Archive | May, 2014

Sonnet

26 May

I am a sucker for a beautiful smile, yet, at 55 it was an enormous shock to me that I could still fall hard for a baby. When I met my niece, Hazel, for the first time last year she was about 5 months old and just beginning to charm the world with her curly locks and big brown almond shaped eyes. My brother Simon, simply handed her to me when we arrived at their home in Pacifica Ca., straight from the airport. She looked at me and beamed. I was her servant from that moment on.

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This little girl is as perfect as a poem.

The sonnet is a perfect poetic form.

One of my favourite writers of sonnets is the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn. Here he remembers his first wife – an artist cruelly afflicted by terminal cancer of the eye.

 

A constant artist, dedicated to

Curves, shapes, the pleasant shades, the feel of colour,

She did not care what shapes, what red, what blue,

Scorning the dull to ridicule the duller

With a disinterested, loyal eye.

So Sandra brought her this and taped it up –

Three seagulls from a white and indoor sky –

A gift of artistic comradeship.

“Blow on them, Love.” Those silent birds winged round

On thermals of my breath. On her last night,

Trying to stay awake, I saw love crowned

In tears and wooden birds and candlelight.

She did not wake again. To prove our love

Each gull, each gull, each gull, turned into a dove.

 

I find the wistful mood created by Dunn’s Elegies most perfectly resonates with my own from time to time, for whilst we feel his sorrow at the passage of time and the tragedy of his wife’s passing before him, we cannot ignore the vibrancy and life within the language and imagery of the poem. Sonnets are very exacting to write, and I suspect that the discipline required to write this may have helped him to face his grief.

So why should Hazel’s smile make me think of this sad poem?

It is difficult to capture a mood in a painting, or a piece of prose and only the most talented artists can take us there. Something in us complicates our experiences with analysis and description. Reason and memory become like old paint on a fine ceiling moulding, blurring the crisp edge of the original. My experience with Hazel was very uncomplicated, because she basically liked me and she let me hold her while she comfortably watched her mum, dad and sister, Percie going about their morning routines,  making appreciative baby noises and grabbing stuff. Put simply, I could share the rhyme of her.

It is this over-complication and analysis which lies at the root of depression. When faced with a situation where experience no longer matches the expectations we have constructed in our head we can become very disappointed, frustrated and angry. If nothing changes in us, we may continue to experience external reality  with an unprepared (and closed) mind. the effects can be long lasting and ultimately disastrous.

Making stuff with my hands helps to keep me rooted in direct experiential reality – anchored firmly to the now. Unlike meditation, which can allow all sorts of old unpleasant memories to surface, making requires concentration and focus – it frees the logical mind from introspection and ennui, because it does not allow space for the mind to create objections to reality. Miss with the hammer and you hit your thumb.

It is not without significance that I met Douglas Dunn at the cottage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in Todmorden whilst on a poetry course back in 1998. Lots of the other students were in awe of him. I did not at the time know him from Adam, so I offered him a glass of whisky – he relaxed a lot after that.

Many things happened that summer. I discovered my first wife (we had been together over 20 years) had been having an affair – a reality so shocking I was unable to make sense of it at the time because it really did not match my cosy mental picture of our family. Then, like a bolt out of the blue I met the woman who was to become my new partner and with whom I fell in love, on the train to Todmorden – Clare was the ‘Trolley Dolly’ on the TransPennine express.  She made me a nice cup to tea on the way back.  I also wrote my first sonnet after talking to a Rastafarian poet called Henry (my English namesake) who told me; ‘Ya man, ya need ta sloooow down!’. He explained that in order (for me) to skip out of the deep groove I had worn in my existence I needed to let the world go by a bit and see the other grooves running alongside. The adventure was just beginning.

So forget reason for a moment, just pick up the baby, or read a sonnet.

 

 

Chip

13 May

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David Stuart Littlewood was born in Huddersfield on March 21st 1930. He went to the Technical college at 14 to learn joinery, brick laying and draughtsmanship. His dad Arthur Littlewood enquired at the Co-op if they needed apprentices, they did and set David on at the age of 16. His mum Annie Littlewood nee Wild (from Waterford, Ireland) said “You be a carpenter lad, if it’s good enough for the Son of God, it’s good enough for you”.

Dad learned how to make everything from a coffin to a sash window, serving his apprenticeship for 5 years, then becoming a journeyman at 21. At the age of 26 Dad saw an advertisement placed by ‘Crown Agents’ in the local newspaper for tradesmen needed to teach building skills to local people in Nigeria for the British Government. John Longley, his best mate, encouraged him to apply.

When Dad eventually arrived in Lagos, Nigeria via steamer from Liverpool, thence train overland thousands of miles north to Kano on his 26th birthday in 1956 he discovered a dirty patch of earth. Enquiring of the local Chief as to where he was going to teach he was told “Right here, you build the college here”. So he did. He also met a very bonny Adrianna van de Poll, a Dutch air hostess with KLM. It turned out they both liked to rip it up on the dance floor. And that is how I came to be born in Kano in 1958.

There is an old French Carpenter’s saying that time is never wasted sharpening chisels. Here he is today at 84 in my workshop grinding his old chisels back and re-sharpening them on my old oilstone. “Excellent oilstone this son! You keep it really flat and true!” I hadn’t the heart to tell him that he had given it to me over 30 years ago along with many of his own tools when I was learning. I am a chip off the old block, having followed in his footsteps and the movements of his hands on the same oilstone.

Here is another chip off the same block, my brother Simon in San Francisco, pictured with his lovely daughter Percie. Simon is a carpenter too. 20140513-172059.jpg

We named our Tea Shop after our niece

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…but we don’t serve chips here, only fine leaf tea in proper china pots on hand made tables, come and join us if you are passing 557 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield S1 7TA, England.

 

Polish

7 May

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It is not often that I am reacquainted with old pieces I have made, but yesterday, travelling back from an assignment in Box Hill, Surrey I decided to drop in on a dear friend, and there, in his lounge was the telephone table and upholstered chair I made for him, back in the days I actually had hair (about twenty five years ago).

I arrived at a tiny hamlet at about one o’clock and my friend and I set out for a stroll from his lovely red brick and local iron stone cottage up the hill via the Pilgrim’s Way (the very same trail of Canterbury Tales fame) to St. Martha’s Chapel. Conversation spooled out on a congenial ramble allowing us to catch up with each other’s news, walking under a canopy of coppiced hazel, mature oak, tall beech trees, late bluebells, damselflies and bird song.

At the very top of the hill beside the church, my friend introduced me to his parents’ grave and pointed me to the house he grew up in on the other side of the hill. In that simple act he revealed much about his own polish. Throughout his many travels he always returns home to his roots. Kindness, thoughtfulness and a wry wit – the mark of a true English gent – it wouldn’t be too far fetched to imagine him in one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Back in 2001 he dropped everything and drove up to Chesterfield to support my wife after I had been sectioned following a breakdown. It was my small pilgrimage to see him which yielded the simple pleasure of seeing the affection I had lavished on a piece made for a true friend glowing back in the polished timber.

Alec's table 2

 

Burr elm makes up the cabinet and long legs with a deeply figured olive wood top inlaid with an elm border. The table is matched by an elm stool upholstered in rich plums and blues. The original commission helped me to dig myself out of a big hole caused by the untimely end to my grant funded job as a postdoctoral researcher at Newcastle University. With typical generosity and superb timing my friend suddenly expressed a desire for an old fashioned tall telephone table, with a drawer and matching stool – without stipulating a budget.

I knew he was fond of olive wood, having lived in the Mediterranean and worked for years in sunny climes and luckily I was able to find a stupendous piece taken from the root bowl of a mature tree. It was also the first time I experimented with ‘dishing’ the sides of a cabinet, repeating the concave profiles in the seat design. It is a dangerous technique involving pushing sawn boards perpendicularly across the face of an unguarded bench saw – concentration and push sticks are vital to prevent loss of fingers. He was worth the risk!

I shall now be able to imagine that every time he returns home from his travels, he catches up with friends and family on the telephone whilst sitting at the piece I made for him. He has polished it so much that it positively glows with a burnished patina seen only on fine old antiques like us.