Book Review: Master Gardener

Book Review: Master Gardener

Master Gardener: T.R Garnett of Marlborough College, Geelong Grammar School, The Age and The Garden of St Erth by Andrew Lemon

Review by Penny Woodward

master gardener

I always knew him as Tommy, and I only knew him in the last phase of his life when he and Penelope bought their property in Blackwood, which they called The Garden of St Erth. In 1986 Tommy wrote the forward to my first book Australian Herbal. At that time he didn’t need to be explained, anyone who gardened knew Tommy Garnett. But, today historian Andrew Lemon believes that his work is starting to be forgotten. Many of his books are out of print (luckily, I have them all) and his 15 years of articles for The Age are not on line. His gardening columns were always a joy, reflecting his scholarly background and gardening enthusiasm. I believe that no-one in Australia has yet bettered his erudite and wide-ranging garden prose. And there was something of this same approach to his gardening. Eclectic and idiosyncratic St Erth was a plantsman’s paradise.

I well remember my first visit, it was bone-chillingly cold, my breath misted the air in front of me, the ground was slippery with frost and I started to shiver but at the same time was totally beguiled by the garden surrounding me. A secret almost hidden garden, English style tucked into the middle of typical Australian bush. This bush later became an integral part of the garden. At this time, more than 25 years ago, the Garden of St Erth was the home and haven of Tommy and Penelope Garnett. Set in rural Victoria in hilly bush country 90km north west of Melbourne, the Garden of St Erth is constructed on the site of the old gold mining town, Simmonds Reef. At the height of the gold rush there were 14,000 people living here, at the time of my visit there were only two.

Although I visited their garden many times over many years, Tommy was best known to me, and others, through his From the Country columns in The Age. It has been a great joy to now read The Master Gardener and discover the detail of other parts of his working life; and family life with Penelope. We get to know Tommy as an English schoolboy, student cricketer, a flight lieutenant in the second world war, a scholar with a fascination for the classics, and a school principal in both the UK at Marlborough and at Geelong Grammar in Victoria, Australia

It was only after Tommy had retired as the head of Geelong Grammar that he and Penelope moved to Blackwood specifically to create their garden. Tommy was well known for saying that “All gardening is based on decay and renewal” recognising that gardens change over time. He also always encouraged gardeners to have a go and not to worry too much about mistakes. He was truly a scholar and a gentleman.

The Master Gardener at 632 pages takes time to read, but it is time very well spent.

Book Review: Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman

Book Review: Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman


Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman is one of the Stella Prize shortlist for 2018 and a remarkable novel.

It is hard to classify and to explain because there is a risk of ruining the premise of the  novel, so forgive me if this review is a little light on the detail.

Through a less than typical lens Terra Nullius throws a spotlight on the history of Australia in a way that is often very uncomfortable to read, but this makes it all the more necessary.

The key to this novel is its ability to pull the reader in and to turn them on their heads. The conflict of Australia’s past frontier violence is drawn out and examined from all aspects, at the same time as situating the reader at the heart of the conflict from a myriad of different perspectives. Through its unusual positioning, the reader (regardless of their views or background) becomes one of the oppressed. Even though this is not history as it happened in Australia it is achingly familiar both as a reflection of our own past and our still fractured present.

The story is told from a number of characters and perspectives, but ties together as a whole that illuminates the many facets of the society that Coleman has created. The landscape of Australia is also evocatively imagined and a key component throughout the whole novel.

This is a novel that should be read by all Australians in the hope that its perspective might enable a discussion or at least an acknowledgement that there is still a long way to go.

Terra Nullius is available for loan from the library.

Ellen Coates: Collections Librarian.

Book Review: Speed Limit 20 Plus : The story of the narrow gauge railways of the Victorian Railways by Edward A. Downs

Book Review: Speed Limit 20 Plus : The story of the narrow gauge railways of the Victorian Railways by Edward A. Downs

One of the seminal works on the history of the Victorian Railways’ is Speed limit 20 written by noted railway enthusiast and historian Edward A. Downs.

First published in 1963 the book chronicles the rise and fall and rise again of the narrow gauge railway network in Victoria which cumulated in the rebirth of the famous ‘Puffing Billy’.

This 2017 edition has been updated to include information on the current Belgrave to Gembrook and Thompson River to Walhalla railway lines. Restored locomotives such as the ‘Climax’ geared steam locomotive and former Queensland Railways’ ‘DH’ class diesels regauged to 2’ 6” are documented as are several Mt Lyell Mining & Railway Co carriages that were beautifully refurbished.

Richly illustrated and detailed, this book should be required reading by anyone interested in the history of the Victorian  Railways and would be a worthy addition to your library

Review by Secretary/Librarian Steven Haby

Speed Limit 20 Plus is available in the library and you can view the catalogue entry at

Book Review: Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill

Book Review: Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill



Their Brilliant Careers is sixteen biographies of fictional Australian writers.

This fascinating, enigmatic book, shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin, is quite hard to pin down. It is both excoriating and hilarious. In pretending to be non-fiction, and with some of the best jokes in the index, it manages to be both an insight into and a critique of Australian culture (literary and otherwise). This is a book of layers (I’m sure I didn’t catch them all) and they are beautifully interwoven, with each story about the fictional writers referring forward and back and inter-working real writers with their fictional contemporaries. The real world parallels also abound, and each offers subtle and not so subtle commentary of both current and past events and ideals.

Their Brilliant Careers is one of the most original books I’ve read and, while at times it can be a little too obtuse in its meaning, there are levels for everyone. In the end the book manages real pathos at the same time as being actually very funny. It is worth reading just to discover these immensely well realised fictional writers who have lives that will alternately, move, amuse and disgust. It isn’t what you think it’s going to be and I suspect that everyone who reads it will get something different out of it.

Review by Ellen Coates (Collections Librarian)

Their Brilliant Careers is available from the library. You can see the catalog entry at: