Reflections on being a dog-owning writer: The first week

I’m writing this one-handed and very slowly because a certain young lady is using my other hand as a pillow. Sure enough, I’ve been up with her since 5:30 and after having a mad play session to use up some of that energy (hers, not mine. Definitely not mine) which has been building overnight I’ve finally got her back to sleep. But only on my lap.

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This first week has been one of discovery (on both sides) and compromise. Surprisingly, it’s been quite productive from a writing point of view.

Asha and I have slowly developed a routine we can both live with. I’ve moved my ‘office’ to the kitchen where she lives for most of the time. I get her up first thing in the morning and, as with all her sleeps, take outside to do a ‘wee wee’. Asha is hit and miss about this, initially not having a clue what was expected of her but assuming she was missing something terribly exciting inside and so wailing like a banshee rather than actually do a wee. Of course, as soon as I’d get her inside again she’d piddle on the kitchen floor. Then, mid-week, she got it. Life was great again. Yesterday, however, now she knew what to do, she chose not to do it for some of the time – but I know her game and I will win…

Anyway, after toileting, we always have a mad, fun playing session largely involving her chasing one of her chew toys as I drag it around me until she catches it and brings it on to my lap to chew. Gradually, the play lessens until Asha and I cuddle for a bit. Within minutes she is sleeping and then I transfer her to her bed. That’s the point when I can get work done. I rush to the laptop and get writing.

I never know whether I’ll have minutes or half an hour to write so every second it precious because once Asha’s awake the whole process of toilet-play-calm-sleep begins again.

As time goes on and her bladder gets bigger these time frames should get longer. Should. I hope so anyway. But for now it seems a routine we can both live with. She gets the attention she needs and I get time to write.

On top of this, the obedience training continues apace. The girl is getting very good at sitting and she will remain sitting with the instruction of ‘stay’ allowing me to walk to the other side of the kitchen until I tell her to ‘come’. I’m starting to work on ‘heel’ this next week so we’ll see how long that takes. She really is a clever little thing though.

The focused ‘heck-I’ve-got-to-get-this-written-fast’ sessions are suiting my ADHDness very well. As long as, that is, I don’t think ‘I’ll just check Facebook quickly first of all’ or ‘I’ll just have a quick look at my emails’. That’s always a disaster. A ‘quick’ look at Facebook before I begin writing usually means just as I come off and bring up my article-in-progress I’m greeted by a cheery wagging tail and bright shiny eyes saying ‘play with me! And do it quick because I need a wee!’

My other studies and music practice, however, have gone out of the window. That’s another thing I need to introduce to the routine: leaving Asha when she’s awake for ever-lengthening periods of time. I can go to the loo – just – but little else so far. Even then, the wails echo around the house and, I very much suspect, the neighbours house too. But I’m hoping to begin leaving for short bursts quite often until I can safely go and play a Debussy Prelude on the piano or something before coming back. However, this will all be a bonus. The important thing is that the writing is back on track.

It has to be said though, when Asha is asleep she is simply the cutest creature ever. This means, of course, that sometimes – sometimes - I don’t take her off my lap when she falls asleep and transfer her to her bed. She’s just too cute to go.

Hence, this one-handed post. At least it meant I kept it short.

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Gardening, schools and why I ‘demeaned’ myself for two years

schools and gardening

A friend shared this picture on Facebook this morning and I began to share it and write a little commentary. I quickly realised my rant was too long for a medium which is only slightly better than the 140-character Twitter medium. So I’ll write it here instead.

This picture isn’t just about teaching kids to grow food (or cook or budgeting or a host of other important skills which aren’t taught so well or at all in schools). It’s about what we consider in our societies to be important and worthy.

I believe our societies will remain corrupt and morally wrong until we equate farmers with doctors.

It sounds outrageous and it is a principle I’m advocating – not ignoring all the other important jobs out there – that we think intelligence, qualifications, money and power are honourable and admirable qualities to be pursued at all costs.

In the UK foreigners are blamed for taking all our ‘low-paid’ jobs. Just a day or two ago it was headline news on BBC Radio 4 – the ‘Guardian or New York Times’ of the British airwaves – that immigration was up greater than Government targets and more foreigners were taking our ‘low-paid jobs’. But the fact is that it is the other way around – employers just can’t persuade British people to clean toilets, stack shelves, clear our rubbish and so on so they go to people abroad who don’t have such snobbery.No one believes it is a good thing for their teenager to go into farming, waste management or working in Tescos. Their child is ‘better than that’.

For the last couple of years when I taught in a UK school I would go out to the playground most break times and pick up the rubbish our students were throwing away. I’d been inspired by visits to LAMB in Bangladesh and seeing how kids and staff cleaned the whole school every day after school – even the oldest teenagers had roles – and no one considered it ‘beneath them’. Even the chief Medical Director’s daughters cleaned floors like everyone else. I was also inspired by Danny Wallace’s Random Acts of Kindness. So, without a song and a dance about it, I’d go out every break time I could manage and clean up the masses of rubbish the kids dropped nonchalantly every day as they munched through sweets, crisps, chocolate and cans of coke.

Some thought I was a ‘dirty bugger’ for doing it. Others – including fellow teachers –  were horrified that I was being so disgusting. General opinion was that a teacher shouldn’t do things like that and that it should be the cleaners who do it. As though I was better than a cleaner! I was told by one of my older students that I was ‘demeaning’ myself. Thankfully, I enjoyed a damned good reputation among the kids and those who would have tried to spread rumours about me and generally castigate me found themselves alone and muted. I continued to be well liked by most of my kids.

But almost none of the kids joined me. Some, sheepishly, would take their own rubbish to the bin and put it there but most carried on dropping rubbish on the floor even though they could see me cleaning up and I could see them dropping it.

I didn’t tell them off. That wasn’t the point of the exercise. It was about showing that all of us are equal and share responsibility to look after our environment. I wasn’t too ‘high up’ to get my hands, literally, dirty.

Even by the age of 11 or 12 (the age these kids started at my school) the idea that some things are ‘beneath dignity’ had been ingrained in these young minds. How appalling! How disgraceful that we teach our children that dignity and respect comes from the power you wield and not from how you conduct yourself in life. Honestly, I think we have ‘demeaned’ our children by allowing this to happen. It needs to stop but I fear it never will.

I want to see our schools teach gardening and a host of other skills because I want children to learn that all jobs are important, all skills to be honoured and that dignity comes from your care for others, your society and your environment and not from your annual salary. Doctors might save lives when something bad happens to our bodies but farmers save lives by producing the food we need. Bin men keep our streets clean so diseases can’t spread. Supermarket staff enable us to obtain the food we need so we don’t starve (which most of us would do if we had to live off our own ability to grow food).

Forgive me if I’ve not mentioned your job. Nor have I praised mine – because that’s precisely the point. How can we have a genuinely equitable society, free of corruption, while we put one person above another?

I’ve written many times before on this blog that the woman I most admire in the world was the woman who was our family ayah – housemaid, cook, cleaner and nanny – who looked after us for more than five years in Bangladesh. Surola was a quiet and humble woman and there was nothing special about her using any of the world’s standard ways of measuring importance. Yet the way this woman conducted herself led me quickly to consider her one of the most influential people in my life. I would hold her estimation of me more dear than all the accolades in the world.

Let’s teach our children gardening – and in doing so, teach them self-worth and to honour and respect all.

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Reflections on being a dog-owning writer: The first day

That ‘never again’ moment has occurred. Again.

Yesterday we bought a new puppy. Doing so was a touch-and-go affair. I didn’t go into writing to get rich, I went into writing because it was something I’ve had an urge to do for most of my life but the so-called business of life got in the way until a few years ago. When I had the opportunity to make my living from writing I took it – but I was under no pretensions that I would see easy money come in for little effort. Quite the reverse. So buying a pure breed Cocker Spaniel puppy from a good, certificated lineage was not likely on what I bring in.

Thankfully(?) I’m the only paid(?) writer in this family and everyone else has a proper good job. That… and having parents/grandparent/parents-in-law who are generous too. The result was that by allowing ourselves almost no presents whatsoever at Christmas, my team of four just about managed to scrape together the coffers needed to buy this little madam.

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The picture is blurry. Actually all the pictures are blurry. She didn’t stop moving for one minute when we got her back to the house.

When you bring a new dog into your home to be part of your family you don’t just bring that dog back: you bring all your dogs back. Having our little Asha (which means ‘hope’ in Bangla – it remains to be seen if it is a statement of expectation or exasperation) become the fifth member of my family means she comes to a family loaded with baggage from the previous dogs in our lives.

We’ve had other pets too, of course: cats, rabbits, hamster (whose death was famously misunderstood by my very young son who thought his Gran had died instead of the hamster) and the legendary goldfish which turned, in a matter of days, into cannibals before the last one died (I assume) from overeating (shall we say?). But these don’t come to mind with the arrival of a new dog. Just the dogs come back to the memory, fresh as though having just returned from a jolly good walk.

My first – Kara – was more a member of the family than I – seeing as I came after her and so was relegated to runt of the litter. According to all the books on training dogs it’s a miracle she didn’t eat me alive, but she didn’t. She was as gentle as a lamb with me and allowed me to mistreat her terribly when I was a toddler (so I’m told).

Kara ruled the house, slept where and when she liked (indeed on whom she liked too) with the sole exception of my parent’s bed. Kara used to sleep there when she was a puppy but as she grew larger unnoticed, day by day, her habits became untenable. She would snuggle between my parents and, during the course of the night stretch out her legs in sleepy bliss and, in doing so, begin to push my father away.

Things came to a head when he woke up one morning and found himself nose-to-glass with the alarm clock, body teetering on the edge of an abyss from which, had he fallen, the dog would never have survived. That was Kara’s last night on the bed and, I guess, the first official day of no longer being a puppy.

Asha has got a long way to go before she loses that puppy ‘can-get-away-with-anything’ quality. Like having a newborn, that cute factor is, I think, an evolutionary trait designed for survival for we would surely not put up with the tear-jerking wailing when left in her sleeping ‘crate’ at night in much the same way our foremothers would have abandoned their young, not understanding the high-pitched wailing, without that unbreakable bond of love. Puppies make you love them. It’s evolution.

Our first dog in our marriage was ‘rescued’ from the animal shelter just as he had left behind any semblance of being a puppy and never had the advantage of the cute factor. Pug was a problem dog too – so much so that, years later, I could spend an hour or more with ease regaling my students with tales of what the blasted ‘hound from hell’ had got up to. Pug was a nightmare but, at least, intelligent. We were able to train him enough that he won prizes at dog-training classes and we achieved about 15 years of tolerable existence with him. I was sad when he became so old and decrepit while we were out in Bangladesh and he lived with my parents-in-law. When we returned for visits I saw him getting older and more confused and waited for the call that all dog-owners dread when the vet tells you it’s time to put your pet out of their misery. It came shortly before we came back to the UK for good. He was never a good dog but still… I missed him.

Asha is proving to be even more intelligent and almost instantaneously trainable than Pug ever was. It took one afternoon for her to get the concepts of ‘fetch’, ‘bring it here’ and ‘drop’ when playing with a bouncy ball. Today she’s grasped ‘sit’, ‘stay’ and ‘come’ for treats. Pug, by contrast, took months to do the same and doing anything for a treat was always on the basis of understanding that he was prepared to negotiate rather a given that he would do anything he’d been trained to do at all. You never quite knew with him if he would sit or shit, to be frank.

Pug, as I say, was a problem dog. This meant we had to treat him more harshly than dogs in our childhoods had. Where Kara slept where she liked, Pug had to be kept locked in the kitchen at night and kept away from children at all times. He was a dominant dog who didn’t trust kids and his first instinct was always-  always – to bite. I am determined that Asha – who has come from excellent, friendly, dependable stock – will not have to go the same way. She will be spoiled rotten and will have free reign of the house. Eventually.

For now she has to learn to sleep on her bed in the kitchen at night and to get used to using that bed for sleep during the day too. Alas, I’m not doing too well on this latter point. As I write she’s flat out on my lap rather than placed in her bed as I’m supposed to do when she starts to droop.

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To be honest, I want a lap dog. It’s comforting to be writing while she sleeps and it helps with the loneliness this writer feels (ex-teacher and therefore ex-extrovert – a rare breed among writers who tend to be a reclusive lot). So I’m not too fussed about training her to be so independent.

When I look at her tiny little body and her ever-ready excitement and eagerness to be with us, I can’t help but remember one of the most traumatic experiences we ever had in Bangladesh. For all the hard things we saw and dealt with there – and living in one of the poorest areas of a country which is almost entirely poor anyway, there were many – nothing was more shocking to us than what we saw within a couple of weeks of living in Dhaka.

My wife and I were walking, first thing in the morning to our language school. Bangladesh is filled with stray cats and dogs but this morning we saw a beautiful little golden-haired puppy wagging its way around the street wallahs. It was adorable but it was a stray and we were on our way to school. Nevertheless, as we passed by on the other side, we took a last glimpse back at the little cutie. To our horror, the puppy had crossed over towards another passer-by, a Bangladeshi, who kicked the dog back into the road with a distasteful touch of his foot. At that point a car was passing by and it went straight over the dog. It didn’t move again. The man grinned a little sheepishly, embarrassed by the accidental result of his kicking the dog away but clearly not too bothered either. He looked at the body a few seconds – the way Bangladeshis do when something, anything, of interest happens in the street – and then carried on his way, leaving the body in the road. It was still there the next day when we walked to language school again. It’s a moment I’ve never forgotten and one which comes back to mind all to easily with Asha around – not least because she has a Bengali name.

Actually, while we lived in Bangladesh we had a dog adopt us! He appeared on our verandah one day pretty much on last legs. He was very poorly and looked like he had come somewhere sheltered to die. One of our cats had just died after days and days of wasting away in agony and we still had an animal antibiotic pill left over after all attempts to save him failed. We snapped the tablet in half and fed them to the dog in a half-hope that he might stagger away and die somewhere else in a day or two. We didn’t want the kids to be traumatized so soon after the cat’s death by coming home from school and finding another beautiful – but dead – creature and associating it with our home.

But he didn’t die. He got better and, as I quickly gave in to the ‘no more pets’ rule, got fatter again as he ate everything we gave him. We never did ascertain if the dog belonged to someone else or whether he was a stray. All I know is, that dog stuck to us like glue and happily lived under the shelter of our verandah. I ended up training him to ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘heel’ and even balance a treat on his nose and make him wait before allowing him to eat it (a trick I never succeeded in teaching Pug who went cross-eyed when trying to put the treat on his nose and would just snap wildly in the air not caring if he got a treat or finger in the process).

But dogs are not well-liked in Bangladesh and even less so at the NGO, LAMB, where we worked. Despite showing how I could keep the many stray dogs who gather around the children at break times away from the school using a bucket of water and how this, when done daily soon meant the dogs moved on to somewhere easier outside the gates still the opinion of most was to kick or beat the dogs with a stick. The management, every couple of years or so would simply have the dogs rounded up and killed failing to appreciate that doing so solved nothing as Bangladesh is filled with stray dogs and killing those that lived around LAMB simply made way for a whole new set of dogs to come in.

Sure enough, the Summer we returned to the UK for a few months for our ‘Home leave’, the management did just this, killing the dog we’d so lovingly restored to health and befriended along with half a dozen other strays. I’m quite certain they waited until we left to do this, in quite cowardly fashion, after we had made such a fuss about not killing the dogs for months beforehand. It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with pest control, it was just that killing these dogs was a senseless waste of another creature’s life when it had no effective use. When we returned after a few months there were now more strays than ever harassing the children – but our dog was gone. I had many failures at LAMB but I still count my greatest one was the failure to sway the powers-that-be on this issue. It was wrong what they did and, as far as I’m aware, still is wrong today but organisations come with their immovable forces.

I’m going to be over-protective about Asha, I can tell. We come with our baggage in all walks of life, it seems, and having a puppy is going to be no different. She will grow up, inshallah, with a man in her life who will always do inexplicable things which she has no hope of understanding: such as saying inshallah for no particular reason or speaking Bangla to her all of a sudden because, as she bounces towards me with a great grin on her tail and in her eyes I am reminded of a puppy in Bangladesh; such as suddenly getting on the kitchen floor to do sit-ups and laughing when she lies herself down on my chest as I raise myself time and again because I think of Kara and wonder if Asha will ever be too big to do this with; such as being wildly pleased when she learns a new trick not because – not just because – it’s another step in her development but also because she becomes one step closer to what Pug never managed because it was simply too late for him – to be a proper member of our family.

Asha is going to be something most other dogs don’t get to be though: she’ll be a writer’s dog. She will (and already has begun to) fall asleep to the sound of my fingers tapping over the laptop keyboard. She’ll sit on my lap and stare at the weird pictures and jumbles of letters on the screen of the only thing which gets more attention from me than she does. She’ll be the one I talk to, sharing ideas out loud, asking her opinion about what she thinks to this sentence or that sentence and did she see what I did there talking about her grinning with her tail and her eyes? Wasn’t that clever? Yes it was!

Her presence here makes my writing both more focused and terribly delayed. When she finally sleeps, no longer craves constant attention nor weeing every 20 minutes and needing her latest pool wiping up, I write furiously, trying to get down the words bursting from my head after getting stuck there during so many games of ‘fetch ball’. But then this is the only thing I’ve succeeded in writing today – and this I began yesterday. What would normally be no more than a morning’s work now takes two days and I’m exhausted. With three article rewrites, a review and a full article on cartography desperately needing to be finished before I can even think of putting the final touches to the book I’ve written – I think I need to adjust my expectations. I’m not a full-time writer any longer. Now I’m a full-time carer for a writer’s dog.

 

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It’s almost here…

It’s almost here! This will be the cover for my collection of short stories which, despite delays, should come out by the end of February.

Excited. Much.KFP-BookCvr-TOMotB-Kindle-4.1

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Two left feet for a good cause – Cumbria charity funraiser for children with disabilities

If you live in Cumbria and fancy a valentines night out this Friday, why not boogie the night away with your nearest and dearest and raise money for a very worthwhile cause at the same time? As an added extra bonus, you’ll get to see my two left feet in action as I earn valentine brownie points with my wife and clomp around the dance area – entertainment doesn’t get much better than that!

Dance 4‘That’s Amore’, a valentine dance night will be held at the beautiful Whitehaven Golf Club on Friday 13th February 2015 starting at 7:30 p.m. and going on till midnight. Aimed for a ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ generation, this is an opportunity for Cumbrians to dress up posh and enjoy dancing to a 14-piece live Big Band followed by a ‘through the years’ disco playing music from the 40s through to the 70s. It’s an ideal time for the… ahem… older generation to boogie down memory lane with that special person in their lives.

But even if you’re not a local or not available this Friday, you can still contribute to a worthy charity called Give Us A Break 2010. Keep reading to find out why and how.

RaynorShine Centre – relief for families, fun for kids

Dawn

Founder Dawn Raynor (Source GUAB201 website)

Give Us A Break 2010 was formed five years ago with the intent of raising £500,000 to buy a plot of land and build a short-break Centre to support children with disabilities and their families in West Cumbria. I spoke to the founder, Dawn Raynor, and asked her why the area needs such a centre.

“I began the campaign after the Seacroft Centre in St Bees was closed down. We organised a protest to prevent Seacroft from going but couldn’t stop it in the end. We were promised a ‘stepping stone’ and that the council would build a new centre but it didn’t happen.”

Dawn, a working hairdresser who has two twin boys who suffer from Tuberous Sclerosis, a rare genetic disorder that causes intractable epilepsy, has first-hand knowledge of how necessary is a place for disabled children to play.

 

“As my kids got bigger it got harder to take them to play parks. I would get looks from other parents as my two got larger and, in the end, I gave up taking them anywhere to play.”

Dawn is a typical Cumbrian and speaks bluntly about things she’s passionate about. There’s no doubting she’s upset at the situation for children with disabilities in Cumbria. Despite repeated attempts to acquire council funding, Dawn’s pleas have fallen on deaf ears. She told me of the many ‘gaps’ in the system which are letting families down.

“They’re not gaps, they’re bloody canyons!” she told me. “There’s around 2,500 kids with Special Educational Needs in Cumbria but only one specialist school, Mayfield School, which can support them.” Mayfield though can only hold around 150 children and has no after-school clubs. In fact none of the handful of short break facilities in Cumbria offer any kind of after-school activity for disabled kids except for Sedbergh Road Children’s Home in Kendal – more than 1 1/2 hours driving distance from the Whitehaven area.

Dawn’s solution is to build the RaynorShine Centre which will provide day, after-school and overnight activities for parents and their disabled children to come, take rest and enjoy playing.

Vanessa Hall, one of the charity’s directors told me of the charity’s ethos.

“Because every child deserves to have fun,” she said. “We want a place where disabled children can play outdoors without being frowned upon by other parents, where they can take part in music and art activities and which is easy to get to and worth it for the families.”

Putting the ‘fun’ into ‘fundraising’

Vanessa told me that, so far, Give Us A Break 2010 has raised around £200,000 which is a great achievement but there’s still a lot of work to do. Vanessa’s determination and enthusiasm for the charity was obvious as I spoke to her. Her own involvement with the charity was not an easy journey.

Chris Hall, Dawn Raynor and Vanessa Hall (Source GUAB2010 Facebook page)

In 2011 her husband, Chris, was given two months to live after developing sinus cancer.

“The tumour was the size of your fist,” Vanessa said, “but we chose to fight it. After 18 months of aggressive chemo and radiotherapy Chris went into complete remission.”

It’s a wonderfully uplifting story and the Halls didn’t take this gift of a second life for granted. Chris had been Dawn Raynor’s doctor and so knew her and her boys well. After he retired from work, following the cancer, she asked him if he would get involved with the charity and Chris jumped at the chance. Vanessa was swift to join him.

Dance 5Since then, Give Us A Break 2010 has put on several charity events and last year held their own ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ event in St Bees. I wondered why and asked Vanessa.

“It was an idea which grew out of the popularity of the TV competition. There was lots of interest and local dance teachers gave their time to teach and judge contestants.”

Although this Friday isn’t a competition Give Us A Break 2010 intend to hold another dance competition in July. This Friday though is all about fun. Which is just as well – I don’t normally go anywhere near dance events because I have two left feet and neither is capable of dancing a step!

I asked both Dawn and Vanessa what I could expect.Dance 10

“I promise you you’ll have a fantastic time watching others and the atmosphere will be great!” Dawn encouraged me.

“Don’t worry,” Vanessa said with a twinkle in her eye, “I’ve got two left feet as well! It will be fun for all abilities.”

So I will be taking my good lady on Friday and I hope I’ll see some of you there too. Come and have a laugh – at my attempts if nothing else! – and enjoy a great night out. You can buy tickets from the website or reserve them to pick up on the door.  I would recommend getting them soon though. Last week more than 60% of the tickets had already sold. If you’re local you can buy tickets from several places including from Dawn herself (details at the website below).

If you can’t make it (what do you mean you live in America? That’s no excuse!) then do please check out the website and Facebook links below and consider donating. There’s a number of ways to give - even without paying a penny!

Help Dawn, Vanessa and many other volunteers working tirelessly to make this much needed dream come true.

All photos (except where indicated) used with permission and thanks to Keith Robinson Photography – just one of the many local businesses which support the charity. Photos taken from last year’s dancing competition.

WebsiteGive Us A Break 2010

Facebook: Give Us a Break 2010

Twitter: @GUAB2010 – go to their Twitter page here.

Reserve tickets or find out other ways to buy them here.

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