Archive | February, 2016


14 Feb


The perennial question asked by little children of their parents is ‘Why?’

(Back row, second from left, me aged 4, Takoradi Primary school, reception class, Ghana.

Ankle-biter me: “Mam, why can’t I see God?”

This, after being bollocked for drinking bath water and persuading my pal, Alan to do the same. Innocent? Not in Ghana, where Typhoid Fever and Dysentry were rife. I desperately wanted to travel to Heaven to see God, by train preferably.

Mam, “Henkje (little Henk in Dutch) – you see your shadow? Pick it up.”

I bent down in the blistering African sun to grasp my shadow … “I can’t….”

Mam, “Well God is like your shadow, he is there all the time but you can’t pick him up”

Blinding logic – thus totally satisfied for the time being I stopped trying kill myself and Alan.

Today is the anniversary of my mother’s birthday in Leiden, Holland, 1931 (deceased 7th January 2015). She would have been 85.

I was moved to find a bridge to her departed spirit, so I drove in my truck to Darley Dale in the Peak District. The place where my brother Tim and I grew up.

One of her favourite walks from her home – appropriately named Avalon Cottage – was a meander up to an old lead mine. This place she referred to as the ‘Grand Deadery’. As she put it “An ideal spot for disposing of annoying old people – like parents, boys!”

For at the top of the mine workings is a shaft so deep that it takes 7 seconds from the release of  a lump of foraged Galena to the ‘bang’ on the first landing floor.

Why did I go there today? Well grief is a funny thing, it hits you sideways when you least expect it.

The bond between the parent and this child is always fresh, like the spring daffodils my wife gave me today for my little wander. The Welsh do understand loss so well.

The Bridge over the River ‘Why’ is kindness and love, to ourselves, to our dear friends and to fellow humans in need. Build.

Happy Valentine’s Day dear reader.
Note: All that is known of Saint Valentine is that he was martyred and buried at a cemetery on the Via Flaminia close to the Milvian bridge to the north of Rome on this very day. 


12 Feb

Lao Tzu ( Tao the Ching) exhorted us to “bend like the wind”. Willow trees invariably survive violent storms relatively unscathed because of the properties of their timber;  light, fibrous and very flexible.

I made the stick above for a friend of mine – Willow Ferraby who has a very flexible mind, and who always seems to turn up at the right time.

The head of his stick is turned Yew from the branch of a tree, given to me by the Verger of a church in Derbyshire near where my mother’s ashes are scattered. The tree is very, very old in fact it has been alive since before the birth of Jesus. At over 2000 years old it has an enormous girth, and it’s aspect suggests that it has been repeatedly coppiced over centuries for staffs and long bow staves. This timber is part of my song line  (an indigenous Australian concept used to describe the way in which hunter gatherers  map vast landscapes geographically, temporally and psychologically – they literally sing things into existence).

I met Willow in a park in Sheffield ‘somewhen’ around 2005 when I was working as a countryside Ranger engaging local people in their park. The crowd consisted of Kashmiri mothers and their children and some young people and we were weaving a willow hurdle around a rustic bench I had made for them in Mount Pleasant Park. We were trying to make a wind break so that the mum’s could have a comfortable natter and all of a sudden Willow appeared in human form.

Bare chested, wearing only shorts, a well developed sun tan, long hair, fit as a lop, no shoes – he stood leaning on a stick with his right foot braced on his left knee, like a native Australian.

I believe that the first human tool was a stick – not a rock. I suspect that humans may have watched birds using them to fish for insects – like this Caledonian Crow picking ants off an aloe plant.


Birds may have used tools for millions of years before early humans had the nous to observe and copy them.

Sticks burn or rot, it is rare to find a truly old stick. Thus we can forgive the archaeologists for ‘sticking’ with flint arrow heads and bone fragments to describe and classify early tool use in human history.

Recently, I have been working on a new artistic concept – it  involves building bridges: between people, across water and so on, but using spring wood – coppice products like hazel staves, oak rods and bamboo (east meets west). I will need to apply for some money to get the idea off the ground, so I have invited some artistic friends to a meeting in my studio to contribute their creative talent in a kind of loose collective. After sharing my ideas with Willow over a cup of fine Keemun Tea from Tea with Percie he suggested that I simply give my collaborators a ‘stick of friendship’ and start the creative bridge building process this way.

Lay a big stick across a stream and you have a bridge.

2009, Limb Valley – Ranger Henk – chainsaw carving a walkway on a fallen tree trunk.

Big Stick Bridge Limb Valley.jpg

My ‘stick of friendship’ from Willow – is a bridge. I am looking forward to sharing the many types of stick bridge I have in mind with my creative friends, and entering their song lines for a time.

“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”

Tao te Ching




Henry’s Gift

3 Feb

In the summer of 1998 I found myself travelling to Sylvia Plath’s cottage in Todmordern on a Trans Pennine pacer train.

As I got on the train to sit down I realised that the carriage was packed, and I sat in the only remaining seat across the isle from a young family. A girl and boy no older than perhaps 7 and 5 respectively and their mother. The children seemed upset, and scared and the girl looked at me imploringly – their mother had fallen over across the seats and appeared to be unconscious, surrounded by miniature bottles of vodka.

The rest of the occupants of the carriage ignored us.

I put my rucksack on the free seat and spoke to the little girl, as gently as I could

“Don’t worry I’m going to get some help for you and your mum”

Conscious of the fact that I was looking a little feral, sporting a week’s worth of beard and a battered fedora hat. I wandered up the now moving train until I found a member of staff serving refreshments from the trolley.

“Excuse me?” I said “but can you help me – there is a bit of a situation in our compartment”

The very petite tea lady said “Of course!” Parked her trolley and followed me.

The diminutive Valkyrie took charge of the situation, and with no fuss, rapidly tidied up all the miniature bottles of booze whilst all the time making eye contact with the children and reassuring them in a lighthearted way. She also gently cleaned the mother up and brought her awake and into some semblance of decorum.

The passengers studiously ignored us.

The Tea Lady then arranged for the family to be met by her colleagues and receive further assistance at the next station.

Before I disembarked at Todmordern I asked the guard for her name and the address of her work. He was a bit suspicious – smelling a possible complaint in the wind – I reassured him I only wished to compliment his colleague on her professionalism.

When I got off the train I wrote a post card to the Manager of Miss Clare Rimmer – Tea Lady at Trans Pennine Rail.

Clare Littlewood (nee Rimmer) now runs her own business called Tea with Percie in Sheffield where she rescues jaded palates on Abbeydale Road daily with her quick hands, her wit and her baking. Her teas are of the finest quality and served in a proper pot – no tea bags!

In Todmordern I met a Rastafarian poet called Henry who told me: “You need to slow down man and step out of your groove”.

I met other helpful students of poetry and a tutor – Douglas Dunn.

Douglas Dunn explained that sonnets have a rigid structure with a rhythm based upon the iambic pentameter. The same meter of Shakespeare. This cadence is the rhythm of 16th century English Speech. The vernacular of peasants and the spine of the King James Bible. It is the beat of the human heart.

The sonnet is how he expressed his grief after losing his wife (an artist) to eye cancer ‘Elegies‘ – perhaps one of the finest works of 20th century poetry.

This was is my attempt at a sonnet.

Henry’s Gift

A friend of mine, he gave me his stairs,

His stepping stones, the river to his very God.

And just for breakfast bilberries I ran

To climb his steps, and find the morning sun.

A friend of mine, she gave her hands,

Her lightning wit, her beating heart –

Her blueprint/hotline to her very soul,

And the orthodoxy of ‘us’ in the finest cup of tea.

And so it is to me I gave a smile

at Henry’s waterfall. I ran a mile

to find a single berry and a seed,

a pool in which to bathe beside the trees –

where light and life are passing all the while,

illuminating dreams of Love for One and All.

HL 08/98