Collection of the trees started the preceding Sunday, with two from the south getting scooped up in the monkey mobile before heading up to Ice Station Etwall, the muster point for the Ashfield Massive. This year we had new participants from Cornwall, South Wales and also the North East. Prep work went fairly smoothly except for one tree, a juniper which had dulux emulsion on the dead wood. The removal of which gave me a moment of panic which I must admit, made me brick it. Thankfully due to a superbly stocked workroom, some patience and to which ever god answered my prayers, disaster was averted and I managed to make it look reasonably passable. (Note for next year, dead wood prep must be done at least three months in advance...). My thanks go to Mr. Pitt for his help, assistance, moral support and tea making skills.
The Willowbog van turned up right on time wednesday night and we packed up all the trees. It was flirting with sub zero temperatures like me with Kelly Pounder at the school disco in 1992, so we left a very smelly paraffin heater on over night which kept it above freezing. Unlike the disco, we awoke to great success and a frost free morning. Travelling down the motorway, Mr. Snart indulged in his favourite
Arriving at Saruyama Towers, a few last minute preparations, a pot change for an accent that didn't work as planned and picking up a few stands, we set off in plenty of time for the tunnel. It was a good job we did as the weather conditions across the channel couldn't have been any more different. From +6 C to -6 in the blink of eye (well, 45 minute train ride). The rest of the journey towards Belgium was spent with me worrying about the cold, Peter Snart telling me to stop worrying and the pathfinder Mr. Pitt telling me it was even colder up ahead and that we would get stuck in Brussels rush hour traffic. The reason for worrying is that our smelly paraffin heater would take the edge off a slightly sub zero outdoor temperature but would be as much use as a chocolate fireguard in the bleak belgian mid winter. Thankfully the organisers were happy to let us unload that night and so they waited a little to let us unload the trees and accents for all 14 displays before going home. My panic averted, Mr. Snart annoyance at my worrying abated (although secretly worrying himself, but not wanting to show it), we headed on to the hotel for a well deserved orange juice.
Next morning we were through photography and finished just as others started turning up. We got benched up and finished tweaking everything by 2, by this time the throngs had started, everyone glad to have just beaten the snow and bad weather back home. Worrying now turned to the poly tunnel and covered areas at home...would they stand an avalanche? It turns out the answer is yes. I hope...
Throughout the Saturday thousands of people came, including many of the owners of the trees we had brought along. Seeing the happiness on their faces and the genuine thanks was reward enough for the effort put in. This for me is the essence of being a bonsai professional, allowing the bonsai loving public to do just that, enjoy, appreciate and improve their understanding of bonsai as an art and technical pursuit. Unfortunately due to the weather, bad luck and bad health, many of the owners could not make it. Your presence was sadly missed.
Mike Hagedorn and Ryan turned up with his apprentice, the quintessentially Gallic JP and student Bill in tow. Back to hotel, we spent a relaxing night talking nonsense about trees, art and loads of other stuff that I perhaps should have written down. I did come up with idea of a US style draft system, where by the worst team in the league gets first pick of the best new players for next season. This creates in theory a level playing field, so what if we awarded the worst tree in a show with a voucher for some better material? Needless to say, the flaws in my plan were quickly pointed out.
Sunday was a quieter day and due to the weather we were allowed to pack up a little early. We were still second to last, only the Spanish truck was left to pack after us. As per last year, we decided to stay the Sunday night rather than risk it back, tired and driving in the snowy frozen night. The biggest problem we had was the potentially freezing temperatures in the van again, and so we asked our very obliging hotel to use a spare dining room to put some of the more delicate trees in. Due to the heat of the exhibition hall, many trees were starting to grow and the deciduous and shohin were particularly full of water, so they all came inside, allowing us a mini exhibition of our own...
One of the biggest times for stress on a tree is post exhibition, when desperate for water, it is quickly bundled into a car and driven for several hours in a warm heated environment before being plonked back outside, potentially in the cold. After a show of this quality, the trees are desperate for water, fresh air and a relaxing environment...as am I!
Many of the displays got a lot of attention for various reasons, so here is a run down of some of them.
We had the honour of taking over the Cooper's shohin displays for them, I know how much effort they have put into their trees, so for them to give it up for me was a vote of confidence. One of the biggest problems though was me having to tell everyone that I did not in fact make the trees, nor could claim any responsibility for them. I think by the end of the weekend everybody knew though, especially after theaward ceremony where they picked up first, second and a special BCI award. Well deserved congratulations to both Mark and Ritta and thank you for making my life so easy by making it fool proof to set up. I almost messed up, but we managed to get through in the end.
The ramification on the elm was appreciated the most by the knowledgable crowd.
The first prize winning display featured an outstandingly well ramified zelkova which I remember 7 years ago as a stump with a few branches, and a red pine which has been a few years in the making. A recent branch removal has made it even better. I guess I could claim credit for either planting a seed to cut it or pressing for the decision to be made. *clutches at straws*
Three deciduous trees from the Ashfield Massive. First up, the only genuinely fruiting tree in the show, an abundantly fertile ilex serrata from John Brocklehurst. How many others in Europe have attempted or achieved a similar feat of horticultural excellence, not only to get it fruiting so much in such a small pot, but keep all the fruit in tact and looking lovely? All credit to Trev. Awesome.
A beautifully delicate and deciduous looking deshojo maple from Mike Rose, complimented perfectly by the patina on the aged tokoname pot and the elegant stand. This was one of Michael Hagedorn's favourites, which in turn made me very happy. This tree almost didn't get in due to some terrible photography.
A tree which I got credited with, but in fact have done very little to is the Kashima Maple of Peter Tombs who couldn't make it due to ill health. Many people congratulated me on the work again, but this is an old tree, one which has been around for longer than I have been doing bonsai. It photographed very well and it looked a treat in the show.
This native three point display from the afore mentioned Mr. Pitt was a reminder to us all that Japanese is not always best. Unless you are eating sushi. I love the apparent size of the yew, it feels a lot bigger than it actually is. It packs a punch much above it's weight category, very much like the owner.
Another tree I was heavily involved in was with this Juniper, belonging to a client of mine and having recently sourced the pot, stand and accents for the three point display. I was hoping to achieve a look of maturity in the tree, so there was a deliberate and very time consuming trunk cleaning process whereby the dirt was removed as best as possible but some of the flakiness of the bark was allowed to remain. I tried to achieve a similar effect with the dead wood, but without enough time to do it and to be frank, a difference in aesthetic tastes between myself and the owner, a compromise was achieved, as it was with the foliage. It is slightly too dense all over, but it was pruned back as much as I could, whilst at the same time, I was allowed to show it (relatively) unwired, a testament to many years of dedicated foliage management and patience. Compare this mature foliage to the constantly overworked, sparse foliage of other junipers commonly seen. Yet again another aesthetic choice which goes against the common grain. I often think of a scene in the film Blade, where Wesley Snipes tells an unfortunate vampire that "Some mutha funkers, are always trying to ice skate up hill..."
The table was the weakest element of the composition, but it was a very last minute acquisition, along with the pot, although that couldn't be much better to be honest. A middle crossing pot dating it at around 200 years old, brown clay, patina to die for. Many thanks to my senpai Akiyama-san for that one. Although I personally like the elegance of the table, a slightly smaller and more powerful table would have made it perfectly Kokufu-esque. The chojubai not being in flower was another disappointment, but bearing in mind the cold and total lack of sunlight, I wouldn't flower either.
We had a very good showing from the UK, not only the other trees we brought, but also a wonderful Red Pine from Chrissie Leigh-Walker, styled by Paul Finch, Three trees from the Wirral Boys and Tony Tickle had two trees in as well. None of the trees were an embarrassment to the UK, yet other than the Coopers, we ere never in the running for any awards, a fact which made me I think the show is an accurate representation of the state of European Bonsai at the moment. We have talent and dedication in the UK, great determination and good fundamental techniques. What we lack is deep pockets to compete with the top Spanish collectors who won many awards. David Benavente or his clients deservedly won several awards and the influence of a number of wealthy and active bonsai enthusiasts can be seen there in the trees, pots and stands.... But for all of those who feel as though winning is the only thing that is important, I can assure you it isn't; to make beautiful trees which can stand alongside the best in Europe and not only hold their own, but stand out and shine; that is the goal.
Well, that concludes a mammoth post, the majority of which has been written on the road back to Calais...whilst Mr. Snart drives and looks grumpy. Today saw me return the trees to Wales and the arrival of Ryan on these shores ahead of his workshop and demonstrations up at Willowbog...another first for the UK. I will be driving him around, lending a hand and looking on...it will be a learning experience for me as well no doubt.
As I didn't take many photos, I borrowed some from Bonsai Eejits website....