A tapestry of exquisite threads: Matthew Stephens launches ‘Sky Swimming’ by Sylvia Martin

Matthew Stephens launched Sky Swimming by Sylvia Martin, UWA Publishing 2020, at a private residence in Leura, NSW on 15 February 2020.

Sylvia Martin

Hello, my name is Matt Stephens and it’s such a pleasure for my partner Jamie and I to welcome you all here to Leura for the launch of Sky Swimming, my mother Sylvia Martin’s latest book .

I would like to acknowledge the Gundungurra and Darug people who are the traditional custodians of this land. I would also like to pay my respect to Elders past, present and emerging.

I feel very honoured to have been asked by Sylvia to launch Sky Swimming. To launch Sylvia’s book, the ‘biography of her life’, as she calls it, is obviously very personal for me. But looking around the room, there are elements in this book that I think everyone here will take personally and I think will touch readers more generally. I can see some people are looking a little nervous, but I mean ‘personal’ in a good way! We’re not talking a gossip memoir here!

Sylvia is the author of three biographies about women neglected in Australian literary and cultural history. Passionate Friends: Mary Fullerton, Mabel Singleton and Miles Franklin was short-listed for the 2002 Independent Scholars Book Prize. Ida Leeson: A Life. Not a Blue-Stocking Lady received the 2008 Magarey Medal for Biography and was short-listed for several awards. Ink in Her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer was published in 2016 by UWA Publishing and has had a wonderful reception around the world.

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.

Pianos and the music of Erik Satie have become family motifs. Jamie, my new teacher, is my son Matt’s partner. His serene and airy music studio with the sun-dappled tree fern beyond the window is in the front room of the elegant Californian bungalow they bought in the Blue Mountains recently. I share a smaller house of the same period with Lizzie, my partner of more than 30 years, just a few streets away. Jamie’s piano is shiny black, like the one that stood against the cyclamen feature wall in the living room of my childhood house in Melbourne and which now resides at my daughter Astrid’s house a few kilometres down the mountain. The curling silver R. Lipp & Sohn that snakes its way across the front of that piano is replaced on this sleeker model by a bold, square YAMAHA. The book of Satie sheet music open above the gold lettering is the one I brought back from London in 1976.

Satie’s Trois Gnossiennes has become a bit of leitmotif in our family’s life over the years – it’s amazing how often it seems to turn up in film, in concerts and even a jazz gig we attended recently.

Sky Swimming is a book of texture, a tapestry of exquisite threads, loose ends and intricate knots. You’ll need to read the book to understand what I mean, but I also encourage you to chase up ANU historian Frank Bongiorno’s recent review available online of Sylvia’s biography of Aileen Palmer, in which he also touches on her biographical methods:

Sylvia Martin, with her fine reputation as a biographer of neglected but fascinating Australian literary women, has produced a superb biography of the Palmers’ elder daughter, Aileen.

He continues:

There is much in this book of interest to practitioners of the biographer’s art. Martin’s use of Aileen’s manuscript writings is, as already hinted, deft and intelligent. There is a restraint in much of the prose; not in the sense of an author being unwilling to chance her arm, but one who recognises the sheer complexity of her subject and the dangers of over-analysis.

It’s a wonderful review.

If I had to express Sylvia’s biographical method in a physical place there is no question where that would be. It would be a place called ‘Lorelei’, a small property five hours North-West of here on the edge of the Warrumbungles National Park and the subject of the chapter An Oasis of Pines and Lichen’.
I know some of you live near there or have visited this magical place (some many times) and have even written about your memories visiting Lorelei which thread through this chapter.

When Sylvia and Lizzie moved onto their 60 acres in the Summer of 1988, it seemed, from our cocooned existence in inner Sydney a brave act. And it was a brave act. They would live for two years in a caravan while they collected stone and timber for the foundations and building frame, and made thousands of mudbricks with the help of their friends and family.

This bravery and intrepidness is something I’ve seen every time Mum launches into her next biography. Her subjects are not publicly well-known, the archival trail can be thin or at best fractured and confused, and there is no real roadmap to follow in the interpretation of these fascinating inner lives. The one constant on these journeys whether at Lorelei, or uncovering the lives of Mary, Ida and Aileen, and as the subject of this book  – is Lizzie Mulder. And it is to Lizzie that Sylvia has dedicated Sky Swimming.

I mentioned the lack of a biographical roadmap before and it made me think of the difference to Mum’s response to making sense of Lorelei and my own. Sylvia writes of the tenuous hold she and Lizzie had on that place. They were only tenants of this country of trachyte pinnacles, cyprus pines, lichen and wild flowers. This place had a show of stars and a dawn chorus, a symphony of bird calls, unrivalled anywhere in the world.

Sylvia and Lizzie took their time getting a feeling for the country and how it worked, developing the house site, planning carefully but also with an approach that evolved, responding to circumstance and discovery along the way. Their octagonal house of mud, timber, slate and stone seemed to have sprouted from the ground itself – a place with a beautiful logic.

Early on in my engagement with Lorelei, I wanted to know every track, landmark, bore peg and boundary marker. I wanted to lock this all down on a piece of paper – I wanted to know where I was at all times when traversing the property. As time passed and I felt more confident with this exquisite landscape my need to control faded away. I don’t think Sylvia ever felt a need to own the land in this way. She knows where everything is on that land but every walk would be a new journey – was the lichen dry or damp, how were the secret fields of purple, pink and white Kunzea holding up or the beds of flattened grasses inhabited by the local kangaroos?

Her writing is like this too. Meticulous, always considered and beautifully fluid.

As we know, the house at Lorelei was destroyed by bushfire in January 2013, along with 60 other houses. It was such a loss and the way in which the countryside had been decimated, the toll on the plants and animals was unbearable to think about. The destructive fires of this season may have hurt even more, if that was possible, because it reminded us of this loss. But for those of us that knew this wonderful place, the legacy will remain with us for as long as we live. A place that was created for a moment, was shared, that changed us, is now gone but still remembered.

In Sky Swimming, Sylvia mirrors this approach, exploring the lives of some extraordinary women as well as her own life in a way that gently ripples outward touching us all with beauty, subtlety and meaning for the rest of our lives.

It’s such a pleasure to launch Sky Swimming which I now declare launched!

 – Matthew Stephens


Matthew Stephens has been research librarian at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection since 2004, and has developed a strong interest in the history of books and libraries in New South Wales. Unashamedly addicted to the historical research process, Matthew has written extensively about the British cross-dressing soldier, Hannah Snell, rediscovered the missing library of explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt, and completed a PhD on the early history of the Australian Museum Library. More recently, Matthew has been examining the personal book and sheet music collections in our properties at Sydney Living Museums and is looking forward to sharing further this fascinating world of our reading and music-making history. Sylva Martin is his mother.

Sky Swimming is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/sky-swimming



El Asombrado is Australian poet Les Wicks’ 12th book of poetry. It contains a selection of work over the past 15 years in both Spanish and English. The poems are artfully translated by a master – G. Leogena, living in Medellin, Colombia. It is available as an eBook by clicking on the cover below.

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