Backwards to Forwards: A Memoir
Some time in 1986 (I think it was), Kevin Ireland turned up at the University of Canterbury English Department as writer-in-residence. What returns to the memory is a series of parties, informal or formal, spontaneous or planned – at the bar of the University’s staff club, in a common room or someone’s living room or at someone’s dinner table or in the office of Quentin Wilson’s early Hazard Press, the moment’s mixture always changing but Kevin seemingly always at the centre of it, wineglass in hand, attractive women never far away, and a constant laughter, in his case taking the form of a charming, dribbling half-snigger that went on and on as the intermittent punctuation of whatever yarn he was spinning at the given mixture’s moment. Dining, he was a master of the intraprandial snooze, forty winks taken usually during the later part of the menu, always followed by a quick resurfacing which began with a furtive look around the table to see if anyone had noticed his brief fugue (we always had) before he reassembled himself and launched back into whatever story he had temporarily left behind or began something new. Somewhere in all this, somehow, he wrote a volume of poetry, The Year of the Comet, an appropriate reminder that as a bright earthly object passing through our little solar system he more than made up for the bright celestial object we had expected to see that year.
The second volume of his memoirs, Backwards to Forwards (a title he has got out of Nietzsche, about the difference between living and remembering) is like one of those evenings, though easier on the head the morning after. Starting in 1959, the year he somehow got on a boat heading for Europe more or less because he had the fare, it moves away from his first volume’s grimmer account of his youth and into a glorious one of what has happened since. Arriving in London, he spent his first day wandering around looking for an old mate he hadn’t got around to telling he was coming, but being Kevin he also found him almost straight away and spent his first night in the attic of an art gallery, acquiring a job as a sort of cook for its owner. This capacity for falling on his feet seems part of a life philosophy very much of the period, although in a book as artfully unassuming as this you would never find that spelled out. Friends just seem to assemble, as they were to assemble at Canterbury University 35 years later; events are portrayed as simply happening; almost always for the better, a life is made. The book teems with vivid portraits of the people Ireland has met, from an Irish plasterer obsessed with the poetry of Milton (getting plastered takes different forms in this book) through the painter Francis Bacon gorging his friends with oysters and champagne (“Champagne for our real friends, and real pain to our sham friends”) to the Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov, a friend of Ireland’s whom the Bulgarian intelligence assassinated in London in 1978 by means of a pellet fired into his ankle from the tip of an umbrella.
If London was so attractive, then what more obvious thing to do than to set off for communist Bulgaria? – which is what Ireland did after a while in London and on much the same impulse that had taken him there in the first place. In a sense, though, Bulgaria was an obvious place for a young refugee from the stupors of 1950s New Zealand to go to, as different as you could get, yet in a mad way exactly the same, like a distant foreign cousin, coming out of the same monolithic, statist philosophy and with a population which had as little real connection with that philosophy as did the population back in New Zealand. The long sequence of recollections of his time in and around Sofia teases the humanity out of the system in a series of fascinating portraits: village life in Bulgaria (where the inmates of a village hostelry at which he is drinking, fascinated at the minor details of his otherness, accompany him en masse when he slips out to pee – everything turns out to be in order, it seems); a meeting with the puppet ruler Todor Zhivkov (a former blacksmith who fancies himself as an artist manqué); and his meeting early on with a young woman with whom he falls in love on sight and proposes to straightaway (naturally, since she looks like Ingrid Bergman) in mangled French, as he has no Bulgarian and she no English.
It is a meeting with this woman, years after their divorce, which begins the book and sets off the theme of recollection, which is at its centre. For a few minutes, he can’t remember her, a subtle early warning about the factitiousness of memory that is worthy of Janet Frame, and, as with Frame, a kind of liberation of the author to do what he wants with the rest of the work. The basis of Ireland’s poetry has always been a trust in his readers’ intelligence, his knowledge that we can work things out for ourselves without being told, and the same quality provides the subtlety of this charming, funny, intensely human and deeply life-affirming book. My only reservation is his rather hurried tidy-up near the end, where he seems to cover a lot of more recent material very quickly, as if he has decided that he is going to contribute to that neglected genre, the two-volume trilogy. After reading towards the end of Backwards to Forwards his memoir of Barry Mitcalfe (one of his predecessors as writer-in-residence at Canterbury University), I can’t wait for a third volume which will get stuck into other people I know – everyone, of course, except me. Come on, Kev, boy, you’re not piking, are you? Your turn to shout again.
Patrick Evans teaches English at the University of Canterbury. He is co-winner of the 2002 Landfall essay competition.