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

Gaia

13 Jun

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photo credit: Alan Howden

Gaia was the name the ancient Greeks gave to the elemental Goddess of the Earth. She was the mother of Kronos – the God of Time. In 1979 the name was appropriated by the polymath James Lovelock to describe his novel idea that Earth herself behaved like a ‘living’ organism – capable of regulating her own climate through gross perturbation: Gaia, a new look at life on Earth.

In 1979 I was a final year student of Zoology – I thought James Lovelock’s book was sensational. The idea that the Earth’s biota (all living organisms on the planet), the chemistry of inorganic cycles and the physics of the atmosphere all powered by the sun, could form part of a gigantic coherent negative feedback system simply blew my mind.

Negative feedback, the basis of biology and life-chemistry expanded to encompass Earth.

We humans live within a constantly changing environment. Night and day,  cold and heat, moisture and dryness, from pole to pole through temperate climes to the tropics all these geographical locations exert significant physical changes on the organisms that live there. Vertebrate animals – particularly mammals, have developed efficient ways of regulating their internal environment to maintain the best working conditions for the proteins within their cells. Proteins – enzymes and structural molecules – require very narrow parameters of temperature, salt concentration, pH and so on to work at all, otherwise they become ‘denatured‘ (permanently damaged).

We call this cellular ‘fighting back against change’ Homeostasis:

“the maintenance of metabolic equilibrium within an animal by tendency to compensate for disrupting changes”

In March this year, with the help of Yorkshire Artspace I was given permission to set up my oak Ruskin Sculpture on the roof of Persistence Works in Sheffield and organise an artistic event with contemporary dancer, Simone Thompson and visual artist Robert Twigg (assisted by Will Armson). There was no script and no direction, just a bunch of creative humans having an open dialogue around a strange structure on a roof top.

I’d seen Simone perform at a street fayre in Sheffield in 2015 with her students and was struck by the energy and vitality she drew from her young students and her own wild, eclectic performance when she treated us too her own extemporised dance.

I guess I wanted to create a living substrate – in equilibrium – that would allow my talented friends to create something that was dynamic, rooted in the environment and celebrating life.

In searching for a title for the work I was reminded of the power of the Earth Goddess, and here she is:

To live in harmony with the Earth and with each other is the single greatest challenge of our age. If we don’t we will perish.

“Nature favours those organisms which leave the environment in better shape for their progeny to survive. James Lovelock”

 

Opa

11 Apr

I never knew my father’s dad, grandfather Arthur Littlewood. He died fairly young having served his country in the First World War as a tank engineer and worked hard in the mills of Huddersfield all his adult life. Thus my role model for grandfatherhood has to be my mother’s father, Jhr Cornelius Abraham Van de Poll and my Opa pictured here in Noordwijk in 1984.

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Here is my daughter Polly – aged 2 – being entertained in the arms of her overgrootvader way back in 1986.

Opa came from a very large family. Physically very strong, handsome and charismatic he loved fast cars, speedboats and football. He came from a large extended family pictured here in 1959 in the back garden of his eldest brother Jan in Arnhem. I was introduced to them them as a nipper in 1959. Mam, Dad and I are 4th, 3rd and 2nd from the right (I’m the one in nappies).

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Opa was a bit scary, but a lot of fun. He could eat vast quantities of pannekoeken  (pancakes) in one sitting, stick a large yoghurt spoon (the size of a ladle) in his mouth, and loved to go on all the rides at the fun fair with us. He taught me to play chess, although I was never able to beat him, and as a result, the first lathe project I ever attempted as a budding woodworker was a chess set I made for him when I was 11 years old.

He was a survivor of the Burma Railway Line, having been a taken prisoner by the Japanese Imperial Army in Sumatra in Indonesia during the 2nd WW, and my first real Hero. His most impressive trick was his ability to screw wood screws into bare timber with his thumb nail. It took me until recently to conclude that he must have concealed a screwdriver in his hand to pull this off, the old bugger. One of many of his clever jokes.

And so now I am an Opa.

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Here is my grandson: Joseph Leon Seaton Howden, photographed here by his dad Alan Howden. Joseph was born to my wonderful daughter Polly Howden on Tuesday 28th March 2017.

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Joseph’s Dad, Alan Howden is, like me, a craftsman, and he knows how to capture the very essence of his subject by combining patience, infinite care and obsessive attention to detail. Like this telling and very natural portrait….

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Opa can now contemplate the multitude of wooden toys, treehouses, dens, sailing boats, go-karts, aeroplanes and kites he can build with Joseph and his parents, the pancakes we can eat together the fun we can all have as he grows to manhood. For, as we all know, Joseph was the carpenter of carpenters.

Thank you dear Polly and Alan, for making a Joseph and an Opa.

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P.S. Thanks Vanessa Boddye for Joseph’s hat

Tapas

18 Dec

Tapas – Calamares, bocquerrones and Croquettas with a side order of ice cold beer: shared, bite sized and tasty – that’s how life should be.

I would never have eaten these had it not been for one, very particular human being who intervened just in time.

A few years ago I was asked to attend a series of therapeutic workshops for people who had just been diagnosed with BiPolar Disorder. The idea was to introduce these poor beknighted sods to a fellow sufferer who had lived with the diagnosis for a long time. That would be me.

The Community Practitioner Nurse (CPN) who organised the programme invited me to a NHS Mental Health facility in Sheffield to meet a group of new BP clients. He was not there on the day.

I felt like Ernest Borgnine on The Poseidon Adventure. A survivor with limited knowledge asked to lead a group of fellow passengers into the light.

We had nothing in common, except for a similar diagnosis. A young mental health worker introduced me (and the fact I was self employed), and said I would answer the questions I felt able to.

People in the group asked me about how I coped with Lithium (my meds), how I held down a job and then gone on to run a small business, whether I had ‘episodes’ and so on. I answered these as openly and honestly as I could and was feeling ok at that point. The group seemed interested.

The mental health worker then asked “How do you cope with suicidal thoughts?”

“You can’t” I responded “By the time you are that depressed you are no longer functional. Someone else must intervene, or you’re going to be dead.”

I wrote to this individual’s line manager. I was so pissed off at her clumsy intervention. It had plunged me into a depressive state almost immediately and poured cold water over the session.

Fortunately for me I have a strategy in these situations.


When entering a dark, depressive tunnel against my will I imagine a small figure up ahead saying “Hurry up for fuck’s sake I’m scared!”

I find this emboldens me to push forward, not go back. The ‘hurrying up’ is the key, for physical activity leads me to a lighter state – The Light – so to speak.


And there at the end, instead of the grey and black of fear, it is the colour, taste and smell of choice. Tapas and a beer with my pal. Clare, the woman who intervened.


So if you are feeling blue, come into the hole with me and push on through to the light. I’ll be waiting with a beer and a plate of tapas with bits of shell in my beard.


Believe me, dear reader, life is so worth living.

Merry Christmas

X

H

Holly

9 Dec

Do our children bear our sins? According to the Old Testament, they do. The sins of the fathers need to be considered;

(Exodus 20:5)–“You shall not worship them or serve them (false idols, graven images, the wrong team); for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me….”

Whilst I might agree with the notion of collective inheritance and responsibility in a broad scientific or sociological sense – for example, in respect of our responsibility for global warming and environmental degradation, I am constantly amazed by the damage done to children. In the main by well meaning parents gifting them a fine hang-up by ‘taking things out of their hands’.

I met an interesting man, called Ben this week and Ezekiel was watching over his shoulder.


Initially he had  come to my studio with his wife to commission me to make a plaque in the form of a wooden leaf to be hung in the tree planted to commemorate his parents. A sixth sense in me detected devilment in his wife. My favourite spice as you know.

I suggested he came to my studio one evening and make the piece himself. Not very good business sense as I charge more for commissions than for a tutorial.

Ben said “I’m really not practical, it was my father who was”. This piqued my mind.

“Bollocks!” I said unprofessionally.

My guest looked a little nervous, his wife, Petra, grinned wickedly and encouraged him to take me up on the offer.

So one evening I gave him a nice thick slice of 200 year old Holly to play with.

After a bit of ‘humming and hahing’ he agreed to draw something free-hand on the slab. A nice, spiky holly leaf.


He cut it out competently and safely on my band saw – never having used such a machine, sanded it on the bobbin sander (ditto) and would have been happy to take it to the laser artist  I recommended to have an inscription burnt onto it.

I said “Want to have a go at pyrography? Try it out on some scrap plywood”. He did and was brave enough to take his holly leaf and burn the family aphorism on the back. At this point he seemed to relax.

We had drunk several cups of tea by this time and been chatting freely, so he was, by now, open to the idea of finishing the memorial himself. He had a good idea for placing the names and dates on the front around the central rib of the leaf, and happily got on with it. But, after a few minutes he exclaimed:

“Oh no!I have spelled my dad’s name ‘Artur ‘ instead of ‘Arthur’!”

“That is interesting,” I said,  “he is looking over your shoulder from the grave even now”.

I was able to correct the error by making a few small cuts using a little palm chisel. The ‘u’ disapeared and the ‘h’ was restored.

“No one, but us, will know” I said.

Well he went on to finish the piece on his own and was happy with his craftsmanship. He also diddled the laser artist out of a commission.

More significantly, he was able to step out from the shadow of a beloved, but larger than life father figure who I suspect was a ‘Let me do that’ kind of guy.

I’m not. One cannot learn without the opportunity to balls it all up. Error and correction maketh the maker in my view. I bet God (if you believe in him) made a few shit universes before he reached perfection. Sacrificing his son in this one was monumentally stupid given that the chap was a decent carpenter. What a waste!

The H that is in Arthur in Holly and in Henry’s gift was restored.

To quote T H White’s ‘The Once and Future King’;

“The bravest people are the ones who don’t mind looking like cowards.”
― T.H. WhiteThe Once and Future King

Holly is the Winter King:

“The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown

Of all the trees that are in the wood

The holly bears the crown”

Sing it out! It’s a great carol.

And so, dear reader, the sin of this father, that of pride – stops with me. I atone through recognition and listening to the hurt in others and by trying to be more woodenhenk and less Ezekiel.

Merry Christmas and may Henry’s gift find you too.

X

H

Bridge

25 Nov

Leonardo Da Vinci is my hero: Artist and Scientist – a genuine Polymath.

Of course I tried to emulate him when I was eight by convincing myself that I could hold a sheet of hard board over my head and glide from the top of a wall over the park near where we lived in Matlock. I had been inspired by his glider (below), and by the works of our model aeroplane enthusiast and neighbour, Mike Green.

da-vinci-glider

I chucked myself off the six foot wall leading to the swings holding the sheet of hardboard aloft …..and promptly plummeted to earth, losing my grip on the hardboard sheet and falling in a bruised heap. To add insult to injury the board came crashing down on my head.

Leonardo would have laughed. More recently I came across his design for a simple bridge made of poles that interlock in my search for a new engaging sculpture project, following the success of the Ruskin Sculpture.

This Spring I made a Leonardo bridge with my friends in the Shire Brook Valley and this lovely little film records our adventure.

I thought a modular bridge would be a fine thing to make. Rivers are so important to Sheffield’s heritage and life, connecting people across the many rivers of South Yorkshire has become a deep underlying theme in our landscape. I looked to Leonardo and used natural sustainable materials gleaned from the landscape of South Yorkshire (coppiced hazel), using skills learned as a professional Ranger between 2004 – 2013.

The friends who gave up their weekend for this whimsy were:

Robert Twigg – photographer and film maker; Maxwell Ayamba – Environmental Journalist;  Emma Condor and Michael Durband (Durbs) – Creative Explorer Activities inventors and valued furniture clients (owners of Boudicca); Will Ferraby – Knife Maker.

Other generous people contributed by listening to my thoughts, and by sharing theirs, most notably – inventor and artist Giles Grover.

The ‘Bridge over The River Why’ and the people that helped me are now an integral part of my long term memory. Memory is a temporal bridge.

Deep within our own brains we have a vital bridge called the Corpus Callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres. Above, and around it, lies a structure shaped like a cresting wave called the Hippocampus – it is the seat of long term memory and emotion, and an important part of the Limbic System. Recent studies suggest a link between Hippocampus volume and BiPolar disorder the condition which I live with. I suspect the researchers might be better employed investigating the relationship between the Hippocampus and the corpus callosum – for the right and left bits of my brain are constantly chucking each other ‘off the wall’.

The Hippocampus is named after the wild half-horse, half fish beasts  – Hippocamps – which the Ancient Greeks believed drew Poseidon’s Chariot through the galloping surf in and were inspired by the galloping rollers of wild surf.

hippocampus

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Dear friends, I shall continue to build bridges in 2017 using ideas gleaned from dialogue, myth  and the inventions of polymaths and, in these troubled times, engage people to connect.

Its just my kind of jazz you see?

 

 

 

Trinity

12 Nov

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Yggdrasil – the World Tree of Norse Mythology – traditionally a gigantic ash, is the tree upon which Odin hung in his never ending quest for wisdom. He drank from the stream which courses beneath the roots of the great tree and he lost an eye in payment. Mimir is  literally ‘The Rememberer’.

I made this bed as a commission for the generous and thoughtful mother of a beloved daughter and her partner as the seal upon their hard won quest to design and build their own home. The bed frame is made from a very old and spalted Fraxinus excelsior or European Ash, and the posts and book matched laths of the head board are derived from a huge yew tree which had languished in a stack of 4 inch boards in a builder’s garage in Beighton for many years.

When I consulted the family of three, the daughter requested that I carve a celtic knot – also known as a Triquetra – in the foot board.

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The triquetra has a well known modern Christian resonance: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in ancient Celtic and neo-pagan traditions representing the Sacred Feminine – the three ages of woman: Maiden, Mother and Crone.

My Mam a single mother in the 1960’s and 70’s used to say that together, she, my brother and I were invincible because we were a ‘three’. She believed that the number 3 had immense power.

Pythagoras taught that 3 is the first true number because it forms the first geometrical figure, a triangle. Odin’s valknut, a symbol of three interlocking triangles is a symbol of great power and significance in Viking Folklore. This one is carved on the Stora Hammars Stone on the Swedish Island of Gotland and it is intimately associated with the All Father.

valknut-stora-hammars-iIn the words of historian H.R. Ellis Davidson, “Odin had the power to lay bonds upon the mind, so that men became helpless in battle, and he could also loosen the tensions of fear and strain by his gifts of battle-madness, intoxication, and inspiration.” She and others interpret the Valknut, with its knot-like appearance, as a symbolic expression of this idea (Ellis Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 147.).

To carve a Triquetra, one has to first draw three interlocking circles to form the outline these are also known as ‘Borromean’ rings (after the Italian family Borromeo’s coat of arms)

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And then you can get down to the business of carving…

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…which involves repeatedly stabbing vertically along the outline of the motif and then gouging into the wood toward the stab line. This takes a lot of concentration, especially when one has already made the foot board as a single modular piece.

Carving directly onto a completed piece of furniture requires concentration and what we might call ‘bottle’ or courage. I learned from my client that her daughter and co-owner of the bed is a hand surgeon – I can think of no greater need for bottle than when working to repair that quintessentially primate character, the hand. The hand is my instrument, my means of expression and so I decided to go for broke and carve straight into the finished head board out of respect for my clients.

Speaking of bottle my younger brother Simon who lives in San Francisco and is both a master carpenter, music maker and brewer of fine Pale Ales might approve of this Trinity – it is perhaps quite apposite for us Littlewood brothers.

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It appears on an American IPA, Ballantine and is of 7.2% alcohol by volume – potent!