Tag Archives: A Room of One’s Own

MY MOTHER, MY WRITING AND ME by Iola Mathews: Book Review

It’s worth reading this review at ANZ LitLovers so you can read Lisa Hill’s comments as well.

As I turned the last page of Iola Mathews’ 2009 Memoir, I was struck by how apt the word order in the title is.  Despite the author’s honest protestations and the occasional fight against it, her Mother came first.  Then, because of Mathews’ obvious love of the written word and a strong desire to simply put pen to paper, writing took a firm second place.  In third place (or fourth, had the author chosen to insert ‘family’ into the title) is simply ‘Me’.

Iola Mathews

There is a tendency with Memoir to tell too much, to feel a need to explain something in depth which might otherwise be glossed over in fiction and Mathews does face this dilemma in the first third of the book, even letting us in on the struggle with: Who the hell are you to tell people about yourself? This is pure self-indulgence. (24) The author, a former Age journalist, told Richard Fidler in a 2009 ABC interview that it is confronting for a journalist to talk about themselves and she admits she felt great embarrassment during the process.   (audio or podcast available here if you are interested). In the interview, Mathews talks quite extensively about her “mid-life crisis”, something she believes we all have to face (personally I don’t agree with her on the inevitability of it).

I found the latter two-thirds of this memoir to be written more freely, the author looking outward, less intent on her inner thoughts, although an occasional phrase jolted (‘angry time bomb’ (26), ‘my heart jumped up and down in my chest’ (46)) and the inner dialogue between the author and her ‘Demon’ (we all have one) is a little clunky.

Elsewhere, a writer’s life is deftly illuminated.  A friend of Mathews has this phrase: ‘It’s easy to write, you just stare at the screen until your head bleeds.’ (167) which I think is an adulteration of a Hemingway quote.  When reading about the writers’ studio Mathews visited in the hills north of Melbourne, I pencilled in the margin next to the author’s fond description of a wisteria-covered courtyard, Australian bush paintings and Persian rugs, “a room of one’s own?” Lo and behold, the next chapter starts off with a reference to that famous Virginia Woolf essay.

In the chapter titled ‘Religion’, Mathews seems to have warmed up, as she relates to the beauty in the everyday: a warm, light garden, ‘the sun filtering through the large oak trees that spread over the front lawn’ (96), the moon reflecting on Regent’s Canal in London seizing her ‘with a moment of pure beauty and pure happiness’ (103).  And throughout the book the author nails the procrastination and avoidance that can sometimes be the writer’s life: filing one’s nails, making cups of tea and watering plants – the minutiae of daily life gnawing into what should be writing time.

There’s some comic relief too.  Admiring her mother’s new walking frame, Mathews lifts the padded seat to check what’s in the basket: ‘a romance novel, a clean handkerchief and a bottle of gin’ (112).  Later, in a moment of solidarity, a friend of Matthews relates this little tale about her own mother who has Alzheimer’s:

‘After dinner my mother always says, “I think I’ll have a little Scotch before I go to bed.” I say “good idea,” and she has the Scotch and washes the glass and puts it away.  Then a few minutes later she sits up and says, “I think I’ll have a little Scotch before I go to bed.”  I say “good idea,” and she gets out the glass and has a Scotch, and washes the glass and puts it away.  Then a few minutes later she says, “I think I’ll have a little Scotch before I go to bed.”’ (161)

The author turns her journalistic eye toward the birthing process when present for the birth of her grandchild, giving us a fascinating insight into the labour, episiotomy and exhaustion that brought forth little Caleb.  I did have a chuckle though when I read that, as her daughter strained in the final stages, pushing with all her might, the author chose to place a hand on her shoulder and talk: ‘When I gave birth to Keir…’ (129). That might have been grounds for a slap in many a birthing room.

BOOK DETAIL
Mathews, Iola. My Mother, My Writing and Me: a memoir, Michelle Anderson Publishing, South Yarra, Vic. 2009.
ISBN: 978085572

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Which Writer Wrote ANSWER

However, the majority of women are neither harlots nor courtesans; nor do they sit clasping pug dogs to dusty velvet all through the summer afternoon.

This week’s WWW is quoted from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the influential middle class feminist polemic which questions the way history is written, explores the notion of gender in literature and the importance  of time, money and space in a writer’s life.

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Top of the Sixties by David Ayres: Book Review

Top of the Sixties is a fourteen-story collection, much of which – one suspects – is highly autobiographical.  The young band member, who makes a decision to abandon his guitar-playing dreams in favour of a more mainstream day-job kind of life, could easily be imagined as the author himself.  We can see ourselves here too, and recognize the consequences of the life-choices we have made and continue to make.  

These are primarily tales of firsts: the responsibilities and perks of a job; the stress and wonder of young love; the confusion of burgeoning sexuality; the search for identity; the growing understanding of human nature and interaction.

I enjoyed the circular nature of some of the tales (in fact the collection itself is circular).  ‘Something for the Weekend’ is a humorous look at the literal way a youth tries to make sense of an adult world of double entendre.  Amidst the odours of cigar smoke and Brylcreem, a youngster is oblivious to the subtle jokes of the men perusing the sports pages while waiting for a haircut.  “A boy of eleven, sitting in a high chair, having his hair cut, is an easy target” (91).  It is years later before Leon – now with a “rakish” style in no need of a barber’s attention – understands why “something for the weekend” was a phrase that made the barber-shop men erupt with laughter.

The dialogue occasionally faltered.  I found myself thinking that a certain piece of information would have been better served through background narrative rather than dialogue and sometimes vice versa.  For example, in ‘Wetton Mill’ John says to his friend Neil:  “You know I don’t believe in God and neither do you.  We could go up to Derbyshire.  We’ve talked about it but never done it.” (103).  In this exchange “you know I don’t believe in God” and “we could go up to Derbyshire” sit well as dialogue but the fact that Neil doesn’t believe in God either and that the boys had talked about going to Derbyshire but hadn’t done so, would have read easier as narrative.   

Sometimes too, a character’s voice is slightly off-kilter.  When David’s brother calls him a “berk” and his experiment “stupid” (‘Out of the Box’) it clicks but, in the next exchange when he says “Of course I know what it is, it’s Dad’s pipe tobacco, you strange boy” (134), it misses the mark. Did brothers in the sixties call each other “strange boy”?  I know my brothers were much more creative with their come-backs so I wasn’t quite convinced.

These foibles aside, there is much to enjoy in this collection, particularly if you lived through the sixties.  Cigarettes abound as they did at the time and are generally referred to  by brand (Keith spies “a large biscuit tin full of packs of ten Senior Service untipped”; Edna “relit a stub of Capstan and inhaled deeply”; Bazz “could josh with the older men and puff on a Park Drive”).  The Rolling Stones, The Who, John Lennon and Elvis Presley all get a look-in.  It’s a world of BSA motorcycles, consumptive poets and expertly shaped quiffs.

While many of the stories are light and fun, Ayres knows how to serve up substance when he wants to. Barry Enoch is a pensioner with a distaste for bacon in ‘Baz to the Slaughter’.  He recalls the part of his youthful innocence that disappeared in the blood-stained concrete surrounds of the abattoirs.

It wasn’t just the padded callipers, on the beasts’ necks, delivering the death-shock and bringing them like a sack of spuds to the ground; it wasn’t just the squealing that sounded like murdered children and drowned every other sound; it wasn’t even the upside-down carcasses that splashed their life-blood all over the white tiled killing floor.  The final straw had been the acrid stink of the hair being singed off the carcases with blowlamps. (77)

Ayres conjures some great visuals.  Consider Mick the drummer in ‘Fret’:

He seemed to bear a grudge against his semi-circular array of skins.  Mick would swivel on his stool as he laid into his kit from one end to the other, the sweat dripping from the end of his nose and the muscles in his arms billowing like mainsails (114)

A sense of private space has always been an important extension of personality for me and I thought of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as I read of a boy surveying his room, concerned over the wrench that a family move would create for him in ‘Out of the Box’.

Ridiculous, he said to himself, that such a tiny space should have such enormous importance for him.  But it did. Here were his test tubes and chemistry set […] Here was his atlas of the world with red biro lines across the oceans and continents […] Here was the essential David, the complete David, the David unavailable for his friends to see. (128)

‘A Gift of Lilies’ is the final story in the collection, in which university student Keith bumps into his old employer, easily recognizable from ‘A Sack of Spuds’ (the first story).  Bart Davies, now in his seventies, is about to propose to his occasional lover Lorna.  As Davies is purchasing a bunch of lilies, Lorna is reminiscing with a friend about the time Bart bought her lilies: “They smell clean, they smell of the future”. (162)

These stories are set in London in a simpler time, a time of greater innocence, and yet much of what Ayres has to say about youthful exuberance, teenage angst and finding ones place in the world are universal.  Top of the Sixties transcends the lines of geography, generation and gender and men of a certain age, in particular, are likely to see something of themselves between the pages.

BOOK DETAIL:
Ayres, David. Top of the Sixties, Holland Park Press, London, 2011.
ISBN: 978-1-907320-09-5
Purchase through the Holland Park Press website

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