Thursday, 23 October 2014

On the Mansfield Trail

When I come to Wellington there are certain places I always visit - places connected with Katherine Mansfield whose life will always be part of mine now.  Not just because I wrote her biography, but that because of Mansfield I have good friends in New Zealand; because of Mansfield I have a daughter and two grandchildren in New Zealand.

This time I wanted to see the new Mansfield sculpture on Lambton Quay created by NZ sculptor Virginia King and unveiled last year.  Called ‘Woman of Words’, it’s made of welded metal with sentences from Katherine’s stories and journals incised into it.

'I'm afraid you do not count - you are just a little savage from New Zealand'.

'In the evening the cicada shakes his tiny tambourine'.
I spent quite a bit of time looking at it, but couldn’t make up my mind what I felt.   There’s something robotic about the figure, but there is definitely something that conjures up Mansfield - though rather as an avatar in a computer game.  The figure is eye-catching, as Mansfield was herself, and the words are wonderful - they shout ‘Katherine Mansfield’ very loudly to everyone who passes by.  So it does the job.

I took the ferry over the harbour to Days Bay to look at the little holiday ‘bach’ where Katherine spent so much of her holiday time as a child and then as a young woman and which features in her diaries and stories, particularly ‘At the Bay’.  There were terrible storms last year and the property was so badly damaged it was feared that it might have to be demolished.

The house is now boarded up.
One of the neighbouring houses has been bulldozed and others are empty,

For one awful moment, I thought that this was Katherine's Cottage
but I was glad to discover that they hope to restore ‘Katherine’s Cottage’, though it’s still boarded up and I couldn’t get near it to have a proper look. The little house is so near to the sea you can’t help wondering if rising sea levels will make attempts to preserve it futile.

The Birthplace Trust on Tinakori Road
Then I went, as I always do, up to the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Trust to spend some precious moments in the house where Katherine was born, where NZ writer Kirsty Gunn recently spent time sitting on the stairs imagining her presence, just as I like to do.  ‘All it took was for me to sit on the first-floor landing of the house in Tinakori Road, looking up at the high window and be completely alone, it seemed, on a stormy winter’s afternoon, the house hushed around me but for the fierceness of the southerly wind outside rattling at its beams and chimney, beating the flax and pohutukawa trees and manuka bushes with incessant rain . . . And I was there entirely, in a story of my own’.*   Stairs, Katherine wrote, were wonderful places to exercise the imagination.

In one of the downstairs rooms is a dolls’ house, placed there to replicate the dolls’ house of Katherine’s childhood - one of her most famous stories and one that came from the deepest, Freudian, recesses of her psyche.  You can see the dolls’ house clearly in this photograph of Katherine’s grandmother holding her baby sister, Gwen, recently deceased from Cholera - a baby she coupled in her mind with her own dead baby.

Granny Dyer, holding Gwen, deceased.
The dolls’ house also represented for Katherine the home she never had - the home she yearned for.

Like the child in Katherine's story, after being allowed to view the dolls’ house illicitly, I too have ‘seen the little lamp’, though the photograph came out rather blurry.

In the garden there’s a new memorial to Katherine, donated to the Birthplace Trust.  It’s a little static, like a ship’s figurehead, but Helen - who showed me round this time - took my photo beside it and (after several attempts) managed to get one of me without my eyes closed or pulling a face. Anyone who knows me will realise what an achievement that was!

I had a browse through the bookshops and bought Kirsty Gunn’s new book ‘Thorndon’ - a journal of her time at the Randall Cottage Trust exploring her own Wellington roots and her relationship with Katherine Mansfield.  I value Kirsty Gunn's writing a lot and have her new book 'Infidelities' on my reading list.

I’ve been reading Thorndon in bed and found a lot of parallels between Kirsty’s experience and my own. There are a great many writers, myself included, who owe a debt to Mansfield’s magic. Wellington is a city that is haunted by her - there is hardly a location that doesn’t have an association with either the writer or her stories. I’m drawn back to it, again and again, always trying to make that elusive connection with a girl who’s been dead for a hundred years.

*Kirsty Gunn ‘Thorndon’ p.85, pub. Bridget Williams Books

Monday, 20 October 2014

Booklovers Bed and Breakfast in Wellington

Oh the delights of talking about books over breakfast with someone who cares as passionately about the written word as you do yourself!

I’m in booklovers paradise, staying in Jane Tolerton’s Booklovers B&B on Mount Victoria overlooking Wellington.  Even better, I’m in the Katherine Mansfield room.

There are books everywhere, and big snuggly armchairs to read them in.

The bookcase in  my bedroom.

Outside, wonderful views of the city on one side and the wild bush and birdsong of Mt Victoria park on the other.  A bell-bird has been singing outside my window all afternoon.

Wellington city centre

Mt Victoria
Jane Tolerton, who runs the B&B, is herself a writer (published by Penguin) and is currently working on a book about the role of New Zealand women in World War I, which sounds fascinating. Many of them came over to Europe as doctors (New Zealand had a large number of trained women doctors in 1913), nurses, to work in munitions, to join the armed forces or help in any way they could. It was seen as a great opportunity for women tired of their stultifying domestic lives.  They included the old and the young, members of both the wealthy and the working classes, willing to do almost anything to get out of New Zealand.  One woman sold her house to go to Europe, another was quoted in the NZ press as saying ‘Maybe we can’t nurse but we can cook’.  I’m really looking forward to reading the book.

Jane wrote another book on World War I, ‘An Awfully Big Adventure’, recording hours of conversations with male New Zealand veterans, telling their own stories of the trenches. These first hand accounts from survivors are now in an archive in Wellington, available to anyone who wants to listen to their experiences.

Katherine Mansfield's brother Leslie who died at the beginning of WWI
Over the breakfast table we talked about Katherine Mansfield, who lost her brother - killed in 1915 demonstrating a hand grenade. Katherine herself broke all taboos by travelling to the front line in France to be with her lover - the French author Francis Carco.  And Jane talked about Ettie Rout, the New Zealand contemporary of Katherine, who went to France where she pioneered ‘safer sex’, inspecting brothels and equipping NZ servicemen with a ‘safe sex kit’ in an attempt to reduce the incidence of VD among them.  She was a war hero in France, but considered scandalous in New Zealand.   Jane wrote Ettie’s life story in 1992.

Then, Jane very kindly invited me to dinner, and I met three  powerful New Zealand women working in television and the arts - Ginette MacDonald, Jane Wrightson, and film-maker Gaylene Preston - all with their own Wikipedia pages and cvs glittering with awards.  It was a very lively evening - having a group of strong, gifted women round the table generated a considerable amount of energy and I went to bed absolutely fizzing!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Blog Action Day - Inequality

How can there be economic equality in a world where giant corporations control the world economy and 1% of the world's population control most of its wealth?  How can there be gender or racial equality when most of that 1% are white males?  How can there be equality in the biosphere when fossil fuel extractors are wealthier than any of the governments who might seek to control them in order to limit ecological damage?

These days you follow the money to find political power.  Neo-liberalism - the economic philosophy so beloved of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan - has changed the world fundamentally and any attempts to curb its excesses are labelled as socialist threats. It was this philosophy that allowed the banking crisis to happen - and it wasn't the banks who paid for their costly errors, it was the ordinary people.

And it's not just the banks. Governments are in such thrall to the fossil fuel industry that attempts to persuade them to introduce measures to deal with climate change have so far been ineffective.  Most of the military conflicts in the recent past have been driven by the need to control resources. It seems that the ordinary person in a supposedly democratic society has little power to change anything.  We are in the world that Martin Luther King warned us of back in 1967.

"We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.  We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing-oriented society' to a 'person-oriented society'.  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."  [Martin Luther King, 'Beyond Vietnam']

Our human rights and democratic freedoms are being steadily eroded in the pursuit of profit and ideological domination.  Thanks to the 'War on Terror' we now have only limited rights to protest and we have lost our right to avoid imprisonment without trial, and judicial review of immigration issues. Whistle-blowers to government corruption and illegality are pursued as traitors.

Britain has its own Guantanamo.  There are prisoners in jail under the terrorism legislation who have been there for more than 10 years but who have never been charged with any crime because no one could find any evidence to do so. They, or their lawyers, do not even have the right to be told why they are there. They are now so radicalised by the injustice that the government is afraid to release them.

And there are small children having to live without mothers or father because the government will not allow the spouses of British citizens, the parents of British children, into the country - a reaction to a frenzy of fear about immigration figures and electoral votes.  They include a British teacher who went to teach in Moscow, married a Russian girl while he was there and had 2 children.  When he tried to move back the UK he had to leave his wife behind at the airport.

Another teacher married a woman in South Africa and found that when he returned to the UK he couldn't bring his wife back.  A New Zealander who married a British man after living in England for 5 years, found that she was suddenly persona non grata when she applied for permanent leave to stay after her marriage.

My own daughter is bringing up 2 little girls on her own because her Cuban husband can't get a visa to live with them.  Things are no better  in the USA. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, who married an Australian passport holder, had to mount a year-long political campaign to get her husband (who owned a business in the US)  allowed into the country.

There is no longer any appeal process over immigration decisions, except to the European Court of Human Rights (a procedure that takes years).  Habeas Corpus doesn't apply when the Terrorism (or immigration) legislation can be invoked and it is being used whenever and wherever convenient.  The UK government is also discussing whether to opt out of the European Human Rights convention - a very worrying threat.

We are not all equal under the law, and moving away from a fair and just society at the speed of light. This is a terrible process to witness for someone who believes passionately in a fair society where resources such as health, education, housing, justice and the opportunity to work, are available to all.
We are facing a perfect storm of economic and climatic turbulence and we, the ordinary people, the 99%, need to reach out to each other and work together if we are to make a different kind of future for our children and grandchildren. 

If you care, please share 

Monday, 13 October 2014

New Zealand - where the chickens eat ducklings!

I'm now in New Zealand and it's so different from my usual existence it feels as if I've arrived on a different planet - I'm surrounded by farmland on all sides and there are cows outside my bedroom window.

Outside the front door there are chickens (the cockerel attacks your ankles!)

and ducks

and they will come into the house if you don't shut the door firmly behind you.

We have two orphan ducklings in the bath

because mother Jemima decided that she'd had enough of motherhood and escaped from the pen this morning to waddle off with her tribe.  Ducks are, apparently, very bad mothers.  But Jemima's sister is sitting on a batch of eggs in the woodpile with great determination and hopefully they will have a better fate.  Most of Jemima's ducklings were eaten by the chickens as they hatched from the eggs. Nature is very cruel!

Peko on her eggs in the woodpile

I am thoroughly over the jet-lag, thanks to my lovely daughter who organised a girlie weekend at Hanmer thermal springs - two days lying in hot water breathing sulphur would cure anything!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Singapore Airport - and the Consumer Conundrum

For the past few days I've been travelling long-haul, wandering around between flights in the consumer cathedrals that are airport departure lounges.

This is conspicuous consumption, by bored, travel-lagged people, buying things they don't need simply to pass the time, or lured by the 'tax free' label.  It's all very glitzy and overpowering.  It left me feeling guilty and thinking a lot about the carbon miles that drive our lifestyles.

Singapore Airport is definitely one of the world's top airports for comfort and shopping.  I wandered around looking at expensive things I couldn't afford to buy and certainly didn't want and then spent some quite time in the butterfly garden trying to reclaim my soul.

There's also a roof-top open-air swimming pool fringed with palm trees.  But, having picked up a copy of the Strait Times, it was probably a good idea not to go out there.  The air quality in Singapore - front page news - was so unhealthy that elderly people, pregnant women and children were recommended not to go out in to the grey pall of pollution haze that shrouded the city.

Singapore on Tuesday
Hazardous micro particles had reached 153 micrograms per cubic metre.  The safe level is 55 mpcm. In  June the level had reached 400 mpcm.  The Strait Times blamed pollution from neighbouring countries and forest fires in Sumatra (some deliberately set to clear forests for agriculture).  Singapore has introduced laws which allow it to seek compensation from its neighbours for the pollution, but I can't see how they can be enforced or how they will have much impact.

The truth is we share our air around the world and we're poisoning each  other and ourselves.  It makes me feel guilty to be here, boarding another jet that will spew more toxic particles into the atmosphere.  Like everyone else I'm torn, because if I don't travel I won't be able to see my daughter and grandchildren, yet I'm aware that our addiction to travelling is harming the world they will grow up in.
On a really bad day ......
One thing I really don't understand is why we tolerate things that are clearly intolerable.  We are living in cities where the air is too dangerous to breathe, yet people aren't out on the streets protesting, or even doing it from the safety of their homes.  One Singapore resident is quoted as saying 'the air is stuffy but we have to get used to it because we are surrounded by countries with a lot of forests and this haze will not go away.'  Another resident, a mother, says 'it's ok so long as the PSI doesn't go above 200.'   It's clearly not ok.  Where has common sense gone? Why are people walking so obediently and quietly into this?

I boarded my flight.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Tuesday Poem: Remembering the Trees

As I'm currently somewhere in the air heading for New Zealand and unable to blog, I hope no one minds if I share the poem I wrote last year in New Zealand.  It's one of the poems from the new collection I'm putting together, Sea, Tree and Bird, which has a strong environmental slant.   This poem was featured on Ink Sweat and Tears for National Poetry Day last week. The other featured poet was Canadian Clarissa Ackroyd.  Click here if you'd like to read her poem too.

Remembering the Trees

Kauri Forest, New Zealand, 2013

It takes time to grow
a continent of rock, rooted
in ocean.  Time
to grind and sift
a handful of soil for a seed
and two thousand rings of dense grain
packed into furniture, floor boards
a Whare, a house, the shaft
of an axe. . .

© Kathleen Jones

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