31 Oct
Emma Metcalfe Children’s Illustrator

In lustrate – to throw light upon. Emma Metcalfe passed away this month, young, bonny and blithe, struck down by the recurrence of an aggressive cancer.

When she told me not long ago that her illness would kill her, I offered to make her coffin. What else could this carpenter do?

My suggestion was so outrageous that it made her laugh out loud and say:

“Only you could say that, Henk, and mean it.”

I was indeed serious, I wanted, at least to enrobe my wonderful friend in a wooden raiment as fine as any of her glorious illustrations. Finest elm, myriad carvings of bicycles and swifts, her favourite bird and passion for sustainable transport.

I had a practice and made a 1/12th scale model in mdf (those who know me, will understand that I didn’t do this lightly)

I photographed my childhood rabbit pal, Bunny in it.

In the end I didn’t find it funny, and neither did he. Even with beads adorning the lid – glued on with super glue by my neice Percie, it still looks bloody grim. My wife, Clare, was appalled “Poor Bunny!”

I do hope bunny forgives me, I’m sure Emma did.

I’ll give the piece to my grandson for Halloween.

In Ghana, the country of my childhood, the dead are honoured in spectacular fashion. Ghanaian carpenters make coffins that celebrate the deceased’s life – in a most beautiful way.

What the deceased did, or what ‘did’ for them, no morbid sadness here.

Ghanaian Coffin

I think Emma would have liked a bit of bonkers, like this.

As it happens, her dear fella Matt will plant her on a hillside in Stannington, on the 17th November. She will have a grand view as she becomes the very substance of the Earth and the myriad creatures she drew, bringing to merry life in her work for children.

How will I remember her? Well, Emma and I were the first artists to move in to Exchange Place, Yorkshire Artspace, Sheffield in 2013 – then a neglected ex council property and now fully restored as a flagship centre for Art in Sheffield.

We used to meet up on the ground floor kitchen to make a cup of tea. She, slightly wild haired and bebothered, me, covered in sawdust and bored.

Emma radiated a certain kind of insouciant brilliant Englishness which was a delight. I could imagine her at Bletchley Park, decoding puzzles with the other ‘gels’ in 1944. She was that clever.

With a penchant for collecting weird plastic artefacts, toys, figurines and the like and housing them on a pretend mantle piece in her studio. I think she deserves the soubriquet ‘eccentric’.

No doubt people will remember her work for Cycling in Sheffield and Nottingham, her staunch defence of accessible transport networks in cities and her work to make homes for swifts.

I won’t remember that, I will remember a cup of tea, a look askance (find it in all her animals) and an infectious belly laugh.

Emma to me was like a daughter-on-loan, about the same age as my own daughter, and so very dear to my heart. I was able to indulge a certain fatherly care when she was around. She lived her short Life spectacularly well, may she rest in pieces, within all out hearts recycled, re-loved and daily missed.




19 Sep

“I seem to have gone through a fallow period with my writing” I shared with Susanna, a friend, the other day.

She promptly responded with a link to an article about the therapeutic power of story telling, adding:

“As to lying fallow, coping with a Pandemic, earning a living, loving and carrying on despite losing all your tools doesn’t sound very fallow to me”

My workshop was burgled recently, the tools of my trade and my livelihood taken from me.

19 Years ago I was diagnosed with BiPolar disorder. Having created an enormous amount of anxiety and stress for all my family and friends around me over one mad summer and a lifetime of unknowing.

I had lost the thread of my own narrative, my own tool box – the one between my ears – had been burgled by illness.

In the newspaper article Anne Cleaves describes her husband’s illness – also BiPolar Disorder – and the way in which she coped with the stress of helping him through the bad times and, eventually, to recover.

She discovered that reading and telling stories to him – and immersing herself in fiction – was profoundly therapeutic for both of them. She invented the detective Vera Stanhope.

Rutland Water, 1st September 2020

In the same way it was, and still is through listening to the stories of others, that I refill my old toolbox.

The photograph above was taken by a great friend at Rutland Water. On a beautiful sunny day we had agreed to meet for lunch and to tell each other stories whilst observing the antics of the birds.

My friend had just pointed out a marsh harrier coursing along the lakeside margin – this may account for my open mouthed incredulity.

This is the occasion I saw Joseph, my grandson, since the beginning of the pandemic and lockdown – 9 months. I met him and his mum, my daughter, on Wanstead Flats last weekend.

Every picture tells a story.

There was enough of a breeze for me to attach the bridle to the string of a little pocket box kite and step back. As you can see – he’s a professional at 3 and a half.

The perfect antidote to lockdown and the effects of a fallow period.

It strikes me that we are all, in a sense, works of fiction. Our best and worst traits live on in the thread of memories and narratives of our friends, loved ones and perhaps most tenaciously, our foes.

A story is like the string that tethers the kite.

We are stories that need to be told and retold, polished by love, flown if you will – in order for us to continue to be real. An idea beautifully rendered in children’s story “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams.

I urge you to kite your stories dear reader, we will listen. Hearing and sight work well over social distancing rules.

Let us cast off the constraints of infection and the theft of our treasures to viruses and burglars.

I shall give back control of my Joy to the wind.

Birds and kites know.

For Joseph & D 19/09/20


23 Dec

As little a boy I used to play the board game known as Bagatelle in my great uncle Jan’s huge house in Haarlem. All the time the adults would argue about noblesse oblige, the Second World War and prisoner of war camps – in Dutch.

Bagatelle – the antidote to tedious nostalgia.

The thrill when the marble actually lands in a scoring hole, instead of tinkling down the pins to oblivion!

Reminds me of W.H. Auden’s aphorism:

‘Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic.’


Looks like a tombstone too.

Earlier this year, I was asked to design a memorial. The Widow had not been able to find a suitable artisan to honour her husband’s memory.

She described her husband to me as an adventurer, a cyclist and a gentleman and she wanted the memorial carved in wood.

He seemed to have the qualities of my father, David Littlewood.


Cyclist, gentleman and Adventurer.

The regulations governing the installation of memorial headstones in graveyards are strict in South Yorkshire. 

Wood is not good, unless one plants a living tree.

I declined the commission, but in memory of my father’s generous spirit, I gave her the drawing to use as she saw fit.

Eventually she told me she had found a talented young mason who was able to carve it for her in stone and add his own texture to the motif.


What, I hear you ask, is the link between an ancient board game for one bored boy and Death?

Life of course, and I celebrate it!

The word Bagatelle derives from the Italian word ‘bagatella’ coined in the 1630s for a trifle, a thing of no importance – a knick-knack, a bauble, or a trinket.

David met his second wife, Mollie, in the Club Bagatelle a famous nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria.

David and Molly - Polly and Alan wedding

Mr and Mrs Littlewood produced three children together; Anna (veterinary surgeon), Nathan (geologist) and Simon (carpenter).

I met them in ’69 when I was still living in Matlock in the house my dad bought when he married my mother, David’s first wife.

Although I was young, it was kind of obvious to me that my Dad was besotted with Mollie and very happy.

This made me happy, and that is no trifling thing.


Elise, by the artist Diana Storey, makes me happy. She is a Bagatelle. You can see her galloping around a small exhibition of wood and mosaic art called Birdsong in Winter (extended by Yorkshire Artspace until January 18th, 2020) as a paean to trifles thrown in the face of Darkness.

At night a terrifying Night Mare, carrying the innocent away from Darkness into The Light. By day a sweet carousel pony.

In the mid 1950’s young David took his City and Guilds 1st Class in carpentry and joinery and sailed from Liverpool to Nigeria to help her people regain Independence from British Rule. He brought practical building skills.

His adventure led to my birth in Kano, and more siblings than I can shake a stick at, a generous step mum and the happiest of memories.

That is pretty First Class in my book.

 “Proper job lad.”

For the women folk x

HL 24.12.2019



6 Dec

Peter Maarten Hendrik Littlewood – that’s me, born 22.7.58 in Kano in the north of Northern Nigeria south of the Sahara Desert, which technically makes me Hausa. But, I grew up in the heart of Derbyshire, by the river Derwent.

It’s a long way from there to here.

Yesterday I bought a ham sandwich from Eugene on the train travelling up to London to visit my grandson, Joseph.

A mere 2 1/2 hour train ride.

Eugene, it turned out, was from Sierra Leone and was surprised when I told him I had lived as a boy on the hill above Freetown, watching the timber trucks hurtle down the hill.

Freetown was the main departure point for slaves traded in West Africa.

I learned to use a hammer here, and never to judge a book by its cover.

The old map of The Peak District shows natural and man-made boundaries – if you are adventurous, you can breach them.

However, have to know how and more importantly…..when. It’s the same with the boundaries within people, particularly children.

In 2019 Saint Nicholas brought grandson, Joseph some gifts and stuck them in his blue wellies.

His favourite was a book from Clare, his Nain, all about trucks. Press the button to match the truck noise. Perfect!

His mum and dad are are protective of Joseph’s boundaries.

They need to be.

I was 7 years old, when I was enrolled in a primary school in Matlock, Derbyshire. I was placed in  a mixed-age ‘remedial’ class.

They did not know what to do with me really.

On the first day of term, in 1964 I was paraded in front of the class and introduced  as ‘Hank’ Littlewood from Africa.

The teacher then urged my class mates to ask me questions.

First question:

Girl “Why aren’t you black?”

Me “Because my Mam washes me in Domestos”

2nd ‘Question’:

Boy: “Have you ever seen a snake?”

Me, ‘Yes we had Green Mambas in the garden in Takoradi, but my pet Mongoose, Pitypet always scared them off.’

Not the wisest of responses for someone new to an English provincial school.

Very clever, but thick, as my wife would say – a fairly good description of someone with BiPolar Type 1 Disorder.

I had lowered my draw bridges and was ‘asking for trouble’.

During that first introduction, several boundaries had been crossed …. & breached – by the teacher. Her actions had sleighted my castle walls.

It did lasting damage.

In Ghana school was totally different. I was unaware of the difference between black children and me, we just played football together and laughed a lot – they were my friends.

The Matlock kids taught me the difference between black and white that very same day, at break time.

I was surrounded by kids shouting

“You’re a white N&%%@R!”

I kid you not, so in Hegley’s own words, I ‘got it’ for being me – ‘Back in the Playground Blues‘.

By the end of the school term, my mother was getting a bit worried about my prospects for survival.

Her funny little boy had become introverted and withdrawn.

So Mam recruited the services of her younger half brother, Maarten, to help.

He had just finished his National Service in the Dutch Army as the Colonel’s Jeep Driver. Clever lad to wangle that job!

To me he was a Knight.

He took me for a long walk to the playground near our house and we had a man to man chat.

He said, “Look Henk, most people don’t understand you, and it is no good trying to be clever, or talk yourself out of trouble. Some people only understand one thing.”

‘What’s that Oom Maarten?’ I asked.

“This” and he showed me his fist. “You have to ‘whoof’ them with this”.

I discovered Mars.

Maarten, after the God of War is my middle name. Yang.

Next day, when one of my class mates yelled ‘Hank, Hank! You’re the White N£&&@r!”, I whoofed him.

I whoofed him good. Mam met me at the school gate, bloody, but unbowed. The name calling stopped.

Uncle Maarten had taught me how to establish some of my own boundaries.

My grandfather – Opa – taught me how to play chess using the beautiful mini game Fox and Hounds at about the same time on his old box wood set, a great game for teaching a child the importance of boundaries and rules. He would always point out blunders as I made them, so I learned fast.

We moved on to chess after that, and every day in the summer holidays I would play a game with him, after a piece of cake and a glass of squash, but only after I had helped my Oma Yo do some housework.

Here it is as it appeared in a 2019 art with some of artist Diana Spencer’ figurines substituting major pieces. Very Jungian.

I made this set for my Opa when I was 11, with the guidance of my favourite teacher, Master of Woodwork and Technical Drawing, Mr Paulson. The only teacher I ever paid any attention to really.

The game above is the Queen’s Gambit (white), a powerful attacking opening relying on a pawn sacrifice to gain control of the centre of the board.

Black must defend well. Black is my colour of choice.

My dad used to say – when dealing with the gentler sex, always play for a gentleman’s draw.

Chess is a thing of boundaries and rules, and yet infinite possibility. It is the game of War.

Maps, on the other hand, are topographic things, they have real meaning.

They are vital in war. Territory can be taken or defended.

However, both create spaces in which Time is altered, because you must employ your Imagination.

Bring your boys up to understand sacrifice and give your girls the tools….the keys are theirs to claim. But make them both understand that a word and a tool can easily become a weapon.

St Peter holds two keys: one to heaven and one to hell. In most depictions they are identical (gold or silver/white or black).

You chose.

Do you want to ‘”Phone a friend?”

Would you prefer to “Ask the audience ?”

I chose 50/50 ….. to walk the path, very carefully. The path between heaven and hell. ‘Meifumado’ in Japanese – or the way of the warrior.


20 Nov

At the age of 11  I made a set square under the guidance of my favourite teacher Mr Paulson.

Mr Paulson taught woodwork and technical drawing. A man of few words, he never gave an ‘A’, even for good work.

“There is no such thing as perfection, Henk”.

After I had made a right angle between two pieces of planed, sanded and shaped hardwood, I was awarded a pair of metal clips and a drawing board.

I took my prize home and produced a projection drawing for my first carpentry joint. I got an A minus.

At this time of year Yorkshire Artspace, my current landlord, throws open its doors and encourages the public to see artists in their natural habitat.

It is popular with Sheffielders, but not with me – it makes ‘thunder in my head’ – as the Dutch would say. I become a donderstral (a thunder beam). In English – I get a bit cross.

Questions such as:

“Oh, what do you do?”

“Did you make that”

“Do you go to Stannington woodwork class?”

HL …..’why, do you think I need to?’

Invite my mother’s cold sarcasm, whilst my Dads response would have been silent – more like this:

‘Ear all, see all, say nowt;
Eat all, sup all, pay nowt;’

Well one Sheffield man came in to the studio on Sunday, picked up my ancient set square examined it and said:

“Tha’ hasn’t dressed the screws lad”

….meaning I had not lined up the slots on the screw heads.

I laughed! It is exactly what my father would have said. My visitor introduced himself as Dean Murdoch, Joiner (my father’s trade).


In Norse mythology, the God of thunder, Thor, has a powerful weapon – a short handled hammer called Mjölnir. The set square looks a bit like a Thor’s amulet.

The name means ‘grinder’, like the action of a mill stone.

In old Saxon England Thor was known as Thunar, from which we derive the word ‘thunder’.

When Thor threw his hammer, it always returned to him – it could level mountains.

My dad’s mordant sense of humour, like Dean’s could grind on you or, if you understand it, really lift you up.

Temper is a funny thing, without it a blade will not retain its sharp edge.

Blades are improved by good temper: the process by which a hot, forged piece of steel or iron is plunged into a liquid, such as oil or water and suddenly cooled. If done right it makes the cutting edge very hard. Much of the art of traditional knife makers is tested at this moment of truth.

This blade by Simon Maillet is tempered in water, and really hard so it keeps its edge.

It is the same with people. We speak of ‘losing our temper’ or having a ‘keen mind’. If our sense of self is stressed or disturbed we can lose our temper.

My father spent his whole life tempering his anger. He quenched his fire with a keen Yorkshire wit. I learned how to control my temper through his example, he kind of ‘ground me down’ with drollery.

Humour is more powerful than any hammer.

Mr Murdoch ignored the fact that my name had been deliberately scratched out by someone.

His ability to hone in on the important details has been passed on to his daughter, the ceramicist Carla Murdoch, who gave me two bowls fired with some of my oak chips. Oak being sacred to Thor.

Many years ago, I lost track of the set square and only when my mother died did it resurface.

When I saw who had scratched my name out, I understood her reason.

Clare, my wife said “Well he was just a boy when he did it, why don’t you just hang it on the wall as your Hammer of Thor”

There’s lovely!

For Dean Murdoch, Joiner and other sharp blades.

HL 20. 11.19


10 Nov

1985 H n P.jpg

Our daughter Polly was born on August 25th in 1982. Both her mother and she had a tough time of it, and an emergency caesarian was performed to save them. It was touch and go.

I brought Fiona, her mum and Polly home to our council flat on the eighth floor of Lingbeck Crescent, Moss Side, Manchester when they were well enough.

The only furniture we had was a mattress, a dining table and two chairs. I hadn’t a clue really. We washed the used terry towelling nappies by hand. When my dad dropped by  to see his first granddaughter he was horrified and immediately went out and bought us a washing machine.

My mother bought me an electric typewriter so I could finally write up my PhD thesis.

At the time Moss Side was a lawless place and the scene of rioting, looting, muggings and robbery – mostly controlled by gangs. I had done everything I could to turn the flat into a fortress, strengthening the external door frames with steel plate (our neighbour was a known drug dealer and drew far to many vulnerable and hostile people to his door).

One day when Polly was about 1 and I was at work helping to build a database at Manchester Museum two men tried to batter our flat door down…..

Mother and baby were at home.

Fiona lay against the front door bracing her feet against the wall, whilst holding baby Polly. They could not get in, thanks to her courage and to my reinforcements, but my little family was scared and very shaken up.

I found out where one of these individuals lived, so I went to confronted him. Huge mistake.

He was as high as a kite and, in his underpants proceeded curse me to hell and back and to throw what seemed like the entire contents of a kitchen drawer of knives at me. I dodged the missiles and as they sailed over the balcony, I beat a hasty retreat.

I vowed to get us the hell out of Moss Side as soon as possible.

I immediately started applying for all the jobs I could find which were

  • As far away from Manchester as possible
  • Suited my particular skill set (zoological research/experimental physiology/electron microscopy).

Within a month I had secured a post in Queen Mary College,  London. It came with subsidised accommodation in a beautiful run down Georgian Mansion in a pretty Essex Village called Coxtie Green. Dytchleys was an outpost of the University of London (botanical research, playing fields, ponds, Kingfisher by the pond etc.).

My family went from the ridiculous to the sublime as I shed my dreams of independent research to become a lab rat.

At Queen Mary College, University of London I was given the task of investigating termite guts by my new postdoctoral supervisor.

Here’s one of my drawings of the guts of a termite.

Zootermes gut.jpg

The thin wriggly tubes on the left are Malpighian tubules, the big sack in the middle is the paunch or hind gut where fermentation takes place. This was my new domain – termite guts.

In the experimental set up I developed (below) I am literally taking the piss…..A single Malpighian tubule sits in a bath of paraffin oil under the microscope (left), kept at optimum temperature by a water jacket. The end of the tubule is in a saline solution I developed to mimic termite blood, the other end is pumping out tiny droplets of urine. The rate and quality of urine can be determined, the content chemically analysed so that what flows into the paunch (fermentation chamber) can be determined.

Termite lab bench.jpg

I had to make most of the tools needed to perform these operations from heated glass rod, old fashioned blue razor blades and modified iridectomy scissors:

Dissecting tools termite physiology.jpg

My postdoctoral supervisor argued that a termite gut is just a simple fermentation chamber and as such depends upon fluid and nutrient input to produce a useful bi-product – volatile fatty acids in the case of termites.

He had secured the grant in order to investigate new ways to disrupt digestion in pest species of termites and, thereby control them.

After a few months of researching the problem in the lab I discussed the idea with my grandmother on a visit to The Hague and my Oma said:

“Bit of a stupid idea, Henk. When we were kids we used to kill termites by simply crushing them between forefinger and thumb.” (She lived for some years in the tropics).

After 2 years of staring at termite guts I admitted defeat. In that time I had worked out how termites Malpighian tubules work, and how this might link to the symbiotic microbiota living in the paunch.

We were no closer to a magic bullet for crop pest species.

There are plenty of conventional ways of killing insects pests – insecticides – which work best on plant surfaces above ground or as aerosols. Because termites spend most of their life under ground, they are very difficult to attack (unless you are an anteater or an ape with a tool, or an Oma).

A chap I visited in Berne, Switzerland, who supplied me with termites had grown an entire colony of Macrotermes in a big bin in his lab.

Macrotermes mound.jpg

He could ‘call out’ different castes of the colony by placing glass tunnels deep into the mound and putting forage at the end, in this way figuring out what was going on in the hidden labyrinth below. Genius.

I presented my findings to the funding body and my boss, and resigned my post. I could not in all conscience carry on with such an esoteric and ultimately pointless piece of work on such beautiful creatures.

Termites are too beautiful to subject them to the experimental physiology for a whim. Here are some benign little Zootermopsis minding their own business and eating rotten wood.


I designed this set of shelves in olive ash inspired by the wings of the termite alates I once studied.


The design incorporates 6 aerofoils frozen at the moment of shedding, fluttering to the ground.

Here are some termite alates.

Termite Alate.jpg

I like to think that shedding one’s wings can lead to unexpected, subterranean CV.

Research Scientist to Teacher to Cemetery Conservation Officer to Parks and Countryside Ranger to self employed Carpenter

Or as my friend Peter Craggs once said: “You’re the only person I know with a career in reverse”




11 Oct

Years ago after the break up of my first marriage I found myself sharing a room with a Rastafarian poet called Henry. We had both signed up for a course on the sonnet form at the Arvon Foundation.

Henry made a simple observation of my behaviour which stays with me to this day.

He said “Henk man, you got to slow down. You are in a deep groove and you are wearing it deeper. There are many other grooves out there. But you got to slow right down to see them, then you can slip into a new groove”.

This is how I found a new groove.

Not long after meeting Henry, I became so mentally ill that I had no choice but to slow down; pharmaceutically, socially and medically I was becalmed.

I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act after a psychotic episode and six weeks on a locked Psych’ ward I was, I believed, royally screwed as the haloperidol wore off and I began to survey the wreckage I had caused.

My first tentative foray into the world of work began six months later at BTCV now TCV the voluntary conservation organisation building dry stone walls, stiles and steps, laying hedges, planting trees and learning to brew tea in a storm kettle.

Being outside was groovy.

A bit later, and building on the confidence I had gained as a conservation volunteer I gained a paying job with the Friends of the General Cemetery of Sheffield. I was tasked with looking after their volunteers, managing the landscape and helping to service a Heritage Lottery grant to restore the Gatehouse. It was as far removed from teaching or academia as it was possible to be.

It was the beginnings of a new groove.

The General Cemetery in Sheffield is an architectural gem. The Friends were a godsend – and despite my mental health issues they had faith in me. I cannot thank two amazing people enough for my new start: the artist and then Secretary of FOGC Jane Horton and the then conservation manager Helen Carter.

The Nonconformist Chapel is heavily influenced by Greek Classicism with a dose of Victorian Egyptianate je ne sais quois added – hence the sloping door frame. My own Classical reference sits at the front – a throne in the Renaissance Savonarola-style also known as a Dante chair.

The throne was made for my most important muse – my wife, Clare.

I made it from timber gleaned from all over Sheffield:

Ash for the back

Elm for the arms

Alder for the seat

Cherry for the interlaced legs

Iroko from an old Attercliffe beam for the feet and

Sycamore for the bosses

All recycled, nothing wasted, gained as a countryside Ranger, my second proper job after the ‘Cemetery.

This was the first serious piece of furniture I made in 2004 after stepping out of my old groove.

This sonnet, written way back in 1998 – is partly for Henry, and partly for Clare, but, in reality it contains the seeds of a new groove for everyone.

Henry’s Gift

A friend of mine, he gave me his stairs,

His stepping stones, the river to his very God.

And just for breakfast bilberries I ran

To climb his steps, and find the morning sun.

A friend of mine, she gave her hands,

Her lightning wit, her beating heart –

The very blueprint to her living soul,

– the orthodoxy of ‘us’ in the finest cup of tea.

And so it is to me I gave a smile

at Henry’s waterfall. I ran a mile

to find a single berry and a seed,

a pool in which to bathe beside the trees –

where light and life are passing all the while,

illuminating dreams of Love for One and All.



15 Sep


I had an interesting conversation with a fellow guest at a friend’s 50th birthday party/20th anniversary celebration this weekend. We were making polite small talk when I noticed a rather spare, yet beautiful silver ring on her finger. As she talked about it she revealed that this was one of the few jewels she had left following a recent burglary. She threw her chin up jauntily and remarked “It is funny what one values, it was only stuff after all”. I liked the cut of her jib.

I responded by saying that the most valuable things I possessed were the memories of surprising things people had said to me.

To explain, I relayed a memory of my first teaching practise  in a school in a rather deprived area of Gateshead in 1990.

I had been tasked with teaching ‘the skeleton’ to a class of 12 year olds. A keen student, I brought my first wife’s real human skeleton to school to show my class, allowing them to assemble it respectfully from it’s box on a laboratory bench. The school technician had also brought out a 1/5th scale mounted model of a human skeleton for us to compare. I and the pupils loved the experience, they were attentive, respectful and full of curiosity.

A few weeks later, just before I was due to leave, a lad from this class came up to me at the beginning of the lesson and said:

“Sir, can we see the Ethiopian again?”

I was a bit nonplussed, but soon realised that he meant, the 5th size model skeleton.


The boy himself was underweight, and under sized for his age as many of his class mates were. His mum could not afford a uniform shirt AND a pullover, so she had sewn a shirt collar into a pullover. To my mind, the thinking of this boy showed true compassion, and deep thinking. It wasn’t long since the disastrous famine of Ethiopia 1983 – 1985 with shocking scenes of human suffering filling our television screens.

I still remember his Geordie lilt, his serious face, and the blinding realisation that teaching was a two way educational transaction. He had changed me from a student of teaching to a student of education.

Soon afterwards, in my first teaching job in the Tyne Valley, I was gifted another treasure.

There was a boy in a particular class, who, at 15, was a complete pain in the arse. My established colleagues told me he was unteachable. This coupled with the fact that he was in my class with his non-identical twin sister – a bottom science set – meant that they were able to torpedo all of my lessons. He was disruptive to the point of anarchy and, in the end, in desperation I asked him to stay behind at the end of the lesson. I decided to sanction him with a homework essay entitled “The Symmetry of Nature”.

He looked at me askance, picked up the paper and next morning returned this pearl:

‘The Symmetry of Nature is where pets go when they are dead’

Straight faced, I congratulated him on a fine essay and said no more. When he had left me alone in my lab I burst out laughing. From then on we got along fine, and the class became cooperative.

His poetic gift to me – not to take myself, or my role to seriously, and just because I was standing at the front of the class did not make me the top dog.

Courage, insight and humour. Priceless treasures all, are not innate, they are gifts bestowed by those who have experience, but only to those who show respect to their teachers.

The picture shows me aged 4 at my first school in Takoradi, Ghana 1962 (I am second from left, back row). My first teacher (centre front) told me I should be an artist. Respect.


16 May

In honour of  Mental Health Awareness Week I give you a scoop. Carved from a branch of Rowan over about 2 hours, it represents pretty much everything I do to stay mentally healthy.

Work with the grain, keep going, pare away everything that isn’t helping, use a tool  correctly, repeat.

If I get it the process right, I end up with a nice tea caddy scoop (I only use leaf tea, and drink a lot of tea) and everyone is happy. If I get it wrong I end up with a pile of shavings and a rough stick to beat myself with.

Everyone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness will recognise some of these elements.

Work with the grain:

A measure of mental health is the ease with which we ‘fit’ in socially. Taking meds, applying behavioural strategies, listening carefully to other people are like working away with a tool on a piece of wood – keeping sympathetic to the direction of the grain and the nature of the wood. My natural instinct has always been to go against the grain.

Keep Going:

Mood disorders like Bipolar Disorder are inherently destabilising. For no reason at all I can become depressed and lose function and motivation. It happened today, so instead of working on a big (valuable) commission I made a small piece for a client wanting a towel hanger for her bathroom. I just kept going, trusting that eventually my dark mood would lift.


Pare away everything that isn’t helping:

In order to make the piece above, I had to turn a large disc of walnut, turn it further to make an annulus, then carve the annulus into a ‘shamrock’ aperture to hold the towels. This process involves removing material in different ways to leave the desired shape. Paring.

I do this with my behaviour. I am not the same person I was before I was diagnosed with manic depression. I edit myself – though constantly tempted to perform, be funny (puns), be clever, witty, inventive, or judgemental. I pare these impulses back, where I can, by avoiding meetings, audiences, attention seekers, the terminally needy, focussing on facilitating, rather than being facile.

Use a tool correctly

My sharpest tool is my intellect. But just because you have the capacity and can perform to a high level does not mean you should do it. I park my intellect where I can do most good. Take it out when it is needed, confident that it will work to solve an appropriate problem, and help me and others when needed and not before.


When you are feeling well, it is easy to become complacent.

Just as the diabetic must monitor her or his blood sugar levels constantly, I need to monitor my emotional state and act to stabilise it all the time. Woodwork is all bout cyclical repetitive strokes of a tool, not taking too much off, because you can’t put it back. So I keep taking the tablets, keep listening, keep walking away when something makes me feel uncomfortable, and keep being honest.

Mu means ‘without’, or ‘not have’ and it is the condition ‘before creation’ implied in Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. It is central to Zen Buddhist philosophy.

It is a condition I try to move towards – the best way to describe the feeling I get when I am in the midst of making. Not have, not there, no thing.

I introduced a visitor to my studio to spoon making at the weekend. Sung Jin is an architecture student who has been visiting my studio as part of his learning journey. I asked him about the concept of ‘mu’ in Korean culture, where it is represented as 무.

“Same idea” he said “‘mu’ means not have”

He then went to the trouble of breaking down the ideogram for mu for me using the Japanese symbol 無 


I was rather amazed by his pictographic analysis.

You can’t get more ‘not have’ than a crematorium.

You cannot be emotionally more ‘not have’ than when you are profoundly, suicidally, depressed and intent on ending up in the crematorium.

For me, woodwork is a meditation, a state where the ego disappears.

It is ‘not have’……yet.

Delayed gratification, keeping going until the end, not seeking the end.

The mind is so powerful, it needs to be taught to be still. There are many ways to achieve this, iterative movement and listening/feeling are the ways that work for me.

‘Mu’ yields stillness of the mind.

It is the emptiness of the scoop which gives it utility.



28 Apr
In 2010, the Artist, Andy Goldsworthy made this lovely meandering path called ‘Wood Line’ from the huge stems of invasive Eucalyptus trees in the Golden Gate National Park in San Francisco. The path is over a quarter of a mile long and my Dad and I wandered down it together in 2013.
It makes me think about the paths we take as we meander through our lives.
This famous poem by Robert Frost encapsulates the dilemma we all face when we are forced to chose between one direction or another at significant moments of our lives.
The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[1]


At this time of year young people all over the land are studying hard for their school and University exams: GCSE, A’Level, Degrees are the prize they seek. The better the grade/degree the greater the choice of direction. Many of them studying for high academic qualifications will have a good idea of the career path they want to take. Engineering (not enough sadly), Science (again not enough), Medicine and Law (too many), Nursing, Teaching and so on – vocational careers. Very few will decide to follow the path of an Artist. In my school, this was considered ‘failure’ with a capital ‘F’. Art was my best subject, followed by Biology.

At 16 I hadn’t a clue what path to take until I met a Zoologist in 1974 at Lee Green Field Centre in Derbyshire. Teenagers from schools all over the county were given the opportunity to spend a week in the Field studying Ecology with an expert. I was completely entranced by transects, mark and recapture methods, butterfly nets and earthworm population numbers and the mind blowing diversity of planktonic life in a pond as seen under a microscope.

As Baloo the Bear declared to Mowgli in Disney’s The Jungle Book, when he heard the Primo Levi track ‘I’m the King of the Swingers’, I was gone man, solid gone…!

I spent the rest of my sixth form focussed on getting sufficient grades to get in to University to study Zoology. At a parent’s evening my Head Master asked me “What use is  Zoology Littlewood?” my mother, quick as a flash said “So he can develop a new strain of deadly mosquitos and called them Aedes littlewoodi” – with her on your side everyone else was Royally screwed. She was like Boudicca on acid.

Path chosen for about about 15 years. I made a good living studying centipede behaviour, termite piss (I kid you not) and then a long time trying to figure our how locusts brains work whilst supporting my little family in Newcastle upon Tyne. A graduate parent and visitor to my lab once asked me “Why do you do that?” ‘Because I can’, was my answer.

History repeatedly tells us that this is a bad reason.

Research Zoology satisfied a number of cravings – a vast variety of living forms to discover, an esoteric discipline, fresh air and knowledge for an insatiable appetite. It also encouraged my ability to draw, describe and write. Comparative morphology and anatomy were a delight for me. The shape of a claw, a bone, the feeding appendage of a Bryozoan – you name it, I was allowed to stare at it, examine it, draw it and marvel at it how it came to be.

Unfortunately it was not easy to find a permanent job. I quit in 1989 and trained to teach science so I could continue to support daughter and first wife.

New path. Bloody good holidays wherein I could watch my daughter grow up, entertainment dreaming up ways to make basic science concepts understandable for young people and a reasonable income. Downside? Yes – huge stress, mostly emotional.

The path came to a dead end in 2001 after a mental breakdown.

By Great Good Fortune I met someone who shone a light and led me slowly back to the Little Wood. It was a very long a scary journey, but she was by my side the whole way. She took me for long walks and made me read Harry Potter. I began to take myself and less seriously. I learned to listen and she taught me how to love myself. How to find the path back to myself.


I have had the odd wobble on this path, but, by and large I have rediscovered who I am:

A very curious boy, who like to draw and make and write, preferably alone, who loves to be entertained by funny, lively people. A good example would be my niece, Hazel Littlewood, who lives near not far from Goldsworthy’s sculpture and is busy finding her own path.



Just think, I would not have been around to meet her, had I not been led from the dark path.

These days I have re-adopted my youthful dog-like strategy of checking out every path, before committing to the long route, this way I can locate chose the ‘road least taken’.


Here is one I followed today – it made all the difference.

Bluebells and badger sets.jpg

The path of Earthly Delights, where fresh badger diggings, bluebells and (un) coppiced Hazel can be found by and in the Littlewood.

May you find your path, and, more importantly the means of finding it.


For Geoff Smith, Art Teacher, Ernest Bailey Grammar School, Matlock (1970’s). Who taught me that only I was the judge of the true quality of my work. A great teacher.