On the 15th December, I lost an old student and very dear friend. Stewart Griffin passed away following a heart attack. My love and support goes out to his partner Jane.
I met Stewart at the Joy of Bonsai at the Bath Pavilion, Bath. It was the first time that I had ever had a sales table at a bonsai event. Until this time, I had only ever exhibited trees at these events. I was parked at one of the back entrances to the building to make it easier to bring in the trees for my sales stand. As I wheeled in my trolley laden with yamadori trees, this shaven headed tough looking bloke, jumped out from behind Walsall Studio Ceramics stand and stopped my trolley. “Hang on a bit mate, gis chance to look at these before you go in.” This was my introduction to Stewart Griffin. On that day Stewart bought a yamadori Scots Pine from me, and then through word of mouth, he encouraged others in the Midlands to pay me a visit. At this time Stewart was one of the top club guys in the Midlands, and was a member of the Midland Bonsai Society for many years.
He was keen for knowledge and studied with some of the top names in bonsai. He later worked exclusively with me, and these were exciting times because at last I had a student who had the potential to go somewhere. There was no quick fix McDonalds bonsai for Stewart. He wanted to do things the right way. He knew he had picked up bad habits and bits of misinformation in the past, but credit to him he acknowledged it! Every time he made a mistake or said something completely wrong, he would look at me and laugh, “You love bollocking me Tollster”. Yes he was the one who christened me ‘The Tollster.’ We have spent countless hours, no days in my studio together and the time always flew by, because we were focused and we enjoyed each others company. He was so intense he would get excited if we were working on a juniper cleaning up deadwood, and if he uncovered some little area of rotting wood he would get excited. And he wood start investigating going deeper and deeper uncovering characterful areas that had not previously been there. “Ooooh Tollster you beauty look at this. Oh and this……” He would almost salivate. Priceless times. We would laugh and sing along to music. I remember once we were carving a big tree and we both had protective gear on and face visors, the whole works. George Michael was blasting out of my iPod dock and we were jigging around (thats a technical bonsai term for chilling) when my daughter walked in with some lunch. The first we new of it was when she burst out laughing. We turned around and she said “ Its like watching a couple of the Village People”. We wet ourselves laughing. Despite enjoying ourselves, we did find time for bonsai, and Stewart was a great student. I wish I had a dozen like him. He wanted to learn, he put the time in, he got “it”, and he was talented. I could ask for no more. Despite his ‘tough’ look. He was a gentle person, kind, thoughtful and generous. Where as I don’t suffer fools and let people know it, he would let it wash over him. But if you crossed him then you would see a different side to him. It was Stewart who cast my trophies for the Best of British Bonsai and he would never let me pay for the casting.
Despite the tough image, he was as strong as a dirty pair of socks and I never let him forget it. On a good day he could pull the skin off a rice pudding. I remember when he moved house and he invited me over to see the new “gaff”. You know how it goes. “Heres the big garden, great space for all my trees. Here’s the big kitchen, heres the games room, and then you guessed it, heres my own gym. What do you think?” I walked over to the biggest dumbell on the floor and picked it up and said, “Stew, did you know they also do weights for men as well”. We fell about laughing. Those of you who know Stewart will know he was follicly challenged and could give Yul Brynner a run for his money in the shiny head contest. I would often joke that his head was in danger of growing through his hair and he took it well. I once jokingly said to him, “ Its a good job you don’t have hair Stew, otherwise I might fancy you myself.” And thats how we bounced off each other. And he was not afraid to have a laugh at his own expense. I remember he joined a gym and after paying his membership they asked him did he want a personal trainer. Stewart said it could be a good idea. So the personal trainer said “If we work together, what would you want to get out of it”. Stewart said, “A six pack, grow my hair and a ten inch c………” The PT guy collapsed!
As you may be aware, Stewart had a very large incredible Taiwanese Juniper from me that won the Noelanders Trophy in 2006. It was his pride and joy. Not long after Noelanders, the tree along with 95% of Stewarts collection was stolen. This broke his heart and that day he quit bonsai. He still had trees at my nursery that he had purchased and he told me to sell them. He just could not at that time look at a tree. After this he had a series of disasters in his life, like falling off scaffolding and breaking a few bones, business problems etc. He went through years of unpleasantness. But more recently, with his new partner Jane, he had found that zest for life again. His business was thriving and he was back into bonsai ! He bought some new tools off me and recently ordered some more and I kept my fingers crossed that he was back in the groove. I never asked him about trees or anything. I was just pleased he was back on the scene. The last time I saw Stewart, he called me up early one morning and asked was I in and could he pop over like NOW! I said of course and he came over and spent the day with me. The reason for his visit was two fold., Firstly to apologise to me because over the years because he was embarrassed about certain incidents he had told me some untruths and he wanted to put the record straight. And secondly because he wanted to share with me how happy he was again and how he had turned his life around. As he sat in his car to leave he mentioned that the book he was presented with by Dazo Iwasaki at the Gingko Awards in Belgium had in one of his darker days, gone missing. I ran into the house and came out and gave him a book to go home with. His eyes welled up, and we hugged. “Thanks buddy, and thanks for being there”. Those were the last words we exchanged face to face. Who new!