I try not to do too much of this kind of thing, but since Peter Cundall of the ABC's Gardening Australia has announced his retirement, I thought I might put up, in homage, a condensed version of a piece I wrote about him for The Monthly in 2006.
‘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. For Cundall, gardening is simultaneously a form of activism and a form of contemplation: a way of self-sustenance, of landcare, 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 the ABC’s Peter Thompson in a 2004 interview for 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.’
Gardening Australia 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 himself, 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 the occasional token, cosmetic gesture to other states and cities, Gardening Australia really does project the idea of a national presence, with regular features from cities, towns and climate zones all over the country.
Unusually content-rich for contemporary television, it 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 aerial eagle-eye views of entire landscaped parks to magnified close-ups of tiny pods full of even tinier seeds. In one recent program, there was a segment on Brisbane’s Roma Street Parklands 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 finely-detailed Mycena clarkeana: seven or eight perfect little frilly-edged, dusty-pink umbrella-shapes, looking like a retro light fitting for a particularly funky doll’s house, or some miniaturized form of naughty nineteenth-century underwear.
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 nineteen, posted to southern Austria and guarding the captive SS officers who had previously been in charge of the now-liberated concentration camps. Then one day, like a young man in a fairy tale, 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? 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 favorite 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.’