Plum

16 Jul

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Seen through the eyes of a child kites are wishes on a string. This picture made me think about how insignificant I have seemed. I will be 60 soon and it is time to take stock.

“We are nothing but a fart in eternity” my mother used to say.

Just this weekend my neice, Wren (above) and nephew, Cole played host, supported by their parents Anna and Nathan Littlewood and Nanna, Mollie Littlewood. They had arranged a family get together in their new home near Bristol.

As a result, I enjoyed one of my best extra birthday parties ever.

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We enjoyed a tasty barbecue made by The Dad (Nathan), lovely food and drink provided by The Mum (Anna), followed by pass the parcel and dancing statues, kite flying, colouring in and driving Cole and Wren around in Bertha (the Hilux) plus lots of easy chats, swapping news, sharing views.

Here Aunty Clare is baking cakes with Wren and Cole.

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It got me thinking about my father, David Stuart Littlewood, the founding father of our little clan, his singular achievements and his legacy.

A couple of years ago I asked him what he wanted for his birthday and he said,

“To wake up son”. Sadly he will not be waking up any more.

Both my parents have passed away now and it reminds me of what my wife said when both her parents passed in the same year:

“I’m an orphan now!”. I laughed, insensitively, and said “Don’t be ridiculous!”

I’m not laughing now. Sorry, Clare.

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In 2000 after suffering years of crippling, cyclical depression I almost succeeded in throwing in the towel, predeceasing my parents.

Six months later, after regular visits to a psychiatrist and copious intake of Lophepramine (a powerful tricyclic antidepressant) I was alive, though I could barely function.

My father said “I’d like you to paint me a picture, for Christmas son”.

The picture above is the result. Nathan returned it to me yesterday. I called it ‘Bonsai replanted’ and copied a Haiku by Basho on the reverse:

Even a Black Bull

Will sing a song of Spring

Under this flowering Plum Tree

In my picture the moon is waning, and one can’t be sure whether the tree is alive or not. One of the hills looks like a tidal wave is rolling in. The only redeeming feature is that Orion is prominently represented in white chalk dots (I always think of Dad when I see Orion, The Hunter). Dad kept it alongside a portrait of The Golden Gate Bridge by Simon, our youngest brother. I understand it had a spell in Australia with Nathan and his family.

I never realised until I grew up how much I was loved.

 

We, under Orion

Sing and dance and Love

So many flowering Plums

 

For my Family

x HL 16.07.2018

 

 

Pearl

10 Jul

Dear Reader, I may have allowed a small fragment of grit into my shoe.

I have been searching for an apprentice of sorts for some time, someone to pass on to ‘la source’ – the fountainhead, that which inspires my making. So far, lads and older blokes have approached me to learn the secrets of fettling in wood, but I have so far failed to discover anyone who can “thrill me with their acumen, Clarice”, to mis-quote Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs.

The Micky Mouse character in Fantasia, can do the sweeping up and the making of the tea, the blunting of the tools and the wasting of precious materials, but as soon as he opens his mouth he destroys the magic. The subjects of football, girlfriends, male boasts and fast cars result in me behaving like an utter bastard and scaring them off.

But what if the sorcerer’s apprentice was female?

Speaking of sorceresses, after my mother’s funeral one of her ex teaching colleagues from the Art Department of Mortimer Wilson School – in which my mam was Head of Textiles wrote to me:

“As a teacher your mother was the grit around which pearls formed in the classroom”.

She was indeed the Mistress of Needlework. As her first apprentice, I found this most comforting.

“She had the grit to pray for Judus if she took the notion — there warn’t no backdown to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand”. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn.

Sand, or grit is necessary for the formation of pearls.

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A pearl forms when a foreign body becomes lodged in the soft tissues of an oyster – a type of tasty bivalve mollusc. In order to prevent irritation and damage to the delicate tissues, the oyster will deposit a barrier around the piece of grit – secreted from cells lining the mantle – the resulting pearly stuff is called nacre. It is the same substance from which the shell is made (mother of pearl).

Over time a beautiful opalescent pearl may form. They can be white, or, less commonly, black

black Tahitian pearls

My mother could not abide sloppy thinking, she demanded the utmost intellectual effort from all her pupils. Her grit, her inability to back down, encouraged original and clear thinking. Pearls of wisdom, if you will.

As her first born, I guess I was her first student, and she was largely responsible for the introduction of one of the the pieces of grit that led to the formation of my character. My father (“I’m Gandalf the White!) introduced the other bit.

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Back to the grit in my shoe, this is Esme McCall (aka Micky Mouse) learning how to build a dry stone wall using local grit stone.

I showed Esme how to build a wall as part of an emergency repair job for a valued client for whom we have done a little woodwork.It usually takes me a week or so to teach people the principles of ‘walling’. It took Esme about half a day to master the basic principles. True Grit, some of the toppers weighed about 50 Kg.

It occurred to me that the job of an artist is to expose the grit in the pearl, by challenging our certainties and comforts. I ran this past Kate Dore, an art historian and friend, who went further and suggested that a good artist needed to be able to expose a lot of the grit to be successful and that it took huge endeavour.

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Esme McCall’s Pear wood ‘begging bowl’

You can fill your mind with pearls, by accepting that the stones/grit within are a vital necessity – the stimulus that leads to a pearlescent end product.

“The mind is like a parachute, it does not work if it is not open”. Frank Zappa

 

Which reminds me, I need to get Clarice’s earrings fixed.

H

Rustic

7 Jul

Les and Ken retired carpenters both, volunteer their skills to Ruskin Land, a fabulous Oak forest belonging to the Guild of Saint George in the Wyre Valley.

Les was a saw doctor for Spear & Jackson in Sheffield. Time-served skills. I was really pleased when the dropped by to help me erect my sculpture ‘Mind’ in a quiet glade underneath the forest canopy. The young lads joining in are architects attending an exciting weekend of creative thought and action at Studio in the Woods.

Back in 2016 artist Mir Jansen said “Would it be possible to make a sculpture from a single tree?” And John Isles, of The Guild said “Why don’t you chose a tree from where we are thinning out the stand Henk?”

This is the piece as I originally envisioned it, in its own landscape not far from the tree from whence the materials came. Les and his team put it all together whilst I stepped back and enjoyed the chat.

It was quite an emotional experience for me, the realisation of a dream. In which I tried to reflect the spirit of John Ruskin and respond to Mir’s question:

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” John Ruskin

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After the installation I went in to Bewdley for an excellent curry at The Rajah, and camped overnight to greet the dawn in a ridiculously small tent (foreground).

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At five am, one of the architects was up measuring shadows as part of his project and asked me if he could record an interview for a book he was thinking of writing.

As we strolled down to the glade, he asked me to talk about myself and describe the sculpture and it’s design.

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After ten minutes he switched the recorder off, looked inside the structure and said;

“I hope you don’t mind me saying, but it’s a bit …..”

“Rustic?” I interjected

“Yes, its a bit rough and ready”.

I explained that many of my best ideas for furniture came from a good dialogue with a client.  My imagination and skill flourishes best within tight boundaries, because my manic depression is no respecter of too much laissez faire.

My very best clients have demonstrated great humour, foresight, desire, trust and best of all, faith in me, like Mir Jansenn.

I added that because I felled the original tree and cut, steamed and shaped all the pieces by hand leaving tool, saw and jig marks – it was easy for anyone to understand. It was human. Although the thinking behind the design was a little more esoteric.

The architect then said “What you said in the last 90 seconds was really interesting, but I didn’t record it”

I thought about Ken and Les, and my father (a master carpenter) – all men of few words.

‘Aye lad’ I said.

 

We all like a bit of rustic. My wife does a great ploughman lunch. Bluegrass banjo makes my heart sing. I love Westerns, and I yearn for the simple life.

Rough and ready is the only way to survive in the Wild.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a sophisticated wine, or a finely made hat and I love the City of Sheffield, it is just that I am not a great fan of over complication.

Here’s to the ‘R’ in Ruskin and Rustic, for we are what we R, and we are at our most creative through dialogue.

To underline the point, here is a dialogue between a couple of trees in Eccleshall woods, Sheffield.

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With thanks to John Isles, Tim Selman, Jenny Robbins, Kate Quinton of Ruskin Land and Mir Jansen, of Holland. Also to John Amos who showed me the ‘R’ for ranger.

 

Three

4 Jul

Mondrian's tryptych

I have always been a fan of Piet Mondriaan’s work. His triptych ‘Evolution’ was painted in 1910 before the Great War and was his response to the idea that a knowledge of God could come about through intuition alone (Theosophy) because we, ourselves are part of a universal creative force.

I used to visit ‘Evolution’ at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague with my Oma Hartje as a boy. Like all good grandparents she was a profound influence on my early years and  I guess she opened my eyes to the symmetry of ‘threes’, a love of the colour blue with a dash of yellow or orange and the delights of ‘people watching’.

My other Dutch grandparent, Jhr C.A. Van de Poll, taught me how to play chess, he was immensely strong and he liked driving sports cars. Three pretty important things for a boy.

I always believed he could drive a screw into timber using only his thumb nail  until I realised he concealed a small coin between forefinger and thumb. He was a bit of a joker.

Opa had a strong connection to three too, for upon his family crest there are three diamonds.

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I remember accompanying Opa, my mother and brother to a specialist jeweller where, with great ceremony he declared that she was to have her own signet ring specially made for her.

She chose a blood stone. Her father said to her: “You are the only person in my family worthy of the title ‘Knight’. You are the bravest and boldest of us all”. No small accolade from a self professed, old school Chauvinist.

My mother was indeed more of a ‘man’ than any bloke I have ever met. As hard as nails, super clever, an artist.

She forged my rational mind, encouraged me to be observant, and taught me self sufficiency. Sharp.

Yet no blade has utility without a haft. My father was the handle upon which my existence turned. He gave me my handiness, my daft sense of fun and my unquiet mind.

This month I will have been on this planet for 60 years. “Nothing but a fart in eternity” my mother would have said.

When I asked my father what he wanted for his birthday he said “To wake up son, to wake up”.

Some years ago, my wife said to me “I’m an orphan now” when both her parents passed away in the same year. One of my clients put it another way – he described the feeling of losing both parents as “like having the roof blow off one’s house”.

I am beginning to understand their point of view.

But we do we really lose our parents when they are both gone? Is there not a trinity for each of us?

In the Christian pantheon The Holy Trinity (a triptych sine qua non),  summarises the relationship between God – The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost:

Trinity summary

The parent is father to the child, who through the spirit is father again.

And long before this paternalistic hubris was formulated, the ‘three’ was symbolically potent in pagan folklore which is fundamentally female; as the Virgin, Mother and Crone, summarised in the triskelion. Parthenogenesis – virgin birth.

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The ‘orphan’ realises that when the roof blows off because there are no physical parents left, it is then that she/he becomes parent to themselves.

 

From this inheritance we understand the meaning of Spirit, and the need to show it.

Yamaguchi

 

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 –

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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.