2011 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow, Chris Price, recalls her memories of Menton.
In 2011, the six months of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship are a rich gift of time and place, and because I am here to work on a project unrelated to my location, I decide to make a second project of recording the texture of everyday life, knowing that otherwise it will slip away. Elizabeth Knox’s comment about the experience of New Zealand writers in Menton rings true: ‘Surprised eyes see things that others miss.’ The liquid sheen of a snake crossing the garden path at the villa Val Rameh, the palm outside the writing room putting on its dense choker of green seed-pearls, the gulls that raise their young on the tombs and rooftops of the town, the fact that French dogs go waouf! A rare night of thunder, lightning, and hail followed by the most intense blue day when, for the first and only time, Corsica appears, sailing like a mirage beneath a canopy of cloud at the horizon. Looking up from the writing desk to find a whole carillon of white bells has appeared on the unextraordinary bush by the fence.
There’s time for Katherine’s visitors too. The couple from Pirongia who tell me they read somewhere that the writing room was used as a lapinerie when Katherine lived here (for me hereafter it is the Rabbit Hutch). English Adrian, dyed hair, failing sight, in perhaps his sixties, who stops by each time he’s here, he says, because Mansfield’s was ‘such a sad little life’, which makes my pint-sized heart contract then momentarily enlarge at this glass-darkly glimpse of the sadness in his. I am a pale shadow of the woman they have come to see, and feel I should be wearing a t-shirt saying ‘I’m not famous, I’m from New Zealand’.
There’s the small-town rhythm of festivals and commemorations. On Rattachement Day, which marks the 150th anniversary of the date when Menton chose the rule of France rather than Monaco, the streets fill with vintage military vehicles and men and women in traditional dress, marching and making lace. Bastille day has its fireworks, of course, and the the Fête de la Musique brings a concert in the exquisite Matisse chapel up the coast in Vence. On St Michel’s fête day he is carried out of the basilica and paraded around the town.
And of course there’s the daily rhythm of the writer: walk to the room, write in the journal that threatens to become displacement activity, then drift and dream and do the work, and at the end put the laptop in the backpack and meet my partner at Les Sablettes to jump in the perpetually benign Mediterranean. One day, lazing in the water, we can hear the angry buzz of petrol and money all the way from Monaco, where the grand prix is in progress. This routine is punctuated by train trips to the many small art museums further up the coast, where there is time to linger and to look, no need to rush, we’re temporary locals.
It’s not all art and sunshine. Above our heads, French jets are crossing the Mediterranean to bomb Libya, where Gaddafi will eventually be found hiding in a drain and executed by rebels. IMF chief Dominique Straus-Kahn is embroiled in an ugly sex scandal in New York. Navy seals drop Osama bin Laden’s body in the ocean. Living on this side of the world, we feel more directly implicated. But it’s a relief to hear next to nothing of New Zealand on the news, and to be liberated from the local quarrels and gossip, at least until the Rugby World Cup finds our screens to remind us we are New Zealanders after all.
But above all I remember the golden weather — that, and the absence of other obligations that allows writing to come first, the fact that the office and the room of one’s own are the same thing, rather than two competing spaces. The gifts of time and place – bliss.