Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


Tom Stoppard: "Words are sacred. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little."  In early 2012, I was diagnosed with five malignant tumours. Even I realised that the odds in favour of survival were not great. As I thought it might help other cancer sufferers I decided to start a blog, to be called 'It's Not all Wine and Roses: a journey to survival.' It's the story of my adventures throughout the world with my camera, some of them dangerous, all of them exhilarating, but also of my struggle with cancer over the past 18 months. This is the story of how I am here to tell the tale - in early 2014. It's a story of survival.

Many of my readers assume my life is made up of endless treats. One of the reasons for writing this book is to present the case that my life is not all wine and roses!

When, as part of a book launch, at a book fair or a writers' conference, I speak about my life as a garden writer and photographer I often start off with the words, "Today is a great treat for me. It's wonderful to see so many friends and garden lovers here." Now, I know that many people assume the life of a garden writer and photographer – or of a garden historian – is one of drifting around the world's loveliest gardens, chatting with like-minded people, drinking tea and eating cake. While my job certainly provides a most pleasant way to spend one's time, or to earn one's daily bread, it is most certainly a job that requires effort, energy and plenty of self discipline.

I feel the need, therefore, to dispel a few myths. I want to assure my readers that the garden writer's life is not all 'beer and skittles,' as they say - or even wine and roses.

My job involves plenty of challenges. For a start, there are lots of pre-dawn starts and there are many long, long drives. And of course one misses hearth and home, and one's own garden when one is on the road. And, it's amazing how one's children seem more and more perfect the farther one travels from them. In addition there are many tricky moments, lonely moments in the life of a garden writer, and even moments of great danger. One must be a bit like Aunty Mame, and simply rise above it all.

There was no challenge, however, that compared to that on the day, in March 2012, I was told I had lung cancer. It seemed that I had been handed a death sentence. As I travelled through the next few, dark, days, and into the months, keeping a daily diary, I felt as if I was writing a film script - but one in which I was the central protagonist. I felt as if I was observing myself from somewhere in the sky, out of my body, looking down upon my life. A strange feeling, and a frightening experience. More than 18 months later, having recovered, and having climbed several actual mountains since, I can look back on the experience as an adventure; an exploration of the meaning of life.

I had intended to call this memoir 'Bugger the Leading Edge.' For many years I would pull down the blinds that sat behind lemon silk curtains in the sitting room, to protect the leading edge – the return – from the afternoon sun. After sunset I would pull up the blinds. This hardly seemed important now: what did it matter if the curtains became faded? I decided against that title, though, thinking it may be somewhat obtuse, and perhaps a little crude.

I was in the pretty, northern Victoria town of Benalla, not far over the border from New South Wales, launching my book, 'Seasons in My House and Garden', when someone from the audience asked me to write a book about my travels with my camera. I love the long drive, of about 900 kilometres, down the Hume Highway from Sydney, to Benalla, and I am extremely grateful to the Benalla community of garden-loving people who know how to turn on magnificent country hospitality.

Driving through country Australia, most often alone, either to visit gardens and to photograph them, or to speak at garden events, brings great peace. It is restorative; the Australian countryside is so beautiful. One of my favourite places to stop, just to breathe in the view, is near Glenrowan, best known as the bushranger Ned Kelly's 'last stand' in 1880, and just north of Benalla. You look east from your stop by the side of the highway, over to mountains, shimmering blue in the dry air, but often snow capped. In the near distance cattle rest under massive red gums, or stand dreamily by a brimming dam. It is a familiar, and quintessential, Australian scene – one captured by many early Australian painters - but one that never fails to elicit emotion and to make me very glad that I call this country home.

On this particular day I had been addressing a large Benalla audience. Surely there is hardly a person in the world who is not fearful of speaking in public. Giving a speech of any length before any audience, no matter how small, or how friendly, comes high on the list of things we dread most. Despite having long been terrified of public speaking, over the past few years I've come to almost enjoy chatting with garden and book lovers about photographing and writing about Australia's, and the world's, great gardens.

Sometimes these are 'in conversation' style events, where I chat with an interviewer, an easy ride for me: much more demanding for the interviewer, who must keep very alert, ready to follow any direction the interview may take.

My more formal presentations are usually hour-long lectures which are accompanied by pictures to illustrate a point. Screening my photographs (on which I hope the audience is focusing) gives me more confidence, and I always need notes as some sort of prop. I am very admiring of people who are able to give a talk without using notes, but I am not one of those speakers.

But public speaking is easy when compared to the journey to wellness that I took in 2012 and 2013. This blog relates both journeys: that with the camera and tape recorder and also with a wonderful team of doctors, a wonderful, supportive family, kind and generous friends - and the all-important positive outlook.