Without you

Not much to love about Monday today… Here’s The Carpenters with Can’t Smile Without You.


This week, I only have love in my heart for one special Monsieur, my Monsieur Ralf. Ralf came on a visit last August and although I tried my best to rehome him, I didn’t get very far. A week later and I decided, with a little help from my friends, that Ralf should have a place with me.

my big ralfie

And so it was.

He took five minutes to settle in and had the life of Riley.


In the mornings, he’d wake me with a huge ‘rowwwarrrrfffff’. When he first arrived here, he slept in the living room. I bought him a huge bed. It was the biggest dog bed they had in the shop. He never really slept in it. He liked to sleep in Amigo’s bed, or on the couch, and that was fine with me. Amigo never complained much either. After a couple of weeks, he decided he wanted to sleep in the bedroom with me, though I drew the line at him sleeping on the bed. I’d have had to have slept on the floor. From September to January, he slept in my bedroom and woke me up each morning with a huge and happy Ralfie “Raaaaawwwwwwwfffffffff”. When he realised how nice it was to stay in the living room in front of the fire, he’d sleep on the couch and come and find me in the morning. Ralf was a dog who definitely knew what he wanted to do and heaven help you if you didn’t want to go along with that.


Following his first war with a badger one afternoon in January, Ralf decided that the garden was great and amazing fun to find beasts for wars. Every morning, he’d race out of the door like a greyhound. Then he’d do his best to round up the local wildlife. It got to the point where I had to let Heston out first to go and shout at the wild things so that none of them ended up being caught by Monsieur Ralf. A trip to the vet later and he was patched up. It didn’t stop him though. Almost a month to the day later, he caught another one. Luckily, I had the hose on standby to break them up.


After his early morning romp, he’d come back for his breakfast. That dog loved to eat. Breakfast was the best bit of his day, apart from tea. He’s such a big dog that I’d be forever walking into him as I tried to sort out the bowls. I’d had to move all the dog food into a side room which was kept under lock and key. Though I had always been able to leave it out with the other three, Ralf decided it was perfectly acceptable to stick his nose in it and have a scoff. I came home two or three times to find him with his head in a bag of dog food, fast asleep.


The dog food wasn’t his only target. I had to move all jars and cans up to the top shelves in the kitchen as he was very happy to climb up with his big paws and knock things off to eat them. In October, he’d won Dogs’ Today Magazine’s ‘Golden Oldie of the Month’. He got a prize of vitamin powder for oldies. I went out that night and he knocked it off the shelf, then scoffed the lot of it. He was a fan of cookery books and chewed my copy of Antonio Carlucci. Ralf would happily eat dry pasta, oxo cubes, soup packets, a full kilo of sugar. Tins were also no problem for him and he would sink his teeth into sealed cans of fish or dog meat. A lot of things ended up under lock and key in the spare room, including cartons of milk. Ralf liked his milk. I can’t count the number of things he broke in trying to retrieve something from the kitchen side. He even knocked a jar of coffee into the sink in his bid to retrieve something. Bin bags weren’t safe around Ralf.


Ralf loved his walks, and if, by eleven, I’d not taken the dogs out for a walk, he would get all giddy and give me a big Rowwwwwwwfffff all over again. Once or twice, he even nipped me, he was so excited. In the car, I’d tried and tried to get him to sit in the back with the others, but he wasn’t having it. He liked to sit up at the front with me. He’d give me kisses as I was driving and bark at dogs in gardens. If he’d been in the back when I was driving, he was stuck there and had to wait until I got out and moved the seat forward – he was the only one who couldn’t squeeze out without me moving the chair.


At first, I was pretty sure Ralf was deaf. He wasn’t. He just didn’t know how to come when called, or what being called was all about. The first time he came back when called, he was so excited that he knocked me over. On walks, he stayed on the lead for the first few months, padding along at the side of me. Once, he pulled me through a field so that he could get to another dog he’d seen. I ended up covered in cow pats so that Ralf could say hello to some new friends.


One of the last walks we did, we came across a little posse of wild boar piglets – about three or four months old out eating in a field in the day time. Amigo, to my shame, ran over and caught one, and brought it back dead. He dropped it at my feet. Before I could do anything, Ralf picked it up and trotted off with it. He was so proud. He couldn’t have been any more proud if he’d caught that pig himself. He was incredibly sad when I made him leave it behind at the end of the walk. Only Sunday, he came out the bushes with fur around his mouth. God only knows what he’d found. I suspected a rabbit. Once, he trotted off over the hill and came back with a sheepskin. Getting Ralf to drop anything he’d decided to treasure was always a challenge. He was never far from me though, and even though his recall was terrible, he only was on the lead when we went past cows. He loved cows. Ralf very much wanted to play with the cows. The cows, much to his sadness, never wanted to play with him. In his mind, I think he thought they were alike, him and the cows.


Ralf also liked to spend his time in the garden. He dug me some quite lovely holes. I always let him. If you’re thirteen years old and enjoy digging holes, who am I to stop you? He’d stop in fields as well for a bit of a dig. Digging was his favourite occupation. He’d happily scratch away, flinging mud everywhere. My house was never dirtier than when I owned Ralf.


He was a very social dog too – he loved other dogs and never understood that they might be a little scared of him. Ralf loved people too. He came with me to the HOPE booksale as an ambassador for old dogs and for the refuge, and they were the happiest days of his retirement with me. He loved seeing people and being cuddled, giving his big Ralfie paw to anyone who gave him a euro for a kiss.


On Thursday morning, he ate his breakfast a little more slowly than usual. He was a little slower on his walk too, though the cows got their usual reception. By tea-time, he was only picking at the meat on his tea and he left his biscuits. He wasn’t bothered by the evening walk. I knew it was time for the vet. He hadn’t been sick or had any other problems – my first words to the vet were that he wasn’t his usual self. I’d had to lift him off the couch and half-carry him to the car. At the vet, he lay on the floor and I sat on the floor with him. He wagged when other dogs came in, but he didn’t get up. We had to carry him through to the surgery.

First, she thought he might have picked up a tick-borne disease. He had a seresto collar but even so, he had one or two ticks in the last few months. We struggled to get a urine sample from him, but it was a usual colour and no cause for alarm. His temperature was high and he had a fever. It was only when I pointed out how hard his stomach was that she thought to give him an ultrasound. I guess at that point I was thinking it could be a stomach torsion or even that he’d eaten something he shouldn’t. I half thought his stomach would show a knotted mass of animal heads and plastic things.

The first ultrasound was unusual. They then did an x-ray. Finally, another ultrasound. He had tumours in his spleen that had burst. She could have removed his spleen, she said, and he would have lived happily, but he had tumours in his liver too, and they were inoperable. At best, he would have had a month, maybe two. You make a decision there and then about what is best for your animal, whether those final weeks are worth the suffering and pain they will inevitably cause. Would he even survive the splenectomy? At thirteen and 45kg, he was pushing the equivalent of 120 human years. Surgery would be incredibly stressful and would it give him back his Ralf-ness? I knew then that to keep him alive would be to do so for my benefit, not his.

Funny that in 24 hours, I’d gone from wondering if he might even see seventeen or eighteen to seeing the light fade in his eyes. Sunday, he was digging up creatures. Monday he was frolicking with collies. He was in fine form, right up to the last moment.


In the end, he had seven short months with me. I realised today I’d not shouted ‘Allez!’ to the dogs for a good few days. Ralf had followed me everywhere, including into very small spaces, and would often corner me. His big rump next to me on the sofa was always a comfort, and those early days where he’d rest his head on my lap are moments I’ll always treasure. Seeing him run – really run – always brought a smile to my face. I don’t think running had ever been in Ralf’s sport repertoire. Those first days when he played and played with toys, and dug and dug in my garden – those were the days that cemented my love for him.


I said back in August that there would be no replacement for Ralf. He was an unexpected adoption that happened as a result of fate. Then, it was a practical statement. Three dogs is manageable; four dogs is bordering on not being. Now it’s an emotional statement. There can’t be a replacement for Ralf because he was just such a dog filled with the most amazing character. I’m very glad I had the Ralf experience.

Should another dog ever follow me home, or need me for the last months, well, Ralf taught me that they’ll always be welcome. At the moment, I can’t quite see how even ten dogs could fill the Ralfie-sized hole in my home and my heart. He was enormous in both size and personality, stubborn as a mule, playful as only a young puppy can be. It feels empty here in ways that no other loss has ever felt.

So here’s much love to Ralf. Go gentle, My Ralfie and give all those angels a kiss from me.



You could always count on me

Ah, the clocks are changing, the seasons have officially shifted, and I might be sitting here in two jumpers, too lazy to light a fire, but Diana Ross will surely keep me warm with her cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

A bit of Diana Ross never hurt anyone. This is one of the songs from Mashable’s International Day of Happiness Spotify list (now there’s a mouthful!) to celebrate last Friday’s newly-minted International Day of Happiness. I definitely needed a bit of a boost on Friday to keep me feeling the love. It was made much nicer by seeing my lovely friends at the refuge followed by tea at Sarah’s. It doesn’t take much to bring me a smile even on very sad days.

To tell the truth, it doesn’t feel like spring, though I’ve been savaging the garden. I’m trying to plug badger-y gaps to no avail. Those beasts are winning the battle to create holes along my hedges. I can stuff them with chicken wire, cuttings, plants, no matter what, and those badgers are through. I don’t know why they want to come through my garden except for habit. They keep running into big dogs and it doesn’t stop them. Those badgers are not getting my Much Love Monday. I feel a bit like the farmer in Peter Rabbit. I know Beatrix Potter wanted us to understand Peter is a very naughty rabbit, but she didn’t write about the other marauding hordes that rampage through my garden of an evening. One of those holes is a Ralf-sized hole and I’m not thankful that my dogs could get out through it if they chose to. Ralf’s the only one who’s been through it so far. Luckily, he didn’t go anywhere, but he couldn’t get back in. I’m a bit tired of all the critters around here – there’s not a single stretch I can walk without some patch of rabbits, some sunbathing wild boar piglets, some baby calves in a barely-fenced field. Heston will be as glad as I am to find a stretch where he can do his favourite thing – running. Sometimes I feel like saying ‘Have at it…. see you in a couple of hours!’ and just leave him to chase things to his heart’s content. He generally runs after them and if they don’t run back, he wags his tail and says hi and comes right back; he’s done that a couple of times with foxes.

I’ve got a very busy couple of weeks – not sure how I’m going to fit everything in that I need to! It’s times like this when I could do with an extra me. Luckily, after that, I have a couple of weeks til the holidays and a quieter period after that. Like it’s ever quiet around here. I think it’ll be time to say no to a few people after that. It’s ridiculous. You might laugh but it makes me furious. I’m sure some people – and nobody I know personally! – think I’ve got nothing on my agenda except them. I got a long way through that music before it took the irritation out of my oyster! Mostly, it’s the randomness of requests we animal volunteers get. ‘I want a little dachshund. Got one?’ ‘I’m 97 and I’d like a two-year old dog,’ ‘My dead husband’s dog needs a new home as I’m moving to China in 24 hours.’ ‘Can you test these [insert five random dogs’ names] together?’ or those people who ask you obliquely to do a thing via ten other people, making work for those ten other people as well, and then when you’ve done it, not only are they totally underwhelmed (because they had some random thing they wanted you to do and you aren’t telepathic, so you didn’t know and you didn’t do it) but they also don’t say ‘thank you’. I’d personally round up every single person who can’t say ‘Well done!’ or ‘Thank you!’ and put their pouty faces in a cave under a mountain somewhere. Sour-faced people could do with a long walk off a short pier if you ask me. I need a new approach to dealing with them.

But as the blog post says, you could always count on me.

So what’s turning my irritation to pearls?

Birthday cake. Lots of cake. Lemon drizzle cake and chocolate cake.

Lovely students and their fabby parents who send me messages to say how much they loved their lesson.

Seeing my daffodils and the plum blossom. Spring is not far behind.


People who say, ‘Can I do that for you?’

People who give me kisses and smiles. I’ll do anything for those people.

Music that lifts your soul.

Times change

Ah, this Monday’s Much Love is one of my personal High School Musical tracks from Depeche Mode – See You

I’ve no real recollection of this being played at any of our school discos (we’d definitely moved on to Pepsie and Shirlie and Rick Astley by the mid 80s) but it takes me back to school discos all the same. I’m never quite sure why either of Bury’s 80s-tastic discos, Rebecca’s or Atmosphere, let a bunch of teenagers loose. Surely they must have realised that most of the sixth-formers were only seventeen, and even they didn’t bother coming out to the school disco, leaving it to a bunch of unsupervised thirteen and fourteen year olds.

You couldn’t make a disco like Atmosphere up. It was above Bury’s famous fish market, a colossal sixties monstrosity of concrete at the time. Who thought it would be a good idea to have a disco above a fish market? It’s like the worst Kevin Bacon film set ever. The carpets were sticky, the chairs were sticky, the drinks were expensive and I’m pretty sure all the men dressed like either Crockett or Tubbs from Miami Vice, though that could just be my addled memory. Let’s face it: today’s clean bars, functional toilets and lack of carpeting mean that most of the younger generation never really saw the seedy side of the disco generation. These are the clubs that warrant one or two mentions on the internet and, for the majority, have largely faded from memory.

Funny – I was only discussing the line in To Kill a Mockingbird on Saturday – the one that says: “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them,” and wondering at what point we can look back with nostalgia – for me, it’s only when times have changed significantly – enough to miss the things you once had, even if they are sticky carpets in seedy nightclubs at the arsehole end of the 20th century.

Apart from the Mode, of course. My love for Dave Gahan has always been unrelenting.

What else am I loving?

The sunshine of last week. We had 21°C one day. It’s unusual and we’re in for a miry March I think, but the respite was nice.

Having finished a couple of things I seriously doubted would get finished last week. Completion is such a happy state of being.

Suits, a series about lawyers in the USA. Louis Litt is God’s gift to my screen at the moment. Not in a hot way. In a way that is weird and embarrassing and cringe-worthy. He’s a modern day Malvolio, everybody’s favourite stooge. I always wonder if real law is like television – seems a lot of it is lawyerly ‘make-work’ designed to fill their pockets. My favourite Louis Litt quote is when someone says “you’re such a dick!” and he says: “I’m Moby Goddamn Dick and you just swam in my waters.”

Anyway, time to go – Monday calls. I have errands to run and business to attend to. Adieu, weekend.


Everything means nothing if you got no one

It was International Women’s Day yesterday and to bring you a bit of a Lovely Lady lift, here’s Dolly Parton (and Kenny Rogers, because being a lady isn’t always about going solo) with ‘Islands in the Stream’

There’s never a Monday when Dolly doesn’t make you feel a little more lovely. Does that woman have any meanness in her? I doubt it so much. I make no secret of my fangirl feelings for Miss Dolly. She’s got a big heart and isn’t beyond a little self-deprecation – I think this is why I like her so much. God bless Dolly. Plus, she was the star of one of my favourite chick-flicks – “9 to 5″. If you ever wonder why feminism was necessary, this is a great starting place. Hanoi Jane, Lily Tomlin AND Dolly? What’s not to love? She loves reading, she loves music, she loves animals and she makes good movies. All hail Madame Parton.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, as per. I had written to Fred Levy, the photographer who started the Black Dog Project, just because – well, why not? – and he very kindly replied, and accidentally sent me into a panic. Where was my project, he asked. Well, I’m an itinerant internet vagabond, leaving a little trail of myself in many places, without a home of my own. Or, more to the point, several “homes” for different purposes. But my dog photos didn’t really have a home.

Luckily, I’d bought a domain name last summer, thinking I could do something with it. The project ended up too massive for one person to handle and needing CSS coding skills beyond my limited capabilities, so it had sat there waiting for a purpose. I’d set up a little FB page for it, and a Twitter account, and a Google+ page, got a logo, then done nothing. So when Fred Levy sent me a mail asking where the project was, why, I could give it a home. Nothing like the accidental luck of a chancer.

Say hello to Woof Like To Meet which is now home to my growing Dog Photography line of stuff I do. It also has a FB page. Now I don’t have to accidentally annoy all of my sensible friends and family who haven’t got the patience or heart to stomach seeing 500 photos of dogs. Now it gets to have a home and be tidy. Ish. I’ve got to go round and find everything I posted and bring it together. I’m getting there!

On top of that, it’s not been much of a break here these last couple of weeks. I need to get my head around the fact that I gear up for the holidays, thinking I’ll have free time, and I end up with as many clients, if not more, and trying to do all the other things I’d been putting off. I’m actually looking forwards to a couple of quieter weeks, before it all takes off again.

Happily, the weather is now picking up and we’ve had a couple of days of 18°C and sunshine. I can’t tell you how much wildlife there is at the moment. Ralf had another battle with a badger last week, and although I’ve been keeping Heston on the lead most of the time, he’s now up to 100% lead walks because everything that’s anything is happily hopping around my immediate vicinity. I’m not a fan of letting my dogs disturb a nest of wild boar, but this year there is boar damage absolutely everywhere near me. Amigo even surprised a little pack of baby boar on Saturday. I heard squealing and then five or six marcassins running off for shelter. Luckily, Heston was on the lead and Ralf was with me. Between the calves, the rabbits, the boar and the deer, my usual trip through the fields is off-bounds. If it’s bad in open spaces, it’s worse in the forest and the whole place just torments Heston beyond belief.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to get a bit of gardening in this week. I have shoots of broad beans, and the beginnings of plants emerging. It feels like this dreary winter has lasted a long time.

Anyway, enjoy Dolly and the turn in the weather if you have one.


It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world

Happy Monday to ya… here’s my third favourite song about straight men meeting transvestite guys for you to help you find a Monday groove.

This song was famously edited by the BBC because of the coca cola bit. Fun fact: the same thing happened to George Formby and his little stick of Blackpool Rock. If you ask me, that song is no less obscene than Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Relax. How Chuck Berry’s Ding-a-Ling flagged alarm bells but George Formby strolling along the promenade with his little stick of rock didn’t, I’ll never know. Any song with the lyrics “it may be sticky but I never complain” boasting of how it gets all the kids coming around to have a nibble is highly suspect in my opinion.

Banned lists always make me laugh. The Cure’s Killing an Arab has been banned by the Beeb. You can still buy The Stranger by Camus, though. Bit rich. You can also still buy 50 Shades of Grey even though I generally read better-written porn when marking exam scripts from foundation tier candidates at GCSE.

Anyhow… enough of the banning of stuff. I like coca cola. And I like cherry cola. Mondays should be about love and not banning stuff.

So what am I loving this Monday? It’s loosely the holidays for me. I’ve got four clients who are off on their holibobs, so I have a little more flexibility than normal weeks – though I have picked up a few extra who are making the most of the holidays to revise or prepare for things. I have Wednesday free and I’m having doggie love on Weds/Thursday afternoon instead of working. I’ve got a photography backlog at the refuge as well – so many dogs are shifting at the moment. So many new dogs in as well, including two little poppets found in a terrible state last week. Much love for Nicky and Jocelyn who are their first step on a way to a happier life. They have their work cut out grooming the dogs who have never known anything by way of care.

I’m also loving



There are even other things thinking about blooming. Ahhhhhh!

Loving lovely presents from lovely friends


This is a little paper punch that cuts out a doggie shape. Thanks Sylvie x

I also got something… well… not sure what to say.


I asked for Pocky sticks – these biscuity little things I had an addiction to in Japan. And I got this. I know gift recipients should be grateful, so I’m going to try my best. Inside, there was a strange powdery stuff. I stuck my tongue in it. It’s hard to describe the texture except as to say ‘stale biscuit crumbs’. It was neither sweet nor savoury. Just a nondescript powder. I asked Rachel if she was sure it was edible. She told me to put it on my face. It made me worry that I might be eating something that really was a facepack or something. Thanks for that, Rachel.

Anyway, I unpacked it and put it on a little plate. There were three gelatinous lumps and then the powder, and a little pot of something that tasted like runny treacle, except not so sweet.

What the hell? In for a penny, in for a pound, right?


They say don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. Well, I tried it. I would describe the gelatinous lumps as having a similar texture to dried sputum and the whole combination as ‘claggy, with a hint of uncooked squid.’

If it turns out I ate a facepack and some weird soap, I won’t be at all surprised.

Anyway, have a good Monday. Work, work, work for me today.


The delights of a chemical smile

Today’s Much Love Monday is another Bernard Butler classic, this time with Suede and Animal Nitrate. 

He obviously likes singers who have got unusual voices. Brett Anderson has an amazing voice as well – some of his solo stuff and Youtube stuff is great – not just a weirdly androgynous and watered down version of Ziggy Stardust after all. Love is Dead is a great EP – another 2007 piece of genius. Told you it was a good year.

This week is the last week before the holidays. I’ve got a busy morning this Monday – I usually start the week with a little calm, but there were two last-minute contacts for adoptions via Dog::Links and thus Paulo and Calypso will be making their way to their new homes tomorrow. I hope. When they’ve all arrived and are all tucked up in bed, I’ll relax a bit. Paulo is a sweetheart. He is less stupid than Ralf but a little less handsome. That’s my opinion. It’s biased of course, because I love Ralf. He is stupid though. He ate a bag of sugar at the weekend. He’s like a small child in an old dog’s body. Even Heston has grown out of his desire to chew on things or rifle through the pantry for treats.

Calypso was one I could have adopted straight off. He’s off as well. Offers came in from Finland and the UK as well as France – not surprising. He is handsome. He’d been a stud farm dog and then seized because puppy farms are gruesome places. I don’t need you to see shocking photos – I guess you already know. Calypso was in a right filthy mess and had been living in the dark in a barn most of his life. Nicky, the refuge dog groomer, had her work cut out for her on that one. Jocelyn, her willing assistant, said Calypso just stood there and let them do it, gazing up at them in adoration. That’s what a love he is.


Here’s his Black Pearls photo. He smiles a lot this dog – he’s very Hestony. He’s being coy here. His little mate Droopy is still left. I do hope his name is not a reflection of his stud farm prowess. I can’t explain why names that sound great to French people sound terrible to English speakers.


Droopy does love cuddles.

This week, in between doggie duties and teaching duties, I shall be continuing to prune my vines. I did 60 or so last week. Only another 90 to go. I think I had a trapped nerve or something – my thigh hurt. I’ve had sciatica before and it wasn’t that (that was the mother of all pain!) but I think this was a trapped nerve. Anyway, it eased off by Friday, though no idea what brought it on. The joys of being old. If I can finish the vines before the week is out, it makes other pruning duties much easier. So far, it’s been a mixed February – miserable rain at points, but sunny too. I’ve done a lot of planting already – some peas and broad beans, a few cauliflower seeds, some tomatoes. I think I need to buy a bigger propagator because I always have things queuing up for it. I did put some flower seeds in as well – though nothing has broken through the soil yet.

Anyway, I’m off to go and see Paulo off on his expeditions and then do my Monday morning errands. Back to the refuge this afternoon for Calypso’s adoption, as well I hope. Keep your fingers crossed that today is a good day.

Black Dog Projects

A while ago, a guy named Fred Levy came to my attention. He’s a photographer in Massachusetts and started a photography series called the Black Dog Project. He has a tumblr blog dedicated to black dogs as well. There’s mixed and contradictory evidence about the adoption of black dogs from refuges. In some countries, like France, there is out-and-out superstition about black dogs. In others, it might be a whole load of other influencing factors. Are there more black dogs than any other colour? Are there lighting issues that mean black dogs are not as easy to see in the refuge? Do they look more aggressive? I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked past people with Heston and they’re giving him the evil eye for a bark or a grumble, ignoring Tilly who is yapping her head off.

What is not disputable, however, is how hard black dogs are to photograph. That’s especially true if you don’t have a camera where you can bracket for exposure. Their coats don’t often gleam the way they do in real-life, and those blacks are hard to vamp up, leaving them looking like a muddy brown or a miserable grey.


It’s not always true, but they don’t always burst out of your screen like other dogs might. It’s also hard to mess with in post-processing. Okay. It’s not hard if you have a couple of hours to mess around with files in Photoshop and you don’t mind spending hours manually dodging and burning in bits of the image to make them crisp.

It wouldn’t have crossed my mind, therefore, to take photos against a black background. Photo shoots in the refuge are bad enough. For a start, there are cats who wander in and out at liberty and keeping dogs out of their enclosures a moment longer than you have to is a recipe for disaster. And you know cats. They’re all “well, hello, Dog. I think it’s about time you remembered who’s boss around here.” or they’re all shy and skittish. If they run, canine chase instinct kicks in.


This is Felix, who sadly died recently. He’s sitting up on an electricity box and I’m literally right next to him trying desperately to keep the attention of the dogs who I’m trying to photograph for the Christmas advent calendar.

christmas toupieI’m trying to get a photo of Toupie and Felix is all, “yes, Dog?”

Toupie, of course is all “Cat… there’s a cat up there… there’s a cat… Cat…. Cat!”

All the while I’m trying to get her to sit still amid a pile of Christmas presents for a half-decent photo to get her adopted.

Plus, there are people. There are the refuge staff who walk past, as they are in the habit of doing. These are the primary care givers for the dogs and the dogs are all pleased to see them, as well you might expect.

Like this one of Azor, who’d seen Thomas. He’s going, “Thomas! Thomas! THOMAS! Where’s my dinner, mate? Why aren’t you coming to say hello to me? Thomas? Thomas mate? THOMAS!! Dude??!”


Me trying to distract him with a biscuit and he’s like “who the hell are you? … THOMAS! Thomas, mate!”

Sometimes that works in my favour and I can lure the refuge staff to stand behind me for a great photo. I did that with Crista this week, a pointer who was abandoned with her six babies on Christmas Day. She just loves Robyn and it was the only way I could tempt her to look at the camera.

Other times, it’s members of the public who don’t realise how much they’re distracting the dogs. One lady was walking backward and forward behind me, a tentative grip on the lead of a tiny little dog she’s trying out and I’m trying to get a photo of Kayser. Kayser hates little dogs. He’s a rottie cross who’s trying to decide just how he’s going to rip the throat out of this little beast in front of him. I ask the lady to move away and she’s affronted. Oh well.

Then there’s the other crazy stuff that happens in refuges. Arrivals. For some reason, people who abandon dogs like to come in numbers. Maybe they feel safer. Takes five people to abandon two dogs on Friday. They’re standing at the gate and Elaine’s trying desperately to wrestle Elios into place.

Of course, then the wind picks up and rips my precariously-taped bit of black silk from the side of the cabin where I’m taking photos. When people offer me “advice” on taking photos, I smile. Professional animal portrait photographers have marvellous things called studios, complete with studio lighting. They have assistants. They have owners they can coax into helping get the dog’s attention. The dogs don’t have to be on the lead. They aren’t stressed. They aren’t surrounded by chaos. They can take a whole afternoon to get six or seven perfect shots of one or two dogs. They don’t have cats, other dogs, staff members, volunteers, leads, bits of tape, intermittent sunlight, arrivals, departures, barking and a dog that’s only had twenty minutes exercise that day.

I have a yard surrounded by three hundred animals, at least ten busy volunteers and staff members, and a crazy dog on the end of a lead who’d much rather be out on a walk. That’s the real world.

My real world is also one of an amateur photographer. I have an entry level Canon 1100D. I have a standard, entry-level Canon zoom – the one they supply with the camera. I also have a Sigma 70-300mm zoom. They say a poor photographer will blame their equipment and never use it to the edge of its capacity. I use mine to the edge of its capacity and realised I’d quite like a longer zoom so I didn’t have to get in the dogs’ faces. They don’t all like that. So I have the Sigma lens which is just wonderful. I can’t tell you though what I would give for a Canon 5D mk III body (£2299) or even a 7D body (£1135). What I couldn’t do with a Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens (£1089) or even a 50mm f/1.4 (£279). How wonderful it would be to have Photoshop and all its accoutrements. Still, I have a great basic camera, a polarising filter (my indispensible accessory) and picmonkey. It’s more than enough to take great shots. I did want to show you some of the world I work in and then how it ends up.

I started out by having a play around at home. Less stressful. No leads. Responsive dogs. I get a great shot of Heston and I know the black on black is going to work. His tongue’s a bit meaty-pink and that was difficult to get the exposure for, but I do this out of direct sunlight, under clouds and I know it’s going to work.

heston black pearl



I decide that tongue-free will be better than tongues if possible. Then it’s time to pack up kit. Both my lenses, lots of biscuits, black lead, masking tape. Basic but does the trick.



Here you can see my ‘studio’ – the front of the pound reception, where stray dogs are dealt with. Just so you know, there was a giddy little shih-tzu about a metre away behind the door, doing his best to distract everyone. Notice the fact I took this at ISO 6400 – the fastest ISO it’ll do, so I don’t have to use flash. Even so, Kayser is moving and agitated! I love the fact the backdrop is being help up by a very willing volunteer’s leg. She’s trying desperately to stay out of the shot but it gives you an idea! Actually, my ‘failure’ rate for photos is quite low. I take about 200 and about 30 make it through to final cut. Sometimes that’s just because they are duplicates and I’ve gone for the best. Sometimes it’s because the dog yawned or blinked. But I’m used to working on film where it was costly to make mistakes. I get rid of a good number of shots that are okay. Very few are complete failures like that one above!


This one, not only distracted but blurry too…


This one, Thomas has just walked by to get something from the van.


Then I get one where he’s kind of looking at me, but it’s not brilliant. Workable but not brilliant. Look at his tail. Gorgeous lad! I have to tell you that Eloy peed on the backdrop about half an hour before this shot as well. Now that’s hardcore animal photography!

Once I get the photos home, I then have up to 50 shots to edit, crop and improve. Sometimes I add names or the refuge details depending on the project. First thing in is a brutal cropping. Next up is a quick exposure adjustment, a little messing with the curves (techno-jargon a-hoy!) perhaps a little dodging and burning. No photo can take more than 10 minutes of my time, especially when I have 50 photos to get through. 5 mins is my usual time – and often more like 2 minutes. Crop. Adjust. Save.

I did get a perfect shot of Kayser, but as the project isn’t unrolling until March 1st, he’s staying behind doors.

Here is one instead of Rex, adopted on Friday following a short trial period with a lady I know. He is still bouncy and bonkers and lovely. I did one of him anyway, just for fun. I think you can probably see why I’m so pleased with this set of photos. I’ll, for once, let the image do the talking.


Rex is a great example because he’s giddy and not keen on sitting still, especially when there are lots of distractions. Let’s just say that the black dogs project was tougher than the oldies. For a start, oldies don’t have crazy energy. There are a good few black dogs who have been a devil to photograph simply because they are so bouncy. Salma and Darius, Elios, Fidèle, Hoogy, Manix… mention these names to any number of volunteers and you’ll see involuntary muscle spasms as arms remember being pulled more than they were ever expected to be. I suspect this is exactly how Heston would be in the refuge. Out of it, he’s still lively on the lead, but he gets to let off steam. Darius is just looking for cuddles. He preferred to get in for a cuddle with a volunteer than pose for his close-up.


It’s such a shame for this guy. Anyone who came to see him would think he’s insane. All he is, is a veteran refuge dog who has little by way of restraint and who just wants to be your friend. Super cuddly and super loveable. Look how happy he is to get a bit of love.

To finish, a few words for Darius.

Darius…. I hope this project works for you, because I love you and I know the other volunteers love you too. I hope the rest of the world gets to see how special you are. You really are a diamond in the rough. One day, someone’s going to see that, as soon as they get you home, you’re going to be an absolute darling.


I feel well enough to tell you

What Monday isn’t made a little more wonderful by Bernard Butler and David McAlmont? Not very many.

David McAlmont has just got the most amazing voice. It’s one of those big, powerful voices with a huge and immense range, which is good enough to thrill me anyway, but when he sings, like only a handful of singers, his voice reaches into the heart of you and gives your insides a squeeze. He’s got one of those voices that you can’t do anything else to when you hear him – you’ve just got to listen and that is that.

What’s not to love about that?

Besides, Bernard Butler is a god of the guitar. He’s no Johnny Marr but he’d get a silver medal in my Olympics of floppy-haired indie guitarists. It’s always hard, in the wake of great bands, to carve out something new and different. The 80s brought such an amazing wave of great music in so many forms that the mid-nineties just seemed to struggle a bit. If you don’t believe me, look back at the greatest albums of 1996 or 1997 and tell me how many of them are by bands who got to grow up, or bands who any staying power. If I tell you that Peter André’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ was the 9th biggest single of 1996, you can see how desperate things were. Happily, there was a lot of very mellow and lovely acid jazz that year and I think I spent most weekends at the Boardwalk in Manchester. I managed to avoid most of the nasty knock-off boy bands and girl bands. Ask me what the late nineties brought and I’ll tell you B*witched, Boyzone, 5ive, Cleopatra… ah, the heights of shite.

Luckily, Pulp, Suede, The Verve and Beck stepped into the breach for the Indie sound, but by and large, I’m yet to be argued into thinking the mid- to late nineties gave us shedloads of great musical moments. Some years are like that. Other years, you should just stop everything to just listen. 2006. Now that was a year in music. 

So apart from David McAlmont’s fine vocals, what am I loving this week?

♥ Cold is almost down to manageable proportions of snot. I know you wanted to know that.

♥ Friends who send you Vaseline lip balm. Lip balm is much less of a phenomenon in France, and Vaseline still has seedy connotations. I don’t know why. Anyone in a good sex education class knows Vaseline is not a good lubricant. Bad enough having chapped lips without being sniggered at. It beats putting chocolate-flavoured lip-balm on my nose.

♥ These three little guys. They arrived at the refuge as a pack of seven, found huddled up under their master’s bed after he’d died. Edge has found a lovely home in the Dordogne, Tino is with a wonderful refuge volunteer, Brigitte, and Usty has been taken to a foster home. All within two weeks. They’d all been at the refuge for over five years. There’s not a real reason for that. The trouble is they look like German Shepherds, but in reality, they are tiny. Anyone who saw them on the internet would expect a big dog. They are little, shy boys as well, so not so good at coming out and saying hello at the refuge to anyone who drops in looking for a dog.

Usty Tino Edge

♥ knowing that warmer days and longer evenings are on the way. Not much going on by way of gardening last week, what with the temperatures not getting above 4° for most of the week. A little snow is alright when you know you have wood for the fire. Here’s hoping for a fine spring, rather than the wash-outs of former years.

♥ Seeing Ufo, the big black labrador adopted before Christmas. He’d been at the refuge for seven years. He looks absolutely magnificent now. He was on fine form. He might be old, but he’s still living like a puppy. Ralf’s like that too. He’s learned (well, learning!) recall and he’s all “Whooooooo! Look at me!!!! I’m coming back to you!!!!!” – not bad for the age of thirteen. There are just two dogs now who arrived in 2009 – Nichman and Paulo. Paulo is lovely. He’s my current love. He’s a huge, ancient labrador who always looks at you as if to say, “Yes, can I help you?” when you pass his enclosure. No reason he’s been there six years, either. Nichman, now that’ll be a rehoming and a half. No cats, no dogs, not bothered by people, snacks or treats. He’s not a looker either. Poor Nichman. I suspect I’m going to do a mahhoooooooseive Nichman campaign for Mr Unloveable.


This is Paulo. Who wouldn’t love this cheery fellow?


And this is Nichman. Coming up on twelve and six of those years at the refuge. Pulls like a team of huskies, loves playing catch, not at all interested in people, hates other dogs. Hmmmm. How to write an advert for this guy?

Wolf is off to Germany on 20th February. He’s got a lot of admirers. Mainly it’s because he’s a handsome honey who is actually a little shy. Hopefully there will be photos of his first nights – sure it will make a lot of staff and volunteers cry.


Of the ten long-termers from before Christmas – Ufo, Dalton, Edge, Tino, Usty, Paulo, Nichman, Salma, Wolf and Cachou – there will be three remaining by February school holidays. I think that’s just fabulous. The Division 2 long termers will be tough to rehome too – lots of dogs who are not fans of other dogs or who need a special someone. Darius, Dusty, Douggy, Fidele, Elios, Noah. Mind you, I’m looking back at that Division Two list as well and can see a lot of happy rehomings. Young Tino (who was my favourite), Djibouti, Chupa, Anna, Artiste, Alaska, Fairbanks, RG, Charly, Skype, Fly… We’re talking some seriously difficult-to-rehome dogs here: bouncy, nippy, pully, energetic, suspicious, big, black – you name it, they had some reason they weren’t adopted as quickly. There are now 12 dogs who have been at the refuge since 2012. In September last year, there were 33.

Anyway, on that little reflection, I feel a lot more buoyant. Time to get busy and start my Monday for real.

French Friday Connection

031There is nothing in France like the hand-made sign, and that is as true of the high street in town as it is of the tiny village grocery. Out of the cities, it feels as though there are far fewer chain stores than there are in the UK.

In England, privately-owned bakeries have all but disappeared. Greggs, Hampsons and Greenhalgh’s bakers have largely taken over. I can’t say the British have the same love of tradition or bread – though most bakeries carry a good range of products. If you go to Greggs, it’s because you want a pasty or a pie, if you ask me. And why wouldn’t you want those things? You can be snobbish about Greggs if you like. I miss the cheese and onion pasties.

There aren’t that many people who buy bread outside of the supermarket. I do miss crumpets, especially a Warburton’s crumpet. I will never find a multi-seed brown sliced loaf that goes just perfectly with strong cheddar and Branston pickle. Is there anything like a Hovis loaf across the entire globe? I doubt it. I miss malt loaves, bagels, custard tarts and cream cakes too. Crème patissierie isn’t quite the same. Things in French bakeries don’t change much and they don’t take much on board by way of ‘foreign products’.

There is a weight of tradition behind French bakeries and the stock doesn’t change much. Cookies and muffins are still a novelty here. My most local bakery carries a small range of products: baguettes and ‘pain’, the large, thick baguettes. There are ‘boules’ and occasional products with different flours. If you want patisserie, there’s apple turnovers, croissants, pain aux raisins, pain au chocolat, Suisses and a handful of other occasional products. After a while, you get to know the best bakeries for particular products – the bakery in La Rochefoucauld does the best eclairs, and my local bakery does the best pain aux raisins.

You can buy a facsimile sliced loaf in the supermarkets. It has a two-month sell-by date. Most of them are entirely square and virtually crust-less. The brown version is tolerable if you absolutely have to. Sandwiches in packets have never taken off, and that is because they are utterly foul. I don’t know why but the French haven’t mastered putting sandwiches in packets. The bread disintegrates. I suspect it is everything to do with the fact the bread has to have a long shelf-life because they don’t have the same packet sandwich sales as the UK, and therefore the bread is worse quality than some of the pre-prepared packet sandwiches you can get in England. Eating in the streets is still not the done thing in rural France. I remember it being like that in the UK too, when I was young. You just didn’t eat and walk. It wasn’t done. Now you eat, walk and check the internet.

Rarely in rural France though.

And let’s face it. Why would you buy a cheap sandwich, a coke and packet of crisps, or a McDo or Quick when you can have a three-course sit-down two-hour meal for twice the price? It’s a no-brainer.

The bakery is the only place you can get stuff that is good to go. It’s for that you see so many baguettes with the end eaten off. French people are partial to snacking before they get home to eat, just like the rest of the world.

One Fine Day

Ah, a little throwback to my Sunday morning 60s extravaganza yesterday, with The Chiffons and One Fine Day

because The Chiffons, The Ronettes, The Crystals… there are just some things that should keep going through to Monday morning.

Truth be told, I spent most of yesterday feeling quite yuck. Wood fires and being too wrapped up, plus meeting lots of sickly students during the week left me suffering a little yesterday. I’d intended to start planting up seedlings but only got as far as getting the packets out and putting in some cabbage seeds. I started the yearly ‘taille’ of the vines – cutting the vines back. I’m not too fussed about frost damage to any of the vines up near the house, if there is snow this coming week. It didn’t take me long to realise that vines are quite like weeds – they grow everywhere and take a lot of damage.



Feels like a long time til they’ll be looking like this again.

The snowdrops are beginning to make an appearance – every year I think they’ve given up and are not coming back, but they push up quickly and yesterday, some of them had burst into bloom. I was thinking I’d go to Angoulême on Sunday morning for the comic strip festival. It’s always in my memory as the most bitterly cold weekend of each year though, so it didn’t take much to persuade myself not to go. The town is split over the ‘vieux’ town up on the top of a promontory, and the old town which runs down to the river at the bottom. It’s not the best place to be when there are icy winds blasting up from the Atlantic coast. Plus, the festival is usually split between a couple of squares up at the top, and the museum down at the bottom – it’s not a walk for the faint-hearted in cold weather, let me tell you. There are buses, but with my current germ levels, I don’t think public transport is advisable.

This week will hopefully be the last busy one for a while. I need some of the quieter weeks again! Today, I’m running a self-assessment and reflection workshop in the morning and then a long, long evening of teaching. Hopefully the weather will hold up and I’ll be able to give the dogs a bit of a run in between so that they don’t end up stir crazy and picking fights with badgers again.

What is bringing me the love this week?

♥ Finishing a hat I was knitting and moving on to a pair of socks – they’re bright yellow and for a friend – if knitting in yellow doesn’t put a little cheer in your year, nothing will.

♥ Friends who drop everything to give you a morale boost when you need one. I don’t need one very often, but it’s nice to know there are people who share my moans and who can always bring me out the other side without me making some dramatic prima donna flounce.

♥ Just even being able to think about gardening. It might only be a thought, but it’s there. Getting my seed box out and locating my secateurs is joyous. Less joyous is putting on wellies and realising a mouse has probably been living in one. Luckily, he seems to have disappeared.

Not loving this sore throat and headache though, or the fact that when you’re self-employed, you just have to get on with it. No sick days for me! Yes, you’re right. I need to stop feeling sorry for myself and get busy!