Last weekend I was supposed to take part in a Festival event in Wellington but the chesty cold I currently have could’ve put vulnerable people at risk so I stayed home and my letter was kindly read out by the event organiser.
The event was to celebrate 50 years of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, which I was lucky enough to hold in 2014. We were asked to write a letter to ourselves, as if from ‘now’ back to ‘then.’ I thought I’d post it here, as it covers some issues that mean a lot to me.
I hope you haven’t cheated and opened this before the 14th of March, 2020, as instructed on the envelope. I know it’s been frustrating, but the truth is, the nub of what I’m writing to you about will take years to make the shift into conscious thought. Just enjoy how the ‘you’ of then, now six years on from Menton, coincides with the ‘me’ standing here today in perfect synchronicity. Spooky possum.
The thing is, back in 2014, you were dealing with the day to day, never feeling more like a small-town girl from the far side of the world. Eyes wide with wonder, you’ll blunder through painful conversations in terrible school-girl French (you really should’ve paid more attention and not dropped it in fifth form), very foreign to the world at the edge of the French Riviera, where the rich and glamorous come out to play, fresh from their luxury yachts, gourmet restaurants and five-star palaces.
You’ll travel 14,000 kilometres through France and Italy, see landscapes of great beauty and diversity, fields of prehistoric standing stones, architecture and art that will move you to tears. You’ll walk in the shoes of Heloise D’Argenteuil, finding the corner in Paris where she was raised, as well as the site in the Loire Valley where she lived out her life at the Paraclete, forced apart from the ones she loved, and you’ll crane your neck up to see the towering entrance to Sens Cathedral, newly built in the twelfth century when Peter Abelard was so unfairly tried for heresy and stripped of all his power, heralding in his death. And you’ll visit cathedral after cathedral, until Brian will swear he’s not visiting another yet another bloody church, but from which you’ll come to understand the psychology of the architecture, how they were built to awe, to underpin the power and authority of the Church, to tell the bible’s stories visually, symbolically, for the masses who couldn’t read, weren’t taught to read, education the gift of the wealthy, the privileged, as it always has been, and still is in far too many countries.
What you’ll remember, upper-most in your mind, on your immediate return, are the daily swims in a buoyant sea that’s never cold, grateful to be alive in your body for the first time since it was struck by illness a quarter of a century before, and that surreal, magical night swim with your daughter under a huge white supermoon, the sea inky black, and the sperm whales encountered off the Italian coast, turning lazy circles to stare back at you. You’ll long for the multi-sensory joy of the open markets, sampling food grown fresh from sun-blessed terraced hills, and the kindness of those who opened their homes and hearts to make you welcome. You’ll carry the picture of Menton’s perfect medieval town, viewed from the sea, as your enduring happy place, a dream made real. And you’ll smile every time you remember the improbable sight of Katherine Mansfield’s name on a sign in a small suburban French street; how you crept into Villa Isobella’s writing room, feeling the weight of so many writing greats who sat at the desk in the years before, while you waited to be sprung as an imposter, undeserving, disappointing, expecting any minute to be recalled, exposed.
All this, and more, you’ll understand as an extraordinary, life-changing experience at the time you’re there. But what you won’t know is how it is other images, darker images, that will change you, haunt you, force you to understand something about yourself and your origins, and your fellow human beings.
I know when you arrived, you heard how the recent local-body elections saw twenty percent supporting Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party, and found it hard to equate the beauty of place and kindness of the people with such hateful and hate-fueled beliefs. From your apartment, five minutes walk from the border with Italy — one road and the train running directly below you, and the only other access road directly above — you will watch an ongoing human disaster unfold, one that has taken place so many times before, and which stands as a harbinger of what will inevitably be an issue right around the world as climate change and increased conflict rains down on us all.
You’ll see continuous lines of dispossessed people, mainly in their teens, and most from northern Africa, playing cat and mouse with the border police as they try to cross from Italy into France, walking along train tracks in the burning sun, trekking along winding roads, huddled in groups, fear bright in their eyes. You’ll see young people forced to lie spread-eagled in alleyways that smell of dog piss, the police looming over them. You’ll see van loads of police waiting at your local train station, jumping out and trawling through each carriage, hauling off anyone with brown skin, while giving you not one look. You’ll see the abandoned piles of clothing and shoes in the roadside gullies, where these unwanted migrants have changed into cheap new clothes and shoes bought from local Italian markets in an attempt to blend in, some with the labels still attached, incongruous in the trappings of throw-away consumerism as they hide in shadows, sleep under bridges, walk for hours with not one kind word as locals either purposefully turn their gazes elsewhere or angrily report them. You’ll hear otherwise pleasant people speaking of the ‘illegals’ with no compassion or seeming understanding of the trials from which these people have fled.
And, in amongst this, you’ll notice the signs of World War Two still very evident around you. You’ll discover that the hole in the palm outside your window is not created by an animal but from artillery; you’ll start to notice the bullet holes that still speckle walls and buildings; you’ll walk through the small hilltop village not far from you in Italy, in which still half the buildings are burnt-out shells from the Nazi retreat, when they killed most of the villagers, children, women and men, several whole families, shot down in punishment for suspicion of supporting the resistance before their village was torched. And you’ll come to discover that the good people of Menton handed over their Jewish neighbours to the Nazis when they were occupied. This, in particular will come to haunt you, after seeing, for the first time, your great grandfather’s grave in the Jewish section of the cemetery in Vienna, the inscription in Hebrew beneath a Star of David, the grave surrounded by piles of broken headstones, left there to mark the concerted bombing this part of the cemetery endured during the war in a petty show of hate.
You’ll start to imagine what it must have felt like to have your friends and neighbours turn on you, hand you to the enemy, knowing that your life counts for nothing in their eyes. It will invade your sleep, forcing you to really think about what your father and grandparents endured before they took flight from Vienna, your father sent to England alone at 17 years of age in 1938 to facilitate escape for his parents and himself. And you’ll cry, when you discover that one of your great grandfather’s children, Mitzi, his only daughter, was rounded up in Nice, just down the road, and sent on a train to a camp, where she and many other family members died. You’ll think back to all those unfortunate ‘illegals’ you saw in Menton and through your travels in Italy and France— often the brightest hopes of families left behind in crushingly desperate situations, just like your father, your grandparents — like Mitzi — and know this is your story and that, if the same evil arose right then, you could very well have been one of those so blithely rounded up and handed over to face certain death.
Europe’s age, unimaginable to a small town Kiwi girl, will press home how such atrocities have happened time and again, with little of consequence learned or changed. Europe’s wealth, exemplified by Monaco, just a few minutes drive down the road from where you lived, will come to feel obscene against the backdrop of such evident daily suffering, as will the great hoarded treasures and obvious avarice of the mighty Catholic Church. All this will come to feel egregiously personal to you, daughter of a man who was born into a comfortable middle class life such as you were, who then saw his world dissolve, whose family had to walk away from everything they owned, everyone they loved, and travel to the furthest place on earth from what they’d known, leaving behind their culture, family, security, self-esteem, status, employment, reduced to ‘aliens’; daughter of a man whose experiences were so painful and terrifying that it haunted him and made him ill; who forever felt he was viewed as a ‘bloody foreigner’ in the country that he came to love.
This is why, dear me from the past, I asked you not to read this until now. You would have been overwhelmed if you’d known that this was the eventual place your experience would lead you to. You wouldn’t have been able to relish the moment and soak in every experience as a priceless gift – even if the legacy of that gift is darker than you knew.
But, please, take heart! What these realisations will bring you is a renewed sense of purpose, not only to understand your own personal dark legacy, but a determination to call such evils out and use your voice to speak for those who have been rendered voiceless. This gift of the experience you’ve undergone will help underline your belief that empathy is the pathway to changing this terrible cycle of ‘othering’, hurt and loss, and that storytelling is the most powerful weapon in empathy’s arsenal. Just as you entered into the head of a twelfth century French nun, to tell the story of her hurt and resilience, so too you can enter the heads of others who have been hurt and dispossessed and tell their stories in a way to capture hearts and minds. Pain is pain, loss is loss, and we all recognise it when we open our eyes to see it. These shared experiences should be the things that bind us — and you’ll come to see this sharing, this dedication to speaking hard truths, as your driving mission in the years ahead. So, kia kaha, small town girl. You can do this!