Farewell, Old Friend

A year ago today we lost our family dog, how fast it has gone. When I posted this last year it seems I inadvertently upset people: mothers on the school run was asking me not to post anything else about him, I got a message from a girl on holiday in Spain: ‘I’m in tears, my mum’s in tears, the waitress serving us has two Labradors and she’s in tears!’ It wasn’t my intention then or now, I’m just remembering our old friend.

City Jackdaw

Dog lovers: why do we do it? I mean really, why do we fucking put ourselves through it?

We know, when we let them into our homes and incorporate them into our family dynamics, exactly what their lifespan is. We know that they don’t live as long as we do, and that there is going to be an emotional payback for all of the years of unconditional love and non-judgemental companionship that they offer us. But it is only when you reach that devastating moment of reckoning when you ask the question: is it all worth it?

I’m a Doctor Who fan. How many times have I heard it said, courtesy of the script writers, that the Doctor doesn’t stay with his companions because the hurt of watching them age and die, while he goes on, is too much. Having watched the programme since the 80’s, you think I’d have…

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Farewell, Old Friend

Dog lovers: why do we do it? I mean really, why do we fucking put ourselves through it?

We know, when we let them into our homes and incorporate them into our family dynamics, exactly what their lifespan is. We know that they don’t live as long as we do, and that there is going to be an emotional payback for all of the years of unconditional love and non-judgemental companionship that they offer us. But it is only when you reach that devastating moment of reckoning when you ask the question: is it all worth it?

I’m a Doctor Who fan. How many times have I heard it said, courtesy of the script writers, that the Doctor doesn’t stay with his companions because the hurt of watching them age and die, while he goes on, is too much. Having watched the programme since the 80’s, you think I’d have made the connection by now, wouldn’t you?

Our Golden Retriever was put to sleep yesterday. My children are still crying, my wife is hurting. But though things are raw at the moment, the ten years that he was part of our family has got to have been worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing.

When my wife and I decided to get a dog, we couldn’t agree on which breed to get. I was used to large German Shepherds, having had them as pets when a boy, she was used to smaller dogs like West Highland Terriers, so we thought we would meet somewhere in the middle. One day, when walking in the Lakes, at Rydal Water, we encountered a woman walking two Golden Retrievers. One was old and blind, the other was young and acted as the eyes of its mature friend, guiding it along. We asked the owner about their temperament (we were about to go into fostering, and so had to consider how any dog we would get would be like around children).

“Wonderful!” was the reply. And so it was decided: we would get a Golden Retriever, and name it Rydal after the place of our agreement. Thank God we weren’t at Bassenthwaite Lake.

My wife picked the puppy up one day and came looking for me to introduce him-I was a postman and still on my round. She pulled up alongside me, brandishing a little, shivering furball in her hands. “Rydal loves his little mummy!!” 

Perfecting his ‘love me’ look.

From the start he perfected the art of capturing the hearts of strangers. Even as an adult, whenever I walked him around the estate kids would come flocking to him. And he really indulged them, too.

From the size that he became, it's hard to believe that he could fit into one of my hands.

From the size that he became, it’s hard to believe that I could hold him with one hand.

I have had a few dogs in my life, and Rydal really was the best behaved out of them all. Only once, when he was younger, did he have any sort of behavioural aberration. We left some money out on the side, two twenty pound notes, to pay a guy who was doing a small decorating job for us. When the job was finished and the time came to pay him, we couldn’t find it anywhere. After hunting high and low for it, as Rydal slept peacefully (or feigned sleep) in the corner, we eventually came to the realisation that the dog had somehow reached up and eaten the money. Forty quid-what happened to he ain’t nothing but a pound dog?

It was like the old homework gag-we had to tell the decorator that we couldn’t pay him as the dog had eaten his money. Then we had to field the incoming texts-‘It’s my mates leaving do tomorrow, I feel awful not going but I’m skint. Can you ask your dog to lend me some money?’ And ‘You need to exercise Rydal more, he’s putting weight on. About forty pounds.’

My wife wanted me to go through his excrement when I took him out, but forty quid was nowhere near enough doing that for!

Glowing in the sun, on my old school fields.

Glowing in the sun, on my old school fields.

But that was about it-he grew into a fantastic dog. Didn’t destroy things, didn’t chew things. Sometimes I would forgetfully leave the bin lid up in the kitchen (where he slept) and he wouldn’t go in it. Once, there was chicken in there, on the top, scraped from one of the kids’ plates, and he didn’t touch it. And he loved chicken (even though it went right through him). Or I would be taking him for a walk, and, forgetting my key for the side gate as it was raining outside and I couldn’t bring him back in through the house, I would leave him stood outside on the step, telling him to wait for me, and he would. Despite both the temptation of the kids playing inside with an open door, and his eagerness to go for a walk, he would be sat exactly where I told him to wait.

Off the beaten track.

Off the beaten track.

Many a time I would remark to my wife “How good is he?”

Many a time he would suffer such ignominy at the hands of my children

Many a time he would suffer such ignominy at the hands of my children

Once I walked into the room to find my daughter painting his face with make-up while he sat and let her. Thank God I intervened before the lipstick and rouge had been used. But I couldn’t remove the pink eyebrows. It was embarrassing when walking him, people would stop to stroke him: “Isn’t he lovely!” as I would attempt to pull him away before they spotted them. I have barely any street-cred around here as it is.

He really was the most obedient dog I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a few of my own, as well as attracting others too! Even as a postman, I bucked the trend of fearful posties being savaged by dogs. My round was up on the Langley Estate where I live. As I went around I would usually have somebody’s dog coming around with me, for the whole of my walk. It’s been ten years since I did that job, but even today I bump into old customers who say “How can we forget you-the Langley postman who always had dogs following him?” Not exactly the epitaph I was looking for on my grave. But I’ll take it.

Sometimes it would seem that Rydal had an appreciative eye for the aesthetics of the world. He would sit outside, basking in the early sunlight, watching the birds and the sky as he sniffed the air. Looking for all the world like he was taking in the morning.

Rydal’s end came on quite sudden. I remarked a few months ago all at once he was looking old. His face had aged, his muzzle greying, though his eyes still had that energetic sparkle. I would walk him around the estate at quite a fast pace, let him off for a run on my old school fields (for a nostalgic creature like myself, they will now take on an extra poignancy). It was a joy to see his unadulterated joy. Snow was a particular favourite of his.

Bright eyes.

Bright eyes.

Awaiting the snowball.

Awaiting the snowball.

But suddenly, just a few days ago, he began walking very slowly. There was no gradual decline, no warning. Overnight he had become one of those aged dogs you see, shuffling along beside their owners. He moved slowly, breathing becoming short and shallow. Walks were cut to just a dozen or so yards,and  he would stop in the middle of the road when crossing. It was the speed of his deterioration that caught us unawares. My wife thought that he could have had a twig or something caught in the back of his throat that was affecting his breathing. On the Monday he had slowed right up, and ate his last meal. Tuesday night he didn’t want to be left alone. My wife stayed up longer with him as he seemed like he just wanted attention. When I got up the next morning, yesterday, he was stood waiting for me behind the door. From what followed, I think he had been on his feet all night, unable to settle. Even then, even then, he was quiet all through the night, not disturbing anyone, despite how wretched he must have been feeling.

I made the appointment at the vets. My wife was still hoping against hope it was an obstruction in his airway.

But I knew, and began steeling myself for the news. We couldn’t get him in the vets until 4.50pm, so I had one last day at home with him, alone. He was panting that much the whole of his chest hair was soaked. He couldn’t settle-going into the back garden, the front garden, the run of the house. And still, as he always did, he followed me everywhere, content for me to stroke his head while he ebbed.

Struggling, in the garden.

Struggling, in the garden, the end in sight.

The time drew near. An hour before, I told my kids to give him a hug and wish him good luck at the vets. I knew they were in effect saying goodbye to him, but I just couldn’t tell them that. They then went next door to my Mum’s. My wife was still at work, but wouldn’t have come anyway. She works in the funeral business, deals with grieving families everyday, goes out onto funerals, also picking up deceased people for the coroner in all types of places and situations.

But she couldn’t handle this.

One last kiss, an hour before.

One last kiss, an hour before.

Rydal and I waited together for the black cab to arrive. He was still panting hard, sitting facing me. I put my forehead to his, scratching him behind the ears in the way that he always loved.”You are a good dog, Rydal. You’ve been a good dog-you’ve been the best of dogs.”

Listening to my final praising of him.

Listening to my final praising of him.

We got to the vets, and despite how terrible he must have been feeling, he was his usual co-operative self. As soon as we sat down we were called in. He trundled in by my side, allowed himself to be weighed. Within a few minutes we knew that there was no twig, it was something a lot more serious. Possible growths, his age, and cancer was mentioned, but I didn’t really take it in, it was just what I expected, and the clock, his clock, was ticking.

A lot of euphemisms were used which really meant the same thing: the last thing that I could do for my dog was agree to kill him and put his suffering at an end. I have always been very stoic-like, and, you know, manly, about things like this. But this time I became upset as soon as we started talking about it. I lay him down, and as he was injected it was so quick-no longer than twenty seconds, his head slumping as his eyes dulled and my eyes blurred. It reminded me of the last time I had to go through this with another dog-you could see the light in the eyes fade as the life departed.

Younger days.

Younger days.

I fear this post has become a little overly-sentimental and mawkish. Time has made me that way. I used to be able to keep a lid on things, but this time I failed hopelessly.

The vet, who was lovely, gave me instructions about the crematorium that I just didn’t take in. I agreed to her suggestion of shaving some hair to take home for my kids. I was offered an hour, but spent ten minutes in there alone with him, stroking his head one last time. “Go to your reward, big fella.”

And then I escaped out into the street, back into everyday life. There is an entrance opposite the vets that leads to the woods that I regularly walk in, and I sought refuge there. I sat on the large hill below Alkrington Hall and sent a text to my wife, asking if she had finished work yet. And, when I heard that she had, sent a simple message: ‘He’s gone.’ Then began building my resolve to break the news to the kids.

Animals are our teachers, and for our children, sometimes the lessons are harsh.

Animals are our teachers, and for our children, sometimes, the lessons can be harsh.

For those of you who prefer happy endings, or look for optimistic ‘signs’:

I sat on that hill, looking around at these beautiful surroundings, thinking about nature and how the world works, and also the question that kicked this post off: dog lovers, why do we do it? A white-tailed bumble bee landed on my foot and remained there. It was most zen-like. It just remained motionless while I watched it on my trainer. Then, about three hundred yards below me, at the foot of the hill, a dog came into view, crossing Lever Bridge, the owner still not in sight. It was a Labrador Retriever, similar to the breed that Rydal was, only shorter-haired. He suddenly started bounding towards me, sprinting up the hill. As he reached me he was all over me, licking my chin, somehow not standing on the bee. A bundle of playful energy, he danced around me, briefly, then shot off again, back down the hill towards his owner.

Despite everything, I laughed.

It’s only been a day. There is a hole in the house, a sense of something missing. The kids fill up whenever they go into the kitchen. I’ve heard it said before, of people grieving the loss of a pet, it’s only a dog/cat. It’s not like it’s a child or anything. That is true. I’ve probably echoed similar sentiments myself. But grief is grief. We don’t choose, as we go through life, just who or what we give our hearts to.

A bit of mine has gone with Rydal, wherever he may now be.

Goodbye, old friend, thanks for the love and the memories.

You really were the best of dogs.


Diving for rose petals

For all you dog lovers, a short, moving post here from Lady Fi.

Lady Fi

Many many thanks for all your wonderful messages of sympathy on Oscar’s passing. It has meant a lot to me.

This week I went down to Oscar’s favourite place, the jetty on our lake,

And threw some rose petals into the water as a way of honouring my furry friend.

Ruby, who is Oscar’s great-granddaughter, and who we have been fostering for the past nine months,

Decided to honour Oscar in his favourite activity: diving into the lake.

Ruby rose petals copy

She carefully retrieved one of the roses

And placed it on the jetty.

Bright colours copy

We sat for a while

Enjoying the autumn scenery and good memories of Oscar.

I’d say that a part of him lives on in Ruby, who is now our own dog.

Ruby on pier copy

Be warned: you might see more pictures of wet (and dry) dogs here on my blog after all!

Big brown eyes copy

For more good memories, please visit: Our World Tuesday.

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First World War Centenary Series #3: The Last Post

Things are starting to feel a bit heavy on Jackdaw. I was going to do a post today about when I went to Greece to visit the grave of my great-grandfather, buried in Thessaloniki. But I think I will save that for another time. This short post here will be the last of my First World War themed posts. Then we move on.

Trying to get a grasp on the numbers, the magnitude, in relation to the war is impossible. When we talk about the deaths, about the millions of deaths, they become just that. Numbers. Faceless, anonymous, horrifying, numbers. So I resorted to address the legacy of the conflict through my own family connections. These more personal links help to bring home the devastating effects of that conflict. Both of my grandmothers grew up without having their fathers in their lives because of that war. Every Remembrance Sunday I never forget that.

On the evening of the 4th of August, 1914, as the clock ticked ever closer to the deadline time of 11.00pm, the whole country waited to hear if Germany had responded to Britain’s ultimatum. In two different homes in Manchester, each just a short walk from each other, both Timothy O’Sullivan and Albert Cartwright would also have been waiting with their respective wives and young families. Or perhaps they had both gone to gather outside Manchester Town Hall to hear the news, before returning home to talk war around the hearth. What would those houses have been filled with? Feelings of anxiety, uncertainty? Perhaps a growing excitement? Maybe even an idea that war could somehow still be averted? Or were both families reconciled to the fact that everything had irrevocably changed?

Neither family could have known that, within four years Timothy would be dead, within five Albert. Forty nine years down the line from that night, these two families would become connected when Timothy’s grandson (my Dad) would marry Albert’s granddaughter (my mum). At the wedding, both the mother of the groom and the mother of the bride would have that sense of loss in common.

This is my blood-story that brings home the tragedy of the period to me. It is only through stories like this that we can fully appreciate how children, families, were cheated. As a father myself, who was lucky enough to grow up with my father in my life, that is how it would feel to me. Cheated. How different things could have been if only these people had been born in a different period of history. But this is now part of my family history. Part of my story too.

Along with the family perspective, another way we can get to understand the impact of the war is through the local connection. There are the names on local memorials, stories in local archives and on the lips of the people that we meet. For months now our local newspaper has been printing stories that include things that I can relate to. The names of streets that the soldiers came from, the same streets that I have grown up on. The name of schools and churches that those young men attended, institutions that are still part of my community.

One local story that stayed with me was one that I read about a few years ago. It was a story that took place not on a battlefield, not in the theatre of war, but here on the streets of my town, Middleton.

It was a written account of a local who remembers witnessing one day, up in the Cheapside area of the town, the local postman sat sobbing on a kerb by the roadside. A woman who lived nearby was sat with her arm around his shoulders, silently consoling him. This postman spent everyday delivering telegrams to fearful households, breaking the news that a loved one had been lost.

I was a postman for eleven years. I was accustomed to people waiting expectantly for the post, some not leaving home until I had arrived. For him it must have been so different. No-one wanting him to call. Every dreading household watching out to see which house in the street he was going to next. In the end it must have been too much for him-the constant, devastated reactions of people that he knew. Bringing bad tidings about people that he knew.

The family stories, the local stories. It is these that bring home to me what the consequences of the war was. The unparalleled, worldwide devastation and loss, seen here in microcosm.

Tomorrow, something lighter. I promise.

Today We Remember: A Personal View

On the way to Manchester, in Collyhurst, there is a war memorial that lists the names of local men who died in the First World War.

photo (46)

Among that obscenely long list of names are two which have a personal and emotional connection to myself-two of my great grandfathers.

One is my mum’s grandfather-Albert Cartwright.

Here he is pictured with his wife Ada as he is about to leave for war. Tall and proud in his Lancashire Fusiliers uniform.

Albert and Ada

I cannot help but contrast the image of Ada here, bidding farewell to her husband with all the fears and uncertainties that that must have involved, with the strong, confident, formidable woman she appears as on another photograph I have of her. (On the right).


Albert did return home, but died the day before new year’s eve in 1919, as a result of being gassed when at the front.

photo (44)

The other name is my Dad’s grandfather: Timothy O’Sullivan.

He died on 10th January 1917 and is buried in Thessaloniki, Greece. A local orphan who was destined to lie in foreign soil.

In those days, family members had neither the means nor the opportunity to visit the graves of their loved ones who died overseas. A family notice, placed in the local newspaper by his older half-sister, spoke of ‘the pain of an unknown grave.’

On the 90th anniversary of Timothy’s death, I stood at that grave. Conscious that his widow and children never made it there, I felt the ghosts of my gran and my great aunt looking over my shoulder. Two women who often spoke of the man they never knew. I felt I represented them, along with my Dad, and my children. All the descendants of the chain.


photo (45)

Every year on Remembrance Sunday, I take part in the service at that memorial, conscious of the links and the sacrifice and the blood that runs in my veins.

I let my daughters place a cross that holds the names of their two ancestors, along with the name of my wife’s great uncle who was worked to death as a prisoner of the Japanese, building the notorious Burma-Siam railway in World War Two.

Fred Dyson

My wife’s great uncle is the tall, strapping guy stood on the right. Fred Dyson, he died 15th Nov 1943. A generation on, a different war, the same sense of loss.

I have posted all of these photographs here to serve as a further memorial.

Every Remembrance Sunday, as well as the men who are represented by those cold, carved letters in stone, my thoughts turn also to my two grandmothers who are no longer here. Two women who I was close to, two women who as children both grew up without their fathers because of war.

That is reason alone for me, and my children, to remember.

poppy cross

R.I.P The Death of James Herbert and My Childhood

James Herbert

I was so saddened to hear of the death of James Herbert on the 20th of March. Why? I never knew him. I never even met him. The closest I came to contact with him was an autographed leaflet advertising his new book, obtained by my mother, thirty years ago, who worked with his cousin.

The sadness arises from the passing of another link with my childhood. Perhaps its a turning forty thing. When I drank alcohol I could wallow in my beer. Now I cry into my coffee. Kicking off my slippers in frustration.

What on earth could the link be between childhood and books of gratuitous horror and sex? Perhaps  the answer is found within the question. But I began reading Herbert’s books when in my last year of primary school, aged around 11-12. Maybe not ideal fodder for a young mind-others were taking in Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. The author of the Bobby Brewster range even paid us a visit. But I was reading above my age, and my interest was horror. Bloodthirsty kid that I was.

‘To Andrew, glad you like the books so much. Best Wishes James Herbert.’ I’ve still got it. There was no postscript suggesting I seek a counsellor. Or take part in a NSPCC therapy session. Or a recommendation that my folks attend a parenting class. If they had them then.

We were on a coach one day travelling back to school from a trip to Jodrell Bank, our necks still stiff from gazing heavenwards in the darkness of the Planetarium, when I heard my teacher, talking to some girls a few rows behind, mention my name. She saw me turn and explained “I just said ‘even I don’t read the books that Andrew Murray reads!'”

It didn’t bode well for parents evening.

My Mum returned, and among the usual platitudes said “She was a bit concerned about the types of books you read.”

“Why?” I feigned innocence.

She suddenly developed a stammer that had never been evident before: “She wants to know what you do abb..bout the er.er.. when you get to..to the ..erm. ”

“The sex bits!” my Dad interjected helpfully.

Innocent schoolboy lover of just the horror parts,of course, I answered ” I skip those.” My mum latched onto that in an instant, “That’s what I said.”

“You can’t bleedin’ skip them,” my Dad added with more authority than I thought usual.

But James Herbert’s books are what my early diet consisted of. Midway through my last year at that primary school a new girl started who also read James Herbert. A girl too! How cool was she?

Anyway, I got older, I moved on (in schools and books.) From Herbert I moved to King, and then out into the wider world of literature.  James Herbert’s books moved on too-from the more traditional horror fayre to a more supernatural style, which I wasn’t as enthusiastic about. But I think back to those early ones-The Rats, The Fog, The Dark, The Survivor, books I loved in a period of my life that I loved. I would lend them to my uncle who took them with him when he worked the night-shift (he is no longer with us.) I lent them to my mum (she has moved onto Catherine Cookson.)

So, for the part he played in my childhood, and into my early teens, I felt that sense of loss when hearing of his death. A sense of losing something from my past. I have experienced that unexpected reaction before.

Bill Bixby. I can recall the Saturday teatimes spent sat eating my ravioli, wearing my Six Million Dollar Man t shirt (please-someone give me some good news about Lee Majors) and watching the Incredible Hulk. I loved that programme, and was gutted when he died.

Mr McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

Peter Cushing-from the Hammer Horror films. Told you I was a blood thirsty kid.

George Harrison-I was a Beatles fan from being twelve, three years after Lennon died. I recall how I discovered about Harrison’s demise. It was my day off from work (I was a postman) and my partner at the time and I went into the local Global video store to get a couple of films. As she took them to the counter, I continued to browse, and one of my colleagues came in with the post for the store. He too was a Beatles fan. He greeted me, then “Hey-what about George?” With some trepidation, I replied “What about him?”

“He’s died.” I shouted across the store “Put those videos back-George Harrison has died!” It was a day of watching MTV instead.

Aww and recently Elizabeth Sladen-my Sarah Jane Smith. (The wife rolls her eyes.)

Each time one of these figures die, along with what to me they represent, it is like a fragment falls away. Another signpost removed.

Perhaps it is a morose, turning-forty-thing. The lot of the moribund.

Perhaps I am being overly sentimental.

But I have heard among the many tributes countless similar tales, of how Herbert’s books was a visual soundtrack to the teenage years of so many. Of course, many remained fans throughout without falling away.

It is a little disingenuous of me to refer to him merely as a stepping stone to Stephen King. I think I may revisit some of those early books from an adult perspective, albeit awash with nostalgia. I think back to my old primary school teacher. I like to think that curiosity got the better of her and she dipped her toe in and became a fan. Perhaps he was a stepping stone for her too.

Perhaps somewhere out there she is turning off her lamp, with the ubiquitous Mr Grey on her bedside table.

James Herbert R.I.P