Rufus

This is the post I never wanted to write, but always knew I would have to.

Yesterday afternoon, my best buddy, walking companion, personal trainer, confessor, therapist, culinary critic, alarm clock, conscience and rival in photography went off for a long and lovely walk in the sunny hills without me. Rufus was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure on Friday and it seems it had been going on for a short while. However, he has such a strong constitution that he showed few signs, and those were masked by his ongoing arthritis. In fact, he was in the vet for a general check up and we had no idea of any underlying conditions until we saw the blood test results.

By Monday, he had deteriorated quite quickly and while not in pain, he was clearly exhausted and the spark in his eyes had faded, even if he managed a weary wag of the tail when I spoke to him. It was at the same time the easiest and the hardest decision to make but it would have been cruel and selfish to prolong his suffering, as the disease was advanced and incurable. He walked into the vet, his tail up and wagging. As usual, he behaved himself and gently and peacefully fell asleep in my arms as I asked him to wait for me on the hills, where I promised to meet up with him every time I went there.

If you’ve read my blogs or seen my social media posts, you will know we shared a special and very close relationship. He was an important part of my life and if you’d asked him, he would have told you that without him, I’d be out of shape and fatter than I am. He was such a character that writing about him was easy and apart from some artistic license to interpret his thoughts, our adventures were told as they were. If you have a moment, search some of my earlier posts to get a picture of who Rufus was.

Rufus was very photogenic and he knew it. If I was taking too long over taking a photo when we were out, his protest usually took the form of standing in front of the camera. For every photo of a smooth waterfall I have, there are several of a smooth waterfall with a slightly blurry Rufus in the frame. When the camera was deliberately pointed at him, the chin would go up, the back legs would stretch out just a little and suddenly he was posing like the pedigree hound he was. The only give-away to his calm and considered exterior was the wagging tail.

Rufus wagged his tail constantly. If he was trying fake being asleep, his tail would give him away. Even when he reluctantly plodded up the stairs to have a shower, there would be a little tail movement as he knew he’d get a big treat afterwards. I like to think that he was a happy dog and I have no reason to think otherwise. A few years ago we went up onto the snow covered hills of the Brecon Beacons. After the initial climb, I noticed that his tail was drooping and not wagging. He seemed fine otherwise, so I kept and eye on him, ready to turn back if he showed any signs of illness. But he was his usual energetic self, leading the way, stopping to let me catch up and staring dramatically into space whenever I took a photo of him. Later, we went to the vet to check it out and it turned out he’d wagged his tail so much that he’d strained the muscle. That was Rufus.

He was a gentle hound with a lovely temperament. Like any spaniel, he’d chase anything that ran but he was friendly and loved attention. On hill walks, he’d ignore other dogs and stop conveniently where people were passing. Inevitably, he’d get a pat on the head or a tickle under the chin. Satisfied, he’d head off to the next group of people. Anyone who met him would tell you that once he’d checked you out with a few sniffs, he would be your friend. Even when he was feeling rough at the vet on Monday, a little girl came over and stroked his fur and he loved it.

We had our disagreements. We disagreed over the ownership of the sofa – if I was sat on the side he wanted to lie on, and which side varied according to whim, he would stand staring at me until I moved. He usually slept on the bed at night and I was allowed a narrow strip at the edge so he could choose where and how to sprawl. Rufus was a great believer in the concept of time being relative. When it was time to go out in the garden, it was time.  He also firmly disbelieved in the existence of rain and refused to accept it as an excuse not to go out. The only exception was the rain we could both hear on the conservatory roof, which we both agreed wasn’t worth going out in.

It was water that filled a large part of Rufus’ outdoor enjoyment. The first time I ever saw him swim was at Penllegare, where excitement got the better of him and he dived into the water after a stick. The river current slowly took him down stream as he bobbed along, before he figured out the doggy paddle and scrambled up on to the shore. Shortly afterwards, we were walking him along the side of the Neath canal when for some reason, he decided to jump onto the lilies at the edge of the water. He disappeared completely under the water and for a few seconds, I saw myself having to reach in to get him. Then he bobbed to the surface, surprised but none the worse for his dive and I dragged him back onto the tow path, which he stuck to for the rest of the walk.

From then on, water was the draw whenever we were out. One of his favourite places to go was Llyn y Fan Fawr. The route up to the lake followed the streams and brooks that would become the Tawe, and Rufus would walk in them, keeping pace with me on the river bank. He loved to chase, catch and dredge for stones and much time on our walks was spent throwing and catching stones. At the lake, my snack break would consist of throwing more stones into the shallow water and it would be a very reluctant hound that would set off for the Fan Brecheiniog ridge. Coming back down, Rufus would spot the water and be off, charging down ridiculously steep grassy slopes to get to the water’s edge, where he’d wait patiently for me to negotiate the path before trying to catch more stones that I was obliged to throw.

In recent months, with his arthritis, I’d had to keep him out of the water as it was a bit cold but I’m glad that on Friday, after we’d been to the vet and before I knew the blood test results, he managed to sneak into the river on Fairwood Common and we spent a few minutes with him barking for me to throw sticks. I now know he was very ill then, but the lure of sticks in water overcomes most ailments.

The house is empty now. The spot he had in the front room has a faint spaniel-shaped shadow where he would watch me, waiting for the signs of an imminent walk. Last night, I thought I saw him pop his head around the door to point out that it was time to go into the garden. There was no gently nudge to suggest we have the last little look in the garden before bed. I didn’t get to smooth his head as we lay back on the pillows and the light went out. There was no snoring, kicking as he dreamed of chasing squirrels, movement as he found a new most comfortable place in the world. This morning, he wasn’t lying next to me, belly and legs in the air as I tickled his tummy before we got up. There was no ‘bump bump’ as he came down stairs. I’ll get used to this silence eventually but it will be a painful and unhappy process.

There are so many photos I could have chosen to illustrate this but the two I choose show you how my shadow will look every time I step out into the hills and mountains.

So, if you are out on the hills and spot a fleeting black shape out of the corner of your eye, probably heading towards flowing water, say hello to Rufus. He’s very friendly and doesn’t bite. And if you’re walking past a river or lake, throw a stone in for him to chase. He’ll love that.

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There’s always tomorrow

It has been a strange day today. I should have been sad and upset as I went to the funeral of a mate from school. But the humanist service was full of memories, some spoken and others remembered silently. All of them made me smile and when they played ‘Highway Star’ by his favourite band and one of the first songs we rehearsed together there was a tear or two. But most of my memories of Simon are happy ones. Here are some of the ones that can be repeated.

I met Simon in secondary school in 1976. He was introduced to me as ‘Skinny’ which I assumed was because of his physical appearance. Like me, there wasn’t much of him then. I later found out it was far more complex and involved his surname rhyming with ‘bones’. We were both asthmatic and therefore unable to take part in PE and Games lessons. We got talking and quickly discovered mutual interests in science fiction and, later, music. We both had a similar irreverent sense of humour which developed over the years, as did our friendship.

In later years in school, we started making short cine films with a group of like minded friends and a couple of open minded teachers. It was mainly science fiction and horror. Simon was always up for doing the stunts and we managed to kill him off several times. He was stabbed, strangled, drowned and thrown off a quarry face. No padding for Simon. We once started filming a comedy parody of school life, referencing amongst other things, 2001 A Space Odyssey. For this epic, we borrowed Simon’s sister’s dolls pram and floated it out to sea from Bracelet Bay, after first letting the Coastguards know what we were up to. We retrieved it, dried it off and I don’t know whether his sister ever knew.

Simon followed his artistic interests and after a year in art college he went to Worthing to study Theatre Design. I was in London at the same time and we often visited each other. I used to have a great time in Worthing thanks to Simon and his friends; one of the first times I visited we left the pub and four or five of us carried on in a friend’s flat. When we left, it was morning and we went back to Simon’s flat (where I was staying) and had a breakfast of burger, gravy and chips. It was the first time I experienced Simon’s sandwiches which consisted of a bit of whatever he was cooking at the time between two thickly buttered pieces of bread.

When Simon came back to Swansea, he joined the Swansea Little Theatre as a set designer and we formed a band. Simon was a clever and skilful drummer (in the studio, he would record his drum parts with no guide tracks and it was a rare occasion when he had to do a second take. That is gifted playing). He also played a bit of guitar and keyboards. He had been drumming with the Venture Scouts marching band before I picked up a guitar and by the time I was playing well enough to be in a band, he’d also started on the guitar. We swapped licks and he taught me barre chords and during this time Simon had written about half an album’s worth of songs. I had a little 4 track recorder and we spent several evenings recoding demo versions of our songs. He sang on his songs and I sang on mine. Probably the only musical skill Simon didn’t possess was the ability to sing. I still giggle at the version of a folky song I’d written where, while I try to sing the serious lyrics in the style of Bob Dylan, he is in the background trying to and succeeding in making me laugh.

We started rehearsing in Simon’s bedroom, on the top floor of his parent’s house. At our first gig, using all the settings and volumes that we’d used in rehearsals, the landlord of the pub stopped us and asked us to turn down as we were too loud. I pity Simon’s neighbours. We had to stop practising in the bedroom after Simon’s enthusiastic drumming caused cracks to appear in the ceiling of the room below.

We played in several bands together. Our first was Nightshade, which morphed into Fragile Earth and then Strange Attractor. We made some great friendships with the other guys in the band and it was great to see some of them today, some 25 years later, at the funeral. Niel sang and played bass, Jeff was the guitarist in later incarnations. Paul played bass with many of the versions of the band but it was Simon that was the most prolific writer, coming up with or contributing to many of the bands original songs.

We once played a local social club and we were going through a progressive rock period at the time, Simon had written a long piece, which we had recently recorded in a local studio and which lasted around 15 minutes. Imagine the looks of the elderly club members as we launched into ‘River of Fire’, which Simon had written because he was concerned about the way the planet was being ruined by deforestation. It went on for more than 18 minutes thanks to some extended soloing (this was prog). To be fair, they clapped and had a whip round for us and asked us back the following week. We left the long song off the set list for the second gig.

We became the emergency band for the Coach House in Wind Street – we could play at short notice, and often filled in for bands that cancelled at the last minute. I remember them as being great gigs. Alas, the recordings I have tell a slightly different story. But always solid in the background, keeping things on track was Simon’s drumming. I learned to write and play in odd time signatures thanks to Simon (‘No two bars in the same time signature’ was our war cry. Probably chanted in 13/8 time).

Ramtops came next – a five piece band with the addition of Lloyd on guitar and Steve on vocals and guitar, playing more modern covers and more catchy and upbeat rock originals. We played a gig in front of a thousand or so in Singleton Park, where once again we were asked to turn down as we were drowning out the near by ‘It’s a Knockout’ competition. Mr McHenry, Shine and for a brief moment, Alibi were the last bands we shared.

For the first few years of our band career, Simon was driving a bright blue Bedford CF van. In true musician’s style, it would occasionally deposit vital components on the road. One afternoon we were driving back from getting it fixed somewhere and the exhaust fell off – from the manifold back. The cab filled with fumes and we drove on for a bit with Simon and I hanging our heads out of the windows. Eventually, Simon got a Mini and he would rock up to rehearsals and gigs with it crammed full of drum kit. Only he could load and unload it as attempts by me and others inevitably led to some obscure bit of drummist kit being left on the road. And we could never identify the item either.

It later years we drifted apart a bit as our lives changed direction. But I kept in touch and as our birthday’s were exactly three months apart (with Simon being the older) I would always mark the New Year with a text message which usually went along the lines of ‘happy birthday you old git’, to which he would reply with something equally derogatory, and three months later I would get the same ‘happy birthday you old git’ back. The last time I saw Simon was last year at his mother’s funeral. He’d lost weight but seemed fine and, to my shame, the promised ‘I’ll call around sometime’ never happened.

Because ‘there’s always tomorrow’, isn’t there?

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Air Show 2015

Today was the first day of the Wales National Air Show in Swansea. I try to go every time it’s on but this year was special as there was a chance to see the last flying Vulcan bomber. And, as I found out, it was the last year the plane would be flying.

The Vulcan and I go back a long way. One of my earliest memories is at the age of about 4, being woken up by the deep, earth shaking roar of a squadron of Vulcans taking off from RAF Cottesmore. This would happen quite regularly, at any time of the day or night. As a child, it was exciting and slightly scary. What I didn’t realise then was that this was the training and preparation for the third world war. Each time the aircraft were scrambled, my dad (a flight sergeant in the RAF) would have to get ready in case it was for real. If it had been for real, those bombers would have been our deterrent to nuclear attack and the fact they were taking off would signify an attack was imminent. Thankfully, the four year old me didn’t know this. I don’t know how my dad felt every time he had to rush off to his post on the base and I don’t know what my mum thought when he went. I just remember the big planes.

I was taken to see a Vulcan in it’s hanger by my dad. His mate in the maintenance unit managed to arrange for a private tour. The plane was up on the equivalent of car jacks as it’s undercarriage was being serviced. While I was there, they retracted and deployed the undercarriage, and then opened the bomb bay doors. I can’t describe how cool that was to me. I talked about it for years afterwards and anyone who knows me now must be fed up of hearing the story once I knew the Vulcan was flying at today’s airshow. I apologise!

Seeing the Vulcan approaching over Mumbles Head this afternoon gave me goose bumps and sent a shiver down my back. That iconic and unmistakeable shape banked over Oystermouth, sun glinting off the delta wings, and made a low level run along the bay. As soon as I heard the deep roar of the engines, I was back to my early childhood. The noise was so familiar that I could picture the base and the house we lived in. As it climbed at the end of the run, that extra kick of power and the chest pounding noise took me straight back to the exercises and alerts of 1968. I was four again! I took photos but made sure I also watched the plane with my own eyes. As I did so, I found memories of my parents coming back. As the Vulcan disappeared into the distance, it left me with that feeling of excitement, a little scared and with a great big lump in my throat.

EDIT: In the photo of the Typhoon, notice it’s in the Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary colours – these are the original 1940 camouflage colours that appeared on Hurricanes and Spitfires. It’s 75 years this month since the battle started. Let’s remember the few. 

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New Car pt 2:

If you read my earlier post, you might be wondering what car has caught my eye and will, hopefully, scratch the itch. Or you’ve stumbled on this because of the clever keywording and taging I’ve done and you thought it was a blog about deforestation in Bolivia. Or scantily clad women.

No such luck, I’m afraid. I’ve never been to Bolivia and I’ve never seen a scantily clad woman (ahem). My next car will almost certainly be …

… expensive. They always are. I start off with the perfectly logical and emotionless attitude that it’s only a metal box with some wheels and a lot of plastic and it’s only function is to transport me from A to B. Then, there is a period of revelation and enlightnement, usually when I’m thumbing through motoring magazines or jealously gazing at my friend’s car. I begin to realise that it’s more than an inanimate object. All my cars to date have had stories and memories attached to them; good and bad. And they have all called in to various places (C, D, E, F etc) on the way between A and B, as I believe in adventures and exploration.

I spend a lot of time in my car, so it has to be a pleasant place to be. It has to be comfortable, secure and I have to have a really good radio. It has to be a pleasure to drive over long and short distances. ‘m not particularly fussy over colour, as long as it isn’t a silly colour (like the pale pnk muscle car I saw the other day leaving work) or white.

Suddeny the cost starts rising. But I don’t drink or smoke and I usually like the simple things so this is one of my indulgences. I tend to plan in advance for the next car, so the money is saved up over a few years.

So here we are. The money is being gathered into a central pot as we speak. All those copper coins I’ve saved up over the years are being counted and carted off to the bank. My lottery winnings have been deployed.

It merely remains to finalise the choice of vehicle, which will come from a shortlist of two ot three. And you’ll be surprised to learn that they are all…

Peers

I started writing the ‘Heroes’ blog with the intention of including a bit about one’s peers. It didn’t fit so this is a separate blog uploaded at the same time.

We grow up in a bubble of time. As we move along, everything moves with us. Time is the same for everyone (no arguments about relativity and the astronauts in the International Space Station, please).  In my bubble, there are all the things that have come along for the ride. Friends, family, people, places, bands, beliefs, environment, culture, values.  They’re all familiar and safe and secure and as a result, we are too. Because they’re with us all the time we don’t see them change and we begin to take them for granted.

Then suddenly, the things in the bubble start to change. Places in the bubble are knocked down or modified beyond all recognition. Values change, people change as if they’ve dropped out of the bubble and are tumbling further and further behind as they are no longer dragged along with it. As the bubble represents our security and foundation, it can be disturbing, confusing and even scary. It’s a reminder that we, too, are changing from other’s viewpoint bubbles.

Think of a film or TV programme from your childhood. I’m thinking of Thunderbirds – the original TV series. I remember watching that when I was 5. That’s fortymumble years ago. It was the best TV programme ever, exciting, cool, lots of explosions. When I watched it again a few years ago, I saw it in the same way as my parents would have – it was a bunch of puppets, some models of machines and buildings and some fireworks for explosions. I was genuinely disappointed.

The people in the bands I used to watch on stage are now eligible for bus passes and recently some of them have died. Great swathes of my home town have been ‘improved’ to the point where they are no longer recognisable from only a few years ago. The things that were important to me when I was 20 are trivial now. Computers have changed, TV’s are flat. I can’t open the bonnet of my car and fix the engine any more. Friends move on, change or die.

I’m not complaining about progress. Changes happens (though not always for the best despite what you might be told by the person selling you the change – and if they tell you that all change is to be welcomed and those not embracing it are negative or cynical, without giving a good reason for change, then laugh at them). But it sometimes sneaks up on you and the adjustment required can be difficult.  Especially when it involves one of your peers.

 

EDIT 4 August: The ECO Pressed logo has appeared at the bottom of this post. I know nothing about this organisation and so do not necessarily agree with it or what it stands for. This is not an ‘eco’ post.