Her day job is as the Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.
Her personal sanctuary is her vegetable garden in an inner city suburb of Melbourne which comprises six square metres.
Reading this book on gardening – which Margaret Simons cautions early on is not a book to read if you want to learn how to garden.
One could imagine Simons having been a botanist in a former life, such is her love, fascination and attention to detail of the life of plants.
Her focus is edible plants, mainly vegetables, and she lovingly “walks the grounds” of her small patch as often as she can, inspecting the wonders and disasters (in equal measure) of nature.
Simons takes us through the marvels of each of the seasons, starting with summer, and along the way mentions everything from eggplants to tomatoes, parsnip, moonflowers and the King Edward potato.
Seasonal metaphors make the most sense to Simons not only in her garden but also in her work as a an academic, writer and journalist (she has written many books, including a biography of former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser and mass media proprietor, Kerry Stokes and Resurrection in a Bucket – The Rich and Fertile Story of Compost).
She admits to describing first drafts of her books as being like compost heaps: “fetid messes that might, nevertheless mature into useful stuff.” She also wrote a gardening column for The Australian for many years.
Her wonder at the mystery of nature is best expressed in her story about the Happy Wanderer (Hardenbergia Violacea), a vine that grew very well in her garden in the Blue Mountains, but which died a month after she bought it in Melbourne.
“Resurrection. It had come back to life, somehow surviving the bone-dry dirt, the lack of care, the baking temperatures through summer. Every day since then, there has been a new leaf.
It isn’t growing fast, but it has reached the top of the little white trellis, and last week I spent some time fooling around with clout nails, hammer and chicken wire to erect something more substantial to support its stubborn growth.
I am not sure I’m allowed to do this. The lane, after all, belongs to the council. The fence belongs to McDonalds. I am trespassing.
Yet I feel justified, if not impelled. This is, after all, a matter of life and death.
So profound is her fascination with this marvel of nature, she quotes Nietsche, who described nature as “boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren.”
The use of religious words such as “resurrection” conveys a profound spiritual aspect to Simons’ love of her garden, despite the fact she is an atheist. One gets the sense that her garden is her sacred space… gardens have long been seen as sacred spaces, especially by the Romans and Egyptians.
Her observations of nature are as pragmatic as her observations about life and indeed herself:
“I am not good at marriage,” she says after explaining her two long-term relationships (marriages) did not work. “But I have proved rather excellent at family.”
Her inner urban home has become pivotal in the lives of her four children – two of her own and two sets of stepchildren – and she describes the crowd that gathers at her home for Sunday dinners as the family shrubbery.
Many of them have no blood relationship but regard themselves as brothers, sisters and cousins (somewhere in here there should be a reference saying Modern Family in the garden).
And they all eat very well at Margaret’s table, enjoying home grown fresh produce, good for the body as well as the soul.
The smells of the garden are of great appeal, because of their range and effect on the psyche, from the revolting smell of blood and bone to the bliss of tomato and basil plants.
Simons’ sense of humour comes across as she reflects on her work as a journalist as she potters in her garden, going into a state some might call prayer, others meditation.
Having written about most Australian politicians in some way or another throughout her career, she can’t help but wonder what kind of vegetable each of them would have been.
Kim Beazley surfaces as a potato, Julia Gillard a legume, and Paul Keating a member of the onion family: elegant and tall, lots of layers.
One of her favourite cookery writers described Gough Whitlam as an eggplant, but says he would have described himself as an aubergine. Simons adds her own thoughts, saying nobody she has ever known made Gough Whitlam wilt.
There’s also a few great tips on how to grow veggies on a budget, including buying styrofoam containers, which Simons uses to grow vegetables on her roof!
Simons describes herself as a messy gardener, one whose edges are not clipped and whose tomatoes sprawl unpruned and unstaked.
Yet she loves it, and you will also find yourself loving it after reading this charming book.
Meldi Arkinstall, CD-Music Reviews & More, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016