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Everyone, I’m sure, expects to be brassic during January, but here we are cresting into March and I still have no money.

(To be honest I expect this to be the status quo here at Boot Hall for the foreseeable future.)

If I did have any money I’d head over to Vintage Hiking Depot to make a few purchases.

My VHD T-Shirt is one of my favourite bits of clothing and when I bought it a complimentary VHD sticker was enclosed.

Rather than just slap it on anywhere, I put the sticker, with a couple of others, in a “safe place”. It is the nature of such “safe place”s that they are near impossible to locate within 24 hours.

Or maybe that only applies if, like me, you are an idiot.

Whether you are an idiot or not, I recommend that you get over to the Vintage Hiking Depot sire to have a gander at the merch.

I may have to order another VHD sticker as I’ve now found a really good place to put it. The trouble is there are 2 other stickers in my “safe place” and I‘d need to replace them too. Grrr.

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Back in February Little Boots had a cold. This largely passed soon enough, but a persistent cough hung around. When this started getting worse we were concerned and sought the GP’s advice. Diagnosis was mixed as there were asthmatic symptoms. In the end we needn’t have worried as the worsening cough was simply the onset of another cold. I say simply, but as colds go this was a doozy and, as is the way with having small children bringing home lurgies from school, everyone in the household went down with it.

For my part I tried struggling on with work, which was certainly a mistake. Personally I don’t know what was the “highpoint” – coughing up blood, or totally blobbing the most important interview of my life cos I could barely talk, or think straight.

Then we had a chimney fire – well it was bank holiday afternoon and all the films on were rubbish, so we had to do something exciting. Anyway it kept the neighbours amused to have a fire engine pumping water down our chimney. Having the house still smelling of smoke was not great when we were all still coughing.

And to add to it, whilst I was cleaning up after the fire I managed to tread cat poo all through the house. It was not the greatest day of my life.

In fact, all in all it was a fortnight of misery for the whole household and I felt pretty ground down by it all, both physically and emotionally.

But the day after the fire the sun came out, and the youngster and I kitted up and set off for adventure and fresh air. After walking a mile up the hill, we collected a young friend and were soon in the nearby woods. We built a shelter like we had before, but this time the kids found an old piece of corrugated iron that they wisely decided to use as part of the walls. As we sat eating lunch, I studied the shelter. It was much better than previous ones, which were not much more than a space to play in. This one would probably keep the rain off – well most of it.

shelter

Not that it rained. In fact with the shelter of the wood keeping the wind at bay the sunlight was warming and delightful. I had been noticing all morning primroses, celandines and other wild flowers making their belated appearances and it truly felt like spring was pushing through at last. There were other changes too. Little Boots was now the first to spot much of the wildlife, squirrel, kite, buzzard, pheasant, even a small chocolate coloured moth bumbling around in the leaf litter by my foot as we ate our soup.

We must have been out for about four hours and, though that’s not a particularly long time, when we got back I felt almost as if I’d been on holiday. No doubt a big part of this was the sun that shone brightly for what seemed like the first time since last September. Not that it was especially warm, a chill wind saw to that, although that too played a part in clearing away the mental and physical detritus, but for the first time in weeks I had stopped coughing.

It was marvellous.

What does love look like?

It looks like this.

Instead of sitting, full of cold, on the sofa watching cheesy old films, I spent a recent Saturday making this Mandeville headpiece.

Little Boots was hell-bent on having suitable fancy dress for an Olympic party. ‘It’ll only take an hour or so’ I told myself as I acquiesced to the design brief.

It was more like six hours and although a reasonable amount of that was spent waiting for glue to dry (or at least ‘grab’ properly), and the process was no-doubt extended by cold-fuddled synapses,  I was so very glad to finish it.

Tho’ not as glad as Little Boots – ‘It’s awesome!

And that of course made it all worthwhile for me, although a share of the chocolates that made up first prize would have been nice.

It had not been a good day.

But then it had not been a good month.

Or a good quarter year even.

Life had worn me down somewhat, largely because I’ve got myself into a position at work I’m not happy with and one which I see limited opportunities of extricating myself from.

I’d sat all morning by an old monastery pond, during a rainstorm, and caught only a tiny perch. My only luck was in not catching a cold as well. Relocating to a river seemed a sensible idea, particularly as the sun was due to appear in the afternoon.

This did prove more successful in terms of catching fish (though they were few and not very big), but the sun didn’t turn up and it continued raining on and off all afternoon.

Rarely do I feel anything other than contentment when fishing, but I was starting to feel distinctly glum. Soggy and glum is not a good combination.

And then I reeled in this little fellow.

Has a smaller fish ever been caught on a size twelve hook and five, yes five, maggots?

At the time it just tickled me as the smallest fish I’d ever caught. But over the next twenty-four hours this small piscine creature swam round and round in my mind. I have touched before on the life lessons that can be taken from tiny critters and this one certainly made me think. In attacking a bait almost as big as itself it showed a hunger for life that was both impressive and slightly crazy.

So what did I take from that?

Well, that life is for living and not moping and if I can’t reduce the grim bits of life that I can’t control, then I need to increase the positive aspects. And a big part of that has to be doing something creative. I’ve a few ideas that’ve been hanging around for a while and I certainly need to reinvigorate work on my tree book.

And to get better at fishing.

As I have mentioned here before, one of Winston Churchill’s maxims was “We must just KBO” and that the abbreviation means means “Keep Buggering On.”

You’ll understand then, why I found this van signage so amusing.

I tried explaining this to the driver who had wondered why I was taking the photo.

I signally failed to convey why I found it so amusing, but did in the process, I’m sure, convince him I was mental.

Or simple.

Or both.

There’s little point in denying this week has been tough. Back at work after a chain of illnesses that go: cold-chest infection-another cold-sinus infection and partial deafness, I’m still far from well and faced with a mountain of work. Striking a balance between making inroads into that workpile and not pushing myself too hard, in case I fall ill again, has been a difficult, tiring and demoralising slog.

The sunshine has been a major boon, apart from the fact that I’ve had no time to be outside to enjoy it, but there have been three things that have lifted my spirits across this week.

The first came about as I was walking home up the hill, from the train station. Watching a pair of Red Kites weaving around the sky I thought “Jeez it must be a windless day”, because they were flapping their wings in quite an animated fashion and you scarcely ever see a Kite doing anything else than soaring effortlessly with ne’er a wingbeat. But then I looked at the trees moving and saw that it was actually quite windy. This made no sense, nor did the fact that one of the birds piled into a conifer tree and then crashing through the other side, tucked its wings back falcon-like and executed a barrel roll.

This is weird behaviour I thought and made no sense. At that point the Kite seared upwards sending in my direction what I thought was a mega-poo. As it dropped on the tarmac in front of me, the penny dropped also. It was a fir cone and the birds’ activity was courtship display. Marvellous. I stayed standing in the street watching them, grinning loonishly, until they goofed off out of sight, like a pair of hormonal teenagers.

Next in the things that made my world a better place was McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy. An ad hoc purchase from The Oxfam bookshop at the beginning of the week it was a book I planned to read when it came out ten years ago and had lost sight of. It’s the sort of book that’s been chiming with me in recent months (of which I might write later) and I have been both unable to put it down and kicking myself for not reading it a decade ago. A humorous read it was ultimately a melancholy experience. A theme that runs throughout the book is belonging, and as I finished the last page said to myself “Pete you should move to Ireland”. It was only afterwards when I asked myself what had become of him that I discovered that he’d died relatively young and suddenly in 2004, and never had moved there .

Wherever you are, thank you for the smiles Pete, you’ve helped me through this week.

And the third thing to lift my spirits? Well Again it was a bird and here I would like to categorically state I am not a twitcher. In contrast to the enormously winged Kite from the beginning of the week, this was one of our smallest birds and undoubtedly my favourite, the Wren. I first noticed this little chap when he was perched halfway along a long a branch, about 5 feet from where I was sitting, belting it out like a diminutive avian Bryn Terfel. My God they don’t half let it rip for such a pea of a creature.

He then flew off leaving me to read my book in the brilliant sunshine. A minute or two later, reappearing lower down the branch with a tiny shred of something that looked like a piece of hand-rolling tobacco. After a quick look around the little bird disappeared into the snug of ivy that hid the junction of the ash trunk with its branches.

Re-emerging, he flitted back up to the middle of the branch and fired off his musical salvo, and so starting the whole process all over again. This was repeated over and over as the Wren was clearly building one of their cave-like nests that give them their Latin name of Troglodytes troglodytes. It was an awe inspiring level of activity, unintimidated by my proximity nor the windy bow-waves of HSTs that kept barrelling past. Even more so because I have an idea that the male wren builds several nests for his mate to chose from.

Watching the energy he put into constructing just one (and singing about it) was fascinating, charming and a little bit humbling. Is it too much to see in the frenetic, optimistic activity of this little bird a lesson for life? I don’t know. Maybe.

Whatever the case it raised my tired spirits, on a Friday morning.

So, the first year had been pretty poor, with an inadequate level of teaching along with hooking us up to the college’s online net that didn’t work, but not to the RHS qualifications portal, that did, topped off with the tutor’s sudden disappearance.

The second year started even worse in that it didn’t even have a tutor, but after a month the clouds broke and I was optimistic – we had a new tutor, and I had a huge chunk of Module A notes prepared already.

Then two things happened. Firstly I got a call from college saying that after just one week Gloria, our new tutor, wasn’t coming back. My conscience was clear there, since I wasn’t one of those who’d moaned at her at length, but in any case it was disappointing as she’d seemed pretty clued up.

Later I heard a rumour (via college) that her departure was down to the class’ carping. This is entirely possible, but she was very engaged and mentioned a number of practical projects, which the class were enthusiastic about, but (based on experience) said the college would not support. Perhaps she found that to be true and together with a disenchanted class, quite sensibly baled out.

So we got another new tutor – just- apparently someone high up in the college called in a personal favour. And notwithstanding we had wasted a 5th lesson (Gloria’s last, and first, stand) and now a 6th with a new meet and greet, we seemed to be back on course. But there was a new development, which to my mind was a much bigger issue than a change of tutor.

We were with now doing Module D (Outdoor & Protected Plant Production).

At the beginning of the course we planned to do Module B (Taxonomy & Physiology) then Module A (Plant Propagation/Soils), and with those two compulsory elements out of the way coast into the last exam with our optional third – Module I (Ornamental Gardens) an area we were all familiar with.

Module D never , ever, came into it.

The thought behind the change was that it was short module and we had little time.

That may have sounded sensible but it overlooked a number of important factors.

To begin with the module was pretty dull. Commercial horticulture is not massively engaging to most gardeners. “It’s like farming,” said one of the class.

Not only was it of only peripheral interest to the class, it wasn’t something any of us were familiar with, so whilst Module I was a bit longer, it was one we all knew something about.

Added to that, it’s not so easy to get the right books. At least not inexpensively.

But most importantly, we had in no way been consulted about the change.

I voiced my dissent and although this was an utter “grab your ankles and grit your teeth”-type scenario, no-one supported my protests and I was left looking like an idiot.

(I did have the last laugh, albeit a hollow one, when I was the only person in the class who passed the module.)

I was irked about the swap, but nevertheless determined to make the best of it, and set about writing my own notes from the syllabus. This wasn’t that easy since you can’t just walk into a high street bookshop and pick up a book on commercial horticulture. Luckily I had a couple of books myself that I had acquired out of curiosity over the years, but had never actually thought I’d ever find useful. With a couple of bargain eBay purchases, some hefty textbooks arrived through the post and I at least had some guidance.

Meanwhile the class ploughed on. I say ploughed, I mean wandered with all the determination of an arthritic guinea pig with a sock pulled over its head.

The addition of insult to injury might have been swallowable if we’d been given expert coaching on the subject. I’m not sure we were. Certainly the 30 minutes we spent in early December compiling a fruit and veg shopping list by looking at the Sainsburys website, simply to illustrate that organic produce can be sold at a premium – a point that surely everyone knows – was a waste of quarter of a session.

The next week the snows came and there was no class, which meant that we lost another lesson. Not that the college actually rang and told anybody. Why should they you ask? Well they’d phoned two weeks before to tell us there was no class as the tutor was sick. Whether this was the same week she moved house I can’t quite recall.

Some of my classmates were re-sitting Module B. I leant one of them, Adam, a copy of my notes. He must have been impressed as a week later another classmate, Anna, sidled up and said, “Please may I have a copy of your notes – I hear they are wonderful.” I duly provided a set and a week later she came up to me and told me she now understood lots of things she hadn’t previously. It was a delight to hear this, but sad that she couldn’t say that same about a course we’d all paid for. 

By the time the exam came round in February we’d had only had proper lessons for 7 out of 15 scheduled classes. With that, and a horticultural subject most people were unfamiliar with, it’s no surprise virtually the whole class failed. I had a tough time myself for other reasons. Whilst I’d put together a reasonable set of notes, I was worried I might be seriously ill and my head was elsewhere. All things considered, I told myself all I needed to do was pass.

On the day, I knew I’d done OK on the short answer questions but my heart sank when I turned over the long answer paper. The first thought that spluttered through my mind was “I can’t answer any of these”. Then I rationalised things and did some quick sums on the edge of the exam paper. If I had got say 90% of the marks from the first section, that worked out at about 22%of the whole exam, which meant that I needed to get about 7 and a half marks from each of the three remaining 20 mark questions. So I took a deep breath. Straight away I realised that one of the questions was one of those special questions that the RHS sets just to annoy the Campaign for Plain English. You are required to read the question a number of times in order to work out that they are actually asking something quite simple. Once I’d unpicked the question, I reckoned that I could get most of the marks out of it. Then I moved on to another question where I knew enough to grab a few more points and by my calculations I only had to glean a small amount from a final question. It seems to me that people get quite hung up on specific details in RHS exam questions, which are the sort of thing that gets the final marks out of the thing, and forget that a reasonable proportion are available for outlining basic principles. To put it another way – there are marks to be had for stating the obvious. So on my last question that’s what I did.

This wasn’t the end of my adventures that day, as I wrote about at the time.

It was some months later, sat on a train, that I checked the RHS qualifications portal a week early before the result was expected. My squeal of delight at not just passing, but getting another 67%, was heard at the other end of the carriage. I know this because a friend who was at the far end of the carriage heard and seeing it was me, came to investigate. I was so pleased that I babbled him senseless for the whole journey.

All’s well that ends well you might say, but not for the rest of the class who pretty much sank without trace where Module D was concerned.

On a more positive note, both Adam and Anna passed their Module B re-sits and she was kind enough to make a point of telling me she wouldn’t have done so without my notes.

It can only get better, I thought.