Archive | July, 2014

Invincible

29 Jul

20140729-185655-68215169.jpg

A naked man emerges from the cruel sea, the sole survivor of a terrible shipwreck – a painting by Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault – the acknowledged founder of the Romanticist Movement. Romantics are inclined to spirited individuality, overt emotion, drama, and an affinity with the natural world – well that sums me up pretty well. Probably our best English Romantic painter would have to be J.M.W.Turner, whose lovely glowing images grace the National Gallery where the shipwreck survivor also hangs:

Turner Rain steam and speed

Rain, Steam and Speed – is my personal favourite.

Visiting London with my Dad this week, we took in the Imperial War Museum, the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery. I was struck by a romantic connection. All these buildings, apart from being the great store houses of riches and, through association romantic echoes of emotions from time long gone by are also, like the human body, frail vessels. The art I saw exuded the painters’ connecting us with our senses, the war artefacts and medals with the fear and horror of the civilians and combatants caught up in conflict, or the courage of the lone hero or heroine (particularly the fine Sainsbury Gallery housing many Victoria Cross and George Cross medals and citations), and the Natural History museum, capturing for us the moment of sheer unalloyed joy as the original scholar collector bagged some unsuspecting moth, bird or fish and popped it into a glass jar.

All these exhibits have been curated, that is carefully presented to the viewing public, labelled, ordered and displayed, framed, encapsulated, pinned and – these days video enhanced, modelled and animated. Names and attributions lend emotional weight to each object and the observer is free to project his or her romantic feelings using the object as a kind of touchstone.

“The term species, and the name of a living thing is but a hypothesis” my brother Tim said to me – “the scientific name of a species is not absolutely fixed in time or space, but depends upon the relationships and descriptions of other species”. We had gone from the station to rendezvous with him at his place of work. Not the usual opening gambit of a family visit, but then my (younger) brother has a most unusual cast of mind.

20140729-190739-68859052.jpg

Here is Dr Tim Littlewood, the Director of Life Sciences at the British Museum of Natural History, with my dad David S.Littlewood (concentrating very hard) as he describes his work. Steering this venerable Ark through the current storms of Government Funding cutbacks and the need to finding sustainable revenue income, whilst managing over 350 entomologists, palaeontologists, botanists, geologists and hundreds of other specialisms in Natural History he is like a modern day Hornblower. He showed me his own collection – a modest cupboard containing tiny phials of genetic material from parasitic worms. Russian Doll like vessels, within vessels – parasites being the sine-qua non of Zoological ephemera, yet so profound in their effect on us humans, our domestic livestock and the natural world.

But what did he mean “….a (species) name is just a hypothesis …”. Well, it would seem that even the name Terrible Lizard, or Dinosaur – a name coined by the great comparative anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen  is,  just at the end of the day a published hypothesis in a scientific paper – it might be more correct nowadays to call them “Terrible Birds” as our understanding of the affinities between the ancestor of the humble sparrow and Tyrannosaurus rex  has changed. Famous for his work on marsupials – those strange pouched mammals from ‘down under’ his specimens sit in large glass jars in the ‘Spirit Store’. Being the captain of the ark has it’s privileges, so Tim took dad and I into the vast store rooms of the museum to see jars, upon jars of weird stuff. Odder still to me was the fact that many of the larger glass containers which hold the original specimens are ‘creeping’. They don’t sit still – because glass, which is not a true solid, slumps and creeps over time. Coelocanths, sword fish, parrot fish, Owen’s Echidna specimens – you name it all sat in formalin or alcohol in giant deformed sweetie jars. If the jar has a red lid then this means that it contains the ‘holotype’ of the species – the original collected example from which the species was described and named – the zoological rubber stamp if you will. But, creeping glass, creeping ignorance and the creep of time itself all threaten the contents of this store house.

Romantically, it is easy to attribute value to a beautiful painting or a sculpture – humans have no difficulty paying money for beauty and skill if they covet it, or wish to show off their wealth. No one in the right mind would question the value of a Victoria Cross, nor the price tag of £60K or similar for one of these rare awards for extreme courage – though the question remains ‘why would any family sell it?’ (needs must one supposes, and greed must – of the collector). But a jar containing whale tape worms? Disgusting! A putrefying giant squid in a a fifty foot bath of formalin? Good grief! And what of little tubes of sink snot – my brother’s predilection?

Well, it turns out that it is the information encoded within the tissues themselves which hold the key to their value. DNA analysis enables Zoologists these days to unpick the deep ancestral relationships between living things and in so doing spotlight an whole new treasure in the hold of the Ark. For in being able to identify species from mere traces and bits of tissues leads to delicate forensic possibilities (catching the bad guys), finding out precisely what type of stupid bloody seagull mashed up a jet engine (bird strike), which plants may yield new potential crop species to feed the multitude, and what devious parasites might help protect them (or be debilitating us – and how to zap it). This ship holds treasure.

It needs a steer too.

Tim studied for his Ph.D. in the University of Kingston in the Carribean and the traditions of the University Alumni demanded that he be ‘launched’ as a postgraduate student. Thus ‘HMS Invincible’ made sail amidst the Oysters and their Parasites of Jamaica and his strong hand is now on the tiller of the BMNH. I’m just an old romantic, but I couldn’t imagine a better captain. But then I’m just an old romantic.

The fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner

The-Fighting-Temeraire

Littlewood

17 Jul

On the foggy maritime fringes of California there remain a few protected stands of the last of the magnificent coastal redwood trees. Muir Wood is one of these treasure chests – a tiny slice of primeval Wildwood. The trees here are so breathtaking in their majesty – at thousands of years old some preceding the birth of Christ in age – that they make one feel insignificant.

Interestingly, Muir Wood only received protection in the 19th century because the eponymous John Muir lobbied congress ceaselessly to give it the status of a ‘National Monument’. There was no such thing as a Conservation Area or National Park in the United States of America back then. The trees were such a valuable source of rot resistant building material that the majority of the primeval forest was simply cut down with no thought to preservation.

John Muir, a Scottish born American citizen and Naturalist, was born on April 21st 1838 in Dunbar, passing away after a long a fruitful life on 24th December 1914 in Los Angeles.

John-Muir-Quotes-2

Redwood

In the Redwood tree stand which bears his name, it is all but impossible to capture a tree in a single photographic frame – each stem is so big – some 300 foot high. The density of wood is overwhelming, you can almost feel the sap hurtling to the top of the trees, evaporating from tiny leaves to create their own weather system for the delicate microclimate hidden in the canopy high above. The experience does indeed wash the spirit clean as John Muir would have it, and it touches the fibre of one’s being.

Wood warms you when you touch it, it warms you when you cut it….. and in the end it warms you when you burn it on the fire (Roger Deakin ‘Wildwood’ 2007). Burning wood releases the energy of the sun locked up in carbohydrates by photosynthesis decades, centuries or, in the case of the coastal Redwoods millennia ago – bathing us in the energy of history.

So it is a historically rooted connection that I feel through my Littlewood heritage:

Littlewoods

me (woodworker), Dad (Master Carpenter), Nathan (Geologist), Simon (Joiner and Builder), Tim (Zoologist).

Strong genes in all of us, connected by the skill our hands – from the old Norse word ‘Skil’ which means wisdom and discernment. Our name, Littlewood reflecting our affinity with what the Chinese Taoist philosophers called the fifth element:

Wood Element Symbol 2

(Wood coming after fire, water, air and metal)

Wood according to the Taoist philosophy has positive attributes including strength, idealism, growth and expansion – my Dad certainly contributed to propagating the Littlewood line! Negative attributes are listed as – aggression, anger, temper, impatience and impulsiveness. A pretty fair summary of the darker side of a Littlewood.

Speaking of temper, wood can bite you hard when you are working with it, especially if you don’t concentrate. Back in the 1980’s I rented a small corner of a furniture maker’s workshop, and was ripping a 2 inch thick board of seasoned yew. All of a sudden the board cracked apart along the saw line and literally flew from the saw bed, two halves just missing my head by a gnat’s whisker! No wonder medieval carpenters believed the wood was cursed. Folklore has long associated Yew with witchcraft and many woodsmen have been injured or killed when ripping yew logs – particularly in the old style where two men prepare planks from a saw log with a double handled saw. One poor soul – the ‘under dog’ – has to stand in a pit beneath the log getting covered in sawdust and muck, whilst the other – the gaffer – stands above as the ‘top dog’.

pitsaw

 

My brother Simon told me recently that he had acquired a piece of redwood from a bloke who had been squirrelling it away for years. The timber has the most delicious gold and bloody amber colour when polished – the jammy git (luck, or jammyness is another Littlewood trait I enjoy).

So whilst I meditate amongst the trees and the wood they provide, I am hoping that some Littlewood wisdom and discernment will continue on into the next generation:

Either in the minute explorations and investigations of my progeny (Polly, my daughter – aged 6, looking for sand hoppers on the Isle of Cumbrae in 1988)

polly

or in the intrepid wanderings of a nephew (Luke with his Dad, Tim)

Luke n Tim

 

Because I would like to bequeath my tools to someone who will use them, as I use my Dad’s, to connect with a little wood.

Jazz

5 Jul

One of the greatest guitar players of all time, Django Reinhardt suffered crippling injuries to his left hand when he was badly burned in a fire. His third and fourth fingers were paralysed. Undeterred he reworked his entire repertoire adapting chordal changes and barre fret work to suit his strong, index and middle fingers – inventing an entirely new jazz technique. He co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club with the violinist Stéphane Grappelli. His beautiful jazz recordings grace my studio from time to time.

wgreinhardt

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. Way back in 1998 I had been happily married for 16 years to a woman I had met and fell in love with at Manchester University where we studied Zoology together. We raised a lovely daughter, Polly, and over many years shared everything. My wife retrained as a Physiotherapist during the time our daughter was born, whilst I made a living as a postdoctoral scientist. Both of us were musical, but my wife had a real gift for playing the violin, so when my beloved maternal grandmother, Hartje de Boer, passed away I commissioned a fiddle by a master luthier, with her bequest. He made made an exact copy of a famous Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri violin.

Guarnerius violin

 

It was a concrete way to honour both my grandmother’s voice and my first wife’s talent. It was so accurate that he wanted to distress it to look like an original – I said I wanted it to look as it was, spanking new. The back of the violin was carved from a single piece of Bosnian flame maple over 300 years old. The instrument was and still is a masterpiece. It should be, it cost the equivalent of a small saloon car at the time.

I can hear my grandmother saying “Je bent gek jongen!” – ‘you are crazy boy!’ at my profligate largesse with her money. I did not know it at the time, but this is a typical, impulsive symptom of manic depression.

Here is my Oma chatting with my Dad in Den Haag, way back in 1957 before I was born.

David and Hartje 1957

My wife took to practising the violin for up to three or four hours a night, and by this time I was teaching science in secondary school, so was too dog tired at the end of the day to be bothered. She developed a very sound blue-grass double stopping technique and added a huge folk repertoire. Living in Newcastle she was soon in demand with a number of folk groups.

Whilst I played guitar, I did not have the dedication or discipline required to accompany her playing, and besides, I couldn’t really be bothered with the ‘folk scene’. I prefer the guitar playing of Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake and John Martyn to be honest. Nevertheless, like the naive fool that I was I continued to encourage her to follow her ambition to become a semi-professional musician.

Around the time of my 40th birthday I discovered that she had been ‘fiddling around’, or in slightly politer parlance, having an affair with a band member. For quite a while as it happened. The double irony here is that my ex, an accomplished fiddle player and jazz saxophonist had left me for an accomplished guitarist. Joining the ‘Not so Hot Club’.

I’d got burned.

I continued to function, teaching Biology by day at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, and providing for my daughter, but the very foundations of my existence had been destroyed. I had put all my love, faith and energy into the marriage, only to discover it was broken. Coming from a ‘broken home’ as it was called in the 1960’s – my mum brought my brother and I up single handed – I took the failure of the marriage hard. Weirdly, I did not blame my wife for her wandering eye, I felt it was my fault – I had probably become rather boring as a husband. This was the start of truly suicidal depressions, and eventually, several attempts at suicide back in 2000. At this time I started seeing a psychiatrist – who prescribed antidepressants, having erroneously diagnosed ‘chronic depression’.

It was a good while before I was able to see things more clearly, to develop a new mind set. In fact I had to lose the one I had relied on for 40 years before I could develop a new style of playing. I had some help, of course, from a brilliant Psychiatrist called Dr Zaman, who diagnosed BiPolar Type II depression (“A classic case Henk”… I like the classic cases) when I was sectioned, Lithium carbonate (Priadel) – which I continue to take to the possible detriment of my thyroid, kidneys and liver and the definite reduction in desire to play the guitar (hooray!), and thirdly, but most assuredly not lastly, to my loving wife, dangerous and irresponsible henchwoman, and very funny Tea Lady – Clare Littlewood.

My personal Holy Trinity – a good shrink, suitable meds (taken as a sacrament, whatever the physiological cost) and the heart of a good woman.

Studio Jazz

I may have lost some of the ‘digital’ capacity of my brain by going through the fire of mental illness and loss, but I have gained the facility to play my own personal jazz.

Footnote:

The Luthier had, rather spookily, placed an aphorism on his label inside the Guarnerius style violin he had made for my first wife which reads “As the fiddler tunes, so you shall know her tune”. Quod est demonstrandum.