A conversation with Sylvia Martin - Ink In Her Veins - The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer

Sylvia Martin

 What first led to your interest in Aileen Palmer?

Starting with my PhD in Women's Studies, I had previously written about women in Australia's literary and cultural history whose principal relationships were with women, including poet , Mary Fullerton, and Mitchell Librarian, Ida Leeson.

Aileen Palmer was of interest to me because there was mention of her being a lesbian and her parents, Vance and Nettie Palmer, played a major role in the Australian literary scene in the first half of the 20th century. Someone had also mentioned to me that Aileen Palmer's diaries were held in the National Library in Canberra.

Your research for the book was extensive and straddled the world and it has taken you many years to research and write. Could you give us some insight into the journey you have been on unravelling Aileen's life?

In Australia, the Palmer family archive held in the National Library in Canberra is one of the largest the library holds and is very well organised, as opposed to Aileen's which is rather chaotic. The research among Aileen's papers was very time consuming as sometimes her writings were fragmented, often incomplete and at times illegible. But the research was also absolutely - - a complex family where her parents' desire that she should be a writer was encouraging and at the same time a bit of an oppressive burden.

I didn't realise in the beginning that the book would entail so much research into the Spanish Civil War in particular. For the research into Spain I started with the University of Tasmania's library where I was on the adjunct staff, which has a good collection, surprisingly, of material on the Spanish Civil War.

I then travelled to the other side of the world to London to the Marx Memorial Library which holds the archive of the International Brigades who fought against Fascism in the SCW. This library held quite a lot of information about Aileen, mainly firsthand accounts from colleagues in the British Medical Unit who provided medical care to the International Brigadiers in the SCW. Aileen worked as secretary and interpreter in this unit and later in medical sections of the Brigades for almost two years of the war, in temporary hospitals that were set up in disused houses or hotels, and even in tents later in the war, close to the frontlines.

I also travelled to most of the battlefields where Aileen was posted during the war. Spain has to a large extent hidden the history of this conflict and the sites are often hard to find. For instance, the site of the English Hospital in Granen on the Aragon Front is now a small public park, but there is no plaque commemorating it. That situation is repeated at other battle sites.

What would you say is the main theme of the book?

The main theme is the tension between her writing life and her political life.

You have extensively used Aileen's writings throughout the book, what did you hope to achieve by that?

I really wanted Aileen's voice to be a part of the book and I weave in parts of her unpublished writings almost as a commentary on the unfolding story of her life. I also wanted some of her poetry to be accessible to a wider readership.

Aileen returned to Australia in the 1940s after serving on the frontline in the SCW and then in the Ambulance Service in London throughout the Second World War. She suffered her first breakdown at 32 and was plagued by regular bouts of mental illness and institutionalisation. She was subjected to some fairly barbaric psychiatric treatments of the time, such as insulin coma therapy and early forms of ECT. She also underwent extensive psychoanalysis where her sexuality would have been treated as one of her problems.

I found it difficult to find a structure for the book because Aileen's childhood was such an important part of her life as was her extraordinary early writing, but her later years were so difficult. In spite of everything, she kept writing and Overland published a volume of her poems in 1964. She also translated Ho Ch Minh's Prison Diary and poems of the Vietnamese poet, To Huu.

I really wanted to give some justice to Aileen Palmer's quite extraordinary life and, as very few people know about her, I hope in writing the book to redress the balance.

Remembering Garcia Lorca

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the poet's death

Murdered near Granada in August, 1936


You remember the streets with the oranges glowing like suns

in the leafy dark of the sidewalks: you remember the streets

where the cars were loaded with flowers - requisitioned vehicles

daubed white with initials of people's organisations -

F-A-I, C-G-T, U-G-T, representing liberty -

and the courage of dark young men who would take Saragossa,

and the myriads of dark eyes, and the music, flamenco, -

that was the country of sunlight, the country of Lorca:

but the sky was loud with a prelude of German bombers.

You remember the Guards ("los Thiveelays", the people called them)

who never came out but in pairs, and who murdered the gypsies

wildly at night, in a massacre of black horses:

the Guards of tradition, and pain, and continuing darkness,

continuing poverty, and continuing serfdom:

in their hats of black patent leather their skulls were of lead

in case they should ever shed tea...they went always with rifles,

black in the uniform of the night before nightfa...

You remember the Guards? That was also the country of Lorca:

but the sky was dark with their escort of Nazi bombers.

You remember the wounded and the dead - the men on stretchers?

"Ai, madre mia, camarada, da me agua!"

You remember the hunger, and the emergence of justice,

harshly, among the hungry and the blockaded:

you remember the songs of the hungry, the deep songs of the south:

but the Guards of poverty stopped the poet's mouth:

at night they buried the singer of Andalusia,

Federico Garcia Lorca, the singer of sunlight,

singer of gypsies and massacres of black horses,

and a land bled pale by the pounding of German bombe...

You remember Garcia Lorca? How could you forget him,

as the song leaps up from his forehead of moonlight and sand!

Aileen Palmer, World Without Strangers?, Melbourne, Overland, 1964, p.29


Ink In Her Veins - The Troubled Life of Aileen PalmerInk In Her Veins - The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer is now available from Megalong Books RRP $29.99

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