Archive | January, 2015

Touch

21 Jan

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There is nothing quite as empowering as having a beautiful woman slip her arm into yours whilst going for a stroll in the park.

My daughter Polly is named after her grandmother, Adriana Van de Poll. It was mam’s nickname when she served as an air hostess in the 1950’s with KLM.

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Mam passed away on the 7th of January 2015, aged 83. She had led a most eventful, some might say remarkable life.

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Like the Lockheed Super Constellation she flew in with her glamorous crew in the 1950’s, she was an elegant, long distance flier.

I can tell you the facts. Mam was born in Leiden, Holland, to Haartje (nee De Boer) and Cornelius Van de Poll on Valentine’s Day 1931. She grew up in the jungles of Sumatra on a rubber plantation with an older brother, Henk and a younger sister Heleen. Then in 1942, on her eleventh birthday, the Japanese invaded what was then, the Dutch East Indies. Mam became a prisoner of war. She spent four years supplemententing her family’s meagre diet by chopping wood and digging graves in the most appalling conditions. Her dad survived the Burma Railway line, her mam another camp, her brother Henk, torture. After returning to Holland at 15 she had a patchy formal secondary education and eventually graduated to Domestic Science College in her late teens.

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Henk, her brother died aged 19 whilst her parents were abroad. Mam attended to his funeral.

One day in Amsterdam whilst she was at Domestic Science College she was inspired by the sight of a KLM Air Stuardess in uniform, she decided that was the job for her, and spent the next three years as an au pair learning new languages: English in Surrey with a Vicar and his wife, German in a ruined Berlin with a Count, French on a farm with a huge family and a smattering of Italian. She flew long haul flights to Jakarta, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria and, in Lagos, bumped into a Yorkshireman, David Littlewood on the dance floor.

They married in Jos, Nigeria (her given name was ‘Jos’ – a story for another time perhaps) and I was produced on July 22nd in Kano, northern Nigeria in 1958. My brother Tim was born in 1961 in Ghana. Mam and Dad were a popular couple, throwing fantastic parties (like ‘Spend a night in Gaol’, or ‘Launching a new Newspaper’).

Mam came home on leave with Tim and I to a house in Matlock in 1964. Dad stayed in Ghana. She had to bring me back to England for my health – I had contracted cerebral malaria twice, typhoid and rheumatic fever . I would not have survived any longer in the Gold Coast. Dad needed to work and had a very good job with UAC in West Africa. They separated and then divorced.

Mam managed to blag her way into Teacher Training College in Matlock in 1965 having had very little formal education thanks to the Camp. She trained for three years as an Art/Textiles teacher, becoming Head of Textiles at Mortimer Wilson School two years after qualifying supporting Tim and I through school and University.

The last thing Mam said to me as I held her hand was; “Henk, you have to decide what you are going to do, and what you are not going to do”.

It is a sweet irony that in the last years of her life, blind and succumbing to dementia mam sometimes confused me with my dad calling me David. It was in those last, close, intimate moments of her drifting in and out of the world that I realised how deeply she had loved him.

So what I have decided I am ‘going to do’ is this sort of caper:

Sewing

What I have decided I am ‘not going to do’, is not bother you, dear reader, or anyone else with trivia. We don’t have enough time – just touch.

Down Under

Odin

2 Jan

There is a price to be paid for wisdom as Odin the chief the Aesir – the Norse Gods of myth discovered, when he went in search of Mimir’s well beneath the world tree Ysgadril. Upon drinking deeply from the well of knowledge Odin plucked out his right eye and gave it to Mimir, the well’s keeper, for the gift of foresight.

The Vikings

I was born in 1958, the year in which “The Vikings” starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtiss was released. When I was little, my dad used to drive my mum nuts by shouting “ODIN!!!” at the top of his lungs whilst in the bath holding a scrubbing bush aloft in lieu of a sword. I’m guessing he identified with Einar the character played by Kirk Douglas, son of Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) and not Erik (Einar’s half brother sired by Ragnar) played by Tony Curtiss – who, whilst very good looking was not as butch as Einar. I like to think of my dad as a Viking – he certainly had the strength in his day and is, with 5 children to his name our ‘All Father’.¬†Si and Dad, Yosemite

Here he is in Yosemite with his youngest son Simon, the youngest of the son’s of Littlewood. He, like me is a carpenter and he plies his considerable skill in San Francisco.

Wisdom flows from insight, in my case the knowledge that I have a disorder which renders me ‘blind’ to people’s motives ( see Two Towers). Because I am emotionally more labile than most I am given to an empathic response to the emotional state of others, especially when they are in need. There is a word for this: Eideteker – from the word ‘eidetic’ (used in conjunction with memory to describe an ability to recall something in great detail) – which refers to a person who can ‘see through the eyes of another’. It was famously used by Hannibal Lecter to describe the skills of the homicide investigator Will Graham in the 2002 film ‘Red Dragon’. It is a curse.

Given that most people follow their own agenda, I will empathise by default and often offer (unbidden) assistance. Favours, money, well meant advice, a well tuned ear, intuition …. This behaviour can be taken as interference, or more commonly, generosity of spirit. People I know think it is a good thing that I am this way – they see it as a ‘generous nature’.

I find it bloody exhausting – because it is like having no skin.

As a secondary school teacher I was considered gifted, partly because I had been a professional scientist before teaching the subject (I had real experience of making new science). In the main I think it was because I had no ‘off switch’ to the needs of students. I was promoted to Head of Year within twelve months of qualifying, becoming responsible for the pastoral welfare of over 200 hormonal teenagers. I counselled many youngsters, some I helped, all made deep impressions on me, through their emotional and educational need.

I was advised by my Psychiatrist to give up teaching after I came out of hospital back in 2002, and by a very helpful careers adviser. So I don’t teach now, apart from the occasional carving or cabinet making tutorial in my studio to help pay the rent.

Making furniture for a living is a solitary exercise, and therapeutic for me. I like it when my fellow artists sometimes wander down my dusty corridor for a chat, giving me the chance to procrastinate. But sooner or later I crave the peace and quiet of the workshop. Chisels, planes, set squares and marking gauges make no emotional demands, wood sings a quiet song best heard in isolation.

The price I paid for my insight was to give up teaching. Having already given up academia I felt the loss intensely. The loss of an eye is a terrible thing, the loss of a career, twice, could be seen as carelessness (Lady Bracknell). But I am lighter now in spirit and closer to the old gods and so I shout in my studio, axe aloft to the All Father, the protector of warriors and wisdom:

“ODIN!!”