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 the meantime I advertised for Mansfield letters in the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement. The advertisements drew responses but the only useful one came from a Chinese mathematician in Auckland who wrote to tell me of some Mansfield letters he had seen in an American university library. There was also a response from a black Rhodesian incarcerated in a detention camp for dissidents. He said that unfortunately he knew nothing about Katherine Mansfield letters, but he was badly in need of books, particularly textbooks, and he wondered if I might be able to send him some. When I told my mother about this, and that I hadn't even time to answer his letter, she said, 'Send it to me.' She had, by this time, a bit of discretionary money as well as a strong sympathy with oppressed black people. She sent him parcels — books, clothing, shoes, other things — regularly over the next 13 years page 32until she died. Thus was that man's life altered by Katherine Mansfield.

With Jon Stallworthy's help I tracked down addresses of other people, still living, to whom Mansfield was known to have written, and approached them by letter. With photocopies of all the Mansfield to Murry letters in the Turnbull to work on at home, I set about transcribing and dating them — they were almost all undated.

And so the 1960s (my bad decade) played out their last few years, with me working full-time at the Turnbull, and loving it, while also struggling with the letters. But I was making so little progress with them that I knew something would have to change.

I made application to the New Zealand Literary Fund (with strong backing from Dan Davin) for a grant to get to England, but was turned down. Then, towards the end of 1970 (10 years after Harry's death) a new fellowship was advertised, to enable a New Zealand writer to go to Menton in the South of France to spend some months working in a room in the grounds of the Villa Isola Bella where Mansfield herself had stayed and worked. The idea was to promote cultural interaction between France and New Zealand. I looked at it, thought about how it would get me to England on the way, but then told myself not to be ridiculous. I was not 'a New Zealand writer', and I would certainly find it very difficult to work in the South of France with no reference books and no office amenities. Nonsense! Then one day when I went back to work after lunch I found on my desk an application form for the Menton Fellowship. Attached to it was a note in a hand I did not recognise and have never yet identified: 'In case you are interested'. This mysterious prod tipped me over the precipice of indecision into the field of action. I applied, and they gave me the fellowship!

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The cat, as one might say, was then among the pigeons. I was told in mid-December that I had the fellowship and that a passage had been arranged for me on a Greek cruise ship, the Queen Frederika of the Chandris Line, which would leave Auckland in three weeks' time. I had to make arrangements for three children, a house, a car, a job and innumerable smaller matters. The whole thing was a wild scramble. Fortunately, my daughter Rachel was already a boarder at Nelson College for Girls, and Jonathan, just about to start high school, had been accepted by Nelson College as a boarder. Katie was 10 and she and my parents all seemed pleased that she should spend the year with them in Christchurch. The Foreign Affairs diplomatic bag took care of the transport of my boxes of photocopied manuscripts, and my father gave me his little portable typewriter to take with me. Everything else was just a matter of making long lists of things to be done, and ticking them off as quickly as possible. First of all, though, I wrote to Ida Baker to say I was at last coming, and there was time for her to reply that when I arrived (the ship was bound for Southampton) I must come first to her for a few days.

Some Auckland friends, including Eric McCormick, came to the ship when I embarked. The Queen Fred was nearing the end of a Pacific Islands cruise and was full of Australian passengers. She would take them to their final destination in Sydney and then continue to Southampton with a much-reduced passenger list. I was put into a cabin with two middle-aged English widows who were going around the world together and would be staying with the ship all the way. They couldn't help but be dismayed when I joined them, especially as my friends insisted on inspecting the cabin, and a stream of flowers and cards and messages kept arriving for me. They were stoical and polite, however, and took me under their collective wing. They were Thelma and Joan and page 34we became good friends. The cruise passengers, on the other hand, might have been Martians, they seemed so alien. The men were frankly predatory and the women seemed interested only in clothes (of which I, as usual, had very few). That first week just had to be endured. I asked the chief purser if I could be moved when the ship became emptier and he said he would see what he could do. But, alas, when the time came and I was reassigned to another cabin, I got there to find that I would be sharing it with a Swedish fashion model who had already taken up half the drawer-space with her wigs. I went back to the chief purser (a new one, now, at the end of the cruise) and explained that, with a complimentary passage, travelling on a fellowship and wanting to work en voyage, I really needed to be alone if at all possible. He looked at his lists, looked at me, hummed and hahed, then gave me a four-berth cabin with a bathroom and a built-in table to work at. I was overjoyed, which rather pleased him, and so he and I became good friends, too I had a bowl of fresh fruit on my table every morning, and he, Janni, did everything he could to make my voyage enjoyable.

Thelma and Joan and I took to playing three-handed bridge for an hour or two each afternoon. We were none of us any good but we had fun. There was a man who occasionally hovered by our table watching us, and after a while made one or two suggestions. It was clear that he was a good player and so we heeded him, and eventually invited him to make up a foursome. He was a middle-aged South African called Alf, nice-looking, well dressed, slightly extravagant in manner, but stimulating and amusing to be with. Joan said later that he reminded her of Sid James, the comedy actor, but I thought Alf's face was less battered, in spite of its suggestion of a broken nose.

I was in the habit of walking around the ship a few times before breakfast each morning in an attempt to retain the use of page 35my legs, and Alf began to join me there. He would leap out from behind a funnel with a big laugh and embrace me exuberantly. We would do some walking and then sit in the stern of the ship in the sun watching the wake stream away and talking about Life. His name was Alf James and he was, amazingly, a cousin of Sid James. Alf's was a South African branch of the family, not acknowledged by the famous Sid, and I gathered that Alf had approached his cousin and been rebuffed. He told me he was a man of God — God was with him in everything he did. He also told me, without apparent awareness of irony or discrepancy, that he was a professional con man. He said he never stole from actual people, only from banks and airlines and corporations that wouldn't feel it. A morally upright con man. His present trip, from Australia to Durban, had been fraudulently obtained. This was a bit of a punch on the windpipe for me with my well-entrenched Presbyterian values. But, rather like Desdemona, I was captivated by his stories, by his earnestness and by his determination to turn himself from an appallingly deprived child into a man who functioned well on his own terms.

He said that he had never known his mother, and although his father was alive all the time Alf was growing up in an orphanage in Durban, he had never once visited or communicated. The orphanage was a desperately dark Dickensian institution which, by beatings and other extraordinary punishments, attempted to erase any hint of individuality or character from the children. Alf, when he was small, ran away twice, and both times was caught, brought back and punished in ways that he forbore to describe. When he left the orphanage he discovered that his father had just died. Out of curiosity he went to the funeral and saw the black woman with whom his father had been living and a number of small coloured children. He did not speak to them. Detectable here, in spite of Alf's expressed sympathy for the underdog, were page 36traces of an ingrained South African attitude to blacks. He was probably not aware of it himself.

In the fullness of time he became the South African middleweight boxing champion. I didn't quite discover why he gave up boxing for the life of a con man but I suppose the latter was easier and he was good at it. There was a kind of earnest innocence about him that would charm most people, and he took care, as he told me a good con man must, to present himself well, to be well groomed and well dressed, and sober at all times. And then there was God. God was on his wavelength, and he was never alone because God came with him everywhere. Prison was no hardship, he said, because God was with him there especially. He asked me if I had read The Robe by Lloyd Douglas, a book he had found particularly inspiring. I had, and remembered having enjoyed it but did not think it was a theological work. (I have since read it again, and found it to be a romantic novel of magic and superstition in an apparently realistic Graeco-Roman setting. Just the sort of book to appeal to wide-eyed Alf, but not, I think, revealing of the nature of God.) His idea was that there were certain kinds of rip-offs (such as those of shipping lines) that God approved of and encouraged, and there were others that God instructed him to have nothing to do with. Once, for instance, when he had gone into a church to pray he saw that the poor box would be absurdly easy to rifle, but God pointed out to him that this money was for people much worse off than Alf himself, even though he felt himself to be penniless at the time. And another time, when he liberated a briefcase from its owner, a young black man in the lounge of a posh London hotel (Dorchester, I think), he opened it in his room and found that the black man was a diplomat from a small African country and that the briefcase contained documents to do with a conference about to take place in London. He thought how distressed and helpless the young page 37man would be without his documents, so he took the briefcase downstairs to a phone booth, rang its owner and told him where to find it. These stories were, I think, meant to impress me with how morally discriminating he was, but he had misjudged his mark. I enjoyed his company and he made the time fly past but I was not about to climb aboard his morally leaking tub.

Somewhere in mid-ocean we were informed that the ship would not, after all, be going to Southampton. Her masters in Piraeus had decided she would head for Gibraltar and there go into dry dock; passengers for England would be flown from Gibraltar. But we would still be calling at Durban where Alf would disembark. The ship would be anchored there overnight and Alf told me he was going to give me a night on the town that I would remember for the rest of my life. The kind of night I imagined he meant — cocktail bars, nightclubs, floor shows — was anathema to me, but I did not say so. Instead, I told him, which was also true, that I was not prepared to enjoy an evening paid for by his ill-gotten money. He was genuinely surprised at this — it was a new thought — but he accepted it at once and did not press me.

Socially, my life was quite full at that time because Janni, the Greek bearing gifts, was attentive and pleasantly demanding. Yes, we were having a shipboard affair, and no, Alf did not know about it. My feeling for Alf was friendly, with a dash of the maternal, although once, in a raging storm when most of the passengers had succumbed to sickness, Alf and I leaned over the rail in the darkness, revelling in the noise and motion, and he said, 'Let's go and make gentle love and see where it gets us.' I went with him because I liked him. It didn't really get us anywhere and, although it was pleasant, neither of us felt the need to repeat it. (A word to my grandchildren: in these present days of Aids such behaviour would be bordering on the criminally insane, but in those halcyon days it was, for me, simply an achievement.) In the meantime we page 38were drawing closer to Durban and Alf was becoming thoughtful. He told me that if he should be met by police I was to treat him as someone I had never met — ignore him, in other words. I suppose he thought he had told me so much about himself that he couldn't afford to have me questioned by the authorities. But there was no problem — he was not met, and he melted into the crowds on the wharf without turning or waving.

Thelma and Joan had never quite approved of him, though they knew nothing about him (except that he was related to Sid James), and they thought it was good for me that I would not be wasting any more time with him. On the other hand, they were quite impressed by my fling with the chief purser and the peripheral attentions I was being paid. As someone with a complimentary passage I was invited a couple of times to dine at the captain's table, and on one of these occasions the captain, Zoulias, discovered that I had never tasted the Greek wine retsina. My birthday was a couple of days later, a fact that Janni somehow knew, and in the afternoon, returning to my cabin, I found a bottle of retsina in a bucket of ice and a magnificently decorated large Greek cake. I roped in Thelma and Joan and some others for a party. Janni, whose English was perfect (he also, he told me, spoke fluent French, Italian, German, Spanish and Greek, and had a degree in psychology from Athens University), said that he lived in Athens with his mother. He was unmarried, though he did have a sort of a girlfriend called Ernestine, with whom he had a long-term unspoken understanding. I imagine that the sexual demands of his job on Greek ocean-going liners were such that poor Ernestine would be on the back burner for the foreseeable future. He said I should come to Athens for a holiday while I was in the Northern Hemisphere. He would put me up in pleasant accommodation and we would have many good times together. Much as I liked the thought of being able to savour in my old age the page 39memory of an interlude in Athens with my handsome Greek lover, it was all too unrealistic to aim for. For one thing, I didn't have enough money to get to Athens. I did, in fact, find myself there for a few days 10 years later and I opened a telephone book to see if Janni might be in it, but it was all Greek to me. In the meantime, I sent Ernestine my silent best wishes.