03.09.20

Stephanie Johnson's Memories of Menton

2000 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow, Stephanie Johnson, recalls her memories of Menton.

"When I look back on my time in Menton, twenty years ago, I see it as one of the happiest in my life. I was there with my husband and three young children, who all had correspondence lessons with their father at the flat in the Palais Lutitia while I hived off to Menton Garavan to write. In the late afternoons we’d meet on the beach for a swim and the children would sometimes moan about how Dad made them do maths, but mostly they just swam and plonged a la plage. The children were at an age where travelling with them was a joy, adding an extra level of delight. They were fascinated by the poodles and how they were allowed to sit up at café tables; when they swam in a stream in the Alps Maritime they found a pale watersnake; they played petanque and catch with groups of French children, and picked up a little of the language.

I did a lot of laughing in the room at the Isola Bella as I wrote the first draft of my novel “The Shag Incident”, though I worried that no one else would share my sense of humour. The book went on to be a best-seller. I wrote the first draft of my play “Strange Children” that enjoyed a successful season in 2005 at the Herald Theatre. The notebooks I kept during those months are full of rapturous accounts of people and places, notes for short stories – many of which I went on to write. I remember how I felt Katherine around me a lot, and never more so than the day we visited her grave at Avon, near Fontainebleau. I fumed at how her headstone reads Katherine Mansfield - Wife of Middleton Murray. No mention of her genius. We had no flowers, so I left her a rollie, mindful of the begging letters to Middleton Murray to bring her cigarettes and books.

It isn’t just Katherine who haunts the fellow. I had visions of Marilyn Duckworth cooking her dinner over a campstove in the days the fellows actually lived at Isola Bella. I remembered Michael King telling me a story of how he arrived in Menton at night and went immediately for a swim in the ‘wine dark sea’, which gave him a rash. On two occasions I was mistaken for Elizabeth Knox though we’re not at all alike. Menton gardener and friend of New Zealand William Waterfield said – “Oh we’ve had some rum ones”, with reference to one or two badly behaved fellows. I agreed with Maurice Shadbolt that the beds were terrible but tried to keep the concierge on side by always remembering my key. The other William, William Rubenstein, friend to every fellow for many years, was necessarily discreet but told me “The Katherine Mansfield fellows are my hobby!”

The bookcase in the writing room at Isola Bella brings shades of past fellows even closer around the incumbent. It bulges with books they wrote and books they read. In my time there was a book on insanity that once belonged to Louis Johnson, copies of Michael Harlow’s poetry, Vincent’s short stories, a novel of Catherine Chidgey’s, battered travel guides and phrase books.

The Mansfield fellowship had an incalculable effect on my life and work. It was the first and only time I have ever been to Europe, though some of my books had been published in Britain. I still sometimes dream of my time there."

- Stephanie Johnson

Stephanie Johnson