Close Encounters with Woodworking

Several years ago now, when Mr Litlove was first getting serious about his furniture making, I remember he was sitting propped up against the pillows one night, leafing through a woodworking magazine. As I got into bed, I noticed the full page advert on the back cover which had the caption ‘You Can’t Rock This Joint!’

‘Good grief,’ I said. ‘I think I’ve just aged thirty years.’

All I needed was a cup of cocoa and my knitting to complete the picture. And so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that these first couple of months of Mr Litlove pursing his furniture making interests have left me with the oddest sensation of being retired. We have left the rat race and all its concerns far behind us without yet achieving the state of a cottage industry. Mr Litlove is now spending his days engaged in physical activity, and he’s been delighted to be able to reinstigate his favourite meal – teatime – into an already packed programme of refreshments. So he has been in and out of his workshop and I have been essentially a short order chef, keeping him fuelled. It’s pretty much full-time work.

The first couple of weeks Mr Litlove dedicated to primping up the garage. He insulated the walls, hung up over the doors the old floor to ceiling curtains that not only lived in our sitting room for years but were donated to us by my parents, and after that, he turned his attention to the lighting. With the result that when I stand at the kitchen window after dusk, looking down the garden, I think I’m about to have a close encounter of the third kind.

Then he bought a very large, shiny green box which is apparently an air filter and is now attached high up on the garage ceiling. He wears the remote control for it on a cord around his neck, and it looks for all the world like a panic button. I’m not quite sure what new roles we’re playing; Darby and Joan, on the one hand, Wallace and Gromit on the other.

But since then, furniture has been made. Mr Litlove finds himself into chairs at the moment, and Sheraton chairs in particular. Thomas Sheraton is an interesting character, the last of the great English designers and cabinet makers who flourished in the eighteenth century. He followed on the end of an illustrious line after Chippendale (hard to get the image out of one’s head of polished pecs and too much hairspray, but try), Heppelwhite and Robert Adam. Unlike his predecessors, however, fame and fortune did not smile upon him. He was born poor and only ever scraped a living from his furniture, even forced later in life to make the sort of popular French Empire style pieces (frilly, fussy) that he disliked. In our day, furniture makers have come to view Sheraton as the greatest of that pack of stylists, the most elegant of line and proportion, but during his lifetime his shyness and sensitivity, his introspection, made him a bad spokesperson and salesman for his craft. After his death in 1806, fashions changed, and the sort of furniture he loved has only relatively recently been appreciated again.

IMG_20151113_192538 This is the first Sheraton chair Mr Litlove made, which is waiting for its upholstered seat. We thought about striking a deal with one of the local upholsterers but now Mr Litlove has decided instead to do an upholstery course in the new year. I am very pleased about this as I am working hard in what I hope is a surreptitious way towards the idea of the chaise longue, which is a piece of furniture I love. I could put up with a chaise longue around the house, if I had to.

IMG_20151120_145832Then, interested in a variation, Mr Litlove embarked on the other one, which as you can see is still a work in progress. He wanted to try a lighter wood, and to do something different from the carving. So he has given the chair darker wood booties (at the bottom of the front legs) and pin stripes on the back splats. The first chair he finished with glossy shellac, but I’m not sure what he intends to do with this one.

IMG_20151120_145740He’s been doing really well, considering that he’s worked in offices and factories for the rest of his career, always surrounded by lots of other people. I thought it would take him a while to adapt, but it’s been swift so far. Occasionally he wobbles, when something reminds him of the old capitalist regime and makes him feel he should be paying serious attention to money (we have plenty to live on; he needn’t worry). Back in summer, he came across an essay on the web that affected him. It was a piece about Jung’s ideas of personal development. Jung said that the first half of our lives we spend fighting for status on the world’s terms. We do what we can to succeed in the public sphere, and use whichever talents we possess that are culturally validated. In the second half of our lives, though, the focus shifts. Now it’s about our unexplored potential. It’s about developing ourselves on our own terms, following the dreams that have personal significance. And you never know how that’s going to turn out. We all want to be Chippendales, but we may end up as Sheratons. The Jung essay was startling as I think we both related very strongly to it, having worked hard on our careers, and now finding ourselves following paths that are much trickier in some ways, but more rewarding in others. I love seeing him make beautiful things, and all that matters to me is that he has plenty of time to explore and refine his skills.

I Call Myself A Feminist

feministTwenty-five essays collected together with a generous helping of quotes from other well-known women, with the particular slant that the essays are all written by women under thirty. It’s an overview of the issues and concerns that continue to motivate activism in the 21st century, as well as an attempt at rehabilitating the word ‘feminism’ from some of the old perjorative connotations of the past. The essays are brief, a few pages each, and they cover a wide variety of topics and perspectives. It’s a fascinating collection, provocative, thoughtful, sometimes funny.

But there are buts. Not one woman writing has a child, although motherhood remains the last great bastion of identity straitjacketing. All are women who have enjoyed early success and made something of their lives – they speak from a position of earned privilege. I found myself appreciating most the essays from a Nigerian woman who had grown up in a traditional and oppressive religion, a woman who worked in a centre for the victims of acid attacks and a female human rights lawyer. A large number of the other essays spoke about behavioural issues – from the difficulty of making the decision to change gender, and the resistance and prejudice one might consequently face, to the irritating tendency of men to hog the armrest in seats on the London tube (exert your right to space, ladies!). Several rightly evoked the appalling reputation of the media – tabloids, magazines, advertising, mostly – for reinforcing stereotypes. But most of these essays left me thinking that whilst Western women have removed the majority of physical constraints on their choices, the real battle remains with the mental chains we so easily place on our own thinking.

I was taught that feminism was about two things. It was about equal access to power – economic, political, social – and the freedom to be oneself, resisting the old insistence that Woman should be helpmate, carer, nurse, selfless angel. It was about creating a structure that offered equal opportunities within which we could all be individual and different. Where we seem to end up now is micromanagement of the behaviour of others, which is highly problematic.

Let’s look at the case for the opposition first. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism writes ‘As feminists we are used to being told what we ‘should’ focus on, or scolded for ‘making a fuss’ about particular topics. Talking about rape or domestic violence is acceptable, but mention street harrassment and you’re ‘getting upset about nothing’ […]There is no reason why we shouldn’t tackle every manifestation of gender inequality, no matter how apparently ‘minor’.

Absolutely! A society free from all discrimination would be a utopia indeed. But there’s a danger that the woman who is harrassed on the street might be led to believe that her plight is equal to the woman who has been half beaten to death by the husband who controls her cash flow. And that wouldn’t be right, would it? Don’t we still need to maintain a sense of perspective? I don’t think that equality means that all crimes committed against women are equal.

There’s a very well-written essay about how important words are and how right it is to police them. One of the examples cited is scientist Tim Hunt’s foolish comments – poor attempts at a joke – about women in his laboratories, which provoked a twitter storm, viral humiliation, and some consequences for the man’s career. The writer is convinced that this was the correct outcome. Yet I say, where was the woman whose courage, generosity and sense of fair play made her stand up at the end of the speech and say: ‘Could you please redefine your position on this issue, because I think what you said may be open to some serious misunderstanding.’ There could have been a proper debate on the spot; it would have been a fabulous example of grace and diplomacy and the exercise of women’s right to speak up for themselves. Why does it feel to me that the thrill of self-righteous indignation held sway here instead? Words are indeed terrifically important, and I would rather use them to educate than crucify. Women have a power of intervention unparalleled in their history. Is twitter shaming the best we can do with it?

We may often regret our male colleagues’ thoughtless, sexist and downright stupid comments. We may well wish that their behaviour would be more respectful and courteous. But if we want to improve social behaviour, we all have to sign up to the same charter. That’s equality. So if women want the right to be outspoken, to be ‘unruly’, to speak our minds and shout down or shame the other, then it has to be okay for men to do the same things. If, as one writer in this book says ‘Women whose behaviour is repulsive and selfish entrance me. They seem far more alive and aware and unapologetic than most would ever dare to be’, then we must accept that men might be entranced by their repulsive and selfish behaviour, and feel more alive for it, too.

This is the problem with all issues surrounding behaviour and identity. We all want people to behave better, and the chances are overwhelming that we will never be able to make them. We use the law against acts of violence and crime. But in the lower reaches of human behaviour, it’s hard to ‘make’ people give up their worse natures. Where did all that PC battling get us? The recognition that it’s unacceptable for people to express ugly predjudice in public places. Excellent! And then we created the internet whose main purpose can seem to be to provide a safe space for all that prejudice to be resurrected under the blissful cover of anonymity. Human nature is aggressive and judgemental. People will find a way to judge.

Believe me, I know how awful it is to be on the receiving end of sexist belittling. When I was nine or ten, the teacher who taught me every day, for every subject, was a man called Mr Wickenden. He regularly said unpleasant things about me in class – I remember him laughing with the other boys and saying I didn’t care about people, I only cared about money and clothes. I was quick-witted as a child, which didn’t go down well in the 70s. Once, doing some maths (my weakness) I struggled to understand the equation on the board; he humiliated me in front of the class until I was in tears (and I did not cry easily). He never treated any of the boys this way; I felt his persecution and it undoubtedly added to my belief that if I wanted to get away with being clever and well-spoken and tidy and good, I would need to make myself invisible.

For many years, this sort of behaviour struck me as completely unacceptable, as something we should legislate against, yes, why not! But as I have grown older, I have changed my mind. What I needed to learn to do was to look Mr Wickenden in the eye and think: you are so completely irrelevant to my sense of self. We are animals underneath it all; we know fear and vulnerability instinctively. What I needed to do was grow up, grow stronger, learn to protect myself without recourse to aggression, practice integrity. In some ways the issue was a sexist one, but in all the ways that mattered, I have come to understand it was developmental. And Mr Wickenden to one side, the worst, most insidious bullies I’ve come across have been female. I needed a strategy to deal with them, too. Thinking the world shouldn’t be cruel, that I shouldn’t have to fight for my right to be different, that I must be able always to do things my way without encountering resistence, even if it horrifies the ideology of the tribe, has actually held back my own growth.

I think that one of the best acts of feminism we can do on an everyday basis is support the women we know. Do something whenever possible to make their lives a little better, a little easier, a little richer. I think we need to expend our best energy on the real victims of the world – those caught up in war, famine, violence, plague and tyranny – and to keep a weather eye on the lesser crimes and make sure we don’t commit them too, in the name of retaliation. And when a first world, non-violent man makes a sexist comment, we might just raise our eyebrows and find him ridiculous; why on earth would we assign such behaviour more power than it truly has?

This Was Exciting Six Weeks Ago

Way back in the mists of time, which is to say the very end of July, Mr Litlove rang me early one morning to say he’d just learned his job was coming to an end. The reason was ostensibly reorganisation of the company, and indeed there is going to be a lot of that, none of which would have done Mr Litlove any good. But there were also probably deeper, darker reasons between him and his boss which I will leave alone for now. Suffice to say that the very evening before this happened, I had asked Mr Litlove just how long he thought he was going to manage to hold out in his job, and whether he was ever going to fulfill his long-held interest in furniture making.

So even though the news was a bit of a shock, it didn’t take us long to figure out that now his company was actually going to pay him to leave – before a great deal of confusion and chaos took place – and give him a very welcome boost to his life as a fine woodworker.

At the time this was terrifically exciting and alarming and new. There were weeks when all we did every evening was make plans. What kind of furniture would he make? Were we going to covert the garage to a workshop? What sort of budget could we live on? We began to sketch out a timeframe in which Mr Litlove could experiment and also stockpiled ideas for adjunct businesses that might bring in useful income, like running a workshop, giving woodworking demonstrations in schools, designing plans for pieces of furniture, and so on. I promised to run the social media side of things, and will start a blog later in the autumn – which should be interesting as what I know about woodwork would fit on the back of a postage stamp.

And then we eased from this state into one of waiting. I couldn’t say anything on this blog until an official announcement had been made, and it’s taken this long finally to reach that point. We put a whiteboard up in the kitchen and added any ideas to it that occurred to us. We totted up finances lots of times, and I had one day when I sat at my desk thinking, no income for a while and no stable income for much longer, crikey. So like all gambles, we put a limit on it and decided that a couple of years should show Mr Litlove whether he was really suited to a craftsman’s way of life, and he could rethink at any point.

And still we waited. It’s become, I suppose, a familiar daydream now and although it is actually going to happen, it feels unreal. But we do hope this will be Mr Litlove’s last week in the office and from next week onwards, we can finally start. I say ‘we’ cavalierly as no one in their right minds would put a chisel in my hands. But I will do my research-marketing-publicity bit and act as a general encourager. Something that Mr Litlove is very worried about. ‘I love all of you apart from your Puritan work ethic,’ he told me, and I must say I was rather thrilled at the thought of having a strong, healthy person to exert my plans for productivity upon, when that work ethic has had to make do with a chronic-fatigued me for so many years. ‘I’m going to be very vulnerable to workplace bullying at first,’ said Mr Litlove making a sad face. ‘Oh!’ I said. ‘But all I….’ ‘And you,’ he continued, ‘are going to be vulnerable to sexual harrassment in the workplace. Let’s face it, there’s going to be a tough couple of months ahead and it’s not always going to look professional.’

It’s certainly not going to be life as we’ve known it, but I’m ready now for it to begin.

Two Go To Greece

Much earlier in the summer, Mr Litlove and our son decided they would like to have a boys’ bonding holiday together. They toyed with the idea of doing a patisserie course in France, and then our son said he really wanted to go somewhere they’d never been before. With me in the mix up until now, that left the rest of the world pretty much open. And so they decided they would go to Greece and travel round the classical civilisation sites.

greece 1

Once they’d booked their flights, Greece made headline news every day with its financial problems. Weeks went by when the banking system failed, and threats were made about the country’s ‘Grexit’ from the EU. Angela Merkel wasn’t happy, and facebook was full of pictures of Greek ministers signing off German debt after World War Two. A referendum took place on July 5th and I’m not even sure now whether it mattered. ‘It’ll all be fine come September,’ said Mr Litlove optimistically, and what’s really odd is that this summer has flown by, but June and July do seem a long, long time ago. I don’t doubt the financial crisis rumbles on, but my menfolk fly out on Wednesday and it’s been a while since I’ve seen an article on Yahoo about Greece (which shamefully passes as my news feed). I believe cash is once more flowing from the ATMs which was the only real worry for the tourist earlier in the year, when I was wondering if I’d have to sew euros into the hems of their t-shirts or something.

I’m still mildly concerned about seeing the pair of them fly off together. They went through a bad patch about fifteen years ago when I could never send them off on an outing together without one of them returning in tears. ‘Oh come on,’ Mr Litlove protested. ‘That was only Christmas trees.’ Indeed, it was one of our traditions for a while that Mr Litlove should call me from the windswept fields of the farm shop to the north of our village with the sound of our son’s wails buffeting around in the background. I seem to remember shoe shopping didn’t go much better, but if they can steer clear of buying shoes or Christmas trees in Greece, they can at least avoid the old triggers.


I have also warned them that when it’s just the two of them, one of them is going to have to listen. On a driving tour, I think there may be quite a few conversations along these lines:

Son: What are we doing here?

Father: This is where we agreed to go next.

Son: I don’t remember agreeing.

Though that makes me feel quite glad to be staying home. Nor will I have to find missing items for either of them. It’s been an interesting weekend in that respect, as Mr Litlove discovered on Saturday that he’d misplaced both his passport and his driving licence. This did not make him happy. The passport turned up quite quickly, but the driving licence is still in the Domestic Bermuda Triangle. He has applied for another, and has some sort of substitute form with all his licence details on it. I don’t suppose anyone else has been in this situation, have they? Of needing to hire a car when their licence has gone missing? Mind you, if they have to take public transport, it’s not such a disaster, as I have vivid memories of a holiday in Corsica with Mr Litlove many, many years ago, when he would drive along enthusiastically pointing out houses with swimming pools, five hundred feet below in the valley.


I have picked out their holiday reading, though, and am putting together their first aid kit, travel essentials I think they may have gone without otherwise. And I’m rather tempted to dig out a once-famous photo of the two of them in the bath when our son was about 6 months old, and suggest they recreate it – though in the sea, as I don’t think a bath is appropriate any more. And I’m not sure what kind of a bath they’d need to accommodate two 6’4” men. Nope, really don’t want to think about that!

They’re both looking forward to it hugely, and Mr Litlove can barely contain his excitement having spent the weekend on the internet researching places they can visit, and enormous meals they might eat.

And what will I be doing while they are away? Oh a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. I have friends to see and catch-up chats on the phone, and with a bit of luck, I might get to hear my friend and co-ed at Shiny, our lovely Simon, give a paper on Elizabeth von Armin at the weekend. Wouldn’t that be fab? And I might just try and project a maternal ring of protection in the general direction of Greece, you know, just in case.