Thirty years to the day

It’s thirty years today since I was first published, in The Age, Melbourne.  It felt totally tectonic.  I was convinced that my life would never be the same from that moment on.  And it turns out that the man who had inspired me to start writing down my thoughts for the purposes of doubling, or tripling, the harvest of joy or engagement in any life-moment, never existed.

I’ll come back to that.  The other really curious part of the story is that it all happened at the same time as I started to correspond with Christopher Lloyd – my great hero of gardening, garden thinking and garden writing – and I didn’t know that, several weeks before publication of that first piece, he’d closed his first letter to me with the words

‘Do you write for the press yet?  You will.’

He then proceeded to put a 20p stamp on the letter – nowhere near enough for an airmail letter – and failed to add a ‘par avion’ sticker as well.  It took months to get to me, and by the time it arrived, I’d had my first piece published.  So when he wrote that fabulously affirming – you could even say prophetic – comment, I was yet to be published.  By the time I read it, I had been.

Now back to my non-existent inspiration.  A few years before all this happened, I was desperate for something to read, and was rummaging through boxes of books in family storage.  An old cloth-bound hardcover fell from a box and I caught it in my knees as it fell.  The title ‘Adventures in Understanding’ mildly interested me.  

From the first page, I was addicted.  There’s no doubt that I was pre-disposed to the living-simply philosophy that it explored, but I also loved the high value that David Grayson, the author, placed on all the people around him, and the smallest tasks of his farming life.  I read, read and re-read it.  It got to the point that I could almost quote whole sections of it.  I couldn’t stop reading it, despite the diminishing returns. Like any addict, I’d go back again and again, hoping to recapture the heights of that first hit.  Eventually I started hunting down other books by David Grayson.

This, of course, was before the internet, and it was curiously difficult to find out anything like this in those days.  No second-hand bookshop owners I spoke to knew anything about him, and I didn’t know of any references that might mention a writer dating back 100 years.  I realise now I could have asked at the State Library, but that wasn’t in my range of behaviours.

In another curious twist of events (which I’d love to go into, but it’ll mean so many twists I’m almost certain to lose you to narrative vertigo), the primary source of info regarding David Grayson and his writings turned out to be Jean Galbraith, a 90+ year old garden writer herself, with a massive Australia-wide following, having written her first book in 1939 (Garden in a Valley), and fifty years of highly personal and reflective contributions to the magazine ‘The Australian Garden Lover’.  Miss Galbraith knew of Grayson’s writings, and gave me a list of his titles (in the first ever letter I’d received from a published author).  I eventually hunted most of them down.

And then the internet intervened.  At some stage in the latish 1990’s I searched for info on David Grayson, only to find that he was the fictitious creation of the muck-raker journalist Ray Stannard-Baker.  I was devastated.  My guru (whose surname I’d adopted as a nom-de-plume for my first couple of year’s contributions to The Age) was named Ray.  I don’t know why that mattered, but it did.  It just didn’t match anything I imagined of, or about, him.

I don’t know that I’ve ever fully recovered, but I eventually came to recognise the compensatory benefits associated with now having a new list of books to collect by the same author.  It turns out that he wrote, for example, all six parts of the biography of Woodrow Wilson, and was WW’s Press Secretary at the Paris Peace talks (which my great-uncle Tom also attended, as personal physio to Australia’s Prime Minister Billy Hughes, but that’s another twist I really should avoid.  I like to think that maybe Ray Stannard-Baker and my Uncle Tom may have met, perhaps along with Harold Nicolson who was also there, but I shouldn’t go there…)

So it turns out that the man who got me writing never existed.

But, as we know, Christopher Lloyd most definitely did, and he quickly became my greatest mentor.

You can imagine, then, how incredibly moved I was when I was staying at Dixter with Christo for the last time, in 2004.  It was fourteen years after that first article (which a mutual friend had sent to him soon after publication.  I sure wouldn’t have).  Christo, now 83 years old, made reference to it, and was able to recall, exactly, the details of that piece, and the feelings I described in it.  

I look back, in total wonder, over that string of events and contacts.  And in doing so, it occurs to me that wonder, more than anything else, has been the greatest harvest of forty years of gardening, and thirty years of writing about it.


  1. Looking back, I realise that I have always been instinctively drawn to gardeners who can write. My collection of “gardening” books are precious, and the words never fail to interest or inspire. Your book “Michael McCoy’s Garden”, published 2000 states in the Preface .. “Home gardening is my passion, and home gardeners are my audience. Even in my professional life as a garden designer and garden writer I want nothing more than to shift garden owners into a position of enjoying their outdoor spaces more and more”
    You have thankyou, Michael, and I’m glad you didn’t turn out to be fictitious – but, clearly, the words do matter!

    1. I can’t tell you how much joy that gives to me, to hear that, Jan.

  2. I tried to come up with something erudite in response to this but must of necessity fall back on: Wow!

    1. 10/10 for both brevity and eloquence. Crazy story, huh?

  3. I have a copy of The Gardenist which I managed to find after hunting high and low and nearly wearing out the local libraries copy, and it’s my go to when I want to stop and think about my garden. I really like the way you talk about both what’s in a garden and how to think about space and shape.
    And just call me stupid but yours was the first explanation of a biennials and their growing in here in New Zealand as hey we have a winter in the middle of the year.
    Loving the blog.

    1. Thanks so much Alison. I don’t call you stupid at all. I’ve never read that point about biennials anywhere else, more heard anyone else make that point. When I was an apprentice – here in Australia – we were still being told that a biennial was a plant that took two years to flower. Clearly no one had stopped to think. But that’s one of the great problems with gardening – so few people seem to have stopped to think. That’s why I loved Christopher Lloyd’s writing so much. He re-thought, and questioned, so much of the old wisdom

  4. My inspirational hero of the writing world was not fictional but his was an embellished reality. The hilarious Beverley Nichols’ ‘Down the Garden Path’ etc was what led me to a career in horticulture – not really writing though!

    1. Yeah, it’s a lovely read. So of its time. As, of course, was he. Did you know that he hung out with Dame Nellie Melba out at Coombe Cottage?

  5. Oh Michael it’s been so great to follow your journey as a writer and gardenist! I can’t believe how the years have flown by. So glad you always took the chance to follow your heart!

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