Cowboy

7 Jun
The lone cowboy sitting astride his steed travelling the vast planes in search of Gold. Well, astride a Stokke kneeling stool anyway.
In the Spring of ’83 my mother exchanged her beloved portable typewriter (a very collectable Olympia) for this huge electric contraption so that I could finally complete my Ph.D. thesis.
We were living in Moss Side, Manchester and I was struggling to comprehend how I could finish my studies with no job prospects having just become a dad and come to the end of my research grant.
In hindsight, I realise I might have been suffering from my first serious bout of depression.
Over the years that followed and following my eventual diagnosis with Manic Depression (or Bipolar Disorder) in 2001, I developed a robust method of sensing when depression was about to strike.
Only last week our first ever, and most loyal customer to our cafe, Tea with Percie took his own life.
He was a gifted artist and beloved by many for his depth and sensitivity. In the end he lost his fight with depression, or the  The Black Dog as some would call it.
Last week I felt the Black Dog leave the artist’s house with the undertakers and the police as they moved his remains from his home.
Clare, my wife, was very upset, she really liked him, and his good friends too were distraught.
I knew I had to do something, because the manner of his passing was too close to home for me. The Black Dog loomed.
I went in to my studio and carefully took apart a distressed but beautiful old Parker Knoll reclining chair, cleaned up all the joints and rebuilt it with a bit of Love. I find this the best glue.
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 I find that if I am quick enough to take action – particularly through making, or repairing – I can usually short circuit the negative thoughts and the looming cloud of depression. Perhaps because focus is needed to make, or repair something with manual skill requires, which requires concentration. This focus allows the black thoughts to slink away.  Depression feeds when the mind is unfocussed – it is why work is so important to us, and unemployment so destructive.
I like to think of it as using the ‘mental floss’ method of escaping the accumulating plaque of depression – just like Cowboy Henk might do:
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Cowboy Henk is the maverick creation of artist Herr Seele and writer Kamagurka. He is a big Belgian Cowboy who finds solutions to life’s problem which invariably involve action, are often absurd rude and somewhat offensive – and always funny.
In the old Southwest of the USA ‘maverick‘ was a word coined to describe  an unbranded steer which had become separated from its mother. Because the calf could not be muzzled (feed from its mother) it made a lot of irritating noise.
James Garner played Bret Maverick in the eponymous hit 60’s TV show.
in which the main character always has an answer to every problem.
Not surprisingly I admired this character greatly as a young man.
Nowadays the word ‘maverick’ has come to mean a lone dissenter, an intellectual or an artist, a dissident – a free thinker.
Other synonyms include – nonconformist, individualist, loner, lone wolf.
I suspect Mavericks are particularly prone to the Black Dog, because they invariably tend to be self reliant, rarely seeking help because they are usually effective at finding their own solutions.
I have been called ‘maverick’ in the pejorative sense many times, not least by close relatives. I am, in some people’s eyes a cowboy, a rebel and a loose canon.
For example;
A few years after I finishing my Ph.D. on that monster typewriter, I was working as a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in a laboratory studying insect vision. It fulfilled the important criteria of giving my daughter and her mum a safe place to live and grow in a lovely city and provide a reasonable standard of living.
Two years in to a three year research contract there I was invited to give a talk to the annual Science and Engineering Council’s annual conference in Edinburgh.
The chair of the session in which I presented my paper was a Professor to whom I had just applied for a new job. At the end of my lecture, which was well received, he drew me to one side and said
“You are nothing like I imagined Dr. Littlewood. Perhaps you need to be more careful whom you chose as a referee.”
I was a bit bemused.
He kindly gave me a copy of the reference written about me by my boss at Newcastle University for the fellowship in the Professor’s lab.
The letter began:
“Dear Sir,
Dr. Littlewood, is completely un-housetrained, he is a maverick…………” and carried on in the same vein.
Needless to say, I was not interviewed for the position, and I began to wonder how many other applications had gone awry because of similar derogatory references.
What I had done to draw this ire?
I had developed a novel brain research technique which allowed neurophysiologists to visualise the connections between nerve cells – the synapses under the electron microscope. At the time my boss’s wife (also a neuroscientist) was applying for a Royal Society fellowship & wanted to put her name to my paper.
I refused as she had not contributed. This is not how to play the game, Henk.
Cowboy Henk.
In addition to the poor references, my contract came to an abrupt end that very Christmas. My boss and Newcastle University ‘let me go’.
I was out on my uppers with a six year old daughter and no roof over our heads – because our accommodation was tied to the job.
As it turned out, this sequence of events was a blessing, because that was when I first started making furniture seriously using the woodwork skills drawn from me by my teacher, Mr Paulson all those years ago and encouraged throughout my life by my father.
I was offered a small corner in an artist’s studio at The Cluny Warehouse, Newcastle upon Tyne and I made a number of pieces of furniture for kind and encouraging paying clients.
Action will always put a smile on your face even if you are screaming inside folks. Turn a bad situation to your advantage by letting your hands pull you free,
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Esme McCall on spoons                                  Cowboy Henk on wagon wheel.

Dues

28 Jan

Henk working

If you want to do something interesting in Life, you’ve got to pay your dues.

This is called experiential learning. I have huge respect for autodidacts (my Father), bodgers, make-do-and-menders, the makers of happy mistakes – in other words those humans with a pioneering spirit.

Too much formal education leads to closed minds in my experience.

Way back in January 2002 I went to see a specialist careers advisor-come-psychometric consultant in London seeking help for a new career direction.

I was asked to send in my curriculum vitae. At the appointment the first thing the consultant said to me was: “Looking at your resume I would say that there is a cyclical pattern occurring over about a three year period throughout your career. You seem to start a new job, be very productive for a while and then, sooner or later you torpedo everything and move on. I’d say you were probably manic depressive.”

I was a bit shocked to be honest.

“Funny you should say that” I said, ” but I have just been diagnosed with Manic Depression.”

I had recently been discharged from a Psychiatric Hospital with a prescription for Lithium carbonate, regular cognitive therapy and ….no bloody job. I was facing some hard decisions about how I was going to make a living. The psychiatrist had advised me that teaching (my erstwhile job) was the worst possible thing I could do – because of the particular pressures experienced by all the people in a school. A person with MD (Bipolar Disorder) is under constant emotional stress (because of the lack of an internal ‘governor’) and therefore finds it difficult to maintain psychological stability.

I had to accept teaching was off the menu.

“But I can’t do anything else!” I wailed to Clare, my wife, to which she responded:

“Don’t be so stupid, Henk! You can do anything you want with your brain you wally.”

 

Impressed by my wife’s pithy rebuke and the  insightfulness of the consultant I asked what job I might be suited to other than academia or teaching.

The careers consultant said “What do you really like?”

I rambled on about challenges, problem solving, team working, communicating and so on and so forth…

She said “This is not a job interview, what do you really like to do?” A tough question because I did not like anything about myself.

So I thought about it long and hard and said:

“I like being outside and I like making things with my hands”

“Well why don’t you think about environmental conservation? You’ll never make much money, but you will get a lot of job satisfaction. With your background knowledge of Natural History, your experience as a teacher and your woodworking skills you should fit right in”

So I did some research and found out that the only way to get into conservation work is by volunteering.

The way you pay your dues in Conservation is by giving your own time for no pay to learn the trade – it sorts out the committed from the merely curious. Since the majority of conservation jobs involve working with and managing enthusiastic volunteers you have to have been one to earn any credibility in this trade.

This made perfect sense to me, and after a little bit of searching I discovered a voluntary position with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (now TCV – The Conservation Volunteers) in Wirksworth, Derbyshire as a Biodiversity Officer.

I flogged my motorbike – a beautiful Honda VFR –

Honda VFR800 98  2

to learn about billhooks, biodiversity action plans, tool talks, brewing tea with a storm kettle, endless hacking away at rhododendron bushes, how to drive a mini bus, tow a trailer… and in return was able to contribute my carpentry skills to making and hanging gates, wooden bridges, styles, steps and all manner of access barriers – all in the glorious Derbyshire Peak District with a lovely team of young volunteers – project officers and TCV staff. Outdoors, working with my hands.

Fresh air and friendship. The best head juice I know.

Very slowly it began to dawn on me that I could be happy perhaps for the first time in decades.

The door that was opened in my mind by this Zen-like slap to my forehead has led ultimately to me returning to my boyhood passion, via a joyful 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Believe what everyone says, it is the best paid job in the world.

It is remarkable to me that, through great good fortune I now find myself hosting an enthusiastic young carpenter/artist who is paying her dues to the traditions and practises of a road less travelled.

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Esme McCall, December 2017

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”   Robert Frost

 

 

 

Wild

21 Jan

I believe that we, as humans need to learn to #re-wild. I have been struck, of late, by just how many of the intelligent, sensitive, humans I know have been labelled with mental health ‘disorders’.

I too have the label Bi-polar disorder. The shrink who diagnosed me agreed that manicdepression was a more accurate and less wanky label for my sort of constitution.

My wife, Clare, says “I don’t know anyone with a more ordered mind than you Henk.”

It is true, I operate a harsh mental discipline to maintain the core of my psychological well being. I walk away from dull conversations, I avoid ‘death eaters’ (my wife’s brilliant soubriquet for energy vampires), I keep moving and making. I take the sodding Lithium. I listen, listen, listen.

My half sister Anna wrecked her poor body with an eatingdisorder, and died too young at 35. A brilliant mind wasted in a domesticated world, controlled by death eating administrators and control freaks.

She and I face(d) the same problem daily. The world has become BORING, because humans have covered it in ‘controlled environments’ and I don’t mean central heating I mean conceptually corporate stupidity fuelled by greed.

Vaulting male arrogance born of cowardice.

How does one push back?

With wildness of course.

I am in the process of making a desk in ash and oak for a very thoughtful client who understands the subtleties of syntax better than most. His artistic partner is inspired, like me, by tactile and visual resonances, and suggested that the piece looks for all the world like the badge of the crew of the Starship Enterprise!

My daughter and grandson approve it seems.

His observation made me think that my style could be described as “Future Rustic”.

These chairs enticed their owners, Jill and Jim to allow themselves to be pictured enthroned on their 30th wedding anniversary.

Perhaps I am a barbarian carpenter working in a modern city, for a wilder future.

For a future in which a boy can hop on a push bike with only a change of underwear, some loose change and cycle from Huddersfield to Rhonda to see where the partisans resisted Franco.

DS Littlewood circa 1948 (Dad)

To a future where The Call of the Wild, by Jack London (my father’s favourite novel) is read more wildly.

“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club” Jack London.

A future where my grandson does not end up labelled with a ‘disorder’ because we have ironed out all the wrinkles of uncertainty in a world that does not need us anymore.

Let us ‘boldly go where no-one has gone before’.

Back to the Future.

Mimir

16 Jan

Frank L Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, introduced some beautiful sayings into children’s literature. For example;

“No thief, however skilful, can rob one of Knowledge, and that is why Knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire”

But how do we get Knowledge? I used to think it could be taught, until I experienced Life and realised that some sacrifices are required.

Odin knew this well. He journeyed deep below the roots of the giant Ash Tree, Yggdrasil to a sacred stream guarded by a mysterious and deeply wise creature called Mimir.

Mimir was the keeper of ‘tradition’ – I suspect he was actually the guardian of Archetypes – Literally ‘ancient concepts’ …. or ‘inheritance’ if you will.

Odin made a huge sacrifice in order to drink from Mimir’s well and gain wisdom. He plucked out his own eye for a draught. To become a ‘seer’.

Recently, I have been designing a desk for a valued client who is a Scholar, a wise man and I felt it would useful to understand his sacrifices a little.

I discovered that he adores his cats (he would not mind me saying that he is their servant). The gentleman also loves to rub his feet on a special massage stool below his office desk whilst working. This gave me an idea. Why not build the foot massager into the trestle of the desk?

I chose an old burr from the side of an oak tree I thought it would make a tactile and aesthetic foot board for the scholar.

Here is the work in progress:

The bottom foot board reminded me of the wounded empty eye socket of Odin.

Hopefully, my esteemed client will be able to rub his feet on the ‘eye socket’ whist he is researching his field and plying his wisdom up above.

So, what do I know of sacrifice?

In 1983 I was writing up my PhD thesis on a typewriter at a tiny wooden table in a flat in Moss Side, whilst trying to look after my baby daughter Polly. Her mum was forced to go back to work to pay the bills. It did not work, I could not concentrate, so Polly’s Nan offered to look after her for half the week in Doncaster.

The loss of Polly for three days from our lives was very terrible. Yet Polly thrived in the company of her Nan. So it was the best thing for her.

So why did I make this sacrifice – did I gain knowledge?

I had studied the ’empty socket’ that is the coxal organ of centipedes for my PhD.

A beautiful structure. With a described function based entirely on appearance (external and internal). In other words totally wrong.

I did some experiments, and made a new testable hypothesis:

In so doing I sacrificed precious time with my baby daughter.

Was it worth it? Not at all. The PhD has never earned its keep. It was just a ticket to misery.

Now, I would not trade a picosecond if my allotted time with Polly, her son, Joseph , or his Nain Clare.

For they are Mimir, the keepers of the sacred wellspring of Life.

Epiphany

8 Jan

The day after my father died I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I walked to my workshop via the canal basin at Victoria Quays, Sheffield by way of a pair of bored ducks.

When I got in I set to making a some shelves for my nephew Luke. His dad had sent me a computer generated diagram of what he wanted.

That was my opening gambit.

Holly Chessmen 2016

I started by cross cutting some 18mm birch ply for the shelves using the table saw and the fence to set the width of the cut. Something I have done countless times.

But, this time I did not replace the guard on the saw blade. As I switched the induction motor on a large section of ply got trapped between the spinning blade and the fence – and shot out like a missile into my crotch.

As I was rolling about in the sawdust clutching the Crown Jewels and crying – I suddenly heard my dad’s voice:

“Look after your tools son and your tools will look after you.”

You could call this an epiphany.

Less of ‘the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (Matthew 2:1–12)’ as my Mam would put it, more the sudden and great revelation according to Dad.

A Zen moment if you will.

When both parents are dead the child is on their own – spouse, partner, your friends – the people picked by you, may be there for you. If they are true they will even love you warts and all.

However, all of these fine folk are free agents and can, potentially, leave you all alone.

Parents are an entirely different box of frogs. Their influence can never leave you. They gave you life, and for this alone you will always owe them a debt. Without them you are not even a twinkle in an eye.

I loved mine equally. I respect their gifts.

Mam showed me how to fight, Dad taught me tactics and strategy. Mam taught me the difference between looking and seeing, Dad gave me poetry and laughter.

My parents never expected me to pay up on the debt I owed them, but, it occurred to me that I might repay them in some way.

Perhaps with a touch of faith?

Like letting a keen young carpenter work in your studio.

“There’s no F&@£ing straight line anywhere!” Esme McCall

Muninn – spalted ash

Quite.

Educare (to train) – The Mother. Educere (to enlighten) – The Father.

Chiaroscuro Home Parenting.

For Alan and Polly Howden, who know how to get right in to the playpen with their boy Joseph. Caravaggio would approve.

R

5 Jan

There are times when everything seems to turn to ashes. All one’s best efforts, all ones hopes, and, foolishly one’s expectations are dashed to smithereens. And yet….. and yet, there is always a calm core to every Force 10 Hurricane.

Late this afternoon in the gloaming of a Wintery Sheffield Woodland, I revisited my old stamping ground – the place where I was awarded a post as a Countryside Ranger in 2003.

I was looking for a particular pair of trees, introduced to me by an ex colleague of Sheffield City Council Ranger Service, way back in 2004.

My Ranger colleague, John and our gaffer, Mark had been in post nearly 30 years man and boy when I joined the South Ranger Team, fresh from 2 years entertaining naughty boys and girls as a Green Watch Project Ranger.

I was as keen as mustard.

Mark my gaffer, used to say “For Christ’s sake sit down lad and have a cup of tea, you’re doing my scone in!”. I would be in the Base at Greenhill Park at least half an hour before them, busying myself fettling tools for the days work, checking the diary and sorting through emails. Busy, busy, busy.

If I was worried about setting up for a school booking, John would say “Be reyt’ ” and roll another cigarette.

I confess I could not understand the South Team attitude. It always felt as if we were ‘arsing about’ to coin a Yorkshire phrase.

Now, with my father’s passing, I understand the importance of ‘R’-sing  around.

R obscured

 

The trees I was looking for are a tall straight larch and a beautiful sweet chestnut. They have grown together for years, embracing as lovers do. They have some to rest against each other.

If you walk a bit further along the path, this is revealed:

R revealed

‘R’ for ‘R-sing’ around.

‘R’ for Ranger.

My father would have said:

“Steady on Son” – he was Rangering.

For Simon Littlewood, my brother in aRms.

Si and Henk Carpenters

Memoriam

4 Jan

IMG_6709.JPGDavid Stuart Littlewood, 21.03.1930 – 25.12.2017 surrounded by his apprentices.

From the left, yours truly, Dad, Nathan, Simon and Tim. Abi, our sister, sadly passed away in 2008 so the picture above is incomplete.

A couple of weeks before Dad’s passing we were all able to get together in Devon to celebrate each other’s connection through David Stuart Littlewood. He made a big effort, coming down from his bed to sit amongst the grandchildren and share our good humour, providing the strong glue that binds us. He was a bit somber at the start.

The remarkable turnaround in my Dad’s mood was largely down to our youngest brother’s insatiable appetite for life. His enthusiasm for pickles, meat pies, a full English Breakfast, long striding walks over the Devon Moors and an encyclopaedic knowledge of beer, old architecture and woodwork was just the ticket. Simon always brings his ‘A’ game to a family gathering.

As you know I believe in Alchemy.

A week before Christmas I was feeling low, and, yet out of the Blue, a young artist/maker contacted me for help. She wrote a mature and erudite email introducing herself and expressing a need to develope her woodwork hand skills. We agreed to meet in my studio in Sheffield.

After some initial hedging around by me, I agreed to let her spend a little time in my workshop, so that I could gauge her quality.

I found the timing of her arrival both fortuitous and perplexing, so I asked my father (as I always do) for advice.

I quietly approached him and asked him if he needed ‘owt.

“Aye, lad, cup of tea”

I brought him a cup of tea – strong one sugar, and as he was sipping it I said:

“Dad, I’m thinking of taking someone on, do you have any advice?”

“Is it a lad?”

“No, its a lass”

“Oh, well, get her to make something and if she’s shite, bin her off”

These were the last words he spoke to me before he died.

I was his first apprentice. He never binned me off. Ever.

There is now a young carpenter honing her craft in my studio, bringing her art and skill to enhance our ‘A’ Game.

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The fish carving was the first piece of ‘wood art’ I made for my gaffer, Mr Poulson, at 11 years of age.

‘A’ is for Alchemy.

Paulo Coelho The Alchemist.