his calves. 'I'll get you some food in a moment.'
    'Strange isn't it,' he remarked to me later, 'how all our animals end up being called Trouble.'
    I had a bad day yesterday. I discovered that one of my books was available for free download. That book took a year and a half to write and half a year of negotiations with publishers - two years out of my life - not to mention all the experience that led up to it, and I've barely earned enough from it to pay for a holiday. How dare someone think they can get it for free. I was MAD.
    Then a builder who was supposed to turn up at 5pm didn't. I had gone to yoga but Frog had left work an hour and a half early to be at home to meet him.
    So this morning, when Trouble the cat was fussing for food and Trouble the puppy was lying at the bottom of the stairs chewing the safety gate and whining, I decided it was time for an artist's date.
    Artists' dates were invented by Julia Cameron and described in her book The Artist's Way. Unfortunately I lent the book to a friend seven years ago and haven't seen it since (grrr) so what I'm telling you is from memory only. They involve (I think) taking yourself off by yourself for a couple of hours and doing something different and nice. The idea (I think) is that you replenish your imagination that way or at least clear your mind of all the c**p that comes between you and it. (By 'artist' she means anyone doing something creative, not just painters.)
    So, after having walked the dog (yes, I know but she would have been unbearable otherwise and I do have a heart), I hopped in my ancient Mini, drove to our local National Trust house and had a bowl of yellow-split-pea soup in the cafe.
    I was only away for an hour and the soup wasn't particularly good but when I got home I didn't go to my workroom and switch on the computer, I didn't Google myself to see who was pirating my books, I didn't check how many people had been reading my blog. I sat by the window in the bedroom with my notebook and worked on The Novel and then I went outside and did some gardening while the dog played with a rawhide chew and the cat perched on top of the pergola.
    Life's very simple really but it's so easy to forget that. And it's not just artists who need dates with themselves. We all do.