Tag Archives: suicide

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

Tadpoles

17 May

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I have just finished and delivered an unusual little cabinet to a client today. I made it from a truly spectacular piece of locally sourced sycamore.

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Polite people have said “Wow, tadpoles!” when they have seen the unique figuring in the top and second shelf. What created this beautiful pattern is a mystery, but I purchased the board (and several others from the same tree) some time ago hoping that one day I would find a special client with an adventurous and humorous imagination. The reaction of pure delight when I delivered the piece to her today, was brilliant.

This amazing timber makes me think about fertility and metamorphosis.

Remember the first time you found a great dollop of frogspawn in a pond in early Spring? Taking some magical jelly home in a jam jar and watching tadpoles hatch in a fish tank? Eventually the  many tiny froglets undergo a spectacular transformation from egg to tadpole to adult frog. Metamorphosing from a swimming, fish-like body plan suitable for chasing plankton and algae, into an amphibious, four legged, air breathing adult with a sticky projectile tongue suitable for catching dragon flies. Two careers in one life so to speak.

Not many tadpoles survive to adulthood. Most die of disease, starvation, predation, some even cannibalised by their pond mates. Fertility is Life’s answer to Nature’s harsh selection pressures.

“The Sea of Fertility” was Yukio Mishima’s final epic four part novel, finished in 1970. He is recognised as one of the foremost novelists of the 20th Century, and this beautiful novel charts the life of one Shigekuni Honda, who follows successive reincarnations following the untimely death of an old school friend. In four successive books Honda recognises the soul of his friend, and in each story he tries to save the central character. Each time Honda fails in his quest, and each time the soul has metamorphosed in a new and very different character. It is a lovely metaphor for the struggle for life we are all bound by.

Yukio Mishima was nominated for the Nobel Prize on numerous occasions, but never achieved the accolade. He had his critics: “The outstanding weakness of this, the final novelistic effort of Mishima Yukio—and indeed the major failing of the bulk of his work—is its striking inability to rise above the emotional and intellectual limitations of its author.” Marleigh Ryan, “The Mishima Tetralogy,” Journal of Japanese Studies 1.1 (Autumn 1974): 165–173.

To my mind this is like criticising a frog for not remaining true to it’s tadpole origins. Mishima would have quite literally have had to have changed into an entirely different person to have answered the critic’s barb. After submitting the final manuscript Mishima infamously committed ritual suicide or ‘seppuku’ – the final metamorphosis of a tortured soul who, in the end was prepared to put his life on the line.

Our own true nature springs from a fertile inner sea of emotions and dreams – those powerful engines of creativity, and when we find a tadpole in a sycamore tree we glimpse an eternal truth in the heartwood of reality. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favours only the prepared mind”, or to quote my mother; “Let’s look for treasure”.

Spindrift

7 Mar

The fine spray which blows from the tops of ocean waves in the teeth of a gale is called ‘spindrift’. From time immemorial sailors have used this fine frothy foam to identify wind speeds of force 8 on the Beaufort scale. Gale force.

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Years ago my daughter Polly and I learned to sail on the Norfolk Broads in an old clinker built gaff rigged yacht. We had become the spindrift of a marital break up. This storm driven freedom had cut us loose temporarily, and it started a tradition we follow to this day. Every year we spend a little bit of time together doing something neither of us has ever done before. We have blown glass, seen an obscure Shakespearian play together and last year we dipped in to the Literary Festival at Hay on Wye.

Polly and I find that when we are both out of our comfort zone and in unfamiliar surroundings we can experience each other’s company with very little baggage – the historical parent and child dynamic recedes. I’m not sure what she gets out of it, but I get the concentrated company of a beautiful, vibrant woman, who very much makes up her own mind and shares her observation generously.

Here seen through the eyes of her husband, Alan Howden (a talented photographer) – you begin to see how lucky I am. Peleus has captured his nereid Thetis by the sea – no spindrift here, just the flat calm of a lovely tropical sunset.

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Whilst it is hard for all of us to drop the cares of the day, to step away from the experiences which have forged our expectations, when we place ourselves in unfamiliar territory with the ones we love we gift ourselves the opportunity to discover anew.

It is these experiences which burn the brightest memories, and one of my favourite concerns Ballet.

Years ago I was diagnosed with chronic depression following a suicide attempt and assigned to a psychiatrist for treatment. I was introduced to a Dr. Lingam in a clinic in Newcastle upon Tyne. In our first conversation I suggested; “Lingam, ah yes Sanskrit for penis, so you will be dicking with my head”.

This was typical of my flippancy and it was still a while before I was properly diagnosed with manic depression and learned that I need to curb my tongue. It was not an auspicious start and the poor bloke found me hard work.

Luisa Park Seville

A little while later, my wife, Clare and I were on holiday in Seville sitting in Luisa park beside the old tobacco factory and I was in a dark and gloomy mood – very depressed.  I sat moribund as Clare announced “I bet you have never seen my Ballet, have you?”

I looked bemused.

“Well just this once I am going to perform my famous Ballet just for you, in this park”

Even this most terminally depressed and mardy git could not help but be intrigued.

Needless to say Clare proceeded to balance, jeté, brise, plie, perform lovely arabesques and bravura bourrees along the flower beds and paths in full view of a bemused Sevillian public, and an entranced husband, with a dead pan expression. By now I was splitting my sides with unrestrained mirth. It was the funniest and loveliest thing I have ever been privileged to have witnessed, and it was just for me. Move over Martha Graham.

In that brave, humorous performance in Seville my lovely wife had taken my soul from a place of darkness and turmoil and had danced spindrift from my spirit.

Jazz

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.

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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 II 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.

Footnote:

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.

 

 

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Profumo di Donna (Scent of a Woman)

13 Feb

Profumo di Donna (Scent of a Woman)

In the original 1974 film directed by Dino Risi, a blind army Italian captain, accompanied by his aide Ciccio, is on his way from Turin to Naples to meet with an old comrade who was disfigured in combat. Unknown to Ciccio, the Captain means to fulfill a suicide pact there. While they journey, the Captain asks Ciccio to help him spot beautiful women. Unsatisfied with the boy’s descriptions, he uses his nose instead, claiming that he can smell a beautiful woman. The film was remade in 1992 starring Al Pacino and the story is about growing up and a man’s true appreciation of the beauty of women – even, and especially in the face of despair.

On my travels I found an interesting piece of waney edged elm at a timber suppliers in North Yorkshire. Cut from the edge of a large stem, I was struck by the figuring. Not knowing what I was going to use it for I set it aside in my studio for a rainy day.

As it happens, my wife, Clare has been renovating a small retail unit in Sheffield with me, to open this weekend as ‘Tea with Percie’. A cosy, tea room, furnished with hand made furniture, lovely decor and serving fine leaf teas in a proper pot, with hot water on the side. Clare bakes a mean cake or three, and will also be serving sandwiches and light lunches to anyone who would like to sit down and relax. The shop is at 557 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, S7 1TA.

The is her logo (drawn by our niece, Percie Littlewood, who lives in San Francisco)

Percie 13

Anyway, I digress, Clare needed more seats for her shop and so I decided to make her a Valentine’s gift of a bench. As I planed and thicknessed the elm board I was struck by the figuring and with a pencil, sketched the outline you see below straight onto the board using the waney edge as a guide. I cut it in one single continuous movement with a jig-saw.

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With the remainder of the elm and a slice of ash, I finished this trestle bench in the nick of time, Tea with Percie opens Monday 17th February!

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The reaction of some of my artist neighbours and the excellent Yorkshire Artspace staff at Exchange Street Studios, to Clare’s bench, has been one of hilarity and joy – which is exactly the feeling I had when the shape emerged beneath my hand.

As in the film, I have been as near to despair as The Captain and very nearly terminated my relationship with this world. Suicide is not an easy word for me – I much prefer ‘scent’ these days.  Were it not for the scent of a good woman I would not be here..

Women are the touchstones in my life – they have inspired great turmoil, despair, love, creativity and great happiness.

For me inpiration, is breathing. Inhale the scent of a woman – mine brings top notes of mischief, mid-tones of hard-nosed common sense and bottom notes of inextinguishable laughter. She is heaven’ scent.