Waterfall

11 Apr

 

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Dad and Mam 1960

Memory is fickle. It is bad enough that we cannot always be sure of our senses (spending time in a psychiatric hospital will profoundly shake one’s faith in reality) and the store of impressions, knowledge and experiences we call memory can be most troubling.

My wife and I cared for and supported my Mam in the last years of her life as her memory gradually unravelled due to vascular dementia. Her condition was compounded by macular degeneration and a bone headed refusal to adapt. When she finally agreed to be cared for professionally, Clare and I uncovered archeological layers of unread sticky labels and notes in her house amidst mountains of hoarded stuff, written to remind Mam of where the other note was to indicate the location of the marmite (12 pots), disinfectant (20 bottles filled with water??) you get the idea. She even hid money in black socks – throughout her wardrobe.

“Look Henk! A Dobby sock!” Clare, my lady of the wicked mirth, referring to the JK Rowling elf character in the Harry Potter books.

Living on her own. Mam must have been slowly becoming more and more lost in her own maze of the Minotaur, walking through a thickening fog without any string.

At the end what was left of her memory were the deepest associations and very revealing. During her last 18 months in care she constantly called me ‘David’ my dad, her ex husband’s name. During this time I realised just how much she adored him despite belittling, criticising and disrespecting his name in all the years prior and since their divorce in 1966. I did not correct her.

This is Grace and I am humbled by it’s Memory.

When my Dad was alive, he and I used to love going on road trips. We would invent a spurious reason, jump in the car with a hold-all each and head for the hills. He used to say “Got some loose change in your pocket? A pair of clean underpants and a vest? Right-ho, we’re good to go!”

Take Dad anywhere and there would always be a tale, a funny association with his own memories and experiences and a riotous adventure.

Take, for example, the time we went to Ireland in his old Ford Sierra, travelling to Waterford to trace his mother, Annie Wilde’s roots, all the way up to Dublin. We found no trace, but a great deal of mirth – in a bar in Dublin we were drinking beer and eating a big meat pie each when onto a crude stage wafted a vision in electric blue taffeta. An aged chanteuse plugged the hammond organ in, switch it on and proceeded to sing.

“It’s Margarita Pracatan!” my dad declared.

The eponymous singer was regular guest on Clive James’ chat show during the 90’s.

I nearly choked on my pie.

Landscape, architecture and movement have always flowed like a waterfall for father and son.

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A rush of pure association, comedy and utter delight.

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This piece is called ‘Waterfall’ and was commissioned by a couple who have that rare gift – they have kept their curiosity alive through mutual love and affection all the way to retirement.

They had discovered this timber – English Yew – in a small local woodyard near Hillsborough in Sheffield (Albion Timber), the mill owner, David Smythe had put them on to me as a someone who might be able to make them something useful from them.

It was the wildness of the waney, or live edges that excited them. They couldn’t know what lay under the rough sawn, blood red surface of the six boards.

Now, the problem with having an ‘unquiet mind’ (manic depression) is that there is never any shortage of ideas. Almost anything can set my brain haring off like a collie after a rabbit.

So I was grateful that my clients were quite specific in their requirements – a set of shelves with a small cabinet.

It was an artist friend, who said “It’s a waterfall” as I was completing it in my studio. Aye, lad.

During a family reunion, on Christmas Day in Devon with my dad and I were paired up for a word association quiz

Dad: “A Lake, ‘like you are not son’.”

“Placid”, I said.

We were unbeaten. My memory was sound.

The ravens had returned, to Odin.

 

 

For the giver of the Dobby Sock.

HL

 

Mother’s Day

31 Mar

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During the summer vacation of 1969 I turned 11. Before I went up to the grammar school, my Mam suggested I was perhaps a bit too old to be playing with my Steiff Rabbit – ‘Bunny’.   I pointed out that all the other kids in the street had ‘Action Men’, and I did not so what was the problem?

This is what the rabbit looked like when my Mum bought him in 1957 when she was expecting me.

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A 1957 vintage Steiff Rabbit in mint condition.

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This is my 61 year old playmate.

As you can see, I had an Action Bunny.

Between the ages of 7 and 13,  I didn’t really have much contact with my father (he was working in West Africa so only came back on leave once in a blue moon). When I did see him he did his level best to inject a little of the divine masculine into his two boys. It must have been bloody hard for him as Mam made access to us very difficult.

When he could, Dad would invariably take my brother, Tim and I to the very latest James Bond Movie.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is most memorable and formed my blueprint for the ideal woman – Diana Rigg – cool, brainy, brunette.

Goldfinger was another – he bought Tim an amazing Dinky Aston Martin complete with working eject seats.

Bond “Do you expect me to talk?” Goldfinger “I expect you to die Mr Bond”.

Upon our return from the rare trip with Dad, Mam would reprogram us with this mantra – “I am you mother, your legal guardian AND YOUR FATHER, and don’t you forget it!”

1969, Bunny, resplendent in chain mail – crocheted in red wool (by me),  bassinet in gold card, shield likewise, a balsa wood lance and sword. Don Lagomorpha Quixote. Nothing phases this dude.

A few years later my Dad remarried, and a lovely young woman called Mollie Moore came into our lives.  As we are in ‘film star’ mode, just imagine actress Jill Ireland. Fair, sunny (but in this case from Shaftesbury) Mollie gave birth to a very bright baby girl called Abigail.

Dad and his new family came back to live in the UK permanently, which meant I could begin to spend more time with my father, as I grew into a man.

Mollie always made me feel welcome and part of her family, even as her brood grew to three children; Abigail, Nathan and Simon. I gained two more brothers along with a sister.

So what of mother’s day?
Well every mother’s day, my Mam made Tim and I breakfast.
Every other day of the year I made breakfast, did the housework and welcomed Mam home.
I listened to her daily adventures with school pupils and colleagues, worries and financial woes, giving support where I could. I also looked after my younger brother.
That seemed fair to me at the time.
It all seems absurd now.
Mother’s day was 364 days a year for me.
I’m really glad that shit is over.

 

 

 

Manly

24 Mar

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I like a spot of flower arranging from time to time, and my wife lets me express my ‘feminine side’ by practising floristry in her little Tea Shop, Tea with Percie. I’m not sure the average bloke would approve.

The florist did offer to wrap my bouquet discretely before I left the shop. I declined.

“I wouldn’t be seen dead carrying flowers!” I here Manly Man say.

Well you will eventually pal,  lilies and a nice spray of maidenhair on your casket.

I also like a well parsed poem, especially sonnets by the late Gerard Manley Hopkin – a scholar and Jesuit Priest – and a genius of prosody and rhythm.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

“Pied Beauty”

Gerard Manley Hopkins 1877

 

In the Victorian Era, it was not considered effete in a man to wax lyrical about Nature’s Bounty if God was being praised – an opportunity for men to show their ‘passionate’ side without being classed as a sissy.

When I chose flowers for my wife today I was in a speckled, fickle mood. The underlying rhythm of BiPolar disorder – the interstices between depression and mania.

I sought a bloom – a dominant colour to build a happier mood around.

The florist greeted me and asked “May I help you?”

At first, I was drawn to some fiery orange blooms  – “These look like peonies”, I said.

“They are actually peony tulips so you’re on the right track” said she diplomatically.

But then I thought, as these flowers are not for me, but, rather for my beloved – I needed to recalibrate, because my mental health is absolutely not just about me, me, me.

I saw a tall stemmed rose of subtle Jacobean Violet (always a hint of black for her) and started from there, adding cerulean blue, blood red and some spiky sea holly. Our neighbour, Hassan who owns a small Computer Engineering Shop called ‘All Wired’ passed the shop as I was placing the arrangement in the window and seemed to approve. No Northern Manly reserve here.

Like me, Hassan was born under an Africa sky (Yemen), me slightly closer to the equator in Nigeria both places where the sun will fry an egg on an exposed rock or car bonnet.

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So why are many men so funny about overt displays of love, or about expressing emotion?

Grayson Perry in his book “The Descent of Man” examines ‘Default Man’ as he calls the ruling masculine archetype of modern Western Society, and cleverly lampoons many overt and subtle forms of dominant alpha male traits. Here are some of his many pithy quotes:

“Fulfilment of masculinity is often sold on the strength of peak experiences: winning battles, pulling women, pure adrenaline, moments of ecstasy. But life ain’t like that. We rarely, if ever, take our car (masculinity) on to a racetrack, so maybe we need a version that works doing the everyday things. We need a masculinity that’s easy to park, with a big boot, child seats and low fuel consumption. Men need to learn to equip themselves for peace.”

“All of us males need to look at ourselves with a clear eye and ask what sort of men would make the world a better place, for everyone.”

“Men might need to work less on their biceps and more on their intuition.”
Grayson Perry, 

It is an exceedingly well written book, written by a masculine man, an artist, who just happens to like dressing up in women’s clothes. It shines a very powerful spotlight on the problem of what it is to be ‘manly’ in a rapidly changing world where gender fluidity is a natural byproduct of a digital world in which ‘being’ is binary encoded.

In this spirit of masculine recalibration asked my wife what traits a man should learn and she offered:

Positive traits

Thoughtfulness

Ability to show emotion

Caring

Good sense of humour

Respect

 

Negative traits

Arrogance

Machismo

Rudeness

Aggression

Chauvinism

So for Heaven’s sake lads, open the door for her, help her with her heavy bags and do it with a smile and a little playfulness so that the bouquet on your coffin will overtop the stupid mountain you want to conquer in your head, and reflect your real worth to humankind much more than the shiny motor you bequeath to your grandson or the size of your wallet.

Feminism is not a threat to masculinity, nor will gentleness make you less manly.

Bread

18 Mar

“Are you making it pay son?” My Dad, a Yorkshireman, used to ask me.

I took it to mean – ‘How’s the carpentry business going?’

I would rattle off the projects and commissions I was working on and proudly show him pictures of pieces I had made.

In retrospect I think there might have been a deeper meaning to his question.

One of his favourite aphorisms was:

“Life is a shit sandwich son, the more bread you’ve got, the better it tastes”

Pithy.

A better known Yorkshire saying would be;

‘ear all, see all, say nowt; eyt all, sup all, pay nowt

Yorkshire folk are proud of their short arms and deep pockets.

This means that trading in South Yorkshire demands a certain determination if you are trying to make a living with your hands.

So how do I make it pay?

I know a fair few talented artists and craftspeople who struggle. Many of my friends rely on a part time job to supplement their meagre income in a fiercely competitive environment. Some supplement their practise by tutoring and teaching.

Joseph Beuys famously said “Everyone is an artist”. On the face of it, every person has the capacity to be creative. But Beuys was referring to our humanity, not any innate ability to sculpt or draw.

Picasso said:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Therein lies the key to the dilemma.

Some people want your skill and what you make for bobbins (on the cheap). Some just want to waste your time. Most who approach you may love your work, but have no real idea of what it takes to produce an original, one off piece, using the best materials, your knowledge and skill.

The people who commission my work all have one thing in common – they are prepared to invest their trust. I have the utmost respect for this powerful motivator.

For me the real Art is in the dialogue. Me – listening and responding to the wishes and desires of my clients. The Clients – showing me what they really want.

First I will make a design drawing in ink (if I can draw it, I can make it).

Then if you are happy – I’ll cost it. Time + Materials.

I give you time to consider the costs, accommodate any changes you may wish to make (adjusting costs accordingly). I will accept a deposit to seal the contract. Then I make.

Both of us are expending that most valuable of commodities on the project – time – so it’s a contract.

Clients bring desire, taste, ideas, wishes and hard earned bread to the table. I bring skill, a track record a reputation for a solid build and an ability to listen, plus four decades of experience as a carpenter.

In the end, hopefully, we have a satisfied customer.

Old School.

Mollie, my step mother, gave me this advice years ago:

“If you did a tenth as much as you have done up until now, Henk, you will still be doing twice as much as everyone else”

Slow down, listen, focus:

hear all,

see all,

But say nothing.

Make it pay.

As with bread – you have to prove yourself.

Dad can have the last word: “Anybody can be a busy fool lad.”

HL

Sacrifice

17 Feb

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In Norse mythology, Odin, the father of the Aesir (the Gods), had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He wounded, then hung himself upon the World Tree Yggdrasil in order to learn the secret meaning of Runes. He journeyed to the roots of the World tree to seek out Mimir at the pool of Urd in order to drink from his sacred well and gain the gift of insight.

The price of Odin’s wisdom was an eye. I have often wondered whether sacrifice is the key to wisdom.

A wise young friend of mine, told me he had made a sacrifice just recently, in order to, in his own words, “be able to socialise better”. A great conversationalist, he dislikes direct eye contact (classic autism).

Years ago I made the mistake of offering to play a game of chess with him, when I was working as a Ranger for the Parks and Countryside department of  Sheffield City Council and he was a volunteer. I do enjoy a game of chess, but within half a dozen moves I realised I was playing against a truly prodigious talent. My friend displayed an intellectual plasticity, and strategic flexibility, I had never before encountered. I resigned quickly, not wishing to experience a crushing defeat – it would have been physically painful to me.

Imagine my surprise then, when he told me recently that he had decided to quit playing chess!

In my case Bipolar disorder was the gift that just kept on misgiving.

I was diagnosed in 2001and when I came out of the psychiatric ward 18 years ago I discovered I had left a trail of destruction around me. Relationships damaged, trusts broken and fear left in its place.

Cognitive therapy helped me to understand that I could perhaps repair some of the bridges I had burned in those years, when I had lived without knowledge of or insight into my condition.

I took the first step by first learning how to listen. The second step was learning to let go.

I let go of ambition. Between 1979 and 1998 I had been a successful academic, but I felt I could not return to this because it was too solipsistic, too antisocial in a way.

I have been told I was a good teacher – a very social profession, but I could not return to teaching principally because the practise itself is emotionally stressful. I don’t have an off switch for needy pupils.

I took professional advice at the cross roads in 2002:

Advisor “What do you really like doing?”

Me:”I like being outside, fresh air, making things and I also like people”

Advisor “Have you ever considered environmental conservation?”

That led to 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Nice job!

I ignored the jibes – “You are the only person I know who has had a career in reverse Henk! Academia, Education, Parkie and now Chippie”

So, I gave up worrying about fitting in.

What did I gain after insight?

In the words of my wife who has loved me throughout the journey:

“What I found was that there was no more walking on eggshells, and not being frightened to say something. The laughter and fun returned.”

Losing  the ‘I’ is no sacrifice.

 

Magus

24 Dec

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – the three treasures brought to Bethlehem by the wise men of old, The Magi, to the crib of the baby Jesus.

Magus actually means ‘magician’ or alchemist, a person who transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I give you my own example of a Magus – seen here chatting up the talent and bringing joy and good tidings – my Dad schmoozing Clare, my bride on our wedding day. The dog!

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My father’s charm was pure gold – especially with women. He was always first on an invitation list, because he was such a fun person to have around. He loved Christmas and particularly liked to entertain his family with his wife Mollie, my step mum on the day. Here they are performing Irving Berlin’s ‘We’re a couple of swells’ as Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire.

Couple of Swells

Frankincense is an aromatic resin derived from the tree, Boswellia serrata found in North East Africa.

The costly scent of Kings and Queens: Nero’s widow burnt more Frankincense than the entire year’s production of Arabia at his funeral and The Queen of Sheba brought it as a gift to King Solomon.

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Memory is evoked by scent because it is a distillation – like truth. It is essence.

The truth of the matter is that my dad was very easy on the eye and mind – here he is in 1947 on a camping trip to Betws y Coed.

Sawdust evokes the memory of his smile for me – especially the scent of sawn walnut or ash from which this set of library steps is made.

‘Solstice’.

the longest night
is but a shy tilt
of Gaia’s Head – her Solstice Song

HL

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The solstice is that quiet celestial cusp – representing the moment when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is pointing furthest from the sun (winter and the longest night) or nearest (midsummer and the longest day). A moment of breathless anticipation and contemplation of when the good memory of summer returns.

Myrrh

A tree based gum derived from a spiny shrub – Commiphora myrrh and rather like Frankincense, but with an altogether different scent has long been used as a healing substance, having antibiotic properties.

Seen here with his grand daughter Polly and great grandson, Joseph, Dad was indeed the bringer of mirth – that greatest of alchemical healing emollients.

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Magi

Three Magi – Melchior (Persia), Gaspar (India) and Balthazar (Babylon)  travelled all the way from Parthia in the East to bring their treasures to a stable in Bethlehem at the epiphany, but our wise man brought all three within his person, all the way from Huddersfield.

Merry Christmas to the memory of David Stuart Littlewood who passed away 25th December 2017, leaving all his treasures with us.

Merry Christmas

H

 

Cardigan

3 Aug

“You might need this, son” said my dad handing me his old cardigan. As it happens it saved my bacon a week after my 60th birthday.

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Here it is, hanging out to dry after a careful hand wash in the kitchen sink. It kept me warm in all senses of the word after an unexpected swim. I had been thrown from a twelve foot dinghy into the tidal river Alde (Sussex) after the boat owner misjudged a jibe in heavy wind and turned his craft into a submarine.

Dad’s cardigan proved doughty when we were rescued by the RNLI.

The name Cardigan derives from the Welsh place name – Ceredigion. When it was invented the open fronted sweater was named to flatter James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, and English toff famous for his recklessness at Balaclava, celebrated in Tennyson’s poem of the ill fated Charge of the Light Brigade:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

One of the most famous follies of British Military History celebrates a romantic establishment view of bravery in the face of insurmountable odds.

For my father and I Balaclava epitomised the suffering of the ordinary working man at arms compared to the relatively pampered lot of of the officer class, the aristocracy, and the failure of leadership due to hubris.

The order from the Earl of Cardigan, Lord Raglan, was for the Light Brigade to charge the Russian positions and secure artillery pieces that had been captured. The order was ambiguous, because there were two positions.

Lord Lucan received the dispatch from Captain Nolan and it was interpreted as a full frontal assault. In the event Lucan led 673 cavalry along the valley between Russian batteries into the waiting gun emplacement.

The Light Brigade was cut to ribbons by an enfilade of canon fire.

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Reckless courage and miscommunication. A lethal brew.

For the common man, simpler tools of warfare consisted of a musket, bayonet and Shanks’ pony. No cardie’s lads, make do and die.

My dad was interested in Military History – particularly when his so-called betters screwed up. Quite probably because his dad, Arthur Littlewood had fought at Ypres.

Leadership means paying attention to those that depend on you for their livelihood and happiness and in the end, for their very life. Not poncing about shouting orders and giving off an aura of unflappable authority.

When drowning, flap – a lot, and thank God for the RNLI. Or opt for an orderly retreat and a cup of tea.

Wear your cardie’ lads and avoid reckless endangerment of a grandad, father, husband and a beloved first born son.

That is the song of my father, whi gave me all his tools and his cardie’.

What more could a boy want?

For my brothers:

Tim

Nathan

Simon

and my departed sister Abi, who is no doubt introducing him to Frankencat right about now.