Dear Katherine : Fellows write a letter to Katherine Mansfield – WORD Christchurch Spring Festival 2020

In the last-but-one event at the hugely successful WORD Christchurch Spring Festival, Bill Manhire, Carl Nixon, Fiona Farrell, Vincent O'Sullivan and Paula Morris shared their letters to our most beloved writer, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship.

All have been recipients of this funded stay in Menton, France, where Katherine lived towards the end of her short life (she died aged 34). It was here she wrote the last of her short stories; many remembering the New Zealand of her childhood, with her sisters and her beloved brother Leslie, killed in a training exercise during World War 1.

Presenter Rachael King introduced the authors. Rachel's father, Michael King, was also a Fellow in 1976. 

Bill Manhire (who received the Fellowship in 2004) is a member of the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship Trust. He gave a brief history. 

Mansfield lived in the Villa Isola Bella towards the end of her life, at the age of 30. The first Fellowship was awarded in 1970. It is now managed by the Arts Foundation.

Sue Wootton, the latest Fellow, has been prevented from taking up her residency by ‘something we all know about’ -  Covid-19. 

Bill's letter goes something along the lines of:

"Dear Katherine, I don’t know if you‘ve ever been interrupted…"

The Villa is a mecca for literary tourists, and is often being renovated. Ken Duncum (2010), just listed all the callers-by in a poem. One fellow asked, 'What time do you open?’

Manhire wrote the book, 'Lifted' during his residency. He reads the first poem; 'Opoutere, written in memory of Michael King. An emotional moment. Opoutere was a place where King was always relaxed, and Bill’s attempt to give Michael ‘a more peaceful departure’.

Opoutere (abridged):

This is the place of posts.

A man in a boat is checking his lines.

...While behind him the estuary fills

with its acres of shine.

...January nineteen-ninety-something,
Michael himself pouring the drinks

...history and music talking together,
the vast entertainment of learning…

And do you remember...

So that again I stop on the footbridge
(there are swallows)
just to see that everyone's here

(and we are), watching water slide over mud,
a boy suddenly lifting an arm
to see if the crabs still run to their smudges

and they do

...Everything consoles, and nothing.

Everything goes under the earth,
the old timber, and the new.

What is memory but all of us listening?

...And now I suppose he cuts the motor.
Let the tide do the work!

And now there is only the sound of water…

Here in the place of posts
I think I can just make him out

a man in a boat
rowing across the last half-mile of twilight


Bill led a happy life in Menton, expecting to produce poems full of European sunshine but instead he wrote sad poems about New Zealand. (He told his audience the day before that he likes to write sad poems). He lifted the atmosphere with a chuckle about a large rat seen waddling out of an alleyway:  ‘oh to be a rat in Ventimiglia...'

Carl Nixon (2017) begins in a familial manner:

"Dear Great Aunt Katherine... Hardly a day goes by without someone mentioning your name..."

Nixon’s family enjoyed exploring the countryside. They had to, because they had trouble acquiring the keys to Villa Isola Bella. The Mayor was on holiday.

Finally in, Nixon didn't find the ghosts of forty seven other Fellows too overwhelming…

Nixon can’t help being gory (it's his bread and butter as a crime writer), describing the unfortunate discovery of a melanoma resulting from the less intense sunshine (here someone in the audience erupts into laughter):

"It was the Merchant of Venice with a scalpel, I could hear my pound of flesh landing in the dish, and I lay there thinking of Menton. Sun is a treacherous bastard. Scuse my French."

The Tally Stick

Fiona Farrell (1995) recounted a lovely time in Menton with a new husband and two visiting daughters who moved in - waking her up coming in from nightclubs in Nice! Not nice.

Farrell found the Mediterranean not quite what it was cracked up to be and cracked us all up with a ditty about swimming at the foot of the street, where 'a panty liner remained undiminished the entire time' :

‘Nothing could be finer than to be a panty liner on the Cote d’Azur…’

Farrell tells Mansfield about the modern world; for all its technology, communication is still a lot like animal sounds, 'moo, woof' "I would ask KM, 'this communication; is this what it's for?' "

Our future looks grim, says Farrell. "Long trains of light, like distant railway carriages" are turning the Milky Way into a motorway. "Just so I can use my phone? Woof woof. Darkness, broken by bits of light, floating overhead."

Farrell tells her muse a story of rioting, to drive back the darkness of the First World War. Christchurch had its own Storming of the Winter Palace : riots at the King Edward Barracks. 

The darkness of Mansfield's disease, tuberculosis, has also been driven back. Alas, too late for her to have lived a full life. Farrell says the world is often so full of darkness that "I don’t know what to say, what to write. Then I saw a play." Her granddaughter's school, where extraordinary teachers had coordinated it all, and the script was about…Darkness. Anxiety. Bushfires. Extinction. Isolation. Not being able to visualize the future. The kids in the play went back in time from 2040, to reassure today's children: Covid-19 had jumped species and mutated to kill stoats and ferrets = bird life saved!!! Fiona's granddaughter played Jacinda Ardern. Win!

"What's it for? Words keep back the darkness. That’s what its for."

Six Clever Girls Who Became Famous Women

Vincent O’Sullivan (1994):

"Dear Katherine, its one hundred years since you wrote,

'This isn't what I wanted my little kingdom to be. I falsify slightly. I cant help it, its all so difficult.' "

Does a weakness in writing reflect on the self? Katherine was getting over 'her' war, but what to do about ours? Vincent says "Say, no we won't accept decay, or others speaking for us." 

"Mansfield did this; she wouldn’t graze with the herd."

When (John) Middleton Murry, her husband, remarked on her punctuation, he looked up to see her glaring at him in the mirror: "Don't you bloody tell me about my punctuation!" Murry said literary people went around with razors in their socks. O'Sullivan jokes,

"We no longer have sanitoriums; we have creative writing courses, providing artificial lungs of a different kind."

KM wrote, says O'Sullivan, with her 'spider’s eye for accuracy', of a premonition of death: a dream of a theatre where people drifted away, while iron curtain descends. "I knew it was the end of the Earth."

Vincent O'Sullivan ends, wishing Katherine a happy All Saints Day.

The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield

Paula Morris (2018):

"Dear Katherine, I am a stranger, a stalker, I read your journal and letters..."

Mansfield wrote, aged eighteen, ‘Would you not like to try all sorts of lives?’ Writing made this possible. Even in true stories, says Morris, we put on a persona. Paula thought the other writers were more lyrical and profound, while she 'drifts into silliness'. Morris' talent lies in observing people and writing them down. A thing she is very good at.

Morris shared some lovely gossip about villagers and ex-pats, in a scene reminiscent of Mansfield's 'The Man Without a Temperament'.

Paula painted an idyllic picture of 'houses bask(ing) like giant oranges’; a place where 'fine red dust blows across sea from the Sahara', then shattered our idyll with observations of people of colour being harassed at the Italian border, and Gucci knock-off handbags being burned by the Italian police.

The darkness...

False River

Rachael King wrapped things up with lots of thanks to all those who helped make this all-Kiwi festival a huge success, particularly her partner-in-WORD, Marianne Hargreaves.

WORD Christchurch