Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

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Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Recollecting Mansfield


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In France, Owen Leeming, another expatriate writer, who knew Menton well, and to whom the Menton Fellowship committee had sent some money in the previous year, had offered to put me up for a night in his tower in Lamanon, Provence, and to drive me to Menton the next day. This was a great help, and he duly met me at the station in Avignon and took me to his old and beautiful tower. Owen was an intelligent young man, bilingual, completely at home in France, and in the late afternoon a schoolboy turned up for an English lesson. Owen introduced the lad to me and prompted him to converse with me for practice. Eventually Owen produced a delicious meal in his large kitchen where strings of onions and garlic hung from broad rafters. On one level of the tower he had a grand piano which, I gathered, he played extremely well. In his bachelor existence he was certainly living what we in New Zealand used to think of as the 'civilised' life. He knew a great deal about Mansfield page 52and had once, memorably, interviewed her three sisters for the Bbc, so he was a marvellous person to talk with just at that time.

There was another little commission I had been given by the Turnbull Library. Geoffrey de Montalk — New Zealander, writer, printer, eccentric, pretender to the throne of Poland — had been a friend of the poet A.R.D. Fairburn and had had much correspondence with him. Fairburn, who had died some 20 years earlier, was growing in posthumous popularity, and the Turnbull was keen to collect up as many of his manuscripts as possible. De Montalk (who styled himself Count Potocki, and Dan Davin had carefully instructed me that Potocki was pronounced Pototski) was now living in France, and had boasted about owning a large stack of Fairburn letters, although he was not prepared to let them go cheaply. Since he also had extreme right-wing views and strong prejudices against black people, Jews and institutions like the Turnbull, negotiations by letter had been not only inconclusive but enormously frustrating. He lived in Draguignan, which was on our way to the south, and Owen readily agreed to take me there to see if a personal visit might achieve what, so far, letters had failed to. Owen was curious to meet de Moutalk [sic], having heard about him over the years. I myself had had much previous correspondence with de Montalk in which I had been roundly abused for working in the interests of the Turnbull, and for being more interested in Fairburn than in de Montalk himself. He had expounded to me his views about the Second World War ('The Great Jewish War'), and how much the world owed to Hitler, and how wonderful the British Royal Family was, and how he himself was remotely related to them, and much else of a distinctly sickening nature. I did not look forward to meeting him but having Owen with me made a big difference.

In Draguignan we made enquiries and were directed out into the countryside where we found a small wooden dwelling that page 53looked likely. Owen waited in the car while I went up the muddy track beside the house to the back door and knocked. After a while the door was opened by Himself, tall, in a floor-length black robe. I introduced myself and he said he was in the middle of morning prayers — to the Sun God — so would we come back in 10 minutes? I agreed to do so and turned and walked away. He stood there watching me and then called out, 'You have good legs, Margaret Scott.' This might perhaps have added to my self- esteem if I had been a horse. Back in the house we found that de Montalk (hereinafter referred to as the Count) was not alone. A young Welsh woman, Kathleen, and her small baby of just a few months were also there. The Count explained that the baby was not his. Kathleen had been staying with him when she went to spend an evening at a neighbour's house and came home pregnant. Fortunately, said the Count, the neighbour was an aristocrat, so the baby was as well-connected as if it had been his.

I don't remember very much about that morning except that it seemed impossible to pin down anything definite about the Fairburn letters. Flattery seemed to be the most functional tool to use on the Count so, as he was a printer of some distinction, I enquired after his printing and he took me to the annex at the back of the house where he kept his press and its products. He gave me half a dozen of his small books, written and printed by himself. (Later I found that the Turnbull already had copies of all of them so I still have the ones he gave me.) Then he showed us a large scrapbook full of various kinds of memorabilia, mainly to do with Blue Blood and how the aristocrats of Europe (including himself and the House of Windsor) were interconnected and related to one other. Superficially he was genial and amusing but there was also something sinister about him. He spoke admiringly of a neo-Nazi group, based in Paris, of which he was an adherent (and which, Owen told me later, was a very nasty outfit indeed). Owen page 54suggested we all go into town for lunch and the Count accepted with alacrity. Fortunately, before I left New Zealand, Sheila Winn, whose money was behind the Winn-Manson Fellowship, as the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship was called in those early days, had given me a 500-franc note. I managed to slip this to Owen under the table of the restaurant so that he could pay the bill because it was clear that the Count assumed, in his narrow right-wing way, that we were all Owen's guests. Still, it was a good lunch.

The Count said he would let me know his decision about the Fairburn letters, and asked me to let him know as soon as I had an address in Menton. I decided to forget to do this because he had already said that he managed to maintain his tourist status in France (i.e. not being liable for income tax) by crossing the border into Italy every three months to get his passport stamped. As Menton was right on the Italian border I did not want to become the way-station for the Count's nefarious practices.

Late in the afternoon Owen and I rolled into Menton, skirted the Old Town and drove along the quai to Garavan, where the Villa Louise and its annex, the Villa Isola Bella, were situated. The Isola Bella was now just an overflow for the Louise, in the height of the season, and when we got there it was closed up. I had been told by the fellowship committee that a room in the Louise had been booked for me for a few days until I could find somewhere to live. But the Louise had never heard of me; all they could do was squeeze me into a tiny attic room that had only just enough floor space for my luggage. Before Owen departed he managed to get permission to show me inside the Isola Bella, and he took me to the small bedroom that he thought was probably Mansfield's. Then he left to spend the night with friends and said he would call by in the morning, on his way home. Now I really was a foreigner in a foreign country. In the dining room I was seated at a table alone and served first with a large artichoke. I had never seen one page 55before, let alone mastered the conventions of eating it, so I had to cast side-long glances at neighbouring tables to get the hang of it. My French was painfully inadequate (I had thought, at school, that it was quite good, but that was 25 years ago), and although the woman who ran the villa and served the food was patient and sympathetic, I felt clumsy and incompetent.

That was 1 April — April Fool's Day — and the following morning, drinking coffee at a little table in the sunny garden, I wrote a long letter to my boss, Graham Bagnall, covering the King of Poland and the trip south. The fellowship committee had told me the name of the bank in Menton to which they would be sending my money in monthly instalments, so I assumed it would be all right to give that bank as a temporary address for New Zealand mail until I found somewhere to live. I was feeling extremely cut off from my children whom I had not heard from for many weeks because of the British postal strike, so I walked the mile or so to the bank, and struggled with my small French to make my request understood. But I understood some of their French a good deal better than they understood mine — 'We are a bank, not a post office' and 'There was some mail but we marked it "Inconnu" and returned it'. This news winded me and I tried to come to terms with it as I trudged back to the villa. Owen called in on his way out of town and said he would be back, probably in a few weeks. He seemed like my last fragment of security, and I felt naked and alone without him. For example, on the previous day, driving into Menton, I had mentioned that I would need to buy a facecloth, having lost my own somewhere. He had stopped outside the appropriate shop and told me to ask for un gant de toilette. Now there would be no such bits of useful information.

He also introduced me to the authorities, who seemed more surprised than pleased, but Owen and I and the mayor of Menton were photographed for Nice-Matin, the daily paper of the French page 56Riviera. It was now urgent for me to find somewhere to live because my attic room at the Villa Louise was costing more than I could afford. Besides which, there were problems about having a bath. There was no sign of a shower and the only bath I could find had no plug. Later — too late to be of use to me — I read somewhere that it was common in French hotels and rooming houses for baths to be by arrangement only; then you were issued with a bathplug. This meant that the cost of the bath could be added to your bill. Once, when I checked the bathroom there was a plug there, so I had a quick bath while the going was good. While I was in the bath the door opened (there was no lock) and a head poked round it, sized up the situation and then withdrew — so my bath appeared on my bill.

A real estate agent (Dutch, with English language!) to whom I told my needs found me a sort of bedsitter at the Riviera Palace. The name was somewhat misleading, given that my accommodation was underground with a window looking out onto a basement car park, but it seemed to fit my general mood of depression and anxiety so I agreed to take it. Just then, however, came Easter, and my uncle, the Reverend Alan Brash, who worked at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, offered me an Easter present of a return train fare to Geneva. I accepted this gratefully and had a pleasant, peaceful, comfortable few days with my uncle and aunt. And that Sunday I was taken to a lunch party at which most of the guests were senior medical people at the World Council of Churches. One of them, an elderly doctor, told me that he had once met both Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence. 'Oh! What was your impression of them?' 'Sorry, I was much too young to have any interest in them.'

Back in my dungeon after the light and warmth of Geneva, I knew I could not live there, but before I could do anything about it my Dutchman came back and apologised, saying there had page 57been a mistake and this apartment was not available after all — he would find me another. Huge sigh of relief. I hadn't even been able to get any sound out of my transistor because no radio waves could get through all that concrete. My chap then found me a place that was really a bit too expensive but which I thought I could manage if I cut down on food, wine, cigarettes and incidentals. It was a large room with casement windows opening over the sea and across to the hills of Italy. It was light and airy and uncluttered (i.e. barely furnished), and I couldn't resist it. There was a double bed, a single bed and, up some steps on a mezzanine floor, another camp bed. A small kitchenette, a small bathroom, a couple of chairs, a small card table. It was in a big old building in the Old Town, in the Rue Longue — a setting of wonderful imperturbability, with stone staircases worn concave by generations of feet. One of these flights of steps went down from the street a few doors along from me to a lower street, on the other side of which was a stony beach where it was possible to swim in the warm Mediterranean without having to pay.

Thus I succeeded in getting somewhere to live, and I stayed there my remaining six months in Menton. Somewhere to work was a different matter. Although the potting shed at the Villa Isola Bella had been acquired by the town of Menton as a Mansfield memorial, the city fathers had not taken seriously the New Zealand committee's request that it be made available for a writer to work in. I was deflected with a whole series of different reasons for its inaccessibility: closed for the winter, too damp, too dark, not equipped, not suitable, unsafe. So I began to make a fuss about needing at least a table to work at, and eventually Monsieur Bernard Tardy, the official with whom I dealt, found me a good big solid table and chair and had them brought to my apartment. He then put me out of sight and out of mind although his wife, Mary-Adèle, took some trouble to keep an eye on me.