IT was weapons drawn if not at dawn, late morning: the carrot versus the burdekin plum.
It was a conflict like no other, two writers on gardening locked in combat, a seething mistrust, a hatred breaking the surface at last like fresh shoots of old-world vegetables emerging after rain, or eucalypt seeds sprouting in the wake of fire.
Punches were being thrown on Macquarie Street and the police were on the way.
An uneasy peace, a truce of sorts, had reigned between the rival gardening writers for years, but they had kept to their own furrows, rarely meeting face to face except at the odd gardening show. Then they chose to attend at different times, or on different days so strong was the enmity between them.
One show that Herbert Prentice would never attend was the bi-annual gathering of the Society for Growing Australian Plants. He was a gardener of the old school, or old country whose writings each week in the Chronicle were more about the English traditional garden than the Australian one. When Prentice wrote about flowers it was rhododendrons, camellias and roses. And using a garden, or part of it, for the practical purposes of growing food was about cabbages and unions, or apples and plums. And lawns? It was best not to get Prentice on the subject. Every garden should have a lawn, he would say, before listing seeds for every soil and climate, and chemical treatment for every lawn ailment.
“Don’t get Mr Prentice on moss,’’ the sub-editors would say at the Chronicle when Prentice brought in his copy each week, neatly typed on two sheets of A4 paper. He still used a typewriter and would frequently complain about the shortage of typewriter ribbon. The computer and email had not entered the habitat that was the Prentice home.
“And don’t mention being water-wise,’’ the sub-editors would continue when they saw Prentice entering the office and slowly crossing the floor towards them. The word drought had never entered Prentice’s gardening lexicon, at least in Tasmania.
Although the effects of drought might be there for everyone to see out of the towns, especially along the Midland Highway linking Tasmania’s north and south, Prentice would say there was plenty of water to go around in the suburbs.
More than once Prentice had been fined by the Hobart City Council for ignoring water restrictions in the summer months, something that had caused more than a little embarrassment to the proprietors of the Chronicle.
Prentice was threatened with dismissal on several occasions but then the newspaper’s management backed down when they realised they would have to do without his juicy apples and the produce from his vegetable patch. The editor was very partial to his asparagus.
When threatened with the loss of his column, Prentice would merely say, as he had done to the magistrate: “If there’s water in my tap, there’s water for my lawns and leeks.’’
Prentice, a burly, ruddy cheeked man in his late sixties, had emigrated to Australia as a 10 pound migrant in the middle of the last century. He was from the West Country and had worked on farms in his youth. In Hobart he had put this experience to practice working in a garden centre, an establishment in one of Hobart’s better inner-city suburbs where the emphasis was very much on traditional European gardening techniques, and European flowers, fruit and vegetables.
At some stage in the past – no one, including Prentice, could ever remember when – a former editor of the Chronicle who used the nursery where Prentice worked had invited him to write the weekly gardening column after the regular gardening writer retired. Prentice seized the opportunity although his writing ability fell well short of his skills in the vegetable patch and in the early years the entire column had to be virtually rewritten by the sub-editors. Over the years, though, Prentice had honed and sharpened his writing skills, with the same patience and dedication he applied to his secateurs and pruning shears.
Prentice brought to his avuncular and genial manner a rich West Country burr that was a delight to the ear. At times, extolling the virtues of king edward potatoes over pink eyes, he would let his enthusiasm for the subject get the better of him. The words, rich and rounded like a Bramley apple plucked from an orchard in his nativeSomerset, would bear no resemblance to a language at all. It was a lilting song, music without words built from consonants and vowels, but sounds formed of arrs and umms.
He had been signed up for radio once but without gesticulation and gesture, in which he would frequently fondle parsnip and turnip, his words were lost on the listener.
“Arr, nows we gonna talk about spenorch, it be good for you, spenorch will make yer strong like that ther’ Popeye,’’ he would say on the airwaves. The newspaper, it was agreed, was the best medium for Prentice’s considerable talents.
On the other side of town, at the Hobart Mirror, there was an environment comprising a contrasting gardening philosophy.
There Leonard Lonergan ruled the roost and if anyone visiting the Mirror offices was left in any doubt where this garden writer’s heart and loyalties lie, pictures of native gardens taped to the filing cabinet next to his desk confirmed it was with native vegetation. No herbaceous borders here, but an uncontrolled riot of melaleucas, casuarinas and banksias.
Unlike Prentice, Lonergan was a trained journalist and he wrote his gardening column in conjunction with other reporting duties, which were mainly of a feature writing nature, especially in the fields of wildlife. Lonergan, in his fifties, was considerably younger than Prentice. He was a small, sprightly man who kept himself trim and fit. He was a keen bush-walker and, when not tending his grevilleas and callistemons, could be found crossing peat bogs and climbing rocky terrain.
Prentice, on the other hand, never wandered far from the suburban garden environment. And instead of Lonergan’s walking stick hewn from an oyster bay pine, he carried a paunch as his badge of honour, the fruits of his his home-made cider.
Longeran, on his rambles through the Tasmanian bush, had also become a keen student of Aboriginal culture and folklore and delighted in finding bush tucker. Sometimes this would find itself into the pot with recipes Lonergan said had been handed down by a succession of Aboriginal elders.
After one experiment, a drink made from the fermented juice of midyim fruits that Lonergan had brought into the office for staff to try, five journalists had taken themselves home complaining of stomach cramps and nausea. Some had wild dreams.
Lonergan had himself later phoned the editor insisting that his byline now incorporate his Aboriginal name. It was with some surprise that members of the Mirror staff had learned that Lonergan had Aboriginal ancestry. And when questioned about it later, Lonergan had sheepishly changed the subject.
The tensions existing between Lonergan and Prentice were known to the respective staffs of the rival publications, and no doubt known to members of the public who might buy both newspapers, and read both gardening columns. It was not necessary to read between the lines to discover enmity when Longeran wrote about the wonders of gum trees one week, and in his column seven days later Prentice wrote of the ancient mystery of the oak and elm.
A news report in the Chronicle of an expensive program in Melbourne to counter the spread of Dutch elm disease was immediately followed by a column from Lonergan questioning why such European, exotic, introduced trees should be saved at all.
“What’s wrong with an avenue of blue gums?’’ he wrote.
Prentice, on the other hand, was prepared to tolerate native trees, as long as they were confined to the country and not the city. This was Australia after all, he would say, and what would the outback be with its ghost gums.
Both Lonergan and Prentice were not above sniping directly at each other in print when the issue called for it. Readers in the know about the tensions between the gardening rivals hardly needed a code to realise that when Leonard Lonergan referred to traditional gardening advocates as Herbert Holly he was in fact referring to the gardening writer of the Chronicle. Likewise, when questioning whether suburban gardens should be dominated by local plants when there were so many showy exotic ones about, Prentice would sarcastically make references to a gardener called Lenny Leptospernum.
The journalists editing gardening columns on the Chronicle and Mirror perhaps should have erased references to Herbert Holly and Lenny Leptospernum when they saw them in copy. Such references did nothing for the columns, in fact obstructed the smooth flow of information about an arcane subject that did not necessarily lend itself to prose; but such references, the sniping between the gardening writers, was fun; and the sub-editors let them stay.
The old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me’’ may have held some currency for both Lonergan and Prentice but events were about to unfold that would put them firmly on the path to confrontation.
The events had nothing to do with gardening directly but the growing frequency of wildfires that in recent years had been sweeping Australia.
Although he lived in an area bordering wet sclerophyll forest to the south of Hobart that was not particularly fire prone, Prentice had been interested to read a wildfire information kit that had been delivered to his home, along with other Tasmanian households.
The kit, which included a DVD, explained how to fireproof homes and to create fire-free zones around properties.
Of particular interest to Prentice was a reference to garden plants, and the fact that exotic introduced ones did not present as big a fire risk in the garden as Australian native ones, which were often loaded with eucalpyt fuels.
Prentice duly wrote a column in which he said, with a little exaggeration, that his beloved lawns and flowers from the English traditional garden were a safer option in the event of a fire, and this view had been endorsed by the fire authorities.
The column touched a raw nerve with Lonergan, and suddenly there was a combustible atmosphere in the air that was not dervied from a tinder-dry country well into summer. The column by Prentice was a direct challenge to everything in the garden Lonergan believed in.
To suggest, as he had read into Prentice’s report, that planting Australian natives was somehow unpatriotic, was being cavalier in the face of the threat from fire, was too much for him to bear.
Lonergan as a teenager had endured the bushfires that sweptTasmaniain 1967, killing 62 Tasmanians.
Lonergan had lived in South Hobartand one of the victims had been in his very street, a farmer on a smallholding. The farmer had fled the flames only to realise he had left a considerable amount of money in the house, the income from a farm stall at a market. He dashed back to collect the cash and was trapped by the flames.
Lonergan had clearly been scarred by the experience and each year, during bushire season, he cast his eyes anxiously towards the skies, looking for signs of smoke.
On days when there was the smell of woodsmoke in the air, from distant fires, he was particularly techy. It was on one such day that he read Prentice’s offering on the dangers of native shrubbery.
“Pommie bastard,’’ Lonergan shouted out in the office. “What does he know of our culture, our Australian heritage, human, animals and plants.’’
Lonergan was prepared to leave it at that, or at least write a column rebutting much of what Prentice had said.
Prentice, however, produced another 500 words on the dangers of eucalypts, on the very day that the Victorian bushfires were taking hold. The fires eventually killed more than 170 people. Prentice introduced his column with the headline: “10 good reasons to plant in the English style.’’
It was too much for Lonergan.
“Pommie bastard,’’ he shrieked again, before grabbing his coat and making off towards the Chronicle office.
The smell from a particularly heavy pall of smoke hung in the air over Hobert as Lenny reached the Chronicle building. Lonergan had a spy at the Chronicle, a native gardener himself, who had told him exactly what time Prentice delivered his copy each week, straight off the 10.30 bus fromSouth Hobart. Prentice, having learned in his English farming days to rise at dawn each day and go to bed at sunset, was a creature of habit and ritual.
Pentice’s bus had in fact been early and Lennie was too late to catch him in the street. He went to the front counter, demanding that Prentice to be called down from the editorial floor.
Prentice at first refused to come to the front desk and Lonergan, in his rage, went home to construct a sign, a hastily made sandwich board, with the word “traitor’’ on it.
The Mirror staff, on hearing of Lonergan’s antics, thought that their gardening writer had been experimenting again with with his bush tucker recipes.
Lennie returned to take up position outside the Chronicle with his sandwich board.
“Pommie bastard,’’ he shouted. “Come down here and I’ll stick a carrot up your klacker.’’
The taunts and shouts reached Prentice in the corner of the Chronicle in which he had taken refuge. Not only was he outraged at the prospect of the carrot, this most prized of vegetables, being used as an instrument of violence, he was mortified at the thought of its intended destination.
“Pommie bastard,’’ shouted Lonergan as an incensed Prentice ran out of the Chronicle building. Prentice had never been known to lose his temper but now his normally warm and smiling face, with the hue of a freshly picked cox’s orange pippen, had a crimson flush to it that would not have disgraced a red delicous bound for the Japan export market. He was shouting, too.
“Carrot up the klacker?’’ he spat back at Lonergan. “How about an kunzea up yer khyber.’’
As a crowd gathered, the men grabbed each other. And from the direction of the Hobart central police station two blocks away a police car siren wailed.