Sport 8: Autumn 1992
♣ Nigel Cox — When I Was A Writer
The Katherine Mansfield Room is a sort of above-ground cellar beneath the terrace of the Villa Isola Bella where Katherine lived for a few months in 1920-1 A photograph in Gillian Boddy's book about her shows her on the terrace but she was very ill at that time, scarcely mobile, according to the one handed down eye-witness report I've had of her, and I suspect she never descended to this spare room, this sleep-out—so was KM ever in the KM Room? But it's a good place to work; there's a sense that work is all that's ever been done within its thick creamy walls, which keep out France, and the sound of the trains, and the heat, even when it's not hot outside.
Inside it the Fellow tries to ignore the ghosts (did Janet Frame sit facing this window or that one?) and get on with justifying the grant ($36,000, to cover travel, accommodation and living—Anne, Anneli and I will make it stretch 8½ months if we're careful). This Fellow has a work chart to keep him honest; so far it's a five day week, from 8 in the morning till somewhere between 4.30 and 6pm, with on average half an hour for lunch. There's no phone calls, no visitors, no interruptions, so you get on with it (how's that, Mr McLauchlan?*). I've never really had an extended stretch of being able to write all day before; it's tiring.
Every morning I come across town on the train, walk under the railbridge and, avoiding the dogs', which is everywhere, make the short climb up the av. Katherine Mansfield to the Room. About a week ago I heard a hissing in the stone wall outside the gate to the Room's garden. A small pipe appeared to have sprung a leak within the wall; a dark trickle ran down the white of the ancient stones' and away along the gently sloping earth gutter. Your novelist, ever alert for a Real Story, followed the trickle (This is your work!'), but became worried in case someone saw and thought him soft in the head.page 126
For the next week when I turned up each morning, there was the trickle. After three days a clematis-like vine, enjoying the water, produced two bright yellow flowers. 'Voila!' I said in my excellent French. Inside the Room I pressed on with the masterwork.
Then two days ago workmen arrived, six of them, from the Menton council, to clear the ground of any weeds, overhanging branches or rubbish. Everywhere in the city you can see the big clean-up in progress; August is coming and an immaculate Menton justifies the this-month-only inflation of prices. Menton (pop. 25,000) attends to presentation: the by-laws say you can paint your house any colour you like as long as it's terracotta. In my tiny garden the workmen remove all extraneous vegetable matter very efficiently, which I regret; urban France seems to be without backyards—our apartment has no 'outside'—and I rather like the little jungle at my back door. Then ... and here's the question ... did those workmen inform the water board there was a leak? Or is water usage in this town so carefully monitored that one of their dials told them they were losing precious drops? The latter isn't hard to imagine: this is a nation of dial-watchers, schedule-keepers and form-fillers, and France has had low rainfall for three years. The whole of Europe is short of water, I read, except (of course) England. Whatever: that afternoon the water-men arrived. I keep the gate to the Room's garden locked to deter the KM fans; I hurried out with the key. The workmen and I quickly established that we didn't have a language in common, and that I didn't know where the key to the stopcock on my end of the pipe was, and that I hadn't fiddled with it (honest!) and that, well, it was their business. This exchange had in it everything that a writer hates: failure in the language department, failure in the fixit department (okay, a male writer), a distraction from work that's not fascinating (let me rephrase that). They thrashed around in the bushes out there while I thrashed around in the bushes in here. Finally they shouted to me, Ay!' and the foreman asked with his hands, is there a telephone in there? No. Non.' He called me, Puts!' which I didn't go for all that much (though it's Spanish, isn't it? I searched for his mantilla), but I could see him thinking, That effete creature is worried I'm going to get my dirty boots all over his invaluable manuscript. I explained that there wasn't a phone—this is a writer's room—and then remembered for him that there's a cardphone at la gare'. He repeated the word, correcting my pronunciation, then off they went. They were back shortly with a huge spanner, which they took into the bushes—by then I was back to work and page 127 didn't watch—and departed. Later I discovered the Room's water had been cut off: no coffee, no toilet.
I waited a day, seeing if doing nothing would help, carefully recalling what had happened in minute detail. Away from home and without subtlety in the language of the country you're in, real encounters with the locals are rare, these microscopic incidents loom large.
I didn't want to start going to cafes for coffee, was quite soon peeing into very yellow toilet water. At lunchtime I assembled a letter, in French, for the General Secretary of the council here, M. Kettela, who is responsible for the Room; he speaks no English. I always write any complicated messages out and pass them to people to read (this is true even when I'm in New Zealand: writers trust writing) and it was fun getting the exact words for outside tap' and conjugating the verbs. Then, not wanting to be a bother, I decided I should try Direct Action first and checked all the man-holes and small access hatches, searching for the toby. Looking around the garden, I realised these hatches were everywhere, I found ten in as many square metres. They were slightly scarey to open—I don't go much on big black spiders running up my bare arms, and I'm not sure if there's snakes around here. (At this point I remember that once, in Greece, needing a boulder to anchor a flysheet, I seized a hefty one and uncovered a nest of scorpions, one of them still on the boulder: squash!) The hatches gave access to beautifully maintained storm water pipes, all empty. There's something eerie about pipes that you can't see up: their hollow sound, the sense that any moment something might gush from them. These were part of such a complicated network. I thought about French organisation, which can be very impressive, and their determination to have things the way they want. To my relief the pipes had no occupants to face down, though when I opened the meterbox something rattled like a rat in behind its base-board. Then a large green lizard shot across the dials and disappeared behind the board again. I'm fond of lizards, they're always beautiful in colour, and I closed the door carefully. One day, checking the Room's mailbox (which I do obsessively about six times a day—so far it's yielded just one aerogramme), I found I'd squashed a tiny lizard, about an inch and a half long, faintly reminiscent of a tuatara, though this one, in death, was pale grey. It'd crawled in through the mail slot and then got caught in the hinge when I closed the box. These little everyday tragedies can make you feel desperate when you're away; there's no familiar for them to be absorbed into. It was another lizard that helped me feel at page 128 home here. This was a month ago, on the first really sunny day. The colours all changed and became soft, everything looked warm and sleepy in the steady light (Brian Boyd—Nabokov lived here—says, 'orange-palmy-blue Menton', which gives the feeling exactly) and as I came under the railway bridge something rattled in the stone wall. I stopped, waited, and a beautiful lizard slowly extruded itself from a hole the power board had drilled to run cable into. It came out into the sun, blackgreen, with hidden lights among the stickles on its back and the red of toadstools on the undersides of its footpads. I felt at home because after that the lizard was something I looked for every morning. Fauna that's exotic (to you) seems to tell you you're in another country. I mean, all these French people could fly south, settle in New Zealand and learn to eat our lumpen food, but animals, reptiles especially, don't become ubiquitous easily.
Because I can't speak the language I seem to be paying great attention in this country to the natural world. But it frustrates me; there seems no way to identify the birds whose calls I hear outside as I work—so how will I write about them?
Late that afternoon I visited the Mairie, which is the mayor's nest, the Town Hall, armed with my carefully compiled letter. In Menton the Mairie is a beautiful building, formal, modest in its dignity (terracotta, of course), with a huge, clean tricolor, and tall, highly polished wooden doors. It houses the council offices, and the local Salle de Mariage, in which you must, if you wed in France, be married. This particular Salle was designed by jean Cocteau in 1957; it's hard to imagine anything like it being allowed in New Zealand. The chamber itself is not vast but the symbolic figures Cocteau painted on the walls and ceiling are too big for the space, so that you seem to cower beneath them: prancing outlines, pale green, ochre, faintly erotic, their stylised perfection mocking the everyday creatures who are marrying beneath them. Under your feet the carpet is royal red, spread with imitation leopard skins. A thin light rises from black, diamond-shaped shades held at head-height by metal vines which climb, writhing, from the floor ...
I'd been to the Mairie a few times and now approached it with caution as no one there apart from the Mayor speaks any English. (Everyone everywhere else speaks some English, whatever they tell you. My French, which I always try, is so bad that as soon as they hear it they reply in English. Of course, I'm in French mode and can't switch ... ) But I had my communication all written out: je suis Nigel Cox, je voudrais . . .' The page 129 counter-jumper sends me to wait by the coffee machine. Employees buy drinks from this machine every moment or two; they all talk to it. France is a highly automated country: at the station you can buy your train ticket, or something to eat, or drink, or sweets, from similar machines; or reserve a sleeper for Paris, or buy an airline ticket for anywhere in Europe, or have 50 business cards printed, or make photocopies, or do your banking—all without having to deal with a person you will have to be civil to. On the motorway the toll machine sorts the coins you toss into its wire basket and instantly returns you the correct change. The machines have personality: my train ticket automaton often says to me, le suis hors service.' The telephone directory comes via a little TV called a Mini-Tel, which I can't work very well, despite the English language instructions. It can deliver just about anything, horoscopes, stock-market reports, the contents of department stores, flight information, but I keep getting a list of French provinces, which one do you desire? Other people play sex games on them—a guy down the road ran up a $20,000 phone bill.
M. Kettela (still at his desk most days at 6.30) waves me into his office, reads my communication, rings Works without having to look up the number. None of this, 'It's late, they'll be closed,' or, 'It's not my department,' which of course it isn't. One further call, he's got the right man. Ah—merci bien.' Then he explains all, very fast so I haven't got a clue what he's saying. But I can guess from his face: they're checking it out, I'm to come back in twenty minutes. 'D'accord,' I say, 'd'accord. A bientôt.' See, fluent.
The 'old town' of Menton is twelfth century and very beautiful: long cool dark streets, high sided, like slots, wind up towards the flying bell tower of the campanile. Up, up, that's where you look, to the pale scrollwork and the frescoes fading back into the sand-coloured facades, but down, down, that's where the drinks are, so I head down to the pedestrian precinct where you are reminded that 'café' is a French word. I have calculated that if everyone in this town wanted a restaurant seat at the same time it wouldn't be a problem. These restaurant-cafés are what the French do best. The service is casual, off-hand-but deceptively attentive, and of course the offerings are so wonderfully tasty. I have a bière while many people all better dressed and looking than I am stroll past in what seems to me to be terrific style. I could watch the people here forever—and they wouldn't care ...
Upon my return M. Kettela seems to have done the trick. He talks absolutely flat out and he's probably high IQ too, I can hardly catch a thing. page 130 But I gather from his manner that he's finished with me, and I've made out 'demain', tomorrow, and he looks pleased with himself, so I go home.
Next morning when I arrive at 7.58 am (still there, Mr McLauchlan?) I see everything's been dealt to. The earth is open, the vine has been ripped out and is lying like a length of old twine. Within my little kingdom, water is again flowing as it should (remember 'Clochemerle', remember Pagnol) and I am content. At 8.30 the foreman turns up, we shake hands, we peer at the earth and nod seriously, stroking our chins. Two other officials turn up to make sure that all impediments to the writing of fiction have been removed.
Which they have. It wasn't a big job, but all of it was done after-hours, very swiftly, for a foreigner who doesn't speak French. I hope we could match this performance at home ...
A bientôt, New Zealand.
Menton, late April 1991
That was when I was a writer. Now I'm back to being a bookseller who writes for three hours each morning—which seems another state entirely. But why? Maurice Gee, the 1992 KM Fellow, and a writer if ever there was one, tells me he only writes for three hours each morning, then he's 'finished, had it'—so is the difference in what you do for the rest of the day? In France I found the hardest thing was that, deprived of my usual distractions, I couldn't find a way to get out of my work overnight so I could come back to it fresh next morning.
So real writers stay in their writing all the time, is that it?
I did have spells of full-time writing when I was younger, patches where I was out of work or on holiday, but that was in the future-hungry days before I'd had anything published. Being the KM Fellow means that everybody you meet sees you as a writer, which is a role I find impossible to fill. In my mind writers are mythological, giants like Cocteau's Salle de Mariage figures; it's a company I aspire to.
But it was fun pretending; and I got an enormous amount of work done.
Try as I might I never felt at home in France. I did look every day for the lizard in the hole in the wall, but once I'd written this piece I never saw it again.
Auckland, January 1992
*When Gordon McLauchlan's attack on state patronage to writers was published in the NZ Herald at least half a dozen 'friends' instantly thought of me and sent a copy. For two weeks afterwards I worked in a fury of self-justifying indignation.