Tag Archives: loss


5 Jul

One of the greatest guitar players of all time, Django Reinhardt suffered crippling injuries to his left hand when he was badly burned in a fire. His third and fourth fingers were paralysed. Undeterred he reworked his entire repertoire adapting chordal changes and barre fret work to suit his strong, index and middle fingers – inventing an entirely new jazz technique. He co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club with the violinist Stéphane Grappelli. His beautiful jazz recordings grace my studio from time to time.


The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. Way back in 1998 I had been happily married for 16 years to a woman I had met and fell in love with at Manchester University where we studied Zoology together. We raised a lovely daughter, Polly, and over many years shared everything. My wife retrained as a Physiotherapist during the time our daughter was born, whilst I made a living as a postdoctoral scientist. Both of us were musical, but my wife had a real gift for playing the violin, so when my beloved maternal grandmother, Hartje de Boer, passed away I commissioned a fiddle by a master luthier, with her bequest. He made made an exact copy of a famous Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri violin.

Guarnerius violin


It was a concrete way to honour both my grandmother’s voice and my first wife’s talent. It was so accurate that he wanted to distress it to look like an original – I said I wanted it to look as it was, spanking new. The back of the violin was carved from a single piece of Bosnian flame maple over 300 years old. The instrument was and still is a masterpiece. It should be, it cost the equivalent of a small saloon car at the time.

I can hear my grandmother saying “Je bent gek jongen!” – ‘you are crazy boy!’ at my profligate largesse with her money. I did not know it at the time, but this is a typical, impulsive symptom of manic depression.

Here is my Oma chatting with my Dad in Den Haag, way back in 1957 before I was born.

David and Hartje 1957

My wife took to practising the violin for up to three or four hours a night, and by this time I was teaching science in secondary school, so was too dog tired at the end of the day to be bothered. She developed a very sound blue-grass double stopping technique and added a huge folk repertoire. Living in Newcastle she was soon in demand with a number of folk groups.

Whilst I played guitar, I did not have the dedication or discipline required to accompany her playing, and besides, I couldn’t really be bothered with the ‘folk scene’. I prefer the guitar playing of Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake and John Martyn to be honest. Nevertheless, like the naive fool that I was I continued to encourage her to follow her ambition to become a semi-professional musician.

Around the time of my 40th birthday I discovered that she had been ‘fiddling around’, or in slightly politer parlance, having an affair with a band member. For quite a while as it happened. The double irony here is that my ex, an accomplished fiddle player and jazz saxophonist had left me for an accomplished guitarist. Joining the ‘Not so Hot Club’.

I’d got burned.

I continued to function, teaching Biology by day at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, and providing for my daughter, but the very foundations of my existence had been destroyed. I had put all my love, faith and energy into the marriage, only to discover it was broken. Coming from a ‘broken home’ as it was called in the 1960’s – my mum brought my brother and I up single handed – I took the failure of the marriage hard. Weirdly, I did not blame my wife for her wandering eye, I felt it was my fault – I had probably become rather boring as a husband. This was the start of truly suicidal depressions, and eventually, several attempts at suicide back in 2000. At this time I started seeing a psychiatrist – who prescribed antidepressants, having erroneously diagnosed ‘chronic depression’.

It was a good while before I was able to see things more clearly, to develop a new mind set. In fact I had to lose the one I had relied on for 40 years before I could develop a new style of playing. I had some help, of course, from a brilliant Psychiatrist called Dr Zaman, who diagnosed BiPolar Type I or Manic Depression (“A classic case Henk”… I like the classic cases) when I was sectioned, Lithium carbonate (Priadel) – which I continue to take to the possible detriment of my thyroid, kidneys and liver and the definite reduction in desire to play the guitar (hooray!), and thirdly, but most assuredly not lastly, to my loving wife, dangerous and irresponsible henchwoman, and very funny Tea Lady – Clare Littlewood.

My personal Holy Trinity – a good shrink, suitable meds (taken as a sacrament, whatever the physiological cost) and the heart of a good woman.

Studio Jazz

I may have lost some of the ‘digital’ capacity of my brain by going through the fire of mental illness and loss, but I have gained the facility to play my own personal jazz.


The Luthier had, rather spookily, placed an aphorism on his label inside the Guarnerius style violin he had made for my first wife which reads “As the fiddler tunes, so you shall know her tune”. Quod est demonstrandum.




29 Mar

I have never been very good at ‘goodbyes’, so it is not surprising that I sneaked away from the leaving do I had organised for myself, four other Ranger colleagues and three apprentices last night, whilst the party was in full swing.

For the first time in many years I witnessed almost the entire Sheffield Ranger Service, present and past, relaxing and having fun after a splendid meal at Shapla curry house, in the Devonshire Cat pub. They deserved it.

Sheffield City Council has experienced some of the worst funding cuts recently and for our modest service this has meant several years of restructuring, early retirements and more recently, voluntary redundancies – all under the guise of ‘Achieving Change’. A hideous metaphor for ‘watch your back’, ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘competition for jobs’ and other such works of the Devil.

My friends had gone to a great deal of trouble to construct some thoughtful leaving gifts – a Bonsai Tree for me – which sits proudly in my kitchen window (thank you Tom) as a reminder of the number of massive trees I have felled. As James put it “You’d probably get that one hung up too if you felled it Henk!”. Great words written in leaving cards like Nick’s comment about my ‘obstreperous sagacity’ – a polite way of saying I can be bolshy. Claire had brewed some wine made from the dandelions around the Ranger Base – I shall look forward to sampling this in my workshop – apparently it is rather ‘dry’ so it will cut French Polish rather nicely.

Handshakes from Matt, a volunteer I have gardened with “You really helped me with my confidence by introducing me to the Saw Mill project Henk”. From Bob, the allotments Ranger “Fair play Henk, I don’t know many people who could be as open as you’ve been about having experienced depression and Bipolar Disorder, and used it to their advantage. Whatever you do in the future I reckon you’ll succeed”.

Helen would say “Only Budgies Suck Seeds” and she had persuaded her ex to drive her in from Rotherham to attend the do (she’d broken her toe and her foot was in a cast)  way beyond the call of duty, but a gesture I greatly appreciate from a highly esteemed colleague.

Or Simon, my boss, saying “you know where to come for a cup of tea” in a big gruff bear-with-a-sore-head kind of way, hiding the big heart of a truly affectionate man. The same man, who ten years ago took about a week to suss me out after a meeting in which I had been a bit ‘hyper’ as we Bipolar types would say in the trade. “You were a bit giddy there” he said. Most people do not have his perspicacity.


And this person, my confidant, business partner, lover and heroin – my wife, Clare who accompanied me to the leaving do, making it feel less like losing something and more like eloping for a grand new adventure. This person made it possible for me to make the right choice, to become a countryside Ranger and work outside for 10 years with these wonderful people. She saved my bacon. For make no mistake, without her and without the Rangers of Sheffield I would not be the person I am now.

Bringing the Rangers together over a curry was my small gift to them. It is in the fervent hope that the damage done to this merry band, by the managerial policy of ‘achieving change’ will be put to one side and that they can under Ted Talbot, the Director of Woodlands’ leadership, once again become the highly respected guardians of green spaces they were when I joined. The woodlands, meadows, ponds, heathlands and parks are well served by this team.

So it is to The Rangers I say “Adieu” and not goodbye. My dear old Oma (dutch for Nan) always said “Adieu” because she could never really know when, or if, we would meet again.