Bill Mathers — Thomas Chadwick

[The novelist, critic and angler Bill Mathers got on with the literary establishment only marginally better than he did with his own family. Throughout his career he resisted interview, describing it as “pathetic” and “mere archaeology.” He lived out the final years of his life in a Richmond nursing home where he was placed—against his will—by his estranged son. While there he placed an advertisement in the local paper. Old Man; blinding writer. Seeks reader for short walks and zero conversation. For two years I was lucky enough to be that reader. We would go out twice a week, first pushing his wheelchair around Kew Gardens on Tuesday afternoon, then along the Thames on Friday morning. Both journeys would end in the White Grape where we would each drink a pint of mild. I would carry a copy of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, from which I would read as we walked, and a loaf of un-sliced bread with which I would feed ducks. Initially, Mr. Mathers was near silent only grunting at passages of Lowry or laughing at small waterfowl struggling with bread. Slowly, however, perhaps mindful of his ebbing mortality he began to share a few thoughts. I collected his opinions in a small notebook, which after his death sat limp upon my desk for several months, but I’m now sharing with you.]

Bill Mathers 1934-2011

On Anthony Trollope: “Makes time spent reading Dickens look like an investment.”

On Shakespeare: “Old, but that’s not the worst of it. He makes it look like old people can’t spell.”

On Catcher in the Rye: “People go through their whole lives thinking that’s how you write a book.”

On his mother: “An atrocious human being.”

On Toni Morrison: “She looked at me once and made me feel very small. I probably should have left it at that.”

On Don Quixote: “Apparently one summer the whole Real Madrid squad was made to read it, even Beckham, although I think they gave it to him in translation, a staggering achievement in itself.”

On Carp: “Never saw the point. I got fed one once in Italy; it tasted like shitty bream.”

On Zadie Smith: “She farted once at the Booker ceremony, cleared the whole room. Still didn’t win though.”

On Ian McEwan: “You know he can’t even drive? You shouldn’t be allowed to write if you can’t drive.”

On Walter Benjamin: “People go around quoting him like he’s a pal. They miss the point: you’re not meant to think he’s your pal.”

On his Aunt Maureen: “She got arrested in ’62 for GBH, the same day her husband got arrested for ABH. I remember my Mum laughing and telling me they were having a competition, but all I saw was a family who cared.”

On Hunter S Thompson: “Drank him under the table. He won’t admit it because he’s a pussy and a lightweight, but he was chucking up on the hard shoulder while I was in the boot pulling out another Grolsch.”

On Pollack: “A lot of people will try and tell you it’s as good as cod, but a lot of people will tell you that Howard Jacobsen deserved the Booker.”

On Moby Dick: “I read it at school then forgot everything. Thirty years later I overheard a man talking about it in the waiting room at my local surgery. For half an hour I thought he was complaining about a new kind of venereal disease.”

On Virginia Woolf: “Mrs Dalloway, 7. To the Lighthouse, 4. Orlando, 2. The Waves, 5. The others I couldn’t find.”

On Ted Hughes: “Shit at fishing.”

On his father: “He sold my school football shirt. I brought it home on Friday to wash and by Monday he’d sold it. I only cared because it wasn’t so easy getting into teams back then.”

On Jonathan Safran Foer: “I thought he worked in TV?”

On Carol Ann Duffy: “Shagged her, twice. Once in Buckingham Palace up against a pillar. Once on a cross-channel ferry. Both times she gave a false name.”

On Bass: “Like reeling in yards of glorious silk.”

On Doris Lessing: “We shared a pizza once. I was about to offer her the last slice when she just grabbed it. I went straight home and burned her novels.”

On his brother, Charles Mathers, a civil servant: “Thin, but not in a brittle, scrawny way. No. He was strong, what people called wiry before the internet. Also not a lot of people knew how bad he was with money.”

On Proust: “Too short.”

On Foucault: “I met him once in Paris. He won’t remember because he was so drunk and I can’t really remember what happened after he hit me.”

On Pike: “I’ve broken three landing nets bringing in those angle-fuck-fish.”

On Kingsley Amis: “Should have had the snip.”

On George Orwell: “I saw all of his books once in a butchers, every one of them, alphabetized on a shelf, above the bacon and ham.”

On his Grandparents: “They thought my father was soft for not sending me to boarding school so they’d re-create the experience when I stayed in the summer. Fed on bread and water, hours of Latin verbs, and then bed in dorms full of local children my Granddad paid to tease me. I ran away in my second term.”

On Hemingway: “A whole generation thought it was cool to drink while you fish because of that clown.”

On Rilke: “It got very fashionable didn’t it. Liking Rilke. Everyone would titter in the corner at parties and say things like, “Rilke, now there’s a poet”.”

On Dodi Smith: “I watched her once hit a policeman. I was there, interviewing him for the Daily Express. She came from nowhere. Huge amounts of blood. It was settled out of court.”

On Julian Barnes: “All I’ll say is that there’s this guy in the IRA who’s in love with him, as in madly in love with him, but Julian’s too much of a fucking prude.”

On E.M.Forster: “If you go to his grave you can see it rotate 365 degrees every time they announce the Booker shortlist.”

On Bream: “Too slippery by half, but lush if you can land them.”

On his Mum: “She gave me a London Underground Map for my fourteenth birthday. She’d highlighted all the stops where you could sleep rough. I’d just started thinking about becoming a writer, not properly, but you know buying pens and so on. She thought she was being exceptionally funny but that map came in real handy.”

On Lydia Davis: “I was in love with her for ages, then I read her stories and realised that that was the point.”

On Prawns: “If you show me how to catch a prawn I’ll burn my rod.”


Thomas Chadwick used to live in London but he now lives in Gent.

ImageUntitled, © Kevin D, Creative Commons