Tag Archives: War

Katherine Mansfield – Child of the Sun

The last time I visited New Zealand in 2011 I caught up with an old friend from college days. Remembering my intense passion for Katherine Mansfield he suggested we visit the house where she grew up. I didn’t like to admit I’d long forgotten Katherine. Forgotten she came from Wellington, forgotten the woman who once inspired me so profoundly. But I’m forever grateful to that friend for rekindling my passion. And subsequently re-reading KM’s ‘Letters and Journals’ took me back thirty years, to the time when I was young and eager and ambitious and totally convinced that one day, I too would fulfil my ambitions and become a writer.

 

‘How to be a writer – is everything……People have never explored the lovely medium of prose. It is a hidden country still – I feel that so profoundly.’ (July 1919)

 

 

Open to the public, Katherine's home in Wellington.

Open to the public, Katherine’s home in Wellington.

Born in October 1888 Kate was a disquieting and precocious child. Her parents decided to send her away, to the other side of the world, to study at Queen’s College, London. It was 1903. She was 14 years old. They probably expected the experience would tame her wild spirit, however, by the time she was ordered home following reports of ‘difficult’ behaviour, she had formulated a lifelong plan to ‘gain experience at all costs’.

 

I am full of a restless wonder but I have none of that glorious expectancy that I used to have so much. They are draining it out of me.’  (Nov 1906, returning home on board the SS Corinthic)

 

When I first discovered KM I was researching ‘Bohemian’ artists of the early 20th century for my final (graduation) project at Art College. Her writing sparkled with open-eyed honesty. Her letters and journals illustrated the minutiae of her life with sensual and acute observations. More particularly she described her emotional experiences; her passions and insecurities, her disappointments and fears. I was eighteen years old and found we had much in common. Her descriptive prose seemed to mirror the creative ideals of artists such as Matisse and Picasso but despite my enthusiasm for her work the tutor in charge of my course didn’t think she caused enough ‘creative impact’ to warrant further study. Yet I’d fallen under the spell of Kathleen, the rebel. Not merely did I sympathize with her rejection of middle-class conservatism I felt she knew what it was like to be me.

 

‘Damn my family! Oh heavens, what bores they are! ….I shall certainly not be here much longer.’ (Oct. 21, 1907)

 

Katherine’s letters and journals inspired me to explore my own talents and gave me the courage not to grasp at conformity. She grew up in a colonial villa in a street full of like-minded buildings set upon the only piece of flat land between Government House and the harbour. It was the heartland of colonial respectability. Wellington sprawls awkwardly over craggy outcrops and mountains, a scenic yet impractical city. Flat land remains at a premium; an airport was only possible after new land surfaced during an earthquake (it sits precariously across a major fault line). But whatever your social standing New Zealand was remote and plebeian, at least for a girl like Kate, who always dreamed of better things.

 

Botanic Gardens in summer, full of colour.

Wellington Botanic Gardens in summer, with plants imported from Europe.

Also lying between the Mansfield home and the harbour are large botanic gardens founded during the late Victorian era boasting elegant cast-iron conservatories and technicolour flower beds. In modern New Zealand they represent an unchanging past, cream teas and archways bowed with roses, but in Mansfield’s time it was a tangible reminder of England. She begged to be allowed to return to London and left New Zealand finally in 1908.

 

‘I feel that I do now realise, dimly, what women in the future will be capable of… They truly as yet have never had their chance…..we are firmly held with the same self-fashioned chains of slavery. Yes, now I see they are self-fashioned, and must be self-removed….Here then is a little summary of what I need – power, wealth and freedom.’ (May 1908)

 

I understand KM in a very different light since visiting her homeland. I believe that once she left New Zealand she never really belonged anywhere and what she had absorbed of her country, and its native peoples, inspired every single word she wrote. She arrived back in London just as expressionism was becoming fashionable amongst the rich and avant-garde. It must have seemed perfect timing for a woman who thrived on emotion. But life was never that easy, or that simple, for Kate. Her father finally settled her with an annual allowance that allowed her to exist without the need to work. She adopted a Bohemian life-style and wrote fitfully, her writerly ambitions constantly thwarted by her restless soul and a driving need to attain perfection.

 

‘I begin to wish to God I could destroy all that I have written and start again: it all seems like so many ‘false starts’. (July 1918)

 

It was the fact that this week marked the centenary of the beginning of the First World War that made me think of KM today. It should be noted that not one of her male friends returned from fighting in the Great War. Her young brother was amongst the first casualties. Her spirit declined and yet she became more restless. After being diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis she went to live in France, hoping the climate would offer a means of remission. She died at the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau. It was January 1923. Katherine was 34 years old.

 

What is this about the novel? Tell me, thou little eye among the blind……the more I read the more I feel all these novels will not do. ….And yet I feel one can lay down no rules. It’s not in the least a question of material or style or plot. ….I can’t imagine how after the war these men can pick up the old threads as though it had never been. Speaking to you I’d say we have died and live again. How can that be the same life?…..Now we know ourselves for what we are.’ (16 Nov 1919)

 

 

Cast-iron conservatories and afternoon tea.

Cast-iron conservatories and afternoon tea.

 

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Life Happens

Apologies, I haven’t written anything for a couple of weeks. Life, as John Lennon once said, has a habit of happening when you’re busy making other plans.

 

A series of incidents halted the whole family in its stride, life changing incidents that take centre stage. My mum had to be rushed into hospital after a major artery to her heart became blocked; emergency paramedics saved her life. Seven days later my husband’s mum died.

 

My mother-in-law May Alice King would have celebrated her ninety-first birthday on 12th April. Although I’ve known her most of my life it seems I’ve never really known her. During the Second World War she served in the Women’s Royal Air Force as a flight engineer. The wartime shortage of men, metals and materials meant aircraft were delivered in kit form from the USA to special hangers on the west coast of Britain where teams of ladies put them together then flew them to active stations. May always said she enjoyed the war, from a very enclosed life growing up on a small farm in Kent she travelled across the country and met people from all over the world.

 

When clearing her bedroom we found RAF manuals under her bed, marked Top Secret. We also found a box of love letters belonging to May, from the man who would become her husband. George King earned the engaging title of Grumpy Grandad from his grandchildren, because his attitude was always so awkward, it hardly seems possible the same man poured out such sentiments as those in his letters.

 

George spent nearly five years as a prisoner of war in Poland. At 20 years old he was sent to France with the East Kent Regiment (Buffs) in June 1940 as part of an allied attempt to hold back the advancing German army. With a unit of four men operating a single Bren gun even this raw recruit realised they didn’t have a chance. While the British Army was being evacuated at Dunkirk George was guarding a bridge in Arles. A Panzer Division smashed through without stopping. George and the two other soldiers still alive after seeing action ‘legged it’. They spent two weeks wandering around northern France trying to find some means of crossing the Channel until they were rounded up by a German patrol and marched off to Poland. Many men died during that march across Europe. Food was scarce and most prisoners had suffered injuries before being captured, George lost both his friends.

When they arrived at their destination (Thorn) they had to build their prison camps. Hardly any wonder that during most of our lifetime he never mentioned the war. The first we knew about his time in Poland was when our son moved there in 2007, by the strangest of coincidences David’s apartment was within site of Stalag XXB where his grandfather had been interred.

 

Finding these letters has been a revelation. George tells in detail what everyday life was like in the prison camp. And he wrote every week, not sad letters, just honest and full of hope. He is surviving when so many lives are being lost, surviving the bitter cold Baltic winters and lack of proper food. There were many comrades to share his troubles.

 

One of the few people left who remembers George’s home-coming said he couldn’t speak for months, they organised a party but George couldn’t face it. And the first words he spoke were to his cousin, ‘Have you got my football boots?’ Before the war George was signed to play professional football and hoped to take up where he left off. He never got the chance because his knees were too badly damaged.

 

We still have lots of boxes left. Who knows what we’ll find? They belonged to a generation who didn’t like to talk about the past and certainly wouldn’t air their emotions, not even to family. And that’s the real sadness. Image

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