Archive | December, 2021

Boy to Man

23 Dec
David S Littlewood, Dad, just before I was born – Kano, Nigeria 1958

As a boy I always dressed as a Cowboy, but identified as an Indian (North American Native). Henk on the outside but Sioux on the inside if you get my drift.

This role confusion manifested itself in many ways, not least the absolute adherence to bow and arrow as weapon of choice rather than pistol.

My younger brother, Tim, was all cowboy from an early age – he always wore a pair of six shooters slung around his toddler hips when we lived in Africa.

Yipikayay!

My first ever proper pal, Alan and I invented a game in which we would coerce Toddler Tim to chase us round the garden whilst we held a pair of cheap plastic binoculars the wrong way round to our eyeballs. Steven King could not have invented a more terrifying scenario than being chased by a tiny blond homunculus in nappies with a cloth comforter in its mouth, firing paired cap guns. Bumping into each other and into tropical vegetation (full of snakes and other nasties), being unable to judge distance, laughing hysterically. Cool!

My parents separated when I was 6, and when we came back to the UK, my mum was a single parent. She had to work as a needlework teacher to support us.

As the eldest boy, I was given responsibilities. I took my brother too and from school, did a fair bit of the housework, helped with the budget and shopping, and most onerous of all, listened to all my mother’s tribulations, moans, frustrations, worries and political theories at the end of each and every day.

As I grew up, my role at home became gradually less cowboy and more Cinderella. Independent laddishness was discouraged in me, yet indulged in my younger brother.

In retrospect I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a pretty good wife. Many of my mother’s friends were a bit concerned by the time I went to Grammar School that I had become ‘a bit of a mummy’s boy’.

My mother was dismissive of their concerns, “Don’t be ridiculous, he’s just sensitive”.

Additionally, because my mother had made it difficult for my father to get access to his sons (once in a blue moon if we were lucky) and lived and worked in West Africa, we had no resident male role model. My mothers thesis of “I’m better than any man I know!”, could not be tested.

So what should a secret Sioux do?

At 13, I went in search of a father, in search of what it meant to be a man.

Playing rugby helped – I played every weekend and never missed a training session. The physicality was invigorating, as was the mindless swearing, mockery, laughter and opportunity to knock seven shades of shit out someone quite legitimately in the mud.

But, I discovered that my team mates were not much help as manly role models – they were as poorly formed as I and, besides the girls hockey team were much more scary.

My first strong male role models, or father figures, were a couple of middle aged blokes who ran a motor repair garage in Darley Bridge near our cottage. Colin, the owner, let me help in the workshop on a Sunday morning – sweeping up, making tea and doing odd jobs about the workshop. Over time, they introduced me to simple engine repairs and car maintenance. Best of all, they were just themselves – strong, taciturn, patient, humorous and very generous. They took the piss out of each other, and me all the time and that made me feel part of something masculine.

By now my dad had returned from West Africa to live in England. I was able to visit my father, who was running a news agent and post office shop with his wife, Mollie, to support his growing second family in Devizes.

I loved that time and being with them – not least because they lived in the flat above the paper shop and he had a splendid stock of ‘top shelf’ men’s mags for sale.

Yipikayay!

I helped Dad out in the very early mornings to sort out all the newspapers for delivery and in this way I got my first insight into how my father was as a working man and husband: Generous, humorous and popular with people from all walks of life.

It was great to see how he was as a father, too with his daughter Abi, and son Nathan, my half siblings – he was easy company. His youngest son, Simon was yet to arrive.

Just being with him for a while was an eye opener, I became aware of his deeper qualities as a man. More importantly, I could see myself in him.

Remembering these times I think of the song by Johnny Cash – ‘A boy Named Sue, about an absent dad who gives his son the name ‘Sue’ to toughen him up. ‘Toughen up lad’ was always the mantra boys heard as they grew up.

It has made me think about male identity and the roles men are expected to play in society. By inference then, there must be a dire need for boys to find good male role models in an increasingly confused and demanding society. I know a couple of teenagers who now identify as the opposite gender from their biological sex at birth.

Tallyho, I say, pick up those six shooters if it suits you! But, who, or what are you going to use as a masculine role model? You don’t become a man by calling yourself Sioux.

How do we raise good men, cis trans or otherwise, without defining the key qualities needed? The presence or absence of a penis should be no impediment in this endeavour.

I have always had a problem with aggression off the pitch, and I understand why many women find it repellant. My father kept his temper always firmly control. He never ever raised his voice or was aggressive to me.

Rugby and the martial arts have suited me as an outlet because one can be aggressive in a controlled arena, without hurting innocent bystanders. You can ‘get it out of your system’ – like venting steam.

We can all be aggressive in an uncontrolled way, so here is the dilemma: Aggression per se is one of the primary tools of oppression in a male dominated society:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.” Bell Hooks.

I would argue that the training of young men demands the active involvement of older men in order that they develop emotional intelligence and healthy self esteem.

I would also argue that in order to dismantle the old patriarchy we will have to identify the best male role models for our sons or male-oriented girls to emulate, and endeavour to emulate them as fathers. Women must help with this, but they cannot substitute themselves into the equation I’m afraid.

Perhaps we also need to persuade some mothers to stop treating some of our boys like little princes.

In my view, a vaulting sense of entitlement is the toxic bedfellow of uncontrolled aggression in men AND women.

Less hubris, more humility please lads and lasses.

I was still searching for a good role model in my very early twenties when I chose J.Gordon Blower to do my PhD with. He was grown up with children, a family man, he was widely respected as a lecturer and an academic in the field of Zoology at Manchester University.

Although, he never achieved a doctorate himself (he was content with a Masters in Ecology) he told me:

“I’ve done my bit for Queen and Country, Henk, I have nothing left to prove. In fact I am responsible for the deaths of millions in the second world war I’m ashamed to say.”

As an entomologist, Gordon served as a Naval Officer in front line raids on Mosquitoes in the tropics. DDT was the weapon of mass destruction in this theatre of War.

He smoked No.6 filter tipped continuously, and, consequently was the colour of nicotine, he drove a gorgeous maroon Ford Zephyr, drank sherry in the afternoon and was an absolute genius scientist and thinker. He was a real man.

To me, Gordon represented worldly experience, strength of character, modesty, patience, wit and great generosity – like my real father.

When I told him in my final PhD year that my girlfriend was expecting a baby, he rummaged about in one of the Ecology Lab cupboards, located a bottle of Madeira, cracked it open and poured us both a stiff measure each in 100 ml Pyrex beakers.

His toast: “Congratulations Henk! You are going to become a father. Marvellous news”

…..put steel in my spine, and I finally discovered the man in myself.

My mother’s lone parenting had almost succeeded in emasculating me by denying me access to my dad. I don’t blame her, I still love her memory, partly because the best lessons I have learned have been the hardest ones. “Would you rather be brought up by a teddy bear or a tigress Henk?” A rhetorical question if ever there was one, you don’t argue with Shere Khan.

Fatherhood requires all the qualities I have described above, and many more but most of all, it requires a man to let go and allow his children to make their own mistakes and discoveries.

Here are three of The Greatest Fathers I have known as role models:

David Stuart Littlewood

Joseph of Nazareth

Nelson Mandela.

Two carpenters and the Father of a Rainbow Nation.

The man himself.
Joseph holding infant Jesus in Brian Fell’s Sheffield Steel Nativity, wearing his carpenter’s apron.

“To be the father of a nation is a great honour, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy.” Nelson Mandela

So if you think you’re a man, show me, I’ve learned from the best.

Generosity

18 Dec

In the late 80’s I was a young dad and whenever my daughter, Polly, asked me a question such as; “what are plants made of Dad?” I would expound – sometimes inventing an entire branch of knowledge like ‘Stuffology’ to illustrate to a youngster the different sorts of stuff which make up the living world – cellulose, starch, chlorophyll etc..

Henk and Polly looking for Stuff, Northumberland 1988

Looking back I recognise that I had a tendency to overshare. Some would say I had a generosity

of spirit, whilst others might have simply called me naive and oblivious to reality.

My father was more measured, he preferred experiential learning. Once, whilst travelling to Maud in the North East of Scotland to do some joinery for half sister Anna, Dad’s only daughter and a talented vet, we dropped off at a pub for lunch. As Dad was paying at the bar, emptying his pockets and scraping together all his loose change, the barman said:

“Are you a Yorkshireman?”

“Aye lad, what of it?” Dad replied.

“They’re a bit like Scotsmen, but with a Generosity Bypass.“ said the man.

He had that effect on people.

Henk and David Littlewood at Anna’s Seat, Fingle

W.H. Auden said “A professor is one who talks in someone else’s sleep.”

I was so intent on becoming a professor as a young man, that I lost track of my sense of humour.

As luck would have it, I changed tack in my early thirties and retrained to teach secondary science.

I was keen to go forth and share my enthusiasm for the Natural World, Science and Biology in particular to a new audience.

When I was appointed to my first teaching job at Prudhoe High School in the Tyne Valley. I had a rude awakening. First of all I could barely understand the Prudhoe dialect. I told one class “Can you please slow down and speak English so that I can understand you?”

“Eee, that’s ‘Shan’ that is!” said one of the year 10 girls. Shan is Geordie for ‘unjust’. A great word, quite right too.

One day, a student painted a giant penis in Tippex on my rolling blackboard and cut it out in relief so that the bell end flopped over when I was in full flow. The effect was dramatic, as soon as I whizzed the roller round, the class erupted in mirth.

“Shan that” I thought.

In the end, the Headmaster wanted the panel replaced because of the impending (first ever) Offsted inspection. I requested, politely that it remain, because it stopped me oversharing (being a Dick).

“On your own head be it.” He said, cryptically.

So there, it stayed. The inspector can’t have been too bothered, because he gave me a grade 1 and I was promoted to Head of Year 10.

Thank you dick-artist whoever you were.

Several recent, unpleasant experiences have caused me to remember these times with affection and review my attitude to people. Who think it is ok to prey upon my generous spirit.

I shan’t go into that stuff because, like my dad I feel it is better to be silent on these matters.

My friend, the artist, Robert Twigg captured my inner Yorkshireman in my old studio by riling me up. Clever. Here is a generosity bypass if ever I saw one. Proper job, lad.

photo credit Robert Twigg

I asked one of my former Prudhoe High School students if he could remember any of my weirder moments. Steven Maughan shared this:

“Well one time I got caught in the toilet with a lass by the dinner lady and she sent me to you for a bollicking. You gave us a telling off then told me to Go and get Educated. Great.”

I celebrate the spirit and generosity of the students I met at Prudhoe High School. They taught me canny well.

Merry Christmas to all of you.

In Memoriam Lee Doran, Fine Artist, and thanks Maughny.

Doors of Perception

6 Dec

Aldous Huxley: I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.

In November 1989 I attended what was to be my last International Scientific Conference. It was held in Berlin. I was 31 years of age and had begun to realise that I was getting too long in the tooth to achieve my dream – a tenured academic post as a Zoologist. I had passed my sell by date.

In addition I was sick to death of working in another person’s research laboratory, as a postdoctoral associate, on someone else’s research program. I had strayed so far from my interests as a zoologist (arthropod behaviour and structure) that it seemed to me that I had allowed myself to become a highly paid drone.

As I travelled by train from The Netherlands to Germany, I became aware that many heavily armed German military Police joined the train at the border. East/West tensions were running high at the time, I was aware that we were on the cusp of a seismic shift in World politics.

Huxley’s Doors of Perception were beginning to open.

Research scientists normally apply to the grant awarding body who supports their research for funds to cover their travel expenses. On this occasion I decided to be a free agent again, so I paid to go out of my own pocket. A wise decision, it transpired, as it allowed for greater freedom and clarity of thought.

On the second day of my stay, I wandered over to Check Point Charlie and crossed over in order to visit a brilliant developmental biologist called Wolfgang Dohle. I took him some new boxer shorts, chocolate and several pairs of socks. He gave me a lot of Russian Vodka.

Wolfgang had a cynical view of his home country, East Germany – “Great public transport and concerts, Henk. Shit food and no decent chocolate. Very very grey.” The next day, nursing a hangover, I watched Brian Hanrahan, in the flesh, reporting for the BBC on the unfolding and tumultuous events in Berlin, against the backdrop of the wall and the Brandenburg Gate.

At five metres away, I was part of History. https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/the-berlin-wall/zdphd6f

The military police were nowhere to be seen. East was about to meet West with the force of a sledgehammer on a concrete wall. Thousands of East Germans had decided to swap their Vodka for decent underwear and good chocolate.

Flushed with the excitement of what I had witnessed, I attended the final day of the conference. I listened to a very clever woman, a young neuroscientist, describe how she had mapped the internal wiring of the visual cortex in the brain of the little owl.

Athena noctua, the little owl, named after the virgin Goddess of wisdom and war – often depicted sitting upon her shoulder.

Here she sits on the post of a cleft oak gate overlooking Meersbrook Park.

The scientist insisted on referring to the owls she had worked on as ‘preparations’ and the processing of the owl in order to study its neuroanatomy as ‘sacrifice’.

She ‘sacrificed’ quite a few little owls.

It occurred to me that no one had asked Athena if this sacrifice was worthy, and that her syntax was hideously close to the lexicon of The Holocaust. Echoing all around us under the Brandenberg Gate and in the park, Unter den Linden.

As the Berlin wall came crashing down, Huxley’s Doors of Perception opened in my mind.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception” A. Huxley.

I suddenly realised that neuroscience and physiology research were no longer for me.

Disassembling animals in order to understand how the whole creature worked seemed reprehensible, reductionist and utterly disgusting.

In all conscience I could no longer see the point of understanding a system if one had to destroy the very thing one was studying in the process. Although my work was carried out on the humble and destructive plague locust. I didn’t think this ‘preparation’ should pay the ultimate price for our insatiable curiosity.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

I experienced what might be called a moral paradigm shift. Zen masters would call it enlightenment.

“Let the owls be owls, Grasshopper!” Is now my Koan.

I resigned in the Spring of 1990 and retrained as a science teacher. A stepping stone to where I am now, where I make the doors for other’s perception and no longer contribute to a Brave New World.