Archive | December, 2013

What makes a man?

28 Dec

I was talking with a young man recently and he suggested that “Present times are much better now than they have ever been”. I asked him whether high youth unemployment in this country, widespread civil war in the Middle East, and Global Warming constituted ‘better times’. He had no cogent answer. Thirty years ago I would have called him an idiot and scorned his naivety. Now I am a little gentler.

It got me thinking about what qualities make a man. Is it strength, or bravery? Is it wit and wisdom? Can we become men by emulating our fathers or our heroes?

Here I am in 1959 with my dad outside my grandmother’s flat in Den Haag, Holland. Whilst the pants are hilarious the picture is a nice illustration of my dad demonstrating manhood. Let’s face it you have to have some bottle hanging out with a kid dressed in a preposterous set of bloomers like these.


I look happy enough though!

Many many years later, the same man put his hand on my knee in the locked ward of a Psychiatric Hospital and said “Steady on son”. It was one of the few things that got through the serious manic episode I endured back in September 2001. In the 50 plus years that have passed since he played with me as an infant to now he has fathered three other sons and a daughter.

Those sons have each produced children:

The youngest, has recently become a dad for the second time to a daughter:


The next eldest has also become a dad to a daughter Down Under:


The next, has two lovely children – here he is with his eldest, a daughter


and here I am giving mine away…


We all share more than genes with him….

Which brings me back to my question ‘what makes a man’? I think that those we love unconditionally make us men. Not strength or bravery, wit or wisdom. My dad loved me in the depths of a serious mental illness and helped to pull me out, he didn’t just play ball. My brothers are fine fathers all, they love their children unconditionally, may they reach out as he has done.

I am not arguing that a bloke has to become a father to attain manhood, lots of men have fatherly qualities. But not many young ones.

I remember when my daughter was born. I was 24 years old sitting in a cafe with her in a sling on a sunny autumn day at a busy cafe in Manchester. I was wearing a crisp white shirt and new jeans, as proud as a peacock. A couple of tables away a father of three children was observing us. All of a sudden, my infant daughter produced a gigantic poop which oozed out of the front of her terry nappy, all over my shirt. The bloke caught my eye and just nodded sagely.

That knowing ability to put up with crap, like the proposition that was put to me the other day, and not react to provocation is a the true mark of a man. May I endeavour to cleave to this precept.


21 Dec


Santa arrived early this year driving a Hiab Lorry carrying a 1.5 tonne planer-thicknesser all the way from Stoke on Trent to my studio in Sheffield. The gent that moved it works for Specialised Movers of Sheffield and he displayed the sort of skill with the lorry’s cantilevered crane arm

expected of Astronauts positioning a satellite with the shuttle’s robotic arm.

I now have an 18″ planer thicknesser operating in my new Studio at Exchange Place Studios, S2 5TR, Sheffield.


My brother Simon reckons the neighbours will think I am fracking when it is fired up.

St Nicholas, the true progenitor of Santa, was a real person, born in Patarka, Turkey of Greek ancestry in the 3rd century AD. As a holy man he had a reputation for ‘secret giving’ – leaving coins in the shoes of strangers who needed a bit of support. This tradition is still celebrated in Holland – Sinterklaas – on his feast day, the 6th of December. I am half Dutch, on my Mother’s side and I love the tradition of anonymous giving; I prefer the separation of the feast of St. Nicholas from the Solstice – which happens just after a quarter past five in the afternoon today. The Christian religious festival of Christmas is not my cup of mulled wine – although, Jesus, being a carpenter, was a wise Rabbi indeed.

Tomorrow the days will begin to grow longer as Earth’s axis in the North inclines more towards the sun. It is a time of feasting and change in celebration of the secret gift of light and life bestowed upon us by our Sun.



14 Dec

I buy my timber by the cubic foot. I design and build in old Imperial yards, feet, inches, eighths of an inch and sixteenths. Most of my clients think metrically so I offer a conversion on my drawings, but in my head and body imperial holds sway.


Here my selected stack of chocolate heart ash is being measured up to calculate my invoice in amount per cubic foot.

I am not trying to be a Luddite because ‘this is the way things are’ in the world of timber.

It so happens that an inch is the length of the first digit of my right index finger; one and a half inches the second digit; nine inches the span between outstretched little finger and thumb and so on. I internalised these measurements 40 years ago when at 16 I had stopped growing.

Dimensions are best appreciated with reference to one’s own body. Nature can blow your mind without this frame of reference:

Here I am standing at the base of a giant coastal redwood in John Muir park California – a mere speck, dwarfed by the scale of a 300 foot high colossus.

Inches and feet are human dimensions; metres, centimetres and certainly millimetres are measurements of science, of precision. Tell me I’m old fashioned, but if it fits in the hand and can be weighed in your palm doesn’t it feel right?


6 Dec

Edward Lear wrote some utterly sublime nonsense poems, for example;

The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo

On the Coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo
Two old chairs, and half a candle,–
One old jug without a handle,–
These were all his worldly goods:

….. so it continues….

This sort of nonsense rattles about in my head in my head most of the time and I wonder if it doesn’t affect my work. On Thursday I set to making the first wooden commission in my new Studio in Sheffield. I was not looking to make a profit, just to get my ‘eye in’ so to speak using first principle – start small and work up.

I had been asked to make something auspicious for a new niece, so I produced the spoon pictured at the foot of this blog. During the making I could not resist the temptation to give the handle a waist coat, buttons, trousers and shoes and an old Etonian tie. Why oh why? I know not why, I just know the spoon had a personality.

Now that I work for myself my average day does not make a lot of sense either. On Friday I saw a picture framer about making rebated timber for a frame for 1970’s photographic print of the Eiger – He liked my Scandinavia Pine suggestion – the picture made me think of George Lazenby in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; I had a chat with an artist who is also a gallery owner about the Tour de France passing her shop whilst looking at a superb bronze maquette of a fallen angel; I was shown, and I wielded a gorgeous damascened sword by the producer of a soon to be made epic film; and I had an earnest discussion with a bloke about shifting 1.5 tonnes of woodworking machinery from Stoke on Trent to my workshop. You couldn’t make it up, even in Coramandel.


Hey Diddle Diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed
To see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon

…. Makes perfect sense to me



2 Dec

I felt pretty lousy yesterday having spent a week in limbo with my wife moving house, moving workshop and setting up in Sheffield. So it was a pleasant and restorative Sunday 1st of December spent in the fresh air of Grenoside woods. Glorious winter sunshine found us amongst the Scott’s pine, self-set birch trees, oak trees, bracken and heather at the invitation of the excellent Sheffield Wildlife Trust, the Working Woodlands Trust and a handful of doughty Sheffielders – we joined together to gather winter fuel and build a cord to store and dry wood for fuel.

A cord is literally a stack of wood 8 feet long by 4 feet deep by 4 feet high. About a ton in weight – an ancient standard used by woodsmen of the past and present to calculate value of wood fuel (cord wood). Nowadays a cord of high value hard wood logs (like ash) will set you back about £150 in the USA it is cheaper at a dollar equivalent. The rise in cost is directly linked to the rising popularity of solid fuel burners. Three years ago you couldn’t give the stuff away.

On the day we used both modern methods (chainsaw, felling lever and timber tongs) and traditional methods (bow saw, bill hook and axe) to put down selected trees for the benefit of the woodland, to generate some winter fuel and stimulate the interest of the community.

I persuaded Fay, an Ecologist by profession, and a keen environmentalist in her spare time to ‘have a go’ with my small felling axe. Here she is putting down a self-set birch tree for cord wood.


She overcame her initial slight reluctance to swinging the axe at a tree after I told her a story about my mother. My mum (a single parent) used to say “I can do any bloody job as well as any man. I was a wood chopper and a grave digger in a Japanese prisoner of war camp from the age of 12 to 16 in Sumatra. That is how I earned a bit of extra food for my family, so don’t bloody well tell me how to put a shelf up Henk!” That was me told.

I have always admired women with a steel core in their back bone; I guess this comes from being brought up by such a tough, uncompromising parent. So I really enjoyed watching Sarah, of the Sheffield Wildlife Trust make short work of a Scott’s pine with her Stihl 260 chainsaw, and Fay, fell and sned up a birch tree with my axe.

Fell means many things:

From the old French ‘fel’ meant cruel, fierce or vicious: in Latin fello is the root of fellon or villain as in Macbeth’s ‘one fell swoop’. Faelan or fyllan from Mercian or Saxon means to cause to fall. Think of Lizzie Borden who, according to the nursery rhyme, took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. A nursery rhyme based upon a true story of the Sunday school teacher accused of killing her mother and father at their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892. Not that I have ever been tempted to copy her actions of course…..

Mr. Osborne has been wielding his metaphorical axe to the detriment of local government, charitable institutions and the general public for the past few years. He and the government he represents is our modern day fellon. It is good to see the real thing put to good use in the hands of people giving up their free time for the sake of their woodland and community.

They say a woman’s work is never done, all fellons should remember who wields the axe and ultimately who tends the hearth.