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Cardigan

3 Aug

“You might need this, son” said my dad handing me his old cardigan. As it happens it saved my bacon a week after my 60th birthday.

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Here it is, hanging out to dry after a careful hand wash in the kitchen sink. It kept me warm in all senses of the word after an unexpected swim. I had been thrown from a twelve foot dinghy into the tidal river Alde (Sussex) after the boat owner misjudged a jibe in heavy wind and turned his craft into a submarine.

Dad’s cardigan proved doughty when we were rescued by the RNLI.

The name Cardigan derives from the Welsh place name – Ceredigion. When it was invented the open fronted sweater was named to flatter James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, and English toff famous for his recklessness at Balaclava, celebrated in Tennyson’s poem of the ill fated Charge of the Light Brigade:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

One of the most famous follies of British Military History celebrates a romantic establishment view of bravery in the face of insurmountable odds.

For my father and I Balaclava epitomised the suffering of the ordinary working man at arms compared to the relatively pampered lot of of the officer class, the aristocracy, and the failure of leadership due to hubris.

The order from the Earl of Cardigan, Lord Raglan, was for the Light Brigade to charge the Russian positions and secure artillery pieces that had been captured. The order was ambiguous, because there were two positions.

Lord Lucan received the dispatch from Captain Nolan and it was interpreted as a full frontal assault. In the event Lucan led 673 cavalry along the valley between Russian batteries into the waiting gun emplacement.

The Light Brigade was cut to ribbons by an enfilade of canon fire.

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Reckless courage and miscommunication. A lethal brew.

For the common man, simpler tools of warfare consisted of a musket, bayonet and Shanks’ pony. No cardie’s lads, make do and die.

My dad was interested in Military History – particularly when his so-called betters screwed up. Quite probably because his dad, Arthur Littlewood had fought at Ypres.

Leadership means paying attention to those that depend on you for their livelihood and happiness and in the end, for their very life. Not poncing about shouting orders and giving off an aura of unflappable authority.

When drowning, flap – a lot, and thank God for the RNLI. Or opt for an orderly retreat and a cup of tea.

Wear your cardie’ lads and avoid reckless endangerment of a grandad, father, husband and a beloved first born son.

That is the song of my father, whi gave me all his tools and his cardie’.

What more could a boy want?

For my brothers:

Tim

Nathan

Simon

and my departed sister Abi, who is no doubt introducing him to Frankencat right about now.

Father’s Day

18 Jun

Joseph Howden product testing a Sycamore rattle I made for him.

A friend of mine once said to me, “Henk, you are the only man I know who has had a career in reverse. Scientist and researcher to School teacher, through Parkie to Chippie.”

I prefer to think of my journey as a process of paring back the waste (little) wood in order to reveal the finished masterpiece. Woodwork is the celebration of 10,000 cuts to leave a huge pile of sawdust ….. and a piece of usefulness fit for the human eye and hand. It is all about delayed gratification.

Likewise a boy cannot know what kind of man he will become until he understands his father. For he is the shield against the 10,000 cuts that will befall him.

My Dad, David Stuart Littlewood was the son of a mill Engineer – Arthur Littlewood – county champion runner, tank repair man at Ypres, mill engineer in the Colne Valley, Huddersfield. 


Arthur on the left with his pall Gervaise just before the Great War.

Arthur was the son of Richard Littlewood – professional musician, first flute and leader of the Huddersfield Philharmonic. From these men I inherit musicality, supreme practicality and a touch of madness.


My dad let me to spend most of my toddling time out of the push chair taking its wheels off. He gave me great hands, the enjoyment of dance, and a Yorkshireman’s mordant wit.

I had no clue about being a dad when my daughter, Polly was born. But I did my best to learn about what she needed.

She was not too chuffed with riding on my shoulders preferring to be swung between mum and dad.

It turned out that Polly liked plenty of fresh air adventures, books, more books and yet more books (she had me raise her bed by 2 1/2 feet so she could read under it in her ‘den’), listening (I am a late developer here) and learning not to give advice unless asked (nigh on impossible), and unconditional Love (easy).

It has taken me over 30 years to establish ‘Good Dadliness’ as she calls it.

Unfortunately Mother’s tend to regard their sons as ‘the heir apparent’ – princelings in nappies.


Thankfully, Dads are more sanguine. 

Best advice I ever had from my Dad was when I had just been sectioned back in 2001. He drove all the way from Exeter to Chesterfield, put his hand on my knee and said:

“Steady on son, steady on”

My mother thought I was ‘Just tired’.

The point being that he was there and necessary when almost every other ‘friend’ (including the person whose observation I quote above) was not.

Love you Dad

Tapas

18 Dec

Tapas – Calamares, bocquerrones and Croquettas with a side order of ice cold beer: shared, bite sized and tasty – that’s how life should be.

I would never have eaten these had it not been for one, very particular human being who intervened just in time.

A few years ago I was asked to attend a series of therapeutic workshops for people who had just been diagnosed with BiPolar Disorder. The idea was to introduce these poor beknighted sods to a fellow sufferer who had lived with the diagnosis for a long time. That would be me.

The Community Practitioner Nurse (CPN) who organised the programme invited me to a NHS Mental Health facility in Sheffield to meet a group of new BP clients. He was not there on the day.

I felt like Ernest Borgnine on The Poseidon Adventure. A survivor with limited knowledge asked to lead a group of fellow passengers into the light.

We had nothing in common, except for a similar diagnosis. A young mental health worker introduced me (and the fact I was self employed), and said I would answer the questions I felt able to.

People in the group asked me about how I coped with Lithium (my meds), how I held down a job and then gone on to run a small business, whether I had ‘episodes’ and so on. I answered these as openly and honestly as I could and was feeling ok at that point. The group seemed interested.

The mental health worker then asked “How do you cope with suicidal thoughts?”

“You can’t” I responded “By the time you are that depressed you are no longer functional. Someone else must intervene, or you’re going to be dead.”

I wrote to this individual’s line manager. I was so pissed off at her clumsy intervention. It had plunged me into a depressive state almost immediately and poured cold water over the session.

Fortunately for me I have a strategy in these situations.


When entering a dark, depressive tunnel against my will I imagine a small figure up ahead saying “Hurry up for fuck’s sake I’m scared!”

I find this emboldens me to push forward, not go back. The ‘hurrying up’ is the key, for physical activity leads me to a lighter state – The Light – so to speak.


And there at the end, instead of the grey and black of fear, it is the colour, taste and smell of choice. Tapas and a beer with my pal. Clare, the woman who intervened.


So if you are feeling blue, come into the hole with me and push on through to the light. I’ll be waiting with a beer and a plate of tapas with bits of shell in my beard.


Believe me, dear reader, life is so worth living.

Merry Christmas

X

H

Treasure

14 Oct

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Anguis fragilis, or the Slow Worm, is no worm at all, but a semi-fossorial (burrowing), limbless lizard. I found this pair of lovely reptiles many moons ago on the Isle of Cumbrae, Scotland whilst teaching the undergraduate Field Course for the Zoology Department of Newcastle University.

They are breathtakingly beautiful creatures;  bronze, muscular and elegant. But one must take great care in handling them – like all lizards they can drop their tails.

Slow worms used to be common on the UK mainland of my youth, but the depredations of the domestic cat have significantly reduced their number.

Various dictionary definitions of worm would have us believe the word as a noun describes a creature which creeps or wriggles, a person who is weak or despicable, or as a verb -describing ‘moving with difficulty’. In Old English or High German, Wyrm means ‘serpent’ or dragon. Poor terms term for treasure.

I learned the concept of ‘finding treasure’ from my mother. who had an uncanny ability to enthuse me in the natural world and matters philosophical. As a single mother bringing up two boys in the 60’s and 70’s she had to watch the pennies. Her way of engaging my brother Tim and I was to say “Let’s go and find a treasure”. We would set off on a ramble up Stanton Hill towards an old lead mine. Whatever the season, weather or mood, we would always find something to wonder at; flowers, seeds, lichens, fossils, bits of galena and felspar, insects – all manner of living and natural things.

When she was asked, years later “How do you explain raising two Zoologists?” Mam said “I made them look at every ant on the way”.

Essentially, she taught us ‘how to get our eye in’. Although this idiom generally refers to someone who is good at hand eye coordination – in sport – I think it is the essence of doing and looking with a prepared mind. An eye for detail, for natural structure and form are essential in my work. So it is with the same delight I experience in finding slow worms, that I solve design and structural problems with wood….and every time I go to the wood yard I am looking for treasure.

This is some of the Yew I am using to make a four poster bed at the moment – it reminds me of a distant nebula viewed through the Hubble Space Telescope.

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An Image from Hubble:

Westerlund 2 — Hubble’s 25th anniversary image

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the cluster Westerlund 2 and its surroundings has been released to celebrate Hubble’s 25th year in orbit and a quarter of a century of new discoveries, stunning images and outstanding science. The image’s central region, containing the star cluster, blends visible-light data taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys and near-infrared exposures taken by the Wide Field Camera 3. The surrounding region is composed of visible-light observations taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Our greatest treasure, our children – and I include great ideas and projects in this – find us, if we are fortunate.

My daughter, Polly, was a most able zoologist’s assistant when she was little, braving inclement weather to indulge her father’s obsession with Natural History. I realise now that I was only doing what my mother did, as a parent, and getting her to squat down and look closely.

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The cleft chestnut fence in the background seems to run through my head in this photo taken in 1986 – I do sometimes wish I had listened to my heart many years ago and really looked at this picture. I would have realised that the way to happiness for me was in playing with wood and looking for treasure, it took me a while to get my eye in.

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Passion

16 Mar

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they cuddle up. Like a big hand shake – my cuddles tend to be bear-like and slightly asphyxiating. A cuddle is an essential part of the day as far as I’m concerned. My wife likes to add a hard squeeze – which, technically, makes her version of a cuddle a ‘cwtch‘ (fair play, the Welsh do much better cuddles than the insipid English).

Carpenters tend to develop a good grip and strong arms over many years of repetitive cutting, lifting, sanding, sawing and carving – actions which make for a  wiry strength. Because these activities are cyclical and repetitive (like breathing), they are meditative too. One can lose oneself and find a kind of tranquility.

henk carving

Thousands of years ago in China (long before before the birth of Christianity) a thinker distilled his thoughts in the spare and beautiful text we now call the Tao the Ching.  Lao Tzu, the author  老子  means ‘Old Master’ no-one knows his real name. The oldest excavated texts of date back to 4th century BC and are written on ancient bamboo silk. These writings are the font of tranquility.

The act of writing, to me is like carving – repeatedly searching for the right shape of a word or sentence; the right syntax, a pithy word association, a metaphor and a mood – and is, in my view, a craft like woodwork.

Craft requires discipline within tightly constrained boundaries, thus the Japanese Haiku poetry form of 5,7,5 syllables really appeals to me when I try to distil my meaning:

 

Like a breath, the Tao –

prayer beads on silk

joined by air, all of us string

HL 9/3/16

 

Constraint is the ‘grain’ of poetry, and in Haiku the grain is very tight – a bit like the timber from holly. The turned footboard pillars of this four poster bed I made are turned from a very old holly timber, as tough as old boots. The pillars represent the Celtic heroes Cuchullian and Emer – meant as inspiration for the bed’s new owners – who, like all our heroes are young and vital.

The frame of ‘Boudicca’ is made from Yew and spalted Ash and it is, I hope, a chariot fit for royalty.

When I make things in wood, I create from a ‘beast within’, a vital energy closely linked to the state of my mind.

Manic depression can be very exhausting – not least for the sufferer’s friends and family – it is not a tame condition. Like riding a flying chariot on axles of holly (as Boudicca did when she smashed the 9th Legion at Camulodunum in AD 60) rage and despair are separated by a heart beat. This is what fuels the ‘beast within’.

There is, however, an emollient more effective than Lithium – it is the Welsh cwtch. For it is from this cwtch that the boiling inner turmoil abates, the beast can purr and the poetry can flow.

Lao Tzu:

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

Lao Tzu, Dao te Ching

The Romans never completely subdued the Welsh, and if 4.5 thousand hardened Zulu Impi led by the redoubtable Prince Dabulamanzi kaMapande couldn’t manage it at Rorke’s Drift then no-one is going to, ever.

The Welsh anthem – Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – will release the beast within, for the name of the Beast is Passion.

Passion

16 Mar

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they cuddle up. Like a big hand shake – my cuddles tend to be bear-like and slightly asphyxiating. A cuddle is an essential part of the day as far…

Source: Passion

Real

1 Mar

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Spring is just around the corner, the daffodils are in the shops (just in time for Saint David’s day) and the rabbits are getting frisky. The rugged rabbit above, sat in the lap of the Bear is called Bunny. He is 58 years old, as old as me, and has been with me since birth. He is  my familiar, a Puca or ‘nature spirit’ (Pookah), a doughty companion of the imagination.

When he was about 7 his head fell off. Distraught, I went to my mother, unable to look at the gory devastation of his stuffing falling out of his torso. My mum was training to be a textiles teacher at the time, so she was well equipped to perform immediate surgery, the butter coloured scarf was her neat way of hiding the stitches in his neck.

At the age of 9 he lost both his eyes in some escapade or other with his pall Henk, and the Surgeon in Chief, darned on a couple of new peepers – the ones you see. When he was twelve he went into enforced exile because ‘The Surgeon’ felt that little Henk now need to become Big Henk as he was going to Grammar School in Autumn of 1969.

Bunny was by then dressed in full Knight Errant regalia of hand knitted chain mail, cardboard armour (including bassinet covered in silver foil) and lance made from Balsa Wood. He was taken astride his steed (a Steiff Donkey) to a local photographer in Matlock and enobled in Kodachrome. Don Quixote had become  Donkey-Hare’s-tale.

I have lost these photographs, but not the memory of my mother’s brilliant and brave parenting in letting me grow up, by getting me to put away a ‘childish thing’.

I absolutely hated Ernest Bailey Grammar School in Matlock. The Masters banned football – only rugby was to be played (although we secretly played soccer with a tennis ball at break) and misdemeanours were punished with the cane or detention, withering sarcasm and disdain were the main fare in lessons. The staff, with the notable exception of the Art Teacher Mr Geoff Smith, The Physics Master Mr. Gregson, the Biology Teacher Mary Downes and the incomparable Mr. Poulson (my woodwork and technical drawing teacher), were as dull as ditch water and mean spirited with it.

Bunny was recently rediscovered. I realised that he is actually a Hare, or Hair-less in his case and that he still is a good pal of mine despite my neglecting his memory. He is the ‘strong silent type’, a ‘good listener’ – sort of how I would like to be, but am decidedly not, my manic depression rendering me unbearably hyper at times and morose and uncommunicative at others.

In rare moments of stillness he speaks to me of a simple notion, beautifully put by Margery Williams in the Velveteen Rabbit

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

 

P.S. Thanks to Giles Grover for pointing me in the direction of this real and wonderful book. The Bear is called Orson, and he belongs to my wife, he keeps the old coot in check.