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Dues

28 Jan

Henk working

If you want to do something interesting in Life, you’ve got to pay your dues.

This is called experiential learning. I have huge respect for autodidacts (my Father), bodgers, make-do-and-menders, the makers of happy mistakes – in other words those humans with a pioneering spirit.

Too much formal education leads to closed minds in my experience.

Way back in January 2002 I went to see a specialist careers advisor-come-psychometric consultant in London seeking help for a new career direction.

I was asked to send in my curriculum vitae. At the appointment the first thing the consultant said to me was: “Looking at your resume I would say that there is a cyclical pattern occurring over about a three year period throughout your career. You seem to start a new job, be very productive for a while and then, sooner or later you torpedo everything and move on. I’d say you were probably manic depressive.”

I was a bit shocked to be honest.

“Funny you should say that” I said, ” but I have just been diagnosed with Manic Depression.”

I had recently been discharged from a Psychiatric Hospital with a prescription for Lithium carbonate, regular cognitive therapy and ….no bloody job. I was facing some hard decisions about how I was going to make a living. The psychiatrist had advised me that teaching (my erstwhile job) was the worst possible thing I could do – because of the particular pressures experienced by all the people in a school. A person with MD (Bipolar Disorder) is under constant emotional stress (because of the lack of an internal ‘governor’) and therefore finds it difficult to maintain psychological stability.

I had to accept teaching was off the menu.

“But I can’t do anything else!” I wailed to Clare, my wife, to which she responded:

“Don’t be so stupid, Henk! You can do anything you want with your brain you wally.”

 

Impressed by my wife’s pithy rebuke and the  insightfulness of the consultant I asked what job I might be suited to other than academia or teaching.

The careers consultant said “What do you really like?”

I rambled on about challenges, problem solving, team working, communicating and so on and so forth…

She said “This is not a job interview, what do you really like to do?” A tough question because I did not like anything about myself.

So I thought about it long and hard and said:

“I like being outside and I like making things with my hands”

“Well why don’t you think about environmental conservation? You’ll never make much money, but you will get a lot of job satisfaction. With your background knowledge of Natural History, your experience as a teacher and your woodworking skills you should fit right in”

So I did some research and found out that the only way to get into conservation work is by volunteering.

The way you pay your dues in Conservation is by giving your own time for no pay to learn the trade – it sorts out the committed from the merely curious. Since the majority of conservation jobs involve working with and managing enthusiastic volunteers you have to have been one to earn any credibility in this trade.

This made perfect sense to me, and after a little bit of searching I discovered a voluntary position with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (now TCV – The Conservation Volunteers) in Wirksworth, Derbyshire as a Biodiversity Officer.

I flogged my motorbike – a beautiful Honda VFR –

Honda VFR800 98  2

to learn about billhooks, biodiversity action plans, tool talks, brewing tea with a storm kettle, endless hacking away at rhododendron bushes, how to drive a mini bus, tow a trailer… and in return was able to contribute my carpentry skills to making and hanging gates, wooden bridges, styles, steps and all manner of access barriers – all in the glorious Derbyshire Peak District with a lovely team of young volunteers – project officers and TCV staff. Outdoors, working with my hands.

Fresh air and friendship. The best head juice I know.

Very slowly it began to dawn on me that I could be happy perhaps for the first time in decades.

The door that was opened in my mind by this Zen-like slap to my forehead has led ultimately to me returning to my boyhood passion, via a joyful 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Believe what everyone says, it is the best paid job in the world.

It is remarkable to me that, through great good fortune I now find myself hosting an enthusiastic young carpenter/artist who is paying her dues to the traditions and practises of a road less travelled.

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Esme McCall, December 2017

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”   Robert Frost

 

 

 

Wild

21 Jan

I believe that we, as humans need to learn to #re-wild. I have been struck, of late, by just how many of the intelligent, sensitive, humans I know have been labelled with mental health ‘disorders’.

I too have the label Bi-polar disorder. The shrink who diagnosed me agreed that manicdepression was a more accurate and less wanky label for my sort of constitution.

My wife, Clare, says “I don’t know anyone with a more ordered mind than you Henk.”

It is true, I operate a harsh mental discipline to maintain the core of my psychological well being. I walk away from dull conversations, I avoid ‘death eaters’ (my wife’s brilliant soubriquet for energy vampires), I keep moving and making. I take the sodding Lithium. I listen, listen, listen.

My half sister Anna wrecked her poor body with an eatingdisorder, and died too young at 35. A brilliant mind wasted in a domesticated world, controlled by death eating administrators and control freaks.

She and I face(d) the same problem daily. The world has become BORING, because humans have covered it in ‘controlled environments’ and I don’t mean central heating I mean conceptually corporate stupidity fuelled by greed.

Vaulting male arrogance born of cowardice.

How does one push back?

With wildness of course.

I am in the process of making a desk in ash and oak for a very thoughtful client who understands the subtleties of syntax better than most. His artistic partner is inspired, like me, by tactile and visual resonances, and suggested that the piece looks for all the world like the badge of the crew of the Starship Enterprise!

My daughter and grandson approve it seems.

His observation made me think that my style could be described as “Future Rustic”.

These chairs enticed their owners, Jill and Jim to allow themselves to be pictured enthroned on their 30th wedding anniversary.

Perhaps I am a barbarian carpenter working in a modern city, for a wilder future.

For a future in which a boy can hop on a push bike with only a change of underwear, some loose change and cycle from Huddersfield to Rhonda to see where the partisans resisted Franco.

DS Littlewood circa 1948 (Dad)

To a future where The Call of the Wild, by Jack London (my father’s favourite novel) is read more wildly.

“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club” Jack London.

A future where my grandson does not end up labelled with a ‘disorder’ because we have ironed out all the wrinkles of uncertainty in a world that does not need us anymore.

Let us ‘boldly go where no-one has gone before’.

Back to the Future.

Mimir

16 Jan

Frank L Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, introduced some beautiful sayings into children’s literature. For example;

“No thief, however skilful, can rob one of Knowledge, and that is why Knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire”

But how do we get Knowledge? I used to think it could be taught, until I experienced Life and realised that some sacrifices are required.

Odin knew this well. He journeyed deep below the roots of the giant Ash Tree, Yggdrasil to a sacred stream guarded by a mysterious and deeply wise creature called Mimir.

Mimir was the keeper of ‘tradition’ – I suspect he was actually the guardian of Archetypes – Literally ‘ancient concepts’ …. or ‘inheritance’ if you will.

Odin made a huge sacrifice in order to drink from Mimir’s well and gain wisdom. He plucked out his own eye for a draught. To become a ‘seer’.

Recently, I have been designing a desk for a valued client who is a Scholar, a wise man and I felt it would useful to understand his sacrifices a little.

I discovered that he adores his cats (he would not mind me saying that he is their servant). The gentleman also loves to rub his feet on a special massage stool below his office desk whilst working. This gave me an idea. Why not build the foot massager into the trestle of the desk?

I chose an old burr from the side of an oak tree I thought it would make a tactile and aesthetic foot board for the scholar.

Here is the work in progress:

The bottom foot board reminded me of the wounded empty eye socket of Odin.

Hopefully, my esteemed client will be able to rub his feet on the ‘eye socket’ whist he is researching his field and plying his wisdom up above.

So, what do I know of sacrifice?

In 1983 I was writing up my PhD thesis on a typewriter at a tiny wooden table in a flat in Moss Side, whilst trying to look after my baby daughter Polly. Her mum was forced to go back to work to pay the bills. It did not work, I could not concentrate, so Polly’s Nan offered to look after her for half the week in Doncaster.

The loss of Polly for three days from our lives was very terrible. Yet Polly thrived in the company of her Nan. So it was the best thing for her.

So why did I make this sacrifice – did I gain knowledge?

I had studied the ’empty socket’ that is the coxal organ of centipedes for my PhD.

A beautiful structure. With a described function based entirely on appearance (external and internal). In other words totally wrong.

I did some experiments, and made a new testable hypothesis:

In so doing I sacrificed precious time with my baby daughter.

Was it worth it? Not at all. The PhD has never earned its keep. It was just a ticket to misery.

Now, I would not trade a picosecond if my allotted time with Polly, her son, Joseph , or his Nain Clare.

For they are Mimir, the keepers of the sacred wellspring of Life.

Epiphany

8 Jan

The day after my father died I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I walked to my workshop via the canal basin at Victoria Quays, Sheffield by way of a pair of bored ducks.

When I got in I set to making a some shelves for my nephew Luke. His dad had sent me a computer generated diagram of what he wanted.

That was my opening gambit.

Holly Chessmen 2016

I started by cross cutting some 18mm birch ply for the shelves using the table saw and the fence to set the width of the cut. Something I have done countless times.

But, this time I did not replace the guard on the saw blade. As I switched the induction motor on a large section of ply got trapped between the spinning blade and the fence – and shot out like a missile into my crotch.

As I was rolling about in the sawdust clutching the Crown Jewels and crying – I suddenly heard my dad’s voice:

“Look after your tools son and your tools will look after you.”

You could call this an epiphany.

Less of ‘the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (Matthew 2:1–12)’ as my Mam would put it, more the sudden and great revelation according to Dad.

A Zen moment if you will.

When both parents are dead the child is on their own – spouse, partner, your friends – the people picked by you, may be there for you. If they are true they will even love you warts and all.

However, all of these fine folk are free agents and can, potentially, leave you all alone.

Parents are an entirely different box of frogs. Their influence can never leave you. They gave you life, and for this alone you will always owe them a debt. Without them you are not even a twinkle in an eye.

I loved mine equally. I respect their gifts.

Mam showed me how to fight, Dad taught me tactics and strategy. Mam taught me the difference between looking and seeing, Dad gave me poetry and laughter.

My parents never expected me to pay up on the debt I owed them, but, it occurred to me that I might repay them in some way.

Perhaps with a touch of faith?

Like letting a keen young carpenter work in your studio.

“There’s no F&@£ing straight line anywhere!” Esme McCall

Muninn – spalted ash

Quite.

Educare (to train) – The Mother. Educere (to enlighten) – The Father.

Chiaroscuro Home Parenting.

For Alan and Polly Howden, who know how to get right in to the playpen with their boy Joseph. Caravaggio would approve.

R

5 Jan

There are times when everything seems to turn to ashes. All one’s best efforts, all ones hopes, and, foolishly one’s expectations are dashed to smithereens. And yet….. and yet, there is always a calm core to every Force 10 Hurricane.

Late this afternoon in the gloaming of a Wintery Sheffield Woodland, I revisited my old stamping ground – the place where I was awarded a post as a Countryside Ranger in 2003.

I was looking for a particular pair of trees, introduced to me by an ex colleague of Sheffield City Council Ranger Service, way back in 2004.

My Ranger colleague, John and our gaffer, Mark had been in post nearly 30 years man and boy when I joined the South Ranger Team, fresh from 2 years entertaining naughty boys and girls as a Green Watch Project Ranger.

I was as keen as mustard.

Mark my gaffer, used to say “For Christ’s sake sit down lad and have a cup of tea, you’re doing my scone in!”. I would be in the Base at Greenhill Park at least half an hour before them, busying myself fettling tools for the days work, checking the diary and sorting through emails. Busy, busy, busy.

If I was worried about setting up for a school booking, John would say “Be reyt’ ” and roll another cigarette.

I confess I could not understand the South Team attitude. It always felt as if we were ‘arsing about’ to coin a Yorkshire phrase.

Now, with my father’s passing, I understand the importance of ‘R’-sing  around.

R obscured

 

The trees I was looking for are a tall straight larch and a beautiful sweet chestnut. They have grown together for years, embracing as lovers do. They have some to rest against each other.

If you walk a bit further along the path, this is revealed:

R revealed

‘R’ for ‘R-sing’ around.

‘R’ for Ranger.

My father would have said:

“Steady on Son” – he was Rangering.

For Simon Littlewood, my brother in aRms.

Si and Henk Carpenters

Memoriam

4 Jan

IMG_6709.JPGDavid Stuart Littlewood, 21.03.1930 – 25.12.2017 surrounded by his apprentices.

From the left, yours truly, Dad, Nathan, Simon and Tim. Abi, our sister, sadly passed away in 2008 so the picture above is incomplete.

A couple of weeks before Dad’s passing we were all able to get together in Devon to celebrate each other’s connection through David Stuart Littlewood. He made a big effort, coming down from his bed to sit amongst the grandchildren and share our good humour, providing the strong glue that binds us. He was a bit somber at the start.

The remarkable turnaround in my Dad’s mood was largely down to our youngest brother’s insatiable appetite for life. His enthusiasm for pickles, meat pies, a full English Breakfast, long striding walks over the Devon Moors and an encyclopaedic knowledge of beer, old architecture and woodwork was just the ticket. Simon always brings his ‘A’ game to a family gathering.

As you know I believe in Alchemy.

A week before Christmas I was feeling low, and, yet out of the Blue, a young artist/maker contacted me for help. She wrote a mature and erudite email introducing herself and expressing a need to develope her woodwork hand skills. We agreed to meet in my studio in Sheffield.

After some initial hedging around by me, I agreed to let her spend a little time in my workshop, so that I could gauge her quality.

I found the timing of her arrival both fortuitous and perplexing, so I asked my father (as I always do) for advice.

I quietly approached him and asked him if he needed ‘owt.

“Aye, lad, cup of tea”

I brought him a cup of tea – strong one sugar, and as he was sipping it I said:

“Dad, I’m thinking of taking someone on, do you have any advice?”

“Is it a lad?”

“No, its a lass”

“Oh, well, get her to make something and if she’s shite, bin her off”

These were the last words he spoke to me before he died.

I was his first apprentice. He never binned me off. Ever.

There is now a young carpenter honing her craft in my studio, bringing her art and skill to enhance our ‘A’ Game.

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The fish carving was the first piece of ‘wood art’ I made for my gaffer, Mr Poulson, at 11 years of age.

‘A’ is for Alchemy.

Paulo Coelho The Alchemist.

Lego

27 Dec

David and Henk 1960

‘Lego’ is an abbreviation of the words leg godt, which is Danish for ‘play well’. The first brick was released in 1958, the year of my birth by the very clever Ole Kirk Kristiansen and it was developed in his wood workshop.

Ole was, like me, a carpenter and the toy was a development from traditional stackable wooden blocks taking advantage of the new plastics developed then. Lego makes sense to me because it is based upon bricks, like the building bricks of life, of chemistry, of physics, of poetry, of great literature – it has profound symmetry.

Henk with Lego bag

When I was a boy I never went anywhere without my bag of Lego. Most of it, my father bought for me, a carpenter himself. He knew about the importance of archetypes in architecture, and he knew about the importance of ‘playing well’ with building blocks. He was my geometer.

I was born in Nigeria and raised in various countries along West Africa’s Gold Coast. When, in 1964, we eventually returned for good or Ill, to live in England, I was 6 years old, and had barely survived several bouts of cerebral malaria. My Dad had bought a little semi-detached house in Matlock, Derbyshire at the top of Wolds Rise.

I had never seen snow.

At school I was ridiculed for having a weird name – ‘Henk’ – invariably pronounced ‘Hank’. Later, in senior school the ‘W’ substituted the ‘H’ of Hank.

I was a ‘white’ black boy (and I use the term euphemistically for the unacceptable ‘N’ word they used daily). It was the first time I had encountered xenophobia. It was endemic in early 1960’s Britain.

I never encountered such vile racism in Africa.

My mother, a Dutch born naturalised British Citizen, was treated with hostility in the town because the local people thought that ‘Them Dutchies’ were the same as ‘Them Nazis’. And, after all “We won the bloody war, you should be grateful!”.

She always had an answer fot them, but she never knew when to shut up.

Mam was descended from an old, entitled, aristocratic Dutch family. Van de Poll.

Jongkvrouw literally means ‘little princess’. In the Low Countries it denotes the lowest rank of nobility. Like the English ‘hedge knight’ – a glorified mercenary who fights for a Sovereign Lord for the spoils of war.

Plunder.

Being slightly posh but having no property is always a good way to develop an enormous sense of self entitlement. My mother radiated this and, I have to admit, it has its uses.

It is called gold plated bullshit.

My Father, on the other hand was the strong silent type. He went back to West Africa to earn his living and so the marriage did not survive.

My mother believed she could be both mother and father to me.

Bullshit.

Great! So then what happens? You go to school and you get beaten up for being a bit of a pretty mummy’s boy, you get clobbered for being ‘a puff’, basically you ‘get it’ for being different and so on and so very tedious.

My father was a grafter. A working class lad from Huddersfield who knew the cost and, most importantly, the value of Everything. I learned from a Master.

His motto:

“Life is a shit sandwich son, the more bread you have the better it tastes”.

Thus I could chose between a coat of arms or an undercoat of many colours.

He was the only man who was brave enough to help my dear wife Clare to reach in and drag me from my pit of self induced hell, by uttering these immortal words:

“Steady on Son”

His hand on my knee.

So I choose to live the life of a working man. To earn my daily bread and the rewards are fantastic.

The Chinese Characters on the screen say:

Tree

Woman

Art

and this is my escutcheon.

Thank you Father. I learn from thee.

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David Stuart Littlewood

Carpenter, Father, Comedian.

Born in the Vernal Equinox 1930, returned to our Lord, the Big Carpenter, on his Birthday 2017.

“Nice, nice, nice!”