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Plum

16 Jul

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Seen through the eyes of a child kites are wishes on a string. This picture made me think about how insignificant I have seemed. I will be 60 soon and it is time to take stock.

“We are nothing but a fart in eternity” my mother used to say.

Just this weekend my neice, Wren (above) and nephew, Cole played host, supported by their parents Anna and Nathan Littlewood and Nanna, Mollie Littlewood. They had arranged a family get together in their new home near Bristol.

As a result, I enjoyed one of my best extra birthday parties ever.

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We enjoyed a tasty barbecue made by The Dad (Nathan), lovely food and drink provided by The Mum (Anna), followed by pass the parcel and dancing statues, kite flying, colouring in and driving Cole and Wren around in Bertha (the Hilux) plus lots of easy chats, swapping news, sharing views.

Here Aunty Clare is baking cakes with Wren and Cole.

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It got me thinking about my father, David Stuart Littlewood, the founding father of our little clan, his singular achievements and his legacy.

A couple of years ago I asked him what he wanted for his birthday and he said,

“To wake up son”. Sadly he will not be waking up any more.

Both my parents have passed away now and it reminds me of what my wife said when both her parents passed in the same year:

“I’m an orphan now!”. I laughed, insensitively, and said “Don’t be ridiculous!”

I’m not laughing now. Sorry, Clare.

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In 2000 after suffering years of crippling, cyclical depression I almost succeeded in throwing in the towel, predeceasing my parents.

Six months later, after regular visits to a psychiatrist and copious intake of Lophepramine (a powerful tricyclic antidepressant) I was alive, though I could barely function.

My father said “I’d like you to paint me a picture, for Christmas son”.

The picture above is the result. Nathan returned it to me yesterday. I called it ‘Bonsai replanted’ and copied a Haiku by Basho on the reverse:

Even a Black Bull

Will sing a song of Spring

Under this flowering Plum Tree

In my picture the moon is waning, and one can’t be sure whether the tree is alive or not. One of the hills looks like a tidal wave is rolling in. The only redeeming feature is that Orion is prominently represented in white chalk dots (I always think of Dad when I see Orion, The Hunter). Dad kept it alongside a portrait of The Golden Gate Bridge by Simon, our youngest brother. I understand it had a spell in Australia with Nathan and his family.

I never realised until I grew up how much I was loved.

 

We, under Orion

Sing and dance and Love

So many flowering Plums

 

For my Family

x HL 16.07.2018

 

 

Rustic

7 Jul

Les and Ken retired carpenters both, volunteer their skills to Ruskin Land, a fabulous Oak forest belonging to the Guild of Saint George in the Wyre Valley.

Les was a saw doctor for Spear & Jackson in Sheffield. Time-served skills. I was really pleased when the dropped by to help me erect my sculpture ‘Mind’ in a quiet glade underneath the forest canopy. The young lads joining in are architects attending an exciting weekend of creative thought and action at Studio in the Woods.

Back in 2016 artist Mir Jansen said “Would it be possible to make a sculpture from a single tree?” And John Isles, of The Guild said “Why don’t you chose a tree from where we are thinning out the stand Henk?”

This is the piece as I originally envisioned it, in its own landscape not far from the tree from whence the materials came. Les and his team put it all together whilst I stepped back and enjoyed the chat.

It was quite an emotional experience for me, the realisation of a dream. In which I tried to reflect the spirit of John Ruskin and respond to Mir’s question:

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” John Ruskin

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After the installation I went in to Bewdley for an excellent curry at The Rajah, and camped overnight to greet the dawn in a ridiculously small tent (foreground).

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At five am, one of the architects was up measuring shadows as part of his project and asked me if he could record an interview for a book he was thinking of writing.

As we strolled down to the glade, he asked me to talk about myself and describe the sculpture and it’s design.

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After ten minutes he switched the recorder off, looked inside the structure and said;

“I hope you don’t mind me saying, but it’s a bit …..”

“Rustic?” I interjected

“Yes, its a bit rough and ready”.

I explained that many of my best ideas for furniture came from a good dialogue with a client.  My imagination and skill flourishes best within tight boundaries, because my manic depression is no respecter of too much laissez faire.

My very best clients have demonstrated great humour, foresight, desire, trust and best of all, faith in me, like Mir Jansenn.

I added that because I felled the original tree and cut, steamed and shaped all the pieces by hand leaving tool, saw and jig marks – it was easy for anyone to understand. It was human. Although the thinking behind the design was a little more esoteric.

The architect then said “What you said in the last 90 seconds was really interesting, but I didn’t record it”

I thought about Ken and Les, and my father (a master carpenter) – all men of few words.

‘Aye lad’ I said.

 

We all like a bit of rustic. My wife does a great ploughman lunch. Bluegrass banjo makes my heart sing. I love Westerns, and I yearn for the simple life.

Rough and ready is the only way to survive in the Wild.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a sophisticated wine, or a finely made hat and I love the City of Sheffield, it is just that I am not a great fan of over complication.

Here’s to the ‘R’ in Ruskin and Rustic, for we are what we R, and we are at our most creative through dialogue.

To underline the point, here is a dialogue between a couple of trees in Eccleshall woods, Sheffield.

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With thanks to John Isles, Tim Selman, Jenny Robbins, Kate Quinton of Ruskin Land and Mir Jansen, of Holland. Also to John Amos who showed me the ‘R’ for ranger.

 

Three

4 Jul

Mondrian's tryptych

I have always been a fan of Piet Mondriaan’s work. His triptych ‘Evolution’ was painted in 1910 before the Great War and was his response to the idea that a knowledge of God could come about through intuition alone (Theosophy) because we, ourselves are part of a universal creative force.

I used to visit ‘Evolution’ at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague with my Oma Hartje as a boy. Like all good grandparents she was a profound influence on my early years and  I guess she opened my eyes to the symmetry of ‘threes’, a love of the colour blue with a dash of yellow or orange and the delights of ‘people watching’.

My other Dutch grandparent, Jhr C.A. Van de Poll, taught me how to play chess, he was immensely strong and he liked driving sports cars. Three pretty important things for a boy.

I always believed he could drive a screw into timber using only his thumb nail  until I realised he concealed a small coin between forefinger and thumb. He was a bit of a joker.

Opa had a strong connection to three too, for upon his family crest there are three diamonds.

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I remember accompanying Opa, my mother and brother to a specialist jeweller where, with great ceremony he declared that she was to have her own signet ring specially made for her.

She chose a blood stone. Her father said to her: “You are the only person in my family worthy of the title ‘Knight’. You are the bravest and boldest of us all”. No small accolade from a self professed, old school Chauvinist.

My mother was indeed more of a ‘man’ than any bloke I have ever met. As hard as nails, super clever, an artist.

She forged my rational mind, encouraged me to be observant, and taught me self sufficiency. Sharp.

Yet no blade has utility without a haft. My father was the handle upon which my existence turned. He gave me my handiness, my daft sense of fun and my unquiet mind.

This month I will have been on this planet for 60 years. “Nothing but a fart in eternity” my mother would have said.

When I asked my father what he wanted for his birthday he said “To wake up son, to wake up”.

Some years ago, my wife said to me “I’m an orphan now” when both her parents passed away in the same year. One of my clients put it another way – he described the feeling of losing both parents as “like having the roof blow off one’s house”.

I am beginning to understand their point of view.

But we do we really lose our parents when they are both gone? Is there not a trinity for each of us?

In the Christian pantheon The Holy Trinity (a triptych sine qua non),  summarises the relationship between God – The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost:

Trinity summary

The parent is father to the child, who through the spirit is father again.

And long before this paternalistic hubris was formulated, the ‘three’ was symbolically potent in pagan folklore which is fundamentally female; as the Virgin, Mother and Crone, summarised in the triskelion. Parthenogenesis – virgin birth.

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The ‘orphan’ realises that when the roof blows off because there are no physical parents left, it is then that she/he becomes parent to themselves.

 

From this inheritance we understand the meaning of Spirit, and the need to show it.

Yamaguchi

 

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 –

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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

 

 

 

Nemesis

8 Dec

Way back in the 1990’s I taught at Prudhoe High School in the Tyne Valley. Part of my duties were the pastoral care of Year 10. A young man was sent to me by his form tutor who was very concerned for his safety.

He was in distress and had attempted to self harm.

I suggested we have a chat in the school Greenhouse – somewhere one could have a cup of tea or a smoke, get away from the infernal hustle and bustle of a busy High School.

He proceeded to tell me that he found school so unbearable it had driven him to the brink of suicide. I now know what he meant.

I gave him £5 and said “Why don’t you naff off home with this and don’t come back”

“Are you serious?”

Me, ‘Perfectly, I will speak to the Head and tell him it is a matter of Life and Death. I will of course have to inform your parents as this is a Child Protection Matter. But, from the point of view of your health and safety I’d say getting as far away from school as possible is a priority.’

His parents were mightily relieved when I rang, they had been expecting a crisis.

I managed to persuade a few of his teachers to tutor him to his GCES, outside normal school time, which he coped with. He got A’s and an A* in Art – his best subject as you can see from his portrait of me above.

I had given my entire collection of 2000 AD to him (I had read it from the very first issue). When he eventually left to go to college he portrayed me as the alter ego of Nemesis The Warlock. The alien, fire breathing defender of alien life on planet earth against the tyranny of the Establishment.

The irony of the graphic novel is that Nemesis is male in the magazine, battling with the his arch enemy Torquemada. In fact, according to Greek mythology Nemesis is female – the goddess of indignation against and punishment for hubris.

The irony of the portrait above is that in my role as a pastoral teacher, and young dad, I was very in touch with my feminine, protective side. I think the portrait is very perceptive. It illustrates a divine alchemical principle – that of duality.

We all have a bit of yin in us if we are biologically male, and those of us who are biologically female will have some yang. Some of us have more of the opposite polarity at times than the one we were assigned to by genetics. This does not matter as long as the polar opposites balance. This is the key to happy relations regardless of sexuality, age, creed, or skin tone.

I believe that in my first marriage, my Yin was stronger than my Yang. During my childhood I had been well trained by a very strong woman, my mother, to appease, protect and be biddable. I still have to fight this urge when confronted with a harpy.

In my second marriage I have found someone who is my absolute polar opposite, she is the Yin to my Yang. Thanks to the artist, I understand myself a little better and what i need – this is what good artists do.

yinyang duality

 

Alchemy

29 Nov

Alchemy is concerned with the transmutation of base matter into gold. The search for a Universal Elixir.

Just as barbers were the forerunners of surgeons, so Alchemists were the fathers of modern day Chemists.

You are now imaging a bearded bloke in a cloak covered with sygils, stained hands a hacking cough and a stoop yes?

There are mothers of alchemy too.

In order to refresh your inner eye I’d like you to consider Madame Socrates:

She is the creation of Mosaic Artist Diana Storey

When I saw her properly in Diana’s studio I was entranced. The sum of experiences and emotions, the responsibilities and burdens, the hurt and joy of her creator were emerging from her head and décolletage in a stunning fractal mosaic. Quantum emotions in glass, mirror and ceramic.

Now consider this bust of Socrates:

“I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only make them think.” Socrates

Jacques Louis David 1787 recorded Socrates’ demise.

The Pantheon (State) of Athens asked Socrates politely to take hemlock and commit suicide. His crime? Impiety (lack of reverence) against the senate, and failing to believe in state approved Gods.

Clearly his peers were fed up with being shown how to think.

Impiety the universal elixir and precursor to the gaining of knowledge.

True Alchemical ‘transmutation’ is, I believe, the preserve of The Divine Feminine:

I was particularly struck by a snarling dog emerging from the back of Madame Socrates head. Diana “Yeah, a previous bloke had a pit bull who would get aggressive if I tried to argue with him”.

Clearly he did not like impiety.

It is my thesis that the feminineprinciple can transmute base substances. E.g. blokes who do not know ‘shit from shinola‘ into men.

It tempers the masculine principle.

This surely applies to all (cis and non cis) relationships too and is not gender specific?

Mother made you by transmuting a piddling sperm and a giant egg into a baby in her womb.

If that isn’t alchemy I don’t know what is.

And for the record here are a couple of Mothers of Alchemy.

Hypatia of Greece

a famous mathematician, with a hairdo consilient with Madam Socrates (Health and Safety 350 AD style) and,

3rd century Mary the Prophetess’s who perfected a mercury distillation apparatus:

Mothers of Alchemy, we need to find more!

Epiphany

15 Nov

Every moment is an epiphany for a 7 month old baby boy. Joseph has wears a hilarious frown when he is trying to absorb something new, like his grandfather’s goatee for example.

As an adult it is less common to enjoy such a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment – sensu stricto it means a complete and dramatic reversal, from an enemy to an advocate – as in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in the New Testament.

I envy babies their credulity.

Many years ago I had my own epiphany in relation to my mental health. My dear wife, Clare, after months of trauma, had been forced to call a Doctor to have me sectioned. She tells me it was the hardest thing she has ever had to do.

In the late summer of 2001 I had been acting very oddly for months. I had not been sleeping, I was delusional – living through a protracted manic episode which ended, finally, in full blown psychosis.

To put it into context, when the Doctors and Social Workers arrived at our home I was wandering about the garden, butt naked trying to deduce the square root of pi from the proportions of the hat band of my Borsalino Fedora.

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, bonkers.

Two years prior to this Clare had gone through another awful period caring for me after I had made a suicide attempt, and, when I finally admitted it, she could not risk leaving me alone for a single second.

Imagine the pressure on her, the immense responsibility of worrying all the time that if she let me out of her sight for a second, I would be lost for ever. The knowledge that if I succeeded in extinguishing myself, she would feel completely responsible.

Mental illness is that cruel – the anguish suffered by the patient is multiplied exponentially in the carer of the loved one.

My own moment of great and profound revelation did not occur until I was in the psychiatric wing of Chesterfield Hospital in 2001.

I had decided to appeal my section under The Mental Health Act 1983 – thus, a social worker came to see me to discuss my case. In context, and to quote a conversation between Dr Ravi Lingam, my first psychiatrist and Clare at the time of my admission:

Dr. Lingam “What is Henk’s worst trait?”

Clare “He doesn’t listen.”

Dr Lingam “Why should he listen when he thinks he knows it all?”

Back in the Hospital the Social Worker said to me:

“Henk, if you are successful in your appeal you can walk out of here and continue to behave like a complete pain in the neck and suffer the consequences. If you are not successful then we can keep you here indefinitely. What you have to consider is, what right have you to continue subjecting Clare, who loves you, to your mental illness and to make her suffer?”

It was this last question that gave me my epiphany.

What right have I to make the one who loves me suffer?

I withdrew my appeal and was immediately taken off the section. I stayed in hospital voluntarily  for 5 weeks and received a clear diagnosis of Manic Depression – or BiPolar Disorder – from a straight talking Psychiatrist, Dr Zaman.

I became in that instant my own advocate and no longer my own (or my loved one’s) enemy.