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Alate

10 Nov

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Our daughter Polly was born on August 25th in 1982. Both her mother and she had a tough time of it, and an emergency caesarian was performed to save them. It was touch and go.

I brought Fiona, her mum and Polly home to our council flat on the eighth floor of Lingbeck Crescent, Moss Side, Manchester when they were well enough.

The only furniture we had was a mattress, a dining table and two chairs. I hadn’t a clue really. We washed the used terry towelling nappies by hand. When my dad dropped by  to see his first granddaughter he was horrified and immediately went out and bought us a washing machine.

My mother bought me an electric typewriter so I could finally write up my PhD thesis.

At the time Moss Side was a lawless place and the scene of rioting, looting, muggings and robbery – mostly controlled by gangs. I had done everything I could to turn the flat into a fortress, strengthening the external door frames with steel plate (our neighbour was a known drug dealer and drew far to many vulnerable and hostile people to his door).

One day when Polly was about 1 and I was at work helping to build a database at Manchester Museum two men tried to batter our flat door down…..

Mother and baby were at home.

Fiona lay against the front door bracing her feet against the wall, whilst holding baby Polly. They could not get in, thanks to her courage and to my reinforcements, but my little family was scared and very shaken up.

I found out where one of these individuals lived, so I went to confronted him. Huge mistake.

He was as high as a kite and, in his underpants proceeded curse me to hell and back and to throw what seemed like the entire contents of a kitchen drawer of knives at me. I dodged the missiles and as they sailed over the balcony, I beat a hasty retreat.

I vowed to get us the hell out of Moss Side as soon as possible.

I immediately started applying for all the jobs I could find which were

  • As far away from Manchester as possible
  • Suited my particular skill set (zoological research/experimental physiology/electron microscopy).

Within a month I had secured a post in Queen Mary College,  London. It came with subsidised accommodation in a beautiful run down Georgian Mansion in a pretty Essex Village called Coxtie Green. Dytchleys was an outpost of the University of London (botanical research, playing fields, ponds, Kingfisher by the pond etc.).

My family went from the ridiculous to the sublime as I shed my dreams of independent research to become a lab rat.

At Queen Mary College, University of London I was given the task of investigating termite guts by my new postdoctoral supervisor.

Here’s one of my drawings of the guts of a termite.

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The thin wriggly tubes on the left are Malpighian tubules, the big sack in the middle is the paunch or hind gut where fermentation takes place. This was my new domain – termite guts.

In the experimental set up I developed (below) I am literally taking the piss…..A single Malpighian tubule sits in a bath of paraffin oil under the microscope (left), kept at optimum temperature by a water jacket. The end of the tubule is in a saline solution I developed to mimic termite blood, the other end is pumping out tiny droplets of urine. The rate and quality of urine can be determined, the content chemically analysed so that what flows into the paunch (fermentation chamber) can be determined.

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I had to make most of the tools needed to perform these operations from heated glass rod, old fashioned blue razor blades and modified iridectomy scissors:

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My postdoctoral supervisor argued that a termite gut is just a simple fermentation chamber and as such depends upon fluid and nutrient input to produce a useful bi-product – volatile fatty acids in the case of termites.

He had secured the grant in order to investigate new ways to disrupt digestion in pest species of termites and, thereby control them.

After a few months of researching the problem in the lab I discussed the idea with my grandmother on a visit to The Hague and my Oma said:

“Bit of a stupid idea, Henk. When we were kids we used to kill termites by simply crushing them between forefinger and thumb.” (She lived for some years in the tropics).

After 2 years of staring at termite guts I admitted defeat. In that time I had worked out how termites Malpighian tubules work, and how this might link to the symbiotic microbiota living in the paunch.

We were no closer to a magic bullet for crop pest species.

There are plenty of conventional ways of killing insects pests – insecticides – which work best on plant surfaces above ground or as aerosols. Because termites spend most of their life under ground, they are very difficult to attack (unless you are an anteater or an ape with a tool, or an Oma).

A chap I visited in Berne, Switzerland, who supplied me with termites had grown an entire colony of Macrotermes in a big bin in his lab.

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He could ‘call out’ different castes of the colony by placing glass tunnels deep into the mound and putting forage at the end, in this way figuring out what was going on in the hidden labyrinth below. Genius.

I presented my findings to the funding body and my boss, and resigned my post. I could not in all conscience carry on with such an esoteric and ultimately pointless piece of work on such beautiful creatures.

Termites are too beautiful to subject them to the experimental physiology for a whim. Here are some benign little Zootermopsis minding their own business and eating rotten wood.

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I designed this set of shelves in olive ash inspired by the wings of the termite alates I once studied.

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The design incorporates 6 aerofoils frozen at the moment of shedding, fluttering to the ground.

Here are some termite alates.

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I like to think that shedding one’s wings can lead to unexpected, subterranean CV.

Research Scientist to Teacher to Cemetery Conservation Officer to Parks and Countryside Ranger to self employed Carpenter

Or as my friend Peter Craggs once said: “You’re the only person I know with a career in reverse”

Cheeky!

 

Groove

11 Oct

Years ago after the break up of my first marriage I found myself sharing a room with a Rastafarian poet called Henry. We had both signed up for a course on the sonnet form at the Arvon Foundation.

Henry made a simple observation of my behaviour which stays with me to this day.

He said “Henk man, you got to slow down. You are in a deep groove and you are wearing it deeper. There are many other grooves out there. But you got to slow right down to see them, then you can slip into a new groove”.

This is how I found a new groove.

Not long after meeting Henry, I became so mentally ill that I had no choice but to slow down; pharmaceutically, socially and medically I was becalmed.

I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act after a psychotic episode and six weeks on a locked Psych’ ward I was, I believed, royally screwed as the haloperidol wore off and I began to survey the wreckage I had caused.

My first tentative foray into the world of work began six months later at BTCV now TCV the voluntary conservation organisation building dry stone walls, stiles and steps, laying hedges, planting trees and learning to brew tea in a storm kettle.

Being outside was groovy.

A bit later, and building on the confidence I had gained as a conservation volunteer I gained a paying job with the Friends of the General Cemetery of Sheffield. I was tasked with looking after their volunteers, managing the landscape and helping to service a Heritage Lottery grant to restore the Gatehouse. It was as far removed from teaching or academia as it was possible to be.

It was the beginnings of a new groove.

The General Cemetery in Sheffield is an architectural gem. The Friends were a godsend – and despite my mental health issues they had faith in me. I cannot thank two amazing people enough for my new start: the artist and then Secretary of FOGC Jane Horton and the then conservation manager Helen Carter.

The Nonconformist Chapel is heavily influenced by Greek Classicism with a dose of Victorian Egyptianate je ne sais quois added – hence the sloping door frame. My own Classical reference sits at the front – a throne in the Renaissance Savonarola-style also known as a Dante chair.

The throne was made for my most important muse – my wife, Clare.

I made it from timber gleaned from all over Sheffield:

Ash for the back

Elm for the arms

Alder for the seat

Cherry for the interlaced legs

Iroko from an old Attercliffe beam for the feet and

Sycamore for the bosses

All recycled, nothing wasted, gained as a countryside Ranger, my second proper job after the ‘Cemetery.

This was the first serious piece of furniture I made in 2004 after stepping out of my old groove.

This sonnet, written way back in 1998 – is partly for Henry, and partly for Clare, but, in reality it contains the seeds of a new groove for everyone.

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 –

The very blueprint to her living soul,

– 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

Respect

15 Sep

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I had an interesting conversation with a fellow guest at a friend’s 50th birthday party/20th anniversary celebration this weekend. We were making polite small talk when I noticed a rather spare, yet beautiful silver ring on her finger. As she talked about it she revealed that this was one of the few jewels she had left following a recent burglary. She threw her chin up jauntily and remarked “It is funny what one values, it was only stuff after all”. I liked the cut of her jib.

I responded by saying that the most valuable things I possessed were the memories of surprising things people had said to me.

To explain, I relayed a memory of my first teaching practise  in a school in a rather deprived area of Gateshead in 1990.

I had been tasked with teaching ‘the skeleton’ to a class of 12 year olds. A keen student, I brought my first wife’s real human skeleton to school to show my class, allowing them to assemble it respectfully from it’s box on a laboratory bench. The school technician had also brought out a 1/5th scale mounted model of a human skeleton for us to compare. I and the pupils loved the experience, they were attentive, respectful and full of curiosity.

A few weeks later, just before I was due to leave, a lad from this class came up to me at the beginning of the lesson and said:

“Sir, can we see the Ethiopian again?”

I was a bit nonplussed, but soon realised that he meant, the 5th size model skeleton.

Undernourished.

The boy himself was underweight, and under sized for his age as many of his class mates were. His mum could not afford a uniform shirt AND a pullover, so she had sewn a shirt collar into a pullover. To my mind, the thinking of this boy showed true compassion, and deep thinking. It wasn’t long since the disastrous famine of Ethiopia 1983 – 1985 with shocking scenes of human suffering filling our television screens.

I still remember his Geordie lilt, his serious face, and the blinding realisation that teaching was a two way educational transaction. He had changed me from a student of teaching to a student of education.

Soon afterwards, in my first teaching job in the Tyne Valley, I was gifted another treasure.

There was a boy in a particular class, who, at 15, was a complete pain in the arse. My established colleagues told me he was unteachable. This coupled with the fact that he was in my class with his non-identical twin sister – a bottom science set – meant that they were able to torpedo all of my lessons. He was disruptive to the point of anarchy and, in the end, in desperation I asked him to stay behind at the end of the lesson. I decided to sanction him with a homework essay entitled “The Symmetry of Nature”.

He looked at me askance, picked up the paper and next morning returned this pearl:

‘The Symmetry of Nature is where pets go when they are dead’

Straight faced, I congratulated him on a fine essay and said no more. When he had left me alone in my lab I burst out laughing. From then on we got along fine, and the class became cooperative.

His poetic gift to me – not to take myself, or my role to seriously, and just because I was standing at the front of the class did not make me the top dog.

Courage, insight and humour. Priceless treasures all, are not innate, they are gifts bestowed by those who have experience, but only to those who show respect to their teachers.

The picture shows me aged 4 at my first school in Takoradi, Ghana 1962 (I am second from left, back row). My first teacher (centre front) told me I should be an artist. Respect.

Mu

16 May

In honour of  Mental Health Awareness Week I give you a scoop. Carved from a branch of Rowan over about 2 hours, it represents pretty much everything I do to stay mentally healthy.

Work with the grain, keep going, pare away everything that isn’t helping, use a tool  correctly, repeat.

If I get it the process right, I end up with a nice tea caddy scoop (I only use leaf tea, and drink a lot of tea) and everyone is happy. If I get it wrong I end up with a pile of shavings and a rough stick to beat myself with.

Everyone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness will recognise some of these elements.

Work with the grain:

A measure of mental health is the ease with which we ‘fit’ in socially. Taking meds, applying behavioural strategies, listening carefully to other people are like working away with a tool on a piece of wood – keeping sympathetic to the direction of the grain and the nature of the wood. My natural instinct has always been to go against the grain.

Keep Going:

Mood disorders like Bipolar Disorder are inherently destabilising. For no reason at all I can become depressed and lose function and motivation. It happened today, so instead of working on a big (valuable) commission I made a small piece for a client wanting a towel hanger for her bathroom. I just kept going, trusting that eventually my dark mood would lift.

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Pare away everything that isn’t helping:

In order to make the piece above, I had to turn a large disc of walnut, turn it further to make an annulus, then carve the annulus into a ‘shamrock’ aperture to hold the towels. This process involves removing material in different ways to leave the desired shape. Paring.

I do this with my behaviour. I am not the same person I was before I was diagnosed with manic depression. I edit myself – though constantly tempted to perform, be funny (puns), be clever, witty, inventive, or judgemental. I pare these impulses back, where I can, by avoiding meetings, audiences, attention seekers, the terminally needy, focussing on facilitating, rather than being facile.

Use a tool correctly

My sharpest tool is my intellect. But just because you have the capacity and can perform to a high level does not mean you should do it. I park my intellect where I can do most good. Take it out when it is needed, confident that it will work to solve an appropriate problem, and help me and others when needed and not before.

Repeat

When you are feeling well, it is easy to become complacent.

Just as the diabetic must monitor her or his blood sugar levels constantly, I need to monitor my emotional state and act to stabilise it all the time. Woodwork is all bout cyclical repetitive strokes of a tool, not taking too much off, because you can’t put it back. So I keep taking the tablets, keep listening, keep walking away when something makes me feel uncomfortable, and keep being honest.

Mu means ‘without’, or ‘not have’ and it is the condition ‘before creation’ implied in Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. It is central to Zen Buddhist philosophy.

It is a condition I try to move towards – the best way to describe the feeling I get when I am in the midst of making. Not have, not there, no thing.

I introduced a visitor to my studio to spoon making at the weekend. Sung Jin is an architecture student who has been visiting my studio as part of his learning journey. I asked him about the concept of ‘mu’ in Korean culture, where it is represented as 무.

“Same idea” he said “‘mu’ means not have”

He then went to the trouble of breaking down the ideogram for mu for me using the Japanese symbol 無 

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I was rather amazed by his pictographic analysis.

You can’t get more ‘not have’ than a crematorium.

You cannot be emotionally more ‘not have’ than when you are profoundly, suicidally, depressed and intent on ending up in the crematorium.

For me, woodwork is a meditation, a state where the ego disappears.

It is ‘not have’……yet.

Delayed gratification, keeping going until the end, not seeking the end.

The mind is so powerful, it needs to be taught to be still. There are many ways to achieve this, iterative movement and listening/feeling are the ways that work for me.

‘Mu’ yields stillness of the mind.

It is the emptiness of the scoop which gives it utility.

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Path

28 Apr
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In 2010, the Artist, Andy Goldsworthy made this lovely meandering path called ‘Wood Line’ from the huge stems of invasive Eucalyptus trees in the Golden Gate National Park in San Francisco. The path is over a quarter of a mile long and my Dad and I wandered down it together in 2013.
It makes me think about the paths we take as we meander through our lives.
This famous poem by Robert Frost encapsulates the dilemma we all face when we are forced to chose between one direction or another at significant moments of our lives.
The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[1]

 

At this time of year young people all over the land are studying hard for their school and University exams: GCSE, A’Level, Degrees are the prize they seek. The better the grade/degree the greater the choice of direction. Many of them studying for high academic qualifications will have a good idea of the career path they want to take. Engineering (not enough sadly), Science (again not enough), Medicine and Law (too many), Nursing, Teaching and so on – vocational careers. Very few will decide to follow the path of an Artist. In my school, this was considered ‘failure’ with a capital ‘F’. Art was my best subject, followed by Biology.

At 16 I hadn’t a clue what path to take until I met a Zoologist in 1974 at Lee Green Field Centre in Derbyshire. Teenagers from schools all over the county were given the opportunity to spend a week in the Field studying Ecology with an expert. I was completely entranced by transects, mark and recapture methods, butterfly nets and earthworm population numbers and the mind blowing diversity of planktonic life in a pond as seen under a microscope.

As Baloo the Bear declared to Mowgli in Disney’s The Jungle Book, when he heard the Primo Levi track ‘I’m the King of the Swingers’, I was gone man, solid gone…!

I spent the rest of my sixth form focussed on getting sufficient grades to get in to University to study Zoology. At a parent’s evening my Head Master asked me “What use is  Zoology Littlewood?” my mother, quick as a flash said “So he can develop a new strain of deadly mosquitos and called them Aedes littlewoodi” – with her on your side everyone else was Royally screwed. She was like Boudicca on acid.

Path chosen for about about 15 years. I made a good living studying centipede behaviour, termite piss (I kid you not) and then a long time trying to figure our how locusts brains work whilst supporting my little family in Newcastle upon Tyne. A graduate parent and visitor to my lab once asked me “Why do you do that?” ‘Because I can’, was my answer.

History repeatedly tells us that this is a bad reason.

Research Zoology satisfied a number of cravings – a vast variety of living forms to discover, an esoteric discipline, fresh air and knowledge for an insatiable appetite. It also encouraged my ability to draw, describe and write. Comparative morphology and anatomy were a delight for me. The shape of a claw, a bone, the feeding appendage of a Bryozoan – you name it, I was allowed to stare at it, examine it, draw it and marvel at it how it came to be.

Unfortunately it was not easy to find a permanent job. I quit in 1989 and trained to teach science so I could continue to support daughter and first wife.

New path. Bloody good holidays wherein I could watch my daughter grow up, entertainment dreaming up ways to make basic science concepts understandable for young people and a reasonable income. Downside? Yes – huge stress, mostly emotional.

The path came to a dead end in 2001 after a mental breakdown.

By Great Good Fortune I met someone who shone a light and led me slowly back to the Little Wood. It was a very long a scary journey, but she was by my side the whole way. She took me for long walks and made me read Harry Potter. I began to take myself and less seriously. I learned to listen and she taught me how to love myself. How to find the path back to myself.

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I have had the odd wobble on this path, but, by and large I have rediscovered who I am:

A very curious boy, who like to draw and make and write, preferably alone, who loves to be entertained by funny, lively people. A good example would be my niece, Hazel Littlewood, who lives near not far from Goldsworthy’s sculpture and is busy finding her own path.

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Hazel

Just think, I would not have been around to meet her, had I not been led from the dark path.

These days I have re-adopted my youthful dog-like strategy of checking out every path, before committing to the long route, this way I can locate chose the ‘road least taken’.

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Here is one I followed today – it made all the difference.

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The path of Earthly Delights, where fresh badger diggings, bluebells and (un) coppiced Hazel can be found by and in the Littlewood.

May you find your path, and, more importantly the means of finding it.

 

For Geoff Smith, Art Teacher, Ernest Bailey Grammar School, Matlock (1970’s). Who taught me that only I was the judge of the true quality of my work. A great teacher.

Faith

21 Apr

I’m sure everyone has been asked the question “Do you have Faith”.  Perhaps we ask it of ourselves at difficult times? Until recently, I have taken the question to mean ‘do I believe in a God?’

Children are so full of wonder, for them belief is easy. Belief allows us to trust in the existence of treasure just around the next corner. Faith takes our hand and leads us to it.

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Joseph, my grandson was so excited at the London Museum of Transport the other day he kept squatting down, pursing his lips and declaring;

“Oooh…BUS! Opa…….BUS!”

Big vintage red London Routemaster buses could be this small boy’s version of a Deity.

My own response to anyone asking the question “do you have Faith?” usually elicits this response:

“Do you believe in Santa, The Tooth Fairy or Ghosts?”

If they answer ‘no’ – then I respond by saying that I do not believe that there is an old geezer in the sky who knows all our sins, transgressions and wickedness and if we would just but BELIEVE in him – we could ask for forgiveness, and be absolved of all of the above.

If they answer “Yes” then I can politely say “Good for you!” and drink my tea in peace.

Perhaps because I have been a professional scientist, and I was trained to ask searching questions in order to establish fact and truth, I would say I am skeptical about organised religion. Probably more so than most because manic depression (BiPolar Type 1) can lead one to become highly suggestible in the hypomanic state.

Old Testament God, really does not excite me as a concept because the contents of The Good Book can be neither proven nor disproven – the wisdom contained therein requires an act of blind faith and total acceptance in the mind of a believer.

Belief in a received truth, rather than  explicit scientific, philosophical or mathematical proof is not truth.

However, I do respect an individual’s right to believe whatever they wish. Religion per se can be a very powerful positive force for many.

Faith itself, however, is a completely different kettle of fish.

Without the faith of my beloved I would not have recovered from a serious breakdown, without the faith of a child I would not have become a father, without the faith of family and true friends I wouldn’t have rediscovered my true self. Artist, woodworker.

In my humble opinion Faith is what the people who love you, give to you.

It is their faith in your humanity and the possibility that you will stop being a monumental fool and start behaving like a socialised individual that redeems us. Their faith gives one the inspiration needed to live fully.

Your parents ought to be the first people to give you Faith. My Dad, seen here with his granddaughter and great grandson (Joseph again) had tremendous faith in me.

I miss him terribly, but I can repay his memory by having faith in my loved ones.

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Faith is what we all need.

Given freely it is the quintessence of love’s light.

If you are in receipt, acknowledge it, be thankfull and believe you are worthy.

Please do not throw it away.

 

HL

 

 

 

 

Waterfall

11 Apr

 

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Dad and Mam 1960

Memory is fickle. It is bad enough that we cannot always be sure of our senses (spending time in a psychiatric hospital will profoundly shake one’s faith in reality) and the store of impressions, knowledge and experiences we call memory can be most troubling.

My wife and I cared for and supported my Mam in the last years of her life as her memory gradually unravelled due to vascular dementia. Her condition was compounded by macular degeneration and a bone headed refusal to adapt. When she finally agreed to be cared for professionally, Clare and I uncovered archeological layers of unread sticky labels and notes in her house amidst mountains of hoarded stuff, written to remind Mam of where the other note was to indicate the location of the marmite (12 pots), disinfectant (20 bottles filled with water??) you get the idea. She even hid money in black socks – throughout her wardrobe.

“Look Henk! A Dobby sock!” Clare, my lady of the wicked mirth, referring to the JK Rowling elf character in the Harry Potter books.

Living on her own. Mam must have been slowly becoming more and more lost in her own maze of the Minotaur, walking through a thickening fog without any string.

At the end what was left of her memory were the deepest associations and very revealing. During her last 18 months in care she constantly called me ‘David’ my dad, her ex husband’s name. During this time I realised just how much she adored him despite belittling, criticising and disrespecting his name in all the years prior and since their divorce in 1966. I did not correct her.

This is Grace and I am humbled by it’s Memory.

When my Dad was alive, he and I used to love going on road trips. We would invent a spurious reason, jump in the car with a hold-all each and head for the hills. He used to say “Got some loose change in your pocket? A pair of clean underpants and a vest? Right-ho, we’re good to go!”

Take Dad anywhere and there would always be a tale, a funny association with his own memories and experiences and a riotous adventure.

Take, for example, the time we went to Ireland in his old Ford Sierra, travelling to Waterford to trace his mother, Annie Wilde’s roots, all the way up to Dublin. We found no trace, but a great deal of mirth – in a bar in Dublin we were drinking beer and eating a big meat pie each when onto a crude stage wafted a vision in electric blue taffeta. An aged chanteuse plugged the hammond organ in, switch it on and proceeded to sing.

“It’s Margarita Pracatan!” my dad declared.

The eponymous singer was regular guest on Clive James’ chat show during the 90’s.

I nearly choked on my pie.

Landscape, architecture and movement have always flowed like a waterfall for father and son.

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A rush of pure association, comedy and utter delight.

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This piece is called ‘Waterfall’ and was commissioned by a couple who have that rare gift – they have kept their curiosity alive through mutual love and affection all the way to retirement.

They had discovered this timber – English Yew – in a small local woodyard near Hillsborough in Sheffield (Albion Timber), the mill owner, David Smythe had put them on to me as a someone who might be able to make them something useful from them.

It was the wildness of the waney, or live edges that excited them. They couldn’t know what lay under the rough sawn, blood red surface of the six boards.

Now, the problem with having an ‘unquiet mind’ (manic depression) is that there is never any shortage of ideas. Almost anything can set my brain haring off like a collie after a rabbit.

So I was grateful that my clients were quite specific in their requirements – a set of shelves with a small cabinet.

It was an artist friend, who said “It’s a waterfall” as I was completing it in my studio. Aye, lad.

During a family reunion, on Christmas Day in Devon with my dad and I were paired up for a word association quiz

Dad: “A Lake, ‘like you are not son’.”

“Placid”, I said.

We were unbeaten. My memory was sound.

The ravens had returned, to Odin.

 

 

For the giver of the Dobby Sock.

HL