Friday, April 24, 2015

Lost Rivers

Not my cake!
I've never done much cake baking, although I enjoy following recipes and particularly measuring out just the right amount of ingredients (brewing beer is more fun and also provides the same measuring satisfaction). 

However, the last few weeks we've been having a baking competition every Friday in our office, requiring me to brush up my baking skills and produce a winning cake. Each cake has been judged by the rest of the office on a number of categories such as aesthetic appeal, level of difficulty and compatibility with tea. 

I have to say that the quality of the cakes before it was my turn was very high, so I felt under a degree of pressure to come up with the goods. 

Mulling over cake ideas with my family my first suggestion of Weetabix cake was quickly ruled out as too plain (although very compatible with tea). Finally I decided on a Rocky Road cake, which involved minimal baking but would be delicious. The measuring of ingredients, melting of chocolate and syrup, and mixing in of raisins and marshmallows all went really well, and as a final flourish I added minty aero chocolate balls on top before chilling the mixture in the fridge.

"It was with a little trepidation that I hesitantly dished up my Rocky Road slices to my colleagues"
It was with a little trepidation that I hesitantly dished up my Rocky Road slices to my colleagues, however the general consensus seemed to be that they were surprisingly tasty, which was a relief! I was hoping for high scores, so imagine my disappointment to discover that some people had not only marked me down on difficulty (a fair cop) but on aesthetic appeal, and someone scoring me very low even on taste! Despite my dreams of topping the table, I found myself near the bottom, my baking confidence shattered. Well, perhaps just a reality check - I might stick to brewing beer instead. 

It doesn't feel great to be criticised.
When was the last time you were criticised for something you did or said? Perhaps it was recently at work, or at home. A small thing maybe, like not putting something away or not meeting someone’s expectations. Maybe you carry memories of criticism at school for your academic or sporting performance. Maybe you deserved it, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you thought you were a great baker, but no one liked your cake. 

Whatever it is, criticism can really hurt, even when it’s justified. If you want to be a top athlete, if you want to be on the top of your game, you need coaches to critique your technique so you can improve. The problem is how we hear it!

Aristotle hit the nail on the head when he said "The only way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, do nothing and be nothing".
"Whatever it is, criticism can really hurt, even when it’s justified."
I wonder how much of our life is lived in fear of what others may say or think? This can be especially true when it comes to creativity in some form or another, right down to cooking a meal for friends or family or baking a cake for your colleagues!

There's no doubt that Aristotle was a bright chap and a deep thinker. The thing is, I’m not sure he was entirely right when he said the only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing. Jesus told a parable about a man who entrusted his servants with various talents of money before going away on a long journey. When he returned, one with five talents had made five more, one with two talents had made two more, but the one entrusted with a single talent had buried it out of fear and only returned to his master what he had been given. Needless to say, his master is unimpressed and gives his talent to others. Notwithstanding Aristotle's advice, sometimes even doing nothing can lead to criticism.

Much as we want to be like the servants who increase their talents, too often I've felt like the servant who hides his talent. The one who buries it for fear of being criticised. Unlike the servant in the parable though, there is always opportunity for us to unearth what we've buried.

In London, Birmingham, Manchester and many of our cities here in the UK, over the past few hundred years as they have urbanised, many of the original watercourses, rivers and streams have been diverted, buried and lost. In London in particular there are maps available showing the former routes of these "lost" rivers, such as the River Fleet or Tyburn. In my work I've regularly had clients or building contractors ring to query whether they've got a "lost" river passing beneath their site and if that will affect their foundations - sadly the truth is that they haven't. By and large all these watercourses have gradually been absorbed into the public sewer network. There generally aren't dramatic underground rivers beneath our cities.
"too often I've felt like the servant who hides his talent"
What is flowing deep within you that you need to bring to the surface? Are there "lost rivers" in your heart? Passions and dreams long suppressed and paved over perhaps?

What do you need to resurface?
The good news for our cities is that some of these watercourses are gradually being brought back to the surface through ambitious restoration projects. Yes some have been completely lost, but others were just put into big culverts, and planning policy is to "daylight" these watercourses when new development allows.

It's not always possible to daylight them all in one go, so this sometimes happens in sections, but even opening up a small section has benefits to water quality, habitat and amenity. Funnily enough, once people can see that there's a river there then there is often more motivation from the community to open up more of it. You don't have to resurface your lost rivers all in one go.

As much as we can be wary of criticism from others, often it's the inner critic that is the worst critic of all. The loudest voice telling us we can't do it is often also deep inside, floating on our lost rivers. Vincent Van Gogh was no stranger to this, for all his creative genius. He said this: "If you hear a voice within you saying 'you cannot paint' then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced."

Following Van Gogh's advice, sometimes we just need to take action. To begin, to surprise ourself with what we can achieve. Whether it's baking a cake, painting a picture, writing a story, assembling some flat pack furniture, it doesn't matter. What matters is making the best of what we've been given. Courageously using our talents rather than burying them. Let's not stay like the servant who buried his gift -  it might just be time for you to daylight your lost rivers.
"You don't have to resurface your lost rivers all in one go."

Thanks for taking the time to read Lost Rivers! If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

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Friday, April 17, 2015

The best things in life...

A montage of ours...
When I was growing up in the 1980s, a tradition my sister started was to create funny family photo
montages. She'd cut up photos and stick them into clip frames to hang on the walls of our parents' house.

Even all these years later these montages are still there to remind us of growing up together, holidays and other memorable or comedy moments.

Mainly when I look at them I think how young and slim I look, but they never fail to make me smile, even if these days they only adorn the walls of the downstairs toilet.

In this digital age it's tempting not to keep hard copies of our photos but, in a similar tradition, my wife and I have created a photo wall upstairs in our house.

Each time we pass we're reminded of happy memories of our children when they were younger, and we also have holiday montages framed in our kitchen. When we were visiting family in Florida the other year we picked up a photo frame with a quote from Cesare Pavese "We don't remember the days, we remember the moments". For us that's what the photos remind us of, shared moments as a family.
"The best things in life aren't things"
Bear Grylls said "The best things in life aren't things" and I'd agree. Not that "things" aren't nice to have, but relationship is what we're wired for, which is I think why we love photo montages  - they remind us of people we love, or experiences we've shared.

A survey was published recently with the 50 top things that make Britons happy. What's striking is that the list isn't about "things" at all but is dominated by "moments" - feeling the sun on your face, doing something for others, a freshly brewed cup of tea, time to yourself. As much we tend to accumulate stuff, it's the moments we remember and which make us happy.

Magic Moments
Memories are important. Not just big holidays but the little everyday things, the daily family moments - like my sister's montages growing up. Lots of the photos are of us in our kitchen, around a table.

Our kitchen was the centre of our household, full of laughter, meals, arguments and everything else. When I recorded my first album in 2002 I called it "Songs for the Kitchen", as the songs were for the centre, the heart, and I imagined my mum playing the CD in the kitchen!

In the excellent book "The Sixty Minute Father" by Rob Parsons he positively encourages creating silly memories in the ordinary - the power of fun - like all sleeping in the lounge one night, or surprising your kids by doing something really silly.

These become family legends, the narrative of relationship: "those" stories that keep coming out at family reunions long into the future. Stories that make you laugh and cry as you remember together.
"Memories are important. Not just big holidays but the little everyday things..."
Of course it's not just stories and photos that have sentimental value. I know that some "things" do too. We've recently hung an old bell in our hall that belonged to my wife's grandfather. It's got a lovely tone, and it's a nice thing, but what makes us cherish it is that it spent 50 years in the house of a loved one and it's chime evokes memories. Sounds and smells can stir us. Like the smell of my dad's workshop, or model steam engines, or creosote, or freshly cut grass.

Our scars also tell events in our story. I have a smallish scar on my left knee, for instance. Sadly it's not from anything exciting but instead from tripping over at a drinks station in the Winchester 10k race one year and cutting it open. It made for a dramatic end to the race with quite a bloody leg!
These are the things that make us “us”. The stories to share. Living memories.

Times we pushed ourselves. Times we conquered and overcame. Or times we didn't – like the time I came 3rd in the senior cross country at school THREE YEARS IN A ROW, being beaten by different people each time! No physical scars associated with this one though!

Part of our photo wall...
It's a cliche that we realise the value of something when it's not there - and we can crave relationship and interaction when we're lonely and isolated, tragically something that affects many elderly people here in the UK. So I was delighted to see a creative response to this in the news this week.

In exchange for spending time with the elderly residents, a nursing home in the Netherlands is offering rent free accommodation to students. I suspect that the students will benefit just as much as the other residents by the inter-generational companionship and friendships formed.

Another cliche is that we can’t take our stuff with us - one day we'll leave it all behind. Recently I heard the charity Open Doors share some of the devastating stories of persecuted Christians in Syria and Iraq who have had to leave their possessions and homes behind to flee from the tyranny of IS jihadists. At times like these, and in the refugee camps they find themselves, the importance of sharing happy memories to displace the recent trauma is even more important.
"We've all been the prodigal at times..."
There's a well known parable about someone who learnt the hard way that the best things in life aren't things. Jesus tells a story of a young man who asked his father for his inheritance, share of his stuff, in advance of his time. Essentially wishing his father dead. Painfully, lovingly, his father assents, only for the young man to blow the lot in decadence far away.

Soon he's left with nothing except memories and decides to return home and offer himself as a servant to his father, knowing the disrespect he has shown him, and the shame and dishonour he's brought on himself. In one of the most moving passages of scripture, the father sees his son returning, and leaving dignity behind he runs to embrace him and welcome him home. The best things in life aren't things. 

Henri Nouwen's profound book about this story "The Return of The Prodigal Son" is a brilliant unpacking of this simple parable. We've all been the prodigal at times, and many of us can also relate to the jealous older brother. But Nouwen's main point is that we're called to love as the father loves and allow ourself to be loved like the son. 

I was reminded of this as I've been listening to the new album by Josh Garrels, particularly the track "At The Table", which speaks to me of the father's love toward the prodigal, especially the line "There will always, always be a place for you at my table".

It's around the table that many memories are made, especially in our kitchen growing up, like the photos at my parents' house. Maybe you're drowning in things, in which case it might be time to give some of it away. Or maybe this week it's time to get some friends round your table, laugh, tell your stories and enjoy some of the things that really are best in life.
"We're called to love as the father loves and allow ourself to be loved like the son"


Thanks for taking the time to read The Best Things in Life! If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon!

Friday, April 10, 2015

What makes you strong?

What does the word strength make you think of? Maybe someone who is physically strong, like the giants you see in Strong Man competitions, or a bodybuilder like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime? Perhaps you think about strength in numbers, like all the bricks that make up a house, or the massed ranks of a Roman legion like the opening scene of the film Gladiator. Perhaps you think of someone with an inner strength who has overcome tragedy or illness in some way, shape or form. Whatever it is, I'm sure we all wonder what makes us strong at different times in our lives.
"What does the word strength make you think of?"
I love a good documentary, it's something that feeds my input and learner themes, and a particularly good series I've watched recently is the BBC's Secrets of the Castle. This is all about immersive history, and focuses on the real-life building of a medieval style castle in the Burgundy region of France, using 13th century techniques and tools. It's a 25 year project and they're around 18 years in. I learnt from this documentary that for medieval castle builders, a feature they used to give their castles strength was to make the walls very thick. Particularly in the towers, the walls might be metres deep. This was to withstand assault from rocks thrown by trebuchets and catapults when the castle was under attack.

It's good to have our corners knocked off!
Another trick they used was to build the towers with cylindrical walls - by avoiding corners the wall would be able to distribute the load in all directions from missiles, therefore having less weak points. Like a castle, sometimes we need depth to be strong - deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world around us that can withstand difficult seasons and boulders being thrown at us. Similarly, it can be a benefit to have our corners knocked off and our rough edges smoothed! 

For various reasons I chose to study Civil Engineering at University many years ago, and although in hindsight I think I made the choice lightly, it proved to be a valuable degree to gain, although it didn't come easy. On my course I learnt (or at least was taught) a reasonable amount about structural strength. Whatever you are building the starting point is the material you are going to use.
"Like a castle, sometimes we need depth to be strong"
Clearly different materials have different properties, and the choice of material influences the way you go about your design. Concrete, as a good example, is brilliant in compression - it can take heavy loads - but it's not good in tension, breaking when stretched. However it also very durable. That's why most concrete design these days is reinforced concrete. To help the concrete be better in tension, steel bars are cast inside to provide the tensile strength it's lacking. The resultant composite maintains the inherent positive qualities of concrete, like it's durability and compressive strength, but with added strength where it's needed.

Like concrete I can list lots of things in my life that are weaker than I'd like, areas where I break more easily under stress or tension. But I also believe that in many of those areas we can add metaphorical re-bar, reinforcement to strengthen us. This will look different to all of us, but might include being accountable to a friend, finding others to help us, or consciously adding more positive elements to our lives - more sleep, healthier food, more exercise for example. 

Steel rebar... not adamantium!
Less scientific a metaphor is the story of Wolverine in the Marvel Comics universe. Possessing a superhuman ability to heal himself, he ends up having a metal (adamantium) bonded to his skeleton, giving him extraordinary strength and resilience.

As a metaphor, Wolverine is much more exciting than reinforced concrete, but embodies the same principle that adding something to our core can make us stronger, although I'm not advocating plating your bones with metal!

Often, an attribute of strength is a degree of flexibility. Iron is an inherently strong material, but cast iron is relatively brittle, lacking flexibility.
"...adding something to our core can make us stronger"
Steel is more flexible and less brittle, and is formed by removing impurities in pure iron and iron ores and adding alloying elements. I think that in our lives we can become less iron and more steel as we're refined through our life experience - particularly through tough times and heartache. We can become less brittle and more durable as a result, if we submit ourself to the process. As the psalmist said:

"For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver.
You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs.
You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water,
but you brought us to a place of abundance" (Psalm 66:10-12, NIV)

I've always loved watching the Worlds' Strongest Man competitions on TV, ever since I was a beanpole twelve year old with body building ambitions far in excess of my frame! In a physical sense, we build muscle through repeated action - like a bodybuilder repeatedly lifting weights - or a sportsman going through their specific motions. As well as pushing yourself up to and beyond your limits, to grow muscle you need good nutrition and importantly rest - it's often in the rest times that the muscle is able to rebuild stronger.
"in our lives we can become less iron and more steel as we're refined through our life experience"
It's possible to overtrain, and many athletes find it hard to rest, always wanting to drive themselves faster, higher and stronger (citius, altius, fortius as the Olympic motto goes). For us to be strong and productive we also need to allow ourselves time to rest. I find this particularly at work. The more I'm able to switch off from work mode in an evening and particularly over a weekend, the better I'm able to give myself the next morning. In terms of endurance, pacing yourself is essential, whether running a marathon, writing a book or working for others. 

We need strong roots.
Trees are another example of flexibility for durability. For as much of the tree as we see above ground in the form of branches, much of its strength comes from the extensive root system beneath, providing anchor and stability to resist strong winds. The most resilient trees are able to bend but not break in the wind. Each year the tree puts on growth, adding another annual ring. 

Like the roots of a tree, strong foundations also provide stability and durability, something I also learnt during my degree. If you want to build up, you need to dig down. Interestingly, in places like -London, it is becoming more frequent to re-use existing piled foundations from previous structures for new buildings, for me a picture of the need to learn from others and build our platforms on the shoulders and in the debt of those that have gone before us. Along these lines, I love this quote from David Brinkley:

"A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him" 

So what makes us strong? And are there things you can shore up in your own life? Perhaps you just need to keep doing what you're doing, allowing strength to develop through repeated action and deliberate practice at a skill you're trying to master. Maybe you're still a little rough around the edges, too many corners - perhaps you're finding this at work, or in your relationships. Often it's hard for us to see our own rough edges, so a way to become stronger is to find people that you trust and ask them to gently point these out to you. I had a manager at work who did a 360 degree review with various other colleagues, asking them to point out his strengths but also his weaknesses or growth areas. This was a painful and humbling process, but he emerged out of the other side more aware of his corners and therefore able to do something about it, and he's a better leader for it. Perhaps you can do something similar. 
"The most resilient trees are able to bend but not break in the wind"
Passing through fire...
Sometimes strength comes when we go through the fire, when we experience loss, difficultly, illness and pain.

This isn't something to seek out, but a characteristic of our human condition is that we will encounter difficulty throughout our life.

Like the process of turning iron into steel, strength can come through these experiences, making us more able to encounter them in the future and also enabling us to help and identify with others going through similar things. 

It's often at our core where we need strength the most. A reflective exercise for you this week might be to consider your weakest areas and creatively think how and what reinforcement might look like.

I want to finish with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. As much as I've been talking about strength and getting stronger in this post, it's not always something we can do on our own, and I often take comfort from these words from God to his people:

"Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the Everlasting God,
 the creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, 
and his understanding no-one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary 
and increases the power of the weak.
Even young men stumble and fall, 
but those who hope in the Lord 
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint." (Isa 40:28-31)


Thanks for taking the time to read What Makes You Strong! If you've enjoyed it why not share it with your friends on social media? Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon!

Friday, April 03, 2015

Musings on.. making things

My dad started me young...
I've been wondering what my fascination is with making things. I love being creative in lots of different ways - writing, song-writing, poetry, brewing, making music, podcasting, growing things on out allotment and making items in my workshop.

It definitely runs in our family - my dad is extremely practical and very capable at making things, and his dad was as well. 

"I love being creative in lots of different ways "
I have many fond memories of my dad in his workshop, and am the proud owner of numerous items he's made for me over the years - often beautiful and practical wooden tools (RUP's - really useful presents - a saying we have in our family!).

Some of my most precious things are the pieces of furniture we've made together such as a fine set of freestanding oak bookshelves we made between Christmas and New Year one time. The oak itself that we used had a unique history too - back in 1987 after the great storm in that October my dad got a licence from the local council to saw up some of the oak trees in nearby Esher Woods that had blown over in the winds. 

With the largest non-commercial chainsaw you can buy (I think it had a 6ft sawing blade), he painstakingly sawed them into planks and then seasoned the wood in long woodstacks at the end of our garden (and a few other people's gardens as well!). It takes over seven years for oak to season, but the long and the short of it is that we have a large stock of 'family' wood for furniture making, the outputs of which proudly fill the homes of my siblings and I.
" a western society we seem so obsessed and reliant on technology..."
In my own workshop...
So, on one level my need and desire to make things and be practical is I'm sure partly to honour my dad, and an attempt to live up to his legacy. In another sense, as a western society we seem so obsessed and reliant on technology, things seem so disposable and we want everything now now now. 

In this context, the art of making things by hand and taking the time and patience to even learn the skills to be able to do this is a reaction against this cult of the instantaneous, a form of practical defiance against the 'I want it now', click of a button culture we experience all around us. 

Taking the time to make things, often quite a slow process when being fitted around other commitments, is a deliberate defiance of this particular underlying Zeitgeist. 

If you believe the doom-mongers around, then I suppose it's also a form of insurance should the worst ever happen, technology fails, and we all have to live life without many of the things we've become reliant on. In the event of financial and geopolitical meltdown, having practical skills (and tools) becomes much more important!

Scrap-wood biplane..
I take great satisfaction in being able to say 'I made that!', and it's nice to be able to make lasting items and gifts for my family and friends. For the thrifty person inside me, making things - for instance Christmas presents - seems like a better investment. 

Usually the raw materials are cheaper than buying unwanted, disposable, shop bought items, but also the time and energy I expend over Autumn and Winter evenings is a conscious choice. 

"I take great satisfaction in being able to say 'I made that!'"
It's a statement of how much my family mean to me that I'm willing to spend that time for them. In a culture where time is money, deliberately choosing to devote time to something gives that something a high value.

At the moment my favourite material is wood. I like that its a renewable, natural material. I like the smell and the way it handles. I always have a number of projects on the go - in fact I generally have far more ideas for things to make than time to make them all! 

A guitar neck in progress...
My most complex and long term project is an acoustic guitar that I'm building. It's taking me some time, as it's an incredibly precise item to build, and I'm learning the skills I need as I go along. 

I consider myself still only a very passable carpenter, let along a decent joiner or master luthier! But I am very much enjoying the process, and happily permit myself to be distracted by other interesting woodworking projects and gifts, as these are all developing my woodworking skills, as well as my patience and portfolio.

"I generally have far more ideas for things to make than time to make them all!"
After I finished my civil engineering degree (something which sounds like it should make you practical, but was in fact very theoretical), I spent some time travelling before I started work. In Canada I met a friend of a friend who was a luthier in his spare time. I was inspired by his workshop and off the back of this I bought the "bible" of guitar making he recommended.. which ended up sitting and mocking me on my oak bookshelves while time passed and I hadn't started making a guitar.

Building a house in South Africa
As I approached my tenth "work" anniversary, I had an epiphany of sorts. I realised that life was slipping by and that I needed to start a number of things which had been on my long-term "to-do" list without expecting conditions to be perfect. 

I also had to let go my perfectionist leanings and embrace the mistakes and my amateurishness. In short, I had to get over myself and make some space to make things. 

Making space in our busy lives is a huge other subject which I cover in my book Life Space, but to cut a long story short over the last few years I have literally made a space to make things - a small, chilly but wonderful workshop (a pale shadow compared to my dad's, but you have to start somewhere!), and have rejoiced in making all number of things.. some more successful than others, but each one an act and expression of creativity, patience and an opportunity to hone my meagre woodworking skills further. 

I'm ok that my creations are sometimes a bit wonky, yes I know my dad could make them a hundred times better, but that's ok - for me, for now, the journey is more important than the destination.
"I had to get over myself and make some space to make things"
I'd like to do more metalwork. I think that will come in time. I'd like my children to catch the making bug. I'd like them to spend time with me in my workshop, and with my dad in his workshop. There are lots of things (some would say too many) that I'd like to make, however perfect or imperfect. A day will come when I've even finished making my guitar! But I think the fascination with making things is bigger than the finished article, much more about the process, and no small part of what makes me "me".


Thanks for taking the time to read my Musings on Making Things! If you've enjoyed it why not share it with your friends on social media? Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon!

My Random Musings