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Kate Camp: Remembering Menton

Kate Camp was the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow in 2017. Reminiscing on her stay, she shares vivid detail that captures the nature of the town, and hints at the history of past fellows.

I arrived in Menton with the desire to write memoir, but no idea how I was going to do it. Each day I conjured up memories of the cigarette lighter in my parents’ car, or the salad boat at the Fisherman’s Table, or the motel I stayed at, in the hot Auckland suburbs, while the first Gulf War played on the television.

This was the kind of thing I was writing about, in the high-ceilinged bedroom with its tall windows and shutters and view of the ugly buff and pink apartment buildings and beyond them the Mediterranean – dark blue on some days, milk white on others.

Or I wrote in the basement room that belongs to the Katherine Mansfield Fellow, low-ceilinged, soulless, like a teenage retreat built in the eighties, with its little white-gravel yard out the front and its trains roaring past, bringing African boys from across the border who get walked under the tracks by policemen, and sent back in the other direction.

And while I was writing about New Zealand, and that other familiar foreign country, the past, I was observing my new present. I fell in love, as I often do, with the ugly thing: the eucalyptus smell of the disinfectant used in the rubbish bins, and the patch of dog piss under the dolphin-face of a gutter’s downpipe.

My days were synchronised with the daily rituals of the town, like when they would hose down the concrete each day where the market had been, with its the concrete fish table that would be covered in ice, and the van with the potatoes swimming in fat under the roasting chickens.

Being out at night was something I never got used to, the warm, still nights with the smell of orange blossom and the lights from the green neon cross of the Pharmacie. I’d always be carrying a cardigan, and never needing it.

The first time I visited the writing room, I took from the shelf a collection of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. Opening to the frontispiece, I read that it had been left in the room by Lauris Edmond, when she held the fellowship in 1981.

A few weeks later, I met a Texan woman who has lived in Menton for decades. She reminisced about one of the authors from New Zealand she’d met, who felt the cold terribly, and always wore thick stockings, “Janet somebody?” she said.

So when I wondered what the hell I was doing, invading my own privacy to write about trivia that no one could possibly be interested in, when I needed courage, I would think of Katherine Mansfield, and Janet Frame, and Lauris Edmond, and I would just keep writing forward.