August 2006

Arts & Letters

Let’s get our hands dirty

By Kerryn Goldsworthy
ABC TV’s ‘Gardening Australia’

“But that’s what this program’s about. It’s about action, and the sheer beauty of it,” said Peter Cundall recently in his introductory segment of Gardening Australia (6.30 pm Saturdays; repeated 1pm Sundays). He says this kind of thing a lot, and while you’re being towed along in the wake of his enthusiasm it strikes you that here’s a man with a coherent philosophy of life, a man who gives a lot of thought to the way he spends his days.

For Cundall, gardening is simultaneously a form of activism and a form of contemplation: a way of self-sustenance, of land-care, and of eating good food that hasn’t been either literally or figuratively adulterated by the elaborate processes of capitalism, but also a means of recovery and regeneration. “If you’re in a world that’s a bit crazy, a bit mixed up, racing ahead,” he said to Peter Thompson in a 2004 interview for ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas, “no matter what you do in a garden, things still happen at the same rate. You sow seeds and they come up within ten or fifteen days … If you plant an apple tree or a lemon tree, you know it’ll be in fruit at a certain time … And it’s that assurance and security about gardening. And there’s also a wonderful timelessness about it.”

It’s less self-contradictory than it sounds to talk about precision timing in one breath and timelessness in the next: in the garden, time ceases to be linear and becomes cyclical. I’ve had my own garden for over eight years now, and these days I could usually tell you what week of what month it is just from looking at the jasmine, the bottlebrush, the daphne or the sage, to say nothing of the honeyeaters’ nests in the bougainvillea, the white fly on the lemon tree or the woolly-bear caterpillars all over the bignonia.

Gardening Australia, which calls itself “first in the trend of ‘infotainment’ programs”, is now in its seventeenth series and seems to have survived the ABC’s recent decision to move its production from Hobart to Melbourne. Cundall, a proud Tasmanian, is the show’s focus and anchor but it also has a strong team of expert presenters from around the country. Unlike many programs that purport to be “national” but are in fact firmly Melbourne- or Sydney-centric, with only token cosmetic gestures to other states and cities, Gardening Australia really does project a national presence, with regular features from cities, towns and climate zones all over the country.

The show’s regular presenters range along a spectrum from moderately telegenic to endearingly homely, but they have all been chosen chiefly for their expertise, and their performance is a lesson in the amount of on-screen ease and presence that can be generated by a familiarity with your subject – a lesson that many so-called personalities on the commercial channels would do well to learn. If guests are personable and articulate, as were the hydroponic-tomato grower from Point Lonsdale and the fungus specialist from the University of Melbourne who both recently featured on the show, they do their own presentations direct to camera with no mediation by any member of the regular team.

For such a domestic, modestly sized and unpretentious program, Gardening Australia’s production and structure are quietly excellent. Unusually rich in content for contemporary television, the show rattles along at a great rate, with no vacuous chatter and no wasted time between the two or three main features and the three or four regular spots that make up each week’s program. With the more instructive segments – how to grow vegies in pots, or recycle your grey water, or protect your lime tree from frost – there’s a lot of steady and highly illustrative zooming in and out, in close sync with the script.

There are constant shifts of scale, not just in the predictable and sensible variation of topics, but also in a more imaginative structuring of segments, so that some are fine-detail examinations of tiny things while others are panoramic overviews of big urban and rural projects stretching over years, from eagle-eye views of entire landscaped parks to magnified close-ups of tiny pods full of even tinier seeds.

In one recent episode, there was a segment on Brisbane’s Roma Street Parkland that featured sweeping shots of the city with an oasis at its heart, a former derelict railway yard that, over the last few years, has been magically transformed with graceful greenery and spectacular water-features, making the most of the uneven ground. The following week, a segment on “the fascinating, wonderful world of fungus” (and there’s a phrase you don’t hear on TV every day) featured lingering close-ups of a minuscule clump of Mycena clarkeana: seven or eight perfect frilly-edged, dusty-pink umbrella-shapes, looking like a retro light-fitting for a particularly funky doll’s house, or some miniaturised form of naughty nineteenth-century underwear.

One regularly recurring image is a medium-range shot of two or three people down on their hands and knees in the garden, throwing around handfuls and armloads of various virtuous garden substances in a symphony of browns from pale gold to dark chocolate: pea-straw, zoo poo, potting mix, compost or sand. “Let’s get our hands dirty” is one of the things the show’s host says with particular relish.


Peter Cundall was born in Manchester in 1927, one of six children in a family he describes as the poorest in a poor district: “I actually thought, as a child, that to be rich meant that your Dad had a job.” After the family had scrambled through the Depression, Cundall senior decamped to the army in 1939 and, with the exception of one short visit on leave, they never saw him again. Peter joined the British Army and trained as a paratrooper, but the war ended and he found himself instead, at 19, posted to southern Austria and guarding the captive SS officers who had been in charge of the now-liberated concentration camps. Then, one day, like a young man in a fairytale, he besottedly and unknowingly followed a beautiful and mysterious blonde called Angela across the border into Yugoslavia, where he was promptly arrested as a spy and imprisoned in solitary confinement for six months.

After the war he saw an ad for recruitment to the Australian Army and responded as a way of escaping the miseries of postwar Britain; on arrival in Melbourne in 1950 he was immediately shipped out on active service as an infantryman to Korea, where his experience was educational but grim. Finally, he was posted in 1955 to Tasmania, and stayed there; since then, apart from gardening, writing and almost twenty years in television, he has been a radio presenter, a foundry worker, and a spectacularly unsuccessful electoral candidate for the Communist Party.

Why do we love him? Well, there’s that voice: the workin’-cluss, north-of-England accent that identifies him as one of Britain’s oppressed and therefore, like the Scots and Irish, oddly in league with Australians. There’s his passion – for work, for life, for beauty and for action – which is apparent in everything he does. We love him for his fearlessness, for the guts that got him unscathed through some truly dramatic life experiences and led him to say to himself, as the door of his Yugoslav prison cell clanged behind him when he was not yet out of his teens, “This is the first room of my own I’ve ever had in my life.” We love him for his language about life in general and gardening in particular, and for the way he talks of both as though they were magical and wondrous things. In the July 1 program, he used the words “amazing”, “wonderful” and “enchanting” in the first five minutes; they are three of his favourite words, along with “magnificent”, “beautiful”, “marvellous” and “brilliant”. He means them all.

Finally, and maybe more than anything else, we love him for the fact that at 79 he seems still unjaded and unfaded, a cheerful, energetic, quick-witted and supremely fit old man, and as such he’s a walking reminder that old age is not inevitably to be dreaded but can be lived as a happy, useful, influential citizen.

Perhaps strangely for so joyous a man – much less for one with so finely calibrated a sense of the miraculous – he remains the uncompromising materialist that one would expect of a former Communist Party candidate, veteran of two wars, child of the Depression and Mancunian hard-man. He wants no epitaph: “I can’t see the point,” he said to Andrew Denton last year on Enough Rope, “of having a thing on your tombstone saying, Here lies Peter Cundall … He died, right, and he lived a life. So what.” And when asked by Peter Thompson to define the essence of wisdom, he replied: “To be able to reflect the world as it exists, accurately, and to be able to do something about it.”

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