Tag Archives: children


14 Oct


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.


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.


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.


What makes a man?

28 Dec

I was talking with a young man recently and he suggested that “Present times are much better now than they have ever been”. I asked him whether high youth unemployment in this country, widespread civil war in the Middle East, and Global Warming constituted ‘better times’. He had no cogent answer. Thirty years ago I would have called him an idiot and scorned his naivety. Now I am a little gentler.

It got me thinking about what qualities make a man. Is it strength, or bravery? Is it wit and wisdom? Can we become men by emulating our fathers or our heroes?

Here I am in 1959 with my dad outside my grandmother’s flat in Den Haag, Holland. Whilst the pants are hilarious the picture is a nice illustration of my dad demonstrating manhood. Let’s face it you have to have some bottle hanging out with a kid dressed in a preposterous set of bloomers like these.


I look happy enough though!

Many many years later, the same man put his hand on my knee in the locked ward of a Psychiatric Hospital and said “Steady on son”. It was one of the few things that got through the serious manic episode I endured back in September 2001. In the 50 plus years that have passed since he played with me as an infant to now he has fathered three other sons and a daughter.

Those sons have each produced children:

The youngest, has recently become a dad for the second time to a daughter:


The next eldest has also become a dad to a daughter Down Under:


The next, has two lovely children – here he is with his eldest, a daughter


and here I am giving mine away…


We all share more than genes with him….

Which brings me back to my question ‘what makes a man’? I think that those we love unconditionally make us men. Not strength or bravery, wit or wisdom. My dad loved me in the depths of a serious mental illness and helped to pull me out, he didn’t just play ball. My brothers are fine fathers all, they love their children unconditionally, may they reach out as he has done.

I am not arguing that a bloke has to become a father to attain manhood, lots of men have fatherly qualities. But not many young ones.

I remember when my daughter was born. I was 24 years old sitting in a cafe with her in a sling on a sunny autumn day at a busy cafe in Manchester. I was wearing a crisp white shirt and new jeans, as proud as a peacock. A couple of tables away a father of three children was observing us. All of a sudden, my infant daughter produced a gigantic poop which oozed out of the front of her terry nappy, all over my shirt. The bloke caught my eye and just nodded sagely.

That knowing ability to put up with crap, like the proposition that was put to me the other day, and not react to provocation is a the true mark of a man. May I endeavour to cleave to this precept.