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Why?

14 Feb

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The perennial question asked by little children of their parents is ‘Why?’

(Back row, second from left, me aged 4, Takoradi Primary school, reception class, Ghana.

Ankle-biter me: “Mam, why can’t I see God?”

This, after being bollocked for drinking bath water and persuading my pal, Alan to do the same. Innocent? Not in Ghana, where Typhoid Fever and Dysentry were rife. I desperately wanted to travel to Heaven to see God, by train preferably.

Mam, “Henkje (little Henk in Dutch) – you see your shadow? Pick it up.”

I bent down in the blistering African sun to grasp my shadow … “I can’t….”

Mam, “Well God is like your shadow, he is there all the time but you can’t pick him up”

Blinding logic – thus totally satisfied for the time being I stopped trying kill myself and Alan.

Today is the anniversary of my mother’s birthday in Leiden, Holland, 1931 (deceased 7th January 2015). She would have been 85.

I was moved to find a bridge to her departed spirit, so I drove in my truck to Darley Dale in the Peak District. The place where my brother Tim and I grew up.


One of her favourite walks from her home – appropriately named Avalon Cottage – was a meander up to an old lead mine. This place she referred to as the ‘Grand Deadery’. As she put it “An ideal spot for disposing of annoying old people – like parents, boys!”

For at the top of the mine workings is a shaft so deep that it takes 7 seconds from the release of  a lump of foraged Galena to the ‘bang’ on the first landing floor.

Why did I go there today? Well grief is a funny thing, it hits you sideways when you least expect it.


The bond between the parent and this child is always fresh, like the spring daffodils my wife gave me today for my little wander. The Welsh do understand loss so well.

The Bridge over the River ‘Why’ is kindness and love, to ourselves, to our dear friends and to fellow humans in need. Build.

Happy Valentine’s Day dear reader.
Note: All that is known of Saint Valentine is that he was martyred and buried at a cemetery on the Via Flaminia close to the Milvian bridge to the north of Rome on this very day. 

Stick

12 Feb


Lao Tzu ( Tao the Ching) exhorted us to “bend like the wind”. Willow trees invariably survive violent storms relatively unscathed because of the properties of their timber;  light, fibrous and very flexible.

I made the stick above for a friend of mine – Willow Ferraby who has a very flexible mind, and who always seems to turn up at the right time.

The head of his stick is turned Yew from the branch of a tree, given to me by the Verger of a church in Derbyshire near where my mother’s ashes are scattered. The tree is very, very old in fact it has been alive since before the birth of Jesus. At over 2000 years old it has an enormous girth, and it’s aspect suggests that it has been repeatedly coppiced over centuries for staffs and long bow staves. This timber is part of my song line  (an indigenous Australian concept used to describe the way in which hunter gatherers  map vast landscapes geographically, temporally and psychologically – they literally sing things into existence).

I met Willow in a park in Sheffield ‘somewhen’ around 2005 when I was working as a countryside Ranger engaging local people in their park. The crowd consisted of Kashmiri mothers and their children and some young people and we were weaving a willow hurdle around a rustic bench I had made for them in Mount Pleasant Park. We were trying to make a wind break so that the mum’s could have a comfortable natter and all of a sudden Willow appeared in human form.

Bare chested, wearing only shorts, a well developed sun tan, long hair, fit as a lop, no shoes – he stood leaning on a stick with his right foot braced on his left knee, like a native Australian.

I believe that the first human tool was a stick – not a rock. I suspect that humans may have watched birds using them to fish for insects – like this Caledonian Crow picking ants off an aloe plant.

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Birds may have used tools for millions of years before early humans had the nous to observe and copy them.

Sticks burn or rot, it is rare to find a truly old stick. Thus we can forgive the archaeologists for ‘sticking’ with flint arrow heads and bone fragments to describe and classify early tool use in human history.

Recently, I have been working on a new artistic concept – it  involves building bridges: between people, across water and so on, but using spring wood – coppice products like hazel staves, oak rods and bamboo (east meets west). I will need to apply for some money to get the idea off the ground, so I have invited some artistic friends to a meeting in my studio to contribute their creative talent in a kind of loose collective. After sharing my ideas with Willow over a cup of fine Keemun Tea from Tea with Percie he suggested that I simply give my collaborators a ‘stick of friendship’ and start the creative bridge building process this way.

Lay a big stick across a stream and you have a bridge.

2009, Limb Valley – Ranger Henk – chainsaw carving a walkway on a fallen tree trunk.

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My ‘stick of friendship’ from Willow – is a bridge. I am looking forward to sharing the many types of stick bridge I have in mind with my creative friends, and entering their song lines for a time.

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

Tao te Ching

 

 

 

Henry’s Gift

3 Feb

In the summer of 1998 I found myself travelling to Sylvia Plath’s cottage in Todmordern on a Trans Pennine pacer train.

As I got on the train to sit down I realised that the carriage was packed, and I sat in the only remaining seat across the isle from a young family. A girl and boy no older than perhaps 7 and 5 respectively and their mother. The children seemed upset, and scared and the girl looked at me imploringly – their mother had fallen over across the seats and appeared to be unconscious, surrounded by miniature bottles of vodka.

The rest of the occupants of the carriage ignored us.

I put my rucksack on the free seat and spoke to the little girl, as gently as I could

“Don’t worry I’m going to get some help for you and your mum”

Conscious of the fact that I was looking a little feral, sporting a week’s worth of beard and a battered fedora hat. I wandered up the now moving train until I found a member of staff serving refreshments from the trolley.

“Excuse me?” I said “but can you help me – there is a bit of a situation in our compartment”

The very petite tea lady said “Of course!” Parked her trolley and followed me.

The diminutive Valkyrie took charge of the situation, and with no fuss, rapidly tidied up all the miniature bottles of booze whilst all the time making eye contact with the children and reassuring them in a lighthearted way. She also gently cleaned the mother up and brought her awake and into some semblance of decorum.

The passengers studiously ignored us.

The Tea Lady then arranged for the family to be met by her colleagues and receive further assistance at the next station.

Before I disembarked at Todmordern I asked the guard for her name and the address of her work. He was a bit suspicious – smelling a possible complaint in the wind – I reassured him I only wished to compliment his colleague on her professionalism.

When I got off the train I wrote a post card to the Manager of Miss Clare Rimmer – Tea Lady at Trans Pennine Rail.


Clare Littlewood (nee Rimmer) now runs her own business called Tea with Percie in Sheffield where she rescues jaded palates on Abbeydale Road daily with her quick hands, her wit and her baking. Her teas are of the finest quality and served in a proper pot – no tea bags!

In Todmordern I met a Rastafarian poet called Henry who told me: “You need to slow down man and step out of your groove”.

I met other helpful students of poetry and a tutor – Douglas Dunn.

Douglas Dunn explained that sonnets have a rigid structure with a rhythm based upon the iambic pentameter. The same meter of Shakespeare. This cadence is the rhythm of 16th century English Speech. The vernacular of peasants and the spine of the King James Bible. It is the beat of the human heart.

The sonnet is how he expressed his grief after losing his wife (an artist) to eye cancer ‘Elegies‘ – perhaps one of the finest works of 20th century poetry.

This was is my attempt at a sonnet.

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 –

Her blueprint/hotline to her very soul,

And 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 08/98

Rocking

28 Oct


I delivered this piece today to a lovely couple in Sheffield who, hopefully will enjoy rocking their baby boy to sleep or reading him a story before bed time.

When I was asked to make it I talked to my dad, and he remembered the rocking chair his mother brought over from Ireland to Huddersfield before he was born. The key features he liked were the drawer beneath the seat where he kept his comics (Eagle – my favourite as a boy too). He likes the fact that it had wings for that feeling of coziness.

I designed this rocking chair around a child’s solid Georgian wing backed chair and used Yew and Oak for the main body. The rockers and the top yoke are made of ash.

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The seat,big enough for a parent and child, or two kids side by side, and is deeply carved by hand using a Travisher.

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Movement is at the core of woodwork. Whether it is carving, slicing, shaving, cutting, sanding or polishing – all movements are reciprocal and curvilinear. I think best in curves – approaching a problem from left of field, fielding a curve ball – this makes me happy.

Breathing is tidal, reciprocal, oscillatory – as is the flow of blood.

Straight lines between destinations may be quick – but I’d rather you rock me gently, and let me sway.

Pilgrim

29 Aug


Walking from Lockner in the beautiful Surrey Hills following my friend Alexander Dawson Shepherd in a colour coordinated sort of way I was struck by the nature of friendship.

I needed to meet my daughter Polly in Holborn, London to see how she was faring in her new job, and to take her a birthday present.

Alec suggested that we walk from his beautiful cottage on the grounds of the old Albury Estate to Guildford and catch a train.

I packed my smart shoes (it does not do to appear dishevelled for the daughter) and her gift in a day pack, put my knackered old steel toe capped work shoes on and traipsed after Alec into the hills.

Past the old Gunpowder works, an organic vineyard and this lovely sculpture


… we climbed up the steep hill to St.Martha’s chapel where Alec’s family are buried.


His father rests here: Hanbury Knollys Dawson Shepherd (fabulous name), so too his grandfather Harry Bowyer – the local miller. Alec still lives within a stone’s throw of his parent’s and sisters house and from his family’s grave we paid our respects and drank in the view.



Popping in to this wonderful ancient chapel to admire the restored oak beamed ceiling we saw carpentry at its most enduring and endearing.

We chatted about old friends, family, work and the Natural History around us as we walked. Oftentimes content to say nothing at all we listened to the grasshoppers below and the birds above inhaling the scent of silvan wildness.

The path we travelled along was The Pilgrim’s Way. Chaucer himself may have seen horse shoes like this perhaps?


The Pilgrim’s Way is an ancient track and is the route of medieval Christian pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket of Canterbury.

Pilgrimage seems to me a metaphor for the nature of long term friendship. Friends may walk together for a time sharing air and artful conversation, then part hopefully to journey again one day along a mutually agreeable track.

Alec journeyed with my wife Clare and I when I was sectioned and in hospital diagnosed with manic depression. He was the only pilgrim who visited me in my hour of need.

I found out at that time who my true friends were and how shockingly few they were back then.

I don’t know how we find our friends, but I do know this – we must take time to renew the narrative between us. To rethread our own Canterbury Tale; share tales, bawdy and preposterous, ordinary and mundane – for the story of friendship of itself a very human thing.

Alec, Polly and I had lunch in a lovely park near a statue of Bertrand Russell. I was able to pass on the tale of her Oma (her Dutch grandmother) – the photographic memory of her provenance, bound in a textile of her own making – a frog on a lilly pond.


Chaucer would have approved I think, after all, he was the father of the vernacular – the lingua Franca or language of friends, dear pilgrim. Franca – frankness – the basis of true friendship.

With special thanks to Anne Heppell (book binder).

Back

7 Aug

One of my earliest memories is of swimming on my Dad’s back in the pool in Takoradi in Ghana.

I remember his freckles, sandy hair and the feel of his big muscles under my four year old hands.

My dad was an accomplished swimmer and a great diver, he could water ski and he played water polo too.

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One day my mam, little brother Tim and I were sitting on the beach in Takoradi, Ghana. Mam noticed a chap some way out to sea waving and calling for help. The man’s family was nearby so she went over and said “I think your husband is in trouble”

His wife said “I know, but I don’t want to upset the children”

Mam said something very rude in Dutch and strode down the beach to the water polo team where my Dad was having a beer and she raised the alarm.

A huge posse of super fit young swimmers, with characteristic ‘V’ shaped backs, leapt into the surf to help the stricken man.

They all ended up having to rescue each other because of a rip tide which had trapped the man in a huge trough between two big waves just beyond the reef.

But not my Dad. He swam all the way up the beach and back down the wave trough, grabbed the guy and swam all the way back up the trough and back round the other side, with the bloke holding on to his back. They were absolutely exhausted.

He saved this man’s life.

He saved mine when I was in hospital having been diagnosed with manic depression way back in 2001, with the immortal words:

“Steady on son”

He’s always had my back, thanks Dad.

Faith

28 Jun

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When I was four I was obsessed with the idea of Heaven and very interested in God. “How do you get to heaven?” I would ask my mother. “Is it by train, or by boat, or do you get to heaven by aeroplane?”. I took matters into my own hands one day with my mate, Alan when we drank bath water. In West Africa, where I grew up, this was forbidden, because it could be a sure fire way of contracting typhoid or any number of other deadly tropical diseases. I simply wanted to see how one got to Heaven.

My mother, as she recounted the incident, was at pains to put a stop to these early mystical experiments. When I asked her “Yes, but Mam WHERE is God?” she said to me: “Henkje (in Dutch ‘Little Henk) do you see your shadow on the ground?”

“Yes” I replied

“Pick it up” she said

Apparently, I bent down and tried to reach for my shadow…..”I can’t!”

“Well Henkje, God is like your shadow, He is there all the time, but you cannot pick him up or see him, He is just with you”

My mother in her infinite wisdom would happily engage me in these small philosophical discussions throughout my life sharing her rather impressive knowledge of the Bible (she was truly an Old Testament kind of girl), her understanding of other faiths and the origins of Christianity, Judaism and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace and Blessings be upon his name).

In this Holy month of Ramadan my Muslim neighbours are fasting. In denying themselves food and drink during the hours of daylight according to their teachings they give space in their daily lives for spiritual contemplation. I perceive that it is in what we decide to eschew, that we become closer to our God as humans. There is a rich tradition of asceticism in many of the great faiths, where pilgrims, scholars and holy people deny the flesh in order to move closer to God.

I was asked recently by a young Muslim boy whether I believed in God. I answered him thus “Well, my young friend, no man is capable of knowing everything – therefore it is impossible to deny the existence of God based upon our limited knowledge. This position is called ‘Agnostic’, it is not a belief, rather it is a set of principles based upon logic. But, every human has to have faith in order to meet the challenges of the day. I respect your faith because it gives you Peace.” He seemed satisfied with my answer, I had shown him my shadow, without asking him to pick it up.

Speaking of large shadows, I am engaged at present in the making of a big sculpture for the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield. My collaborator Mir Jansen and I are planning to exhibit the commission in January 2016. I showed her the central piece of the sculpture ( a giant steam bent oaken bower) on Friday – it was the first time she had seen it for real. She had up until that time shown great faith in my design and my ability to deliver as a craftsman.

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Here then is a sneak preview of our exercise in faith. Both of us are investing all our creative resources into producing a piece of Art that can be seen, touched, entered, contemplated and enjoyed by all, for it is a celebration of John Ruskin’s mind. Made from a single oak tree from Ruskinland, Uncly’s Farm in the Wyre Valley, donated by the Ruskin Trust – the Guild of St. George, felled and worked by myself and painted by Mir Jansen.

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Mir is illuminating many oak panels from the tree in the manner of the Old Dutch Masters – who often painted directly onto wood – creating several narrative themes from the work, ideas and legacy of John Ruskin and the Victorian era he influenced. Her panels will be hung inside the sphere, supported by steam bent oaken beams – which currently hang in my studio like the ribs of some beached up wooden whale.

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Art and Craft are coming together supported by generous donations by the Arts Council and the Millennium Gallery and the Trustees of the Ruskin Foundation – if this is not an act of great faith, I don’t know what is.

It is also a meditation on a tree and a mind.

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Ruskin’s view of God was intimately bound up with his contemplation of Nature:

“there is no climate, no place, and scarcely an hour, in which nature does not exhibit colour which no mortal effort can imitate or approach.” His thought that no mortal can convey properly the effects of nature indicates that one must contemplate the higher workings of God in Nature.

In the words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins (Ruskin’s contemporary):

God’ Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)