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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.

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

 

 

 

 

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 they 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.

‘Well there you go!’ I said.

We all like a bit of rustic – we 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