Nemesis

8 Dec

Way back in the 1990’s I taught at Prudhoe High School in the Tyne Valley. Part of my duties were the pastoral care of Year 10. A young man was sent to me by his form tutor who was very concerned for his safety.

He was in distress and had attempted to self harm.

I suggested we have a chat in the school Greenhouse – somewhere one could have a cup of tea or a smoke, get away from the infernal hustle and bustle of a busy High School.

He proceeded to tell me that he found school so unbearable it had driven him to the brink of suicide. I now know what he meant.

I gave him £5 and said “Why don’t you naff off home with this and don’t come back”

“Are you serious?”

Me, ‘Perfectly, I will speak to the Head and tell him it is a matter of Life and Death. I will of course have to inform your parents as this is a Child Protection Matter. But, from the point of view of your health and safety I’d say getting as far away from school as possible is a priority.’

His parents were mightily relieved when I rang, they had been expecting a crisis.

I managed to persuade a few of his teachers to tutor him to his GCES, outside normal school time, which he coped with. He got A’s and an A* in Art – his best subject as you can see from his portrait of me above.

I had given my entire collection of 2000 AD to him (I had read it from the very first issue). When he eventually left to go to college he portrayed me as the alter ego of Nemesis The Warlock. The alien, fire breathing defender of alien life on planet earth against the tyranny of the Establishment.

The irony of the graphic novel is that Nemesis is male in the magazine, battling with the his arch enemy Torquemada. In fact, according to Greek mythology Nemesis is female – the goddess of indignation against and punishment for hubris.

The irony of the portrait above is that in my role as a pastoral teacher, and young dad, I was very in touch with my feminine, protective side. I think the portrait is very perceptive. It illustrates a divine alchemical principle – that of duality.

We all have a bit of yin in us if we are biologically male, and those of us who are biologically female will have some yang. Some of us have more of the opposite polarity at times than the one we were assigned to by genetics. This does not matter as long as the polar opposites balance. This is the key to happy relations regardless of sexuality, age, creed, or skin tone.

I believe that in my first marriage, my Yin was stronger than my Yang. During my childhood I had been well trained by a very strong woman, my mother, to appease, protect and be biddable. I still have to fight this urge when confronted with a harpy.

In my second marriage I have found someone who is my absolute polar opposite, she is the Yin to my Yang. Thanks to the artist, I understand myself a little better and what i need – this is what good artists do.

yinyang duality

 

Alchemy

29 Nov

Alchemy is concerned with the transmutation of base matter into gold. The search for a Universal Elixir.

Just as barbers were the forerunners of surgeons, so Alchemists were the fathers of modern day Chemists.

You are now imaging a bearded bloke in a cloak covered with sygils, stained hands a hacking cough and a stoop yes?

There were mothers of alchemy as we shall see.

In order to refresh your inner eye I’d like you to consider Madame Socrates:

She is the creation of Mosaic Artist Diana Storey

When I saw her properly in Diana’s studio I was entranced. The sum of experiences and emotions, the responsibilities and burdens, the hurt and joy of her creator were emerging from her head and décolletage in a stunning fractal mosaic. Quantum emotions in glass, mirror and ceramic.

Now consider this bust of Socrates:

“I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only make them think.” Socrates

Jacques Louis David 1787 recorded Socrates’ demise.

The Pantheon (State) of Athens asked Socrates politely to take hemlock and commit suicide. His crime? Impiety (lack of reverence) against the senate, and failing to believe in state approved Gods.

Clearly his peers were fed up with being shown how to think.

Impiety the universal elixir and precursor to the gaining of knowledge.

True Alchemical ‘transmutation’ is, I believe, the preserve of The Divine Feminine:

I was particularly struck by a snarling dog emerging from the back of Madame Socrates head. Diana “Yeah, a previous bloke had a pit bull who would get aggressive if I tried to argue with him”.

Clearly he did not like impiety.

It is my thesis that the feminineprinciple can transmute base substances. E.g. blokes who do not know ‘shit from shinola‘ into men.

It tempers the masculine principle.

This surely applies to all (cis and non cis) relationships too and is not gender specific?

Mother made you by transmuting a piddling sperm and a giant egg into a baby in her womb.

If that isn’t alchemy I don’t know what is.

And for the record here are a couple of Mothers of Alchemy.

Hypatia of Greece

a famous mathematician, with a hairdo consilient with Madam Socrates (Health and Safety 350 AD style) and,

3rd century Mary the Prophetess’s who perfected a mercury distillation apparatus:

Mothers of Alchemy, we need to find more!

Shrewd

26 Nov

Whitney and Hazel

The women in my family are shrewd. Whitney, my sister-in-law and her daughter can be seen here enjoying my wife’s cheese cake. She made it after a pretty serious operation on her thyroid last week, when she ‘should have been’ resting.

Whitney to me “You realise that the thyroid is where her 5th Chakra lies, the connection between her passion and her higher function?” I was struck by this, as the throat is often the first thing to be constricted when I am depressed. I literally can’t sing.

The cheese cake was the energy exchange between my women – love out, love in.

William Shakespeare’s eloquence sometimes lacks this shrewdness.

His comedy, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is misclassified in my view, though I am drawn to it.

It is a mysogenistic tragedy.

In the play Petruchio courts the headstrong and independent Katherine, the eponymous shrew, as part of a ruse by fellow suitors to win the hand of her younger sister Bianca.

Bianca is desired by the men in the story because she is, in their eyes an ‘ideal woman’; beautiful, pliant and subservient. Katherina, is seen as headstrong, argumentative and ill tempered – like a shrew.

Petruchio spars with Katherine:

“Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp; i’ faith, you are too angry.
Katherine: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

Ultimately Petruchio succeeds in breaking Katherina’s spirit, by denying her food and water and wearing her down most cruelly. He realises, too late that he has broken the very person he truly loves.

I have seen the play a few times, most recently at the Botanic Gardens in Sheffield where Abigail Castleton of Heartbreak Productions was a brilliant Katherine.

The film ’10 things I hate about you’ starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger is an upbeat modern version.

When I saw it I thought ‘Nothing Ever Changes’. Now I think we may be experiencing a paradigm shift – a term usually applied to seismic changes in scientific thinking.

“Though she be but little, she is fierce”

Clare, my wife when she was Hazel’s age – alike in many respects: tiny, fierce and independent. Does not respond to imperatives like ‘should’.

As you probably know, shrews are tiny insectivorous mammals; incredibly busy creatures, absolutely fearless – so active in fact, that their super fast metabolism drives them to hunt all the hours they are awake. If they don’t eat, they die, so stressed are shrews. I admire their moxie a wonderful North American word meaning courage and aggressiveness.

In this clip, a tiny North American shrew exacts fatal retribution on a big old snake.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1TIj3qhZcl

Shrews will never be for taming.

Recently, with the Harvey Weinstein debacle, we have all witnessed the outing of predatory men in the media, and more widely with the #MeToo campaign by women with moxie, pushing back against their male abusers.

Not so much the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ as the ‘Taming By the Shrews’.

Women have betimes enjoyed high status. In pagan times some women were warriors, held power and were greatly revered, they inspired tales of the Valkyries of Norse Mythology. Yet, women still achieve success almost invariably against the backdrop of a patriarchal hegemony.

I believe we are on the cusp of a societal change in the Western World. Social media and the current technological revolution has levelled the playing field somewhat in favour of their shrewd skills.

Here’s a thought chaps….

PS with special thanks to my daughter Polly for her input x

Epiphany

15 Nov

Every moment is an epiphany for a 7 month old baby boy. Joseph has wears a hilarious frown when he is trying to absorb something new, like his grandfather’s goatee for example.

As an adult it is less common to enjoy such a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment – sensu stricto it means a complete and dramatic reversal, from an enemy to an advocate – as in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in the New Testament.

I envy babies their credulity.

Many years ago I had my own epiphany in relation to my mental health. My dear wife, Clare, after months of trauma, had been forced to call a Doctor to have me sectioned. She tells me it was the hardest thing she has ever had to do.

In the late summer of 2001 I had been acting very oddly for months. I had not been sleeping, I was delusional – living through a protracted manic episode which ended, finally, in full blown psychosis.

To put it into context, when the Doctors and Social Workers arrived at our home I was wandering about the garden, butt naked trying to deduce the square root of pi from the proportions of the hat band of my Borsalino Fedora.

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, bonkers.

Two years prior to this Clare had gone through another awful period caring for me after I had made a suicide attempt, and, when I finally admitted it, she could not risk leaving me alone for a single second.

Imagine the pressure on her, the immense responsibility of worrying all the time that if she let me out of her sight for a second, I would be lost for ever. The knowledge that if I succeeded in extinguishing myself, she would feel completely responsible.

Mental illness is that cruel – the anguish suffered by the patient is multiplied exponentially in the carer of the loved one.

My own moment of great and profound revelation did not occur until I was in the psychiatric wing of Chesterfield Hospital in 2001.

I had decided to appeal my section under The Mental Health Act 1983 – thus, a social worker came to see me to discuss my case. In context, and to quote a conversation between Dr Ravi Lingam, my first psychiatrist and Clare at the time of my admission:

Dr. Lingam “What is Henk’s worst trait?”

Clare “He doesn’t listen.”

Dr Lingam “Why should he listen when he thinks he knows it all?”

Back in the Hospital the Social Worker said to me:

“Henk, if you are successful in your appeal you can walk out of here and continue to behave like a complete pain in the neck and suffer the consequences. If you are not successful then we can keep you here indefinitely. What you have to consider is, what right have you to continue subjecting Clare, who loves you, to your mental illness and to make her suffer?”

It was this last question that gave me my epiphany.

What right have I to make the one who loves me suffer?

I withdrew my appeal and was immediately taken off the section. I stayed in hospital voluntarily  for 5 weeks and received a clear diagnosis of Manic Depression – or BiPolar Disorder – from a straight talking Psychiatrist, Dr Zaman.

I became in that instant my own advocate and no longer my own (or my loved one’s) enemy.

 

 

 

 

Scheherazade

8 Nov

IMG_0328

I have always been a sucker for a good story. I like telling them and I love listening to them, so, as a little boy I looked forward to bed time because that was when our Mam would read to my brother Tim and I.

Reading Winnie the Pooh, my mother would use different voices to characterise each of the animals. Her pompous Owl, and miserable Eeyore always made me cry laughing. She read us Hans Christian Anderson and, best of all, Tales from the Arabian Nights.

Much later when I had a daughter (Polly) of my own I was able to read to her.

In time, and from an early age, her main preoccupation was to spend almost every waking hour with her nose shoved into a book – to the extent that her mum and I made her a bed that was tall enough for her to construct a reading den, complete with light and curtains underneath. Polly’s Nan also refurbished the airing cupboard in her house with cushions and a lamp, so that she could hide in a cubby hole and read.

Polly now has her own little bookworm to inspire.

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Scheherazade and the Tales of the Arabian Nights

The story goes that long ago a Persian King – Shahryar – had developed the custom of marrying a beautiful princess, spending the night with her, then having the princess beheaded in the morning in order to be sure she retained her faithfulness and virtue.

The grand Vizier’s daughter, Scheherazade, offered to spend a night with the King – against everyone’s advice. Scheherazade asked the King if she may bid farewell to her sister Dunyazade.

The first night, Sheherezade told an enchanting story, spinning it out until the dawn. She left the story unfinished. The birth of Soap, I suspect. The King, eager to hear the ending spared her life for a day and in the evening Sheherezade completed the tale and started a new one with the covert help of her sister Dunyazade. Again and again for 1001 nights, Scheherazade spun her tales until the King fell in love with her and forgot his idiotic paranoid obsessions about female virtue.

Centuries of years later I could be entranced by Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves.

Imagination needs stimulation, unfortunately my imagination occasionally needs a metaphorical cold shower, because it can be a bit hyperactive. Whilst I adore flights of fancy, it is hard reality which keeps me sane.

Fortunately I have my own Sheherezade.

IMG_5524

The other day I was offered the chance of a very interesting commission from a respected client. It was open ended – the design could either be useful, or a purely artistic/decorative object. I came up with a couple of ideas: a new headboard for the master bedroom or a carved salad bowl as a centrepiece for the dining table and ran them enthusiastically past my wife.

Clare “Headboard, or bowl. Headboard…….bowl….” and to underline her point “The client doesn’t like salad.”

It was like being hit by a bucket of ice cold water.

It had the effect of galvanising my thinking and I was able to then generate four entirely better, and, hopefully more creative ideas.

I bow to Cat Stevens and Scheherazade:

The virtues of a good woman are ability to spin a yarn, apply a bucket of ice water and to be hard headed. These qualities give good temper in my experience.

Simple

12 Jul

IMG_0611 (1).jpg

The Xhosa people of Southern Africa gave birth to one of our greatest human beings in Nelson Mandela. They speak the language called Nguni, which is also the common language of the Zulu and Ndbeli. Xhosa have no word for ‘Bridge’, except for…. ‘bridge’. This is surprising to me because the Mandela represents in himself a bridge sine qua non in South African and World Politics – his words and actions led to the reconciliation of white and black people following the dismantling of Apartheid and the building of a new nation state.

The word for river crossing in Nguni is Izibuko. Or a ford, where a body of water can be crossed safely on foot (far away from dangerous Hippos and Crocodiles). A Xhosa artist called Gogo, told me this and she also said that the word has a dual meaning – when spelled ‘Isibuko’ it means – ‘mirrors’.

At the crossing of a body of water do we not meet our reflection?

“Henkje,” my mother used to say ,”language is the key”. An air hostess had to learn quite a few in her day, so I always believed her.

It seems to me, however, that if words like bridge are not ubiquitous in human culture (because we don’t all build the same things, or solve logistical problems in the same way), then how is it possible to get all humans to understand each other before we accidentally recreate the Old Testament myth of the Tower of Babel?


After months of hard work creating commissioned pieces for my clients in my studio at www.woodenhenk.com, I recently awarded myself a few days of play time to pursue my practice.

 

Da Vinci Bridge

I was invited to build a much bigger Leonardo bridge at a public event organised by Ruth Nutter on Saturday 15th July, at Manor Fields Park, Sheffield – The Big Draw, Ruskin in Sheffield. This time I used Bamboo, grass stems instead of sticks from a hazel tree; oriental materials instead of occidental stuff. Lots of youngsters helped to build it and people climbed over it safely, including Ruth pictured here.

During the event a boy asked me, “Who designed it?”

‘Leonardo Da Vinci’, I said, ‘the famous 15th century Italian genius, do you know who I mean?’

“Yes,” he said, looking at me as if I had two heads, “but the bridge is so simple, surely somebody must have thought of this design before?”

“Simple things are hard to invent” I replied.

I suspected the lad had a point. It may be called a Leonardo Bridge, but one suspects that skilful builders like the Chinese and several other cultures may have been building free standing bridges from large interlocking poles for thousands of years.

PuqingBridge

It matters not, for the idea is so elegant and so practical, anyone can reproduce it, and simple ideas become the property of us all in short order.

It is this very simplicity that makes the Leonardo bridge so beautiful, the fact that anyone can make one and actually cross from one side of an obstacle to the other is enticing. Humans are all engineers and the act of making together makes powerful bonds between us.

To quote Willow Ferraby in the film above “As soon as there is a bridge between ‘us’ and ‘them’ there is ‘us’ and ‘the other us”. There is no longer a ‘them’.

As the architect Mies Van der Rohe puts it:

“Build, don’t talk”.

…it will help you to look in the mirror.

bridge in germany

 

 

Father’s Day

18 Jun

Joseph Howden product testing a Sycamore rattle I made for him.

A friend of mine once said to me, “Henk, you are the only man I know who has had a career in reverse. Scientist and researcher to School teacher, through Parkie to Chippie.”

I prefer to think of my journey as a process of paring back the waste (little) wood in order to reveal the finished masterpiece. Woodwork is the celebration of 10,000 cuts to leave a huge pile of sawdust ….. and a piece of usefulness fit for the human eye and hand. It is all about delayed gratification.

Likewise a boy cannot know what kind of man he will become until he understands his father. For he is the shield against the 10,000 cuts that will befall him.

My Dad, David Stuart Littlewood was the son of a mill Engineer – Arthur Littlewood – county champion runner, tank repair man at Ypres, mill engineer in the Colne Valley, Huddersfield. 


Arthur on the left with his pall Gervaise just before the Great War.

Arthur was the son of Richard Littlewood – professional musician, first flute and leader of the Huddersfield Philharmonic. From these men I inherit musicality, supreme practicality and a touch of madness.


My dad let me to spend most of my toddling time out of the push chair taking its wheels off. He gave me great hands, the enjoyment of dance, and a Yorkshireman’s mordant wit.

I had no clue about being a dad when my daughter, Polly was born. But I did my best to learn about what she needed.

She was not too chuffed with riding on my shoulders preferring to be swung between mum and dad.

It turned out that Polly liked plenty of fresh air adventures, books, more books and yet more books (she had me raise her bed by 2 1/2 feet so she could read under it in her ‘den’), listening (I am a late developer here) and learning not to give advice unless asked (nigh on impossible), and unconditional Love (easy).

It has taken me over 30 years to establish ‘Good Dadliness’ as she calls it.

Unfortunately Mother’s tend to regard their sons as ‘the heir apparent’ – princelings in nappies.


Thankfully, Dads are more sanguine. 

Best advice I ever had from my Dad was when I had just been sectioned back in 2001. He drove all the way from Exeter to Chesterfield, put his hand on my knee and said:

“Steady on son, steady on”

My mother thought I was ‘Just tired’.

The point being that he was there and necessary when almost every other ‘friend’ (including the person whose observation I quote above) was not.

Love you Dad