A Month at the Back of My Brain: A third memoir by Kevin Ireland (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2022), 174pp, $39.99
Kevin Ireland died in May 2023, just a few weeks short of his ninetieth birthday. By my count, A Month at the Back of My Brain was Ireland’s forty-first book in sixty years as a writer—all of them hard copy, paper-and-ink books: what I still think of as real books.
His first memoir, Under the Bridge & Over the Moon (1998), covered his childhood and adolescence in Auckland and the Waikato to his departure for Australia, leaving New Zealand as an aspiring poet with a new surname suitable for his career as a writer (his model in this being Frank Sargeson).
Backwards to Forwards (2002) took him from 1959 to 1985, when he returned to live permanently on the North Shore in Auckland. Along the way, he had worked at various jobs that gave him time to write—for example, working as a night porter at a private hotel in London—and the publication of his first eight collections of poems was one of the outcomes of this strategy.
The approach of his ninetieth year gave Ireland an opportunity to review his third thirty-odd years; but though he is present on every page, this memoir is not the story of a writer’s late years. Indeed, it’s only in the final chapter that he drops in, almost apologetically, a paragraph listing what he had done and the places he’d been since 1985—without even mentioning his further eighteen books of poetry, seven of fiction, three non-fiction, and two volumes of memoir.
For A Month at the Back of My Brain, Ireland used a well-practised technique of letting his mind go blank and then summoning memories from their shelves ‘at the back of [his] brain’. He likens it to ‘fossicking through cupboards, then sweeping up and examining the spillings I’ve retrieved from the floor.’ The result is this fascinating book, with a month’s worth of thirty chapters, each about five pages long, some accompanied by apposite poems, and all shaped and fashioned over a year or two but giving the illusion of being a daily sequence. Taken one at a time, each chapter both entertains the reader and prompts the desire to read more.
Along the way, we learn something about the fortunate life of a successful writer, happily married and well-housed, and with a wide circle of friends. We hear a little about his life during Auckland’s Covid-19 lockdown, baking his sourdough bread, smoking the occasional Southland trout—he was surely one of our more fortunate octogenarians. We also learn that he was no mean painter, as the book’s cover demonstrates.
We hear about his father, his two aunts Kathleen, and especially his beloved grandfather Mac, who was, he writes, ‘the one trustworthy embodiment of kindness I ever knew as a child’. This startling statement, made almost casually, is characteristic of Ireland’s handling of the darkness in his childhood caused by his mother’s abandonment of her young children. When Mac himself was a child, he ran away from his violent mother and grew up in the Tolaga Bay area with Ngāti Porou forestry gangs. He never went to school, but at about age nine, he taught himself to read, and ‘his life changed forever’ as he became, Ireland says, ‘one of the best-read men I’ve ever met, with a memory for the printed word that was prodigious’.
Ireland is fascinated by how people become what they are. In chapter 7, ‘Fantasies, fibs and delusions’, he writes about five ‘fantasists’ he has known, one of them the New Zealand writer Maurice Shadbolt (‘Maurie’ to all his friends) whom he remembers as ‘the best and most tireless fibber I’ve ever known’ who ‘carried off first prize for lifelong consistency in the arts of improving on reality.’
Shadbolt was the author of short stories, travel books about New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, plays and film scripts, as well as a dozen or so novels. His success as a writer, however, came at the cost of failed marriages and hurt families as he pursued what Ireland describes as his ‘lifelong desire to fabricate and project brilliant images of himself to sustain his ambitions as a writer and lover, in spite of his ruthless treatment of others, as well as a contradictory and profound dependence on them.’
The two first met in their late teens and he records that:
I became a rare, intimate witness to Maurie at home on several occasions—once for a whole afternoon—and was able to observe his peculiar relationship with his mother. It now seems to me that I was present, quite casually, at what simply had to be a never-ending display of the most astonishing mother-love I have ever seen … It was more than love of mother for son, it was veneration. Maurie’s mother was an obsessive servant and devotee … It was startling. No woman that he was ever to meet or marry could ever live up to his mother’s unconditional worship.
Remarkably, Ireland also recalls having been present at another revealing occasion, ‘Maurie’s last, top-hatted, dinner-suited (with white gloves), solo performance as a magician at the Oddfellows’ Hall in Pitt Street. He made objects appear and disappear with ease … and all the rest of the standard tricks. But what really impressed me’, Ireland says, ‘was the sustained effort he must have put in, the countless hours over years of discipline that he must have devoted to the grind of getting them right, then acquiring a patter to go with it all. Maurie consecrated himself tirelessly to the art of self-presentation and deception.’
In Ireland’s busy and productive life, it feels only right that one chapter should start: ‘This is the chapter in which nothing much happens. A kind of day off. And why not?’ The ‘nothing much’ that happened in this particular memory was his being capped with an honorary doctorate from Massey University. In his graduation address, he read his poem ‘An Unforgettable Day’, retrieved from his 2001 collection Fourteen Reasons for Writing, a poem celebrating ‘the most ordinary of days’, a day ‘so tediously // forgettable’ that:
I try to think
of something else, but it all
keeps coming back and astonishing me.
In a world of endless possibilities
it is amazing
what doesn’t happen.
If there is a common theme running through these memories and anecdotes, it is something like Look after yourself and take care of each other. We see this, or its failure or absence, in the fortunes of schoolmates, old friends or acquaintances, family members, and Ireland himself. It’s there in chapter 1, where the seven-year-old Kevin shepherds his younger siblings home from the pictures in Queen Street, is falsely accused of shoplifting, and becomes flustered, boarding the wrong ferry, which takes them miles away from home. It underlies the tragic story of his school friend Bevan in chapter 11, and is writ large in the story of the young woman he walked home from the pub one night in London (chapter 16). It surfaces even in his two chapters on fly-fishing in Southland, as he realises that his fishing days in those rivers whose current ‘now seems to be getting stronger every season’ are coming to an end because his younger friends’ fishing time is being wasted by having to keep an eye on the old bloke.
From genial fishing yarns to knotty speculation on how memories affect our past and our present, Kevin Ireland writes well. He writes gently, too, when he touches on sore places, one of the saddest being his memory of him and his brother, two small boys ‘back in bed together …our arms around each other and … quietly singing and crying ourselves to sleep, sharing the misery of our mother’s desertion, which was something we never talked about to anyone but each other.’
He ends the book with one last searing memory of his mother—and then, waking up on ‘day 31’ after ‘a surprisingly entertaining and satisfying dream’, he realises that ‘the back of my brain had played one final trick by slamming its doors shut. It had thrown away the key on the last day of the month. My memories have been invited to begin an existence from now on that will be entirely unreported.’ If he had more to tell us, it seemed that this would be in poems, as they came to him, but now we must simply be grateful for what he has given us out of such a long writing life.
ALAN RODDICK is a Dunedin poet whose third collection, Next, Poems 2016–2021, was published in February 2022 by Otago University Press.