Something about Vance and Nettie Palmer – some titbit of information, I can’t recall details – caught my attention last year, and I mentioned it to friends. They kindly, (foolishly) lent me a copy of ‘Ink in Her Veins: the troubled life of Aileen Palmer’ (the Palmer’s daughter), authored by Sylvia Martin. I took the book home and stored it in a ‘safe place’, from where it subsequently slipped my mind.
Recalling the loan months later, I searched and finally recovered the book from its ‘safe place’, and — embarrassed — returned it unread.
In a UWA Press promotion, Sylvia Martin speaks of and reads from ‘Sky Swimming’, while Sophie Cunningham and Peta Murray offer generous praise:
In this delicate memoir Sylvia Martin considers the ways in which researching other women’s lives have led her deeper into her own. She asks how do you build, how do you write, a life?
Martin inducts us into the thrill of the biographical chase in this series of lyrical, yet unsentimental, vignettes. Sky Swimming is in turns rhapsodic and elegiac.
A book to savour? And avoid storing temporarily in a ‘safe space’?
I say this book is personal because I suspect many of us in this room feel they know the subjects of these books: Mary, Ida and Aileen, their partners, lovers and networks quite intimately. Significant Australian figures who would be far less well known if Sylvia had not cast her inquisitive, respectful yet forensic, eye on the lives of these women and their worlds.
Some of these women appear in this current volume, Aileen Palmer in particular, but I would like to focus for a moment on Mum’s own life rather than of her biographical subjects. In her chapter ‘Shadowing the Boyds’ she opens with her re-acquaintance with making music, and writes:
I am learning the piano, more than half a century after I last played. Eventually, I would like to be able to play Erik Satie. My father was a piano teacher and we even had two pianos in the house for a time when I was a child; one stood in my bedroom. In a London music shop in the 1970s, I found a book of sheet music by Satie and, with fond memories of his music enhancing the mood of European films such as Carlos Saura’s Elisa, vida mía, I brought the book back to Melbourne and presented it to Dad. He was not familiar with the early twentieth-century French composer but he quickly mastered Satie’s haunting melodies, shifting tonalities and eccentric musical instructions.
Today, at the end of my first lesson for decades, my teacher starts to play the first of the Trois Gnossiennes. As I watch him play, his smooth fingers on the keys fade into the gnarled fingers of my father: their slightly swollen joints after he developed arthritis; the split nail on the index finger of his right hand, relic of a long-forgotten accident. My eyes blur with tears.
[Read Matthew Stephens’ full launch speech at Rochford Street Review]