For me, reading is like gardening, the other mental escape in which I’d happily lose myself for all my waking hours, if only I could get away with it.
It might seem like I am relaxing and merely pottering about my plants, but I know that an amateur naturalist is also going about his leisurely work, observing and delighting in so many little discoveries. Whether reading or pulling weeds, there’s much to discover.
I’m re-reading Tommy Garnett the easy way, by enjoying From the Country, an anthology of his articles. I’m not sure whether it’s still in print or not, but this book wasn’t hard to find online. Tommy who? The Headmaster of Geelong Grammar in the 1960s and early 1970s; a man ahead of his time, with concerns that went far beyond gardening to explore issues of our wider environment, including wildlife, soils and native plants. Tommy was the gardening writer for The Age for more than 15 years, and he writes beautifully.
What I like about Tommy is that as well as being a very practical gardener, he also sees his garden as a window into the wider world of the environment, not just a pleasant little green cocoon in itself. Even though he gardened on a large scale at the Garden of St Erth in Victoria and I have a tiny 9m plot here in my Marrickville backyard, we’re on the same green-tinged wavelength.
I bought one of those cheap $9.99 Penguins while on holiday recently. I had always intended to read some of Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction, starring chivalrous Philip Marlowe roaming the dusty streets of 1930s and 1940s Los Angeles, and so this was my cheap chance. My first Chandler was The Long Goodbye. The book’s bio notes included the tempting little morsel that Chandler wrote only seven novels. It was like a dare. And so my seven-novel-long Chandler binge began, consuming my holidays and a few weeks following that. Not my first episode of binge reading, either…
Mr Chandler has a vividly eloquent knack for describing people and places. This I expected, but the delightful surprise was the presence of so many grevilleas, eucalypts and other Australian native plants in those early-twentieth century Los Angelean gardens. I never knew our native plants were so popular in California back then, and it’s also nice to discover by inference that Ray must have liked to garden in his spare time. He doesn’t just mention these plants once or twice. Through his seven novels they cropped up almost as often as bent cops.
I have since returned to modern times. Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus is an elegantly written (and translated) musing on his own life and work as Poland’s (finest) foreign correspondent. His constant companion over the years was a copy of The Histories written by Herodotus, an Ancient Greek historian. A gift from his editor, to celebrate Kapuscinksi’s appointment to his first foreign assignment, The Histories travelled with him everywhere. He re-read it many times, often finding its ancient, historical themes repeating themselves in the modern events that he was reporting on. Herodotus was his hero, his muse and his wise counsel on countless nights spent alone in hotel rooms.
Journalism’s Ryszard Kapuscinski reminds me of gardening’s Tommy Garrett and crime’s Raymond Chandler in one important sense: all three venture far beyond their genre’s modest, steady standards, bringing a literary excellence to a form of writing where it isn’t really part of the brief.
For me, it’s the joy of reading to discover a talented writer lurking there in the bushes of a genre of writing that isn’t considered ‘literary’. In fact, I think it’s the type of reading I love most.
Jamie McIlwraith is a gardening writer, subeditor, photographer and blogger. He is greenkeeper of the Garden Amateur blog where he records life in the Marrickville backyard that he shares with his artist wife, Pamela Horsnell.