The Republic of Words 3 of 3: Writing, dogs and the meaning of life

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a book about writing and the relationship between animals and humans, was another perfect fit for me. It’s a novel but I thought it was a true story as it reads like a memoir and is, I discovered, the most autobiographical of Nunez’s book to date. It is a simple story but one that is multi-layered and full of literary allusions with an animal as the central character. It’s about a woman in New York – the narrator – who reluctantly inherits a dog – a Great Dane – when its owner, her friend, a womanising professor who has been married three times, commits suicide. Nunez, like the female narrator, both teaches and writes.  She has no social media accounts and leads a quiet life: “I became a writer because it was something I could do alone and hidden in my room.” She is an ‘old school’ writer who views the craft as a vocation and was surprised to find herself in the limelight as the winner of the 2018 National Book Award.

Nunez/the narrator has a dig at the proliferation of writers and quotes the deceased friend as agreeing with Garrison Keillor: “When everyone’s a writer, no one is,” a sentiment Nunez traces back to the pre-digital era: French critic Sainte-Beuve said in 1839: “To write and have something published is less and less special. Why not me too? everyone asks.” What would have Sainte-Beauve have made of self-publishing and blogging?

Anyone who has tried to write a book and bumped up against the self-doubt, angst and feeling of being a fraud will take comfort from learning that John Updike always felt he had got away with something when he saw his books in a store. For Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen the act of writing helped to ease pain and sorrow, whereas Philip Roth found writing frustrating and humiliating. And how surprising to learn that prolific writer Georges Simenon described writing as a vocation of unhappiness.  The most pertinent quote for me was from Rainer Maria Rilke: “If you were forbidden to write, would you die?”

I certainly don’t feel compelled to use my time out from work to write a novel, memoir or best seller – not at the moment anyway. For now, I am content to blog for the love of writing and to maintain the practice of crafting words. Although I do rather love the image of tapping away at a  book n a house by the beach with my dog at my feet…

The friend in the story refers not only to the deceased professor but to the Great Dane Apollo.  This is no saccharine story of puppy love, however. At first an unwelcome burden, the dog is a wise old soul who gradually becomes central to the narrator’s life – she even reads to him (something a holistic vet suggested I do to calm my dog Bertie!) – and manages to persuade her landlord to let her keep him in her tiny New York apartment. Much of the book is about the relationship between humans and animals: “They may know us better than we know them.” I also loved this: “I like that Aborigines say dogs make people human.” The Friend also references famous people who have owned dogs such as J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967) editor of BBC magazine The Listener. While he took a rather unhealthy interest in his dog’s heats and bodily functions (there’s a chapter in his book My Dog Tulip called Liquids and Solids), he spoke of his relationship with Tulip as a 15-year marriage, the happiest of his life. In similar vein the narrator in The Friend quotes a passer-by as saying: “Better a dog for a husband, than a husband who’s a dog.” Hear, hear, I say!

Although a fictionalised life lesson, I also enjoyed The Why Café by John Strelecky, partly because I read it in German – Das Café am Rande der Welt ­­– and tapped back into the language, and partly because it never harms to ponder the meaning of life! The narrative construct is that a stressed advertising executive runs out of petrol and finds himself in a café in the middle of nowhere. On the menu are three questions:

Why are you here?
Do you fear death?
Are you fulfilled?

Through conversations with the café owner, waitress and a patron, the book encourages readers to challenge their thinking. Are we being true to ourselves or doing what others wish us to do? Are we slogging away to earn money to amass belongings that we think will makes us feel happy? Are we keeping madly busy because we haven’t found our purpose or our calling? Are we waiting till retirement to do what we love? Do we swim with the tide or against it? What is our life purpose?

I sometimes wonder if writing is my calling or just something I love to do. Maybe dogs are my calling – or animals. Or maybe it’s writing funding applications to support animal welfare and conservation! I certainly find great solace in nature and love being away from screens and devices, chatter, noise and distraction. Walking out across the fields in Nottinghamshire yesterday, bright red poppies dotting the landscape and foamy cream hawthorn blooms bordering the path, I stood and ‘chatted’ with a cow, who stopped his meditational chewing and turned to look at me, its eyes full of knowingness. Mindful moments like those remind me how wondrous it is to be alive. And, for all the self-help and psychobabble, we don’t need to have all the answers. Another brilliant quote from The Friend by Rilke: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart… live in the question.”



I never can say goodbye: RIP Woody

Last week was a bit of a flat-liner for me; life consisted of patchy nights and weary bleary days of fog-brain and fatigue. By the end of my working week on Thursday I felt desiccated in mind and body and was ready to hang up my tools. As I was wolfing down some pasta (gluten-free, of course) before choir practice that evening, a text came in from my friend Nick. And it was bad news: the eldest of his two Border Collies, Woody, had been diagnosed with internal bleeding and tumours. The vet was due to go to their house that night to release him from his old age infirmity – he was thirteen and a half.

Tears welled up and dropped into my dinner. I felt the grief as sharply as if it were my dog, Bertie. That all-familiar sense of absence and loss. Beautiful Woody, who, although increasingly arthritic as he aged, still embodied so much joy, innocence and playfulness whether luxuriating in puddles or hanging out with his ‘bitser’ girlfriend Minnie, a dog about a tenth of his size. Woody had the biggest heart – he’d rush across the park to greet me with great whooping barks and then he’d dance around and make a fuss of me. He made me feel special – I used to joke with Nick that if I found a man as devoted as Woody, I’d be doing well.

On arrival at choir, I felt dizzy and spaced out and, when a fellow chorister, Steve, who also writes grants for a living, mentioned a particular grant round, I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. And that was it: the floodgates were unleashed, this time in great wracking sobs. My speech somewhat incoherent, I tried to explain how the news about dear Woody had tapped into a seam of grief. And I was so sad I hadn’t had chance to say goodbye – particularly as I hadn’t seen Woody for several months.

We’re not very good at goodbyes in our family and I am no exception.  There have always been so many comings and goings; by the time I was fifteen, I had lived in nine houses and been to eight different schools with a spell at boarding school. You could argue that all the chopping and changing of friends and places might have made us more practised in the art of efficient, painless farewells, but the opposite seems to have been the case.

Even when I make a conscious decision to leave something or somewhere that no longer serves me or gives me joy, it can create emotional upheaval. Reading recently that Frances Lincoln Ltd, a publishing company where I worked from 1988-1995, had been sold to the Quarto group, brought back a flood of memories. Started by Frances in 1977 it was the publishing house for quality gardening and illustrated books; the attention to detail was extraordinary. I realise now what a privilege it was to work there. And it was fun; trips to book fairs in Bologna and Frankfurt and to publishing houses in Europe and America. As the article notes –  there was a huge overseas market back then for books on Gloucestershire ladies’ gardens. I loved my job but was feeling a bit burned out when I left after seven years. I jumped off with no job to go to and, instead, took off to on my travels – mainly to Australia. It was a bold move back then when the concept of the adult gap year was still in its infancy.

I was given the most lavish and warm-hearted send-off – and a hand-made card designed like one of the titles on the children’s list complete with the most cleverly-worded blurb full of in-jokes and references. Although I was excited about pastures new, I cried almost non-stop the day after my leaving party, reflecting on the friendships I had formed and the many shared experiences – all those publication deadlines, conferences and overseas trips were deeply bonding. My colleagues had become part of my family. Grief can strike at your very core even when you have chosen to move on.

And that’s why farewelling an animal friend, one that has shared our life day and night over several years is so extraordinarily painful. Because we can’t intellectualise, verbalise or rationalise with our animal friends – as we might prepare for the end, say, with an elderly relative – it requires us to be present emotionally and to communicate with our senses and heart fully engaged. Maybe that’s why even the toughest and most pragmatic of people crumple when their dogs depart this life.

When I first moved to Australia, I bonded with my brother’s Blue Roan Cocker Spaniel Mudgee. Looking back, she helped me get through those first few difficult few months. She was a loving presence offering unconditional love and support. When she died, I cried on and off for weeks, great noisy sobs that shook my whole body.

A love-in with Mudgee

But there is a silver lining to this tale. After choir on Thursday I got another text from Nick to say that the vet had failed to show up and that he would bring Woody for a final sniff round Dendy Park on Friday morning.  A bit like a person with a terminal illness might rally before they finally succumb, Woody had a spring in his step, was barking and loving all the attention as his tearful human friends gathered to say goodbye. And I am happy to report that Woody got to enjoy one more weekend on earth and swam in the sea on Saturday.

I feel so blessed to share my life with a canine companion. Woody’s departure (last night) reminds me to cherish Bertie all the more. If it weren’t for him, I would never have net Nick, his wife Saabi and their dogs (Woody leaves behind Jessie and Belle).  Even writing this post is wringing the emotion out of me.

This blog is dedicated to Woody and to all my canine friends past and present. Their gift to us silly humans who make such a mess of so many things with our supposed superior intellect and powers of reasoning is their unfailing and constant loyalty, devotion and love.  They stand by us through thick and thin; they don’t say one thing and mean another, harbour grudges, judge, change their tune, blow hot and cold,  play games (unless it’s ball-chasing) or leave us guessing. Theirs is the language of unadulterated love. They just are.  Which is why it’s so very heart-breaking when they go. RIP dear, dear Woody. You will be greatly missed.

A bit of fun – the Liebster Award

My grateful thanks to Chloe who writes a fascinating blog about life in Georgia (, for nominating me for the Liebster Award, an initiative started by the blogging community to promote and share favourite blogs, giving them increased exposure. Chloe’s blog is a great read and gives a very visceral feel for living in a country that was once part of Soviet Russia. I highly recommend it.


Please see the last section of this post for how the Liebster Award works if you are a fellow blogger. In nutshell, the person who nominates you asks you 11 questions and also asks you to provide 11 random facts about yourself. I thought 11 ‘About Me’ questions was quite enough so cheated and didn’t provide the random facts! As the nominee I, in turn, nominate 5-10 of my favourite blogs and ask them 11 questions. And so it goes on.

So here, dear readers, are my answers.

1: Where is your dream travel destination?

Europe, Europe, Europe – plonk me in just about any city in Europe and I’ll be happy. OK, so maybe not somewhere like Preston in Lancashire (sorry Lancastrians, no offence meant)… Although I live in Australia, I love to visit Europe whenever I get the chance. I aim to explore a new city every time I return to see relatives in the UK. In recent years I’ve visited Krakow, Copenhagen and Zurich. Give me cobbled streets, cafes with newspapers on racks, church spires, Royal palaces, Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau and more. I love the history, culture and elegance of everything European.

2: Dogs or cats?
Dogs every time! Just ask Bertie. In fact, we’ve just got in from a walk and he barked like mad at a couple of cats who had the ‘temerity’ to remain on the pavement as we approached.

3: Do you have any hidden talent?
I think I’m a frustrated actor. I recently went to an interactive Murder Mystery dinner – see the picture below – and had a lot of fun playing a character called Ursula Eades-Jones who was big in the suffragette movement – the play is set in the 1920s!

That's me in the middle

That’s me in the middle

4: Can you speak any foreign languages?
I speak passable French and I did a degree in German and Spanish, both of which are a bit rusty nowadays! However, I try to keep them going by watching foreign language news on SBS and going to the French, German and Spanish film festivals.

5: What is your favourite type of flower?
I adore roses!

6: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Ooh, well. Perhaps retired from the formal side of work with a published book or two under my belt…

7: How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

A one hundred and ten percenter, funny (as in ha-ha, not peculiar) and all heart (when my busy head is not running the show, that is).

8: Tea or coffee?
Tea – there are so many wonderful teas to enjoy from caffeinated ones to herbal infusions. But you can’t beat a good English Breakfast!

9: What are you currently reading?
Autumn Laing by Alex Miller which is (and I quote from the ABC website) “loosely based on painter Sidney Nolan’s formative years with his patron, muse and lover, Sunday Reed, and explores the doomed affair between an artist and the woman who aspires to change his life”. It’s beautifully written and an engrossing read.

10: What’s the first thing you see if you turn your head right?
A framed poster featuring two Scottie dogs and advertising ‘Black and White’ Scotch Whisky.

11: If you have any pets, what are their names?
Bertie is my two-year old spaniel. Love him to bits!!

Now, that’s quite enough of me!

I am nominating the following blogs for the Liebster Award. No offence taken if any of my nominees don’t wish to take part. I hope that you are anyway happy to be nominated! – Anne marie – A writers’ path
Kiwi Bee at – Farmer Fi – Harriet – Sara – Mark

The Official Rules Of The Liebster Award (non-bloggers do not need to read on..)

If you have been nominated for The Liebster Award AND YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT, write a blog post about the Liebster award in which you:

1. thank the person who nominated you, and post a link to their blog on your blog.

2. display the award on your blog — by including it in your post and/or displaying it using a “widget” or a “gadget”. (Note that the best way to do this is to save the image to your own computer and then upload it to your blog post.)

3. answer 11 questions about yourself, which will be provided to you by the person who nominated you.

These are:

1. What is your all-time favourite film
2. What does your ideal Sunday morning look like?
3. Town or country or both?
4. What is your favourite meal – feel free to share your recipe!
5. What would you do if you won the lottery?
6. Arts or Science?
7. How would you feel if you had no TV, phone or internet access for a week?
8. Most memorable travel adventure to date
9. Favourite drink – alcoholic or otherwise
10. What world issue most concerns you today?
11. If your fairy godmother could grant you one wish, what would it be?

4. provide 11 random facts about yourself.

5. nominate 5 – 11 blogs that you feel deserve the award, who have a less than 1000 followers. (Note that you can always ask the blog owner this since not all blogs display a widget that lets the readers know this information!)

6. create a new list of questions for the blogger to answer.

7. list these rules in your post (You can copy and paste from here.) Once you have written and published it, you then have to:

8. Inform the people/blogs that you nominated that they have been nominated for the Liebster award and provide a link for them to your post so that they can learn about it (they might not have ever heard of it!)

Two in a bed and a lampshade on the head

It’s been a while since I shared a bed but here we were… If only he would stop tossing and turning and go to sleep. I kept ending up with my left side exposed as he (unintentionally I’m sure) hogged the bed covers, which, incidentally, are white and so were covered with his chest hairs by the morning. I think I got about four hours’ sleep. I guess it would’ve been easier if he hadn’t been wearing a lampshade on his head.

You see, I was sharing a bed with Bertie, my dog, a novelty for us both. His normal bedroom is in the laundry, and he is quite happy there. But on this occasion he was agitated, restless and a bit out of sorts. You can hardly blame him; he’d had the snip that morning and was clearly feeling the after-effects of the anaesthetic and the drugs, not to mention losing part of his anatomy.

How long do I have to wear this ridiculous Jane Austen bonnet on my head, Mum?

How long do I have to wear this ridiculous Jane Austen bonnet on my head, Mum?

I’d had him scheduled for castration last Christmas when he was nine months old. But, on doing my research, I learnt that testosterone is very beneficial for the bones, joints and muscles when a dog is developing and growing. So I cancelled at the last minute. The big drive to de-sex a male dog at six months is all about population control. But that’s not such an issue where I live: my courtyard is escape-proof but he’s anyway unlikely to pick up the scent of a female on heat as 99.9% of them have been spayed.

This Christmas – he’s now 20-months-old – I decided it was time to make my mind up for once and for all. And I decided to take the plunge. However small the risk, there’s now definitely no chance of Bertie hooking up with a girl and making babies, no chance of him getting testicular cancer later in life, less likelihood of him developing prostrate problems and some chance of him calming down a bit. Plus – and this was a bonus, not the deciding factor – the annual council registration fee reduces dramatically. A win-win, you could say.

So I was all ready to do the deed and to take this manhood-stripping decision on behalf of my beloved boy when I bumped into three dog owners sitting firmly in the non-castration camp the day before. Did I really need to get Bertie done, they asked? He didn’t seem to be displaying any of the troublesome testosterone-driven behaviours. They’d all been so glad they had left their dogs intact…. Just what I didn’t need! I wavered right up until the moment we walked into the vet’s at 8am the next morning.

Wavered and wept in fact! It’s scary handing your dog over to the surgeon’s knife. What if he didn’t pull through? What if he changed character and lost his mojo? What if? What if?! As it was he nearly pulled me over when I went to collect him that afternoon and walked him to the car. Even though he was agitated that first night, he was still up for chasing possums and rushing around whacking the walls (and my legs) with his Elizabethan collar. I’m still sporting some impressive bruises!

He was possibly a bit quieter those first few post-surgery days and we had to content ourselves with geriatric on-leash walks around the block, but I knew he was his old self when, even when encumbered by the plastic lampshade, he managed to pick up and steal my socks and run around the house until I chased him. Eight days later we had our first off-leash walk and Bertie ran around like a mad thing. Then at the weekend we went for a celebratory romp and swim on the beach.

But yesterday was our biggest adventure of all. I had arranged to have coffee with a lovely Italian friend (we met just recently when she stayed at my house with her sister as Airbnb guests) at one of the cafes in Fed Square. Now Cinzia knows I am devoted to my dog; she gave me a delightful blue mug “My Dog is my Best Friend” with pictures of paw prints and bones. So she thought it was a great idea to take Bertie for his first trip into the city and include him in on our catch-up.
He did bark at a wheelie suitcase on the train (perhaps it seemed like some kind of UFO to him) and then at the sparrows in Fed Square, but otherwise he behaved impeccably. Long may you live Bertie, my Bestie.

My first train trip

My first train trip

Watching for sparrows in Fed Square

Watching for sparrows in Fed Square


Barking Mad

After watching A Different Breed on ABC2 on Friday night, I felt reassured that – contrary to what some of my friends may think – I don’t spoil or pamper my dog. He eats dog food, he sleeps in his own bed, doesn’t wear clothes or bejewelled accessories, and I’m not training him to dance, ghost-hunt or skateboard.

Other dog owners think and do things quite differently as I discovered from this hugely entertaining British documentary. It really made me laugh. Talk about projecting human qualities, emotions and needs onto dogs!

One woman left her micro-managed and ultra-pampered dachshund in the care of a male couple, who had two dogs of their own. She left strict instructions that the dog was to have chicken for breakfast, scrambled eggs for lunch and bread and butter for dinner, and that meals were to be served up at specific times. Oh, the rumpus when she discovered that her dog had eaten a few grains of dog biscuit from one of the other dog’s bowls. His palate would be forever tainted.

Then there was Vinnie Jones, a clairvoyant dachsie with a sparkling diamante collar, who, his owners claimed, could sniff out ghosts. His owners took him out with seasoned spectre sleuth and dog communicator John Pope-de-Locksley. “He says he saw a disembodied head floating around,” said Locksley translating for Vinnie. And, get this, they went looking for a ghost called Scratching Fanny who is believed to reside in Cock Lane in London’s East End.

Airedale Ted belongs to a single woman called Lucy, who confessed she considers him as an ersatz boyfriend. So much so that Ted notices when she puts on a sexy nightdress and licks her legs. Oh dear… Lucy goes the extra mile and has tasted all Ted’s food (dog chocolate, she says, tastes like sugary congealed fat) and gives him acupuncture from a home kit to ease his bad leg. His health care routine also involves regular faecal analysis. Surely it’s only a matter of time before she carts him off for canine colonics?

Narrated by Sue MacGregor, a former BBC Radio 4 presenter, all these truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories were delivered in a marvellously deadpan voice with just the right measure of irony. What made it even funnier is that some of the dogs ‘spoke’ their thoughts in gruff Welsh-sounding accents. Lucy’s Ted was heard to grumble as he was dragged upstairs for his acupuncture.

Over at BBC London, radio presenters Joanne and Anna present a weekly show, Barking at the Moon with the help of their dogs Matilda, an English bulldog and Molly, a miniature Bull Terrier. Theirs are the only dogs allowed in the BBC. With a mix of doggy tunes, snoring and barking from Molly and Matilda and interviews with dog enthusiasts and chat about ‘dogabilia’, the show is a runaway success and attracts over half a million listeners every week. The documentary caught up with Joanne and Anna as they tried to teach their ‘furkids’ how to skateboard. Thanks to the peanut butter smeared on the board, Matilda did seem to be getting the hang of it.

Also featured were a mother and daughter team who run an upmarket pet boutique in Chelmsford. Here you can find bespoke leads and collars, tailored clothes and more! They cater for all kinds of pets and were recently asked to create a bandana for a giant snail.

The programme ended with footage from the ‘Heelwork to Music’ competition finals at Crufts held at the Kennel Club in Coventry. The winner was dressed as a country farmer, and he and his dog danced to the Wurzels’ 1976 rendition of The Combine Harvester. If you’ve never heard of the Wurzels or their catchy ditty click on the link below. And if you do know it, happy reminiscing!

A Different Breed was just 45 minutes long and I enjoyed every minute of it with my dog Bertie snoring gently – almost purring – beside me on my sofa. As I said, I don’t spoil my dog. Apart from sometimes letting him up on the sofa…

Toodles, Poodles!

I just heard a dog bark on that big screen thing with moving images...

I just heard a dog bark on that big screen thing with moving images…

On Bruxism and Botox

Sometimes I fall into the trap of being too nice. It’s an old pattern driven by family and social conditioning and expectations: keep everything nice, be polite and don’t make a fuss. It’s a habit that says it’s better to keep the peace than to express emotions such as anger and frustration, for example. But it comes at a price; people who smile and bite back anger tend to be of the teeth-clenching variety. And I would know. I’ve chomped my way through a fair few dental splints in my time. Excessive grinding of the teeth goes by the fancy name of bruxism and affects up to 30% of the population. It is also sometimes referred to as TMJ disorder as in temporomandibular joint dysfunction.

TMJ - Tense Munching Jaw in my language

TMJ – Tense Munching Jaw in my language

Perhaps one way to avoid grinding your teeth into oblivion is to maintain good boundaries in your personal relationships. I reckon I’ve got better at recognising boundary breakers – you know, the type that take more than they give, that pour out all their problems, talk AT you rather than to you and see you as their new best friend on first acquaintance.

A recent situation put my boundary skills to the test. I was walking my dog Bertie in a small local park. A young boy was playing with his football and Bertie joined in – or rather took over and stole the ball. He’s no fool, my boy. Keen not to miss a classic Kodak moment, I got my camera out. “You should video it,” said a loud-voiced, larger-than-life woman rounding the corner with her two fluffy white dogs. I confessed I had no storage space left on my phone and was therefore using my camera. She professed to know the type of camera and assured me it had a video function. She grabbed it and started fiddling around with the settings. Seeing some numbers come up on the screen and some kind of symbol, I started filming. But a few minutes later, when I went to admire my handiwork there was nothing there. So she grabbed the camera again and this time – God knows how – as the camera beeps if you are about to erase all the pictures – managed to delete every picture on the memory card. OUCH! Three weeks of precious, irreplaceable puppy pictures gone in a flash.

The woman – the closest thing to a bull in a china shop – said I’d be able to retrieve them from the camera’s delete bin. Well, hello, cameras don’t function like computers. There is no second chance. Gutted, cross, disappointed and jaw seriously in clench mode by now, I put Bertie on the leash and we stormed off, me muttering: “Sorry, I’ve had it. I’ve got to go.” “I said sorry,” said the woman. “I know,” I replied, “and I am expressing my deep disappointment at losing some treasured photos. I’ll probably get over it tomorrow but right now…”

I didn’t bump into her again for a few weeks. Phew! And when I did, I decided to let bygones be bygones and uttered a cheery hello. Weirdly, she seemed to have no recollection of me or my dog, let alone the camera fiasco. But she did announce in her strange, over-familiar way that she’d bought a new belt at the market that day and couldn’t undo it. Could I help? Now, I should tell you that she is about three times my size and I didn’t fancy tussling with her fleshy waist. And just to complicate matters, Bertie decided to hump her dog at this point. So here I was confronted with my angel turned into a hip-thrusting Romeo while the woman, clearly a few-sandwiches-short-of-a-picnic, remained imprisoned in her jeans. What choice did I really have but to offer to liberate her? Summoning my inner Good Samaritan, I pulled and pulled… and pulled – her belt truly was stuck; this was no ploy to entice me to touch her – until, ping, the pin finally released. She was now free but I could feel myself gritting my teeth with the effort of it all, not to mention the weirdness.

I’ve since read an article about beating bruxism by having Botox injections into the masseter (chewing) muscles around the jaw. You’d think it might do the opposite and freeze the jaw into a permanent grimace, but apparently not as it relaxes and softens the muscles. I haven’t investigated it yet but I’m tempted. At least if I bump into the woman and her pooches, I can smile with a nice, loose jaw and then get the hell out…