Literary dream team, Susan Paris

Menton Writers Day

Times are usually tough in Writerville. But just when it looked like someone was going to have to tow a caravan onto the lawn of the French Embassy, a sponsor was found for the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship. The announcement of Hydro Energy as the new sponsor will ensure that Elizabeth Knox will not be the last to spend time in Menton, writing in the room beneath the Villa Isola Bella.

Menton Writers Day was touted to be the largest public gathering of New Zealand writers ever seen. Organised to draw attention to the Fellowship’s funding crisis (specifically, the lack of a sponsor), it was a literary rally imbued with a strong sense of both occasion and celebration. The event’s significance was reinforced by the 700-odd people who crowded into the Renouf Foyer to hear 23 previous KM Fellows reflect on the value of their time spent in France. And while KM was reportedly crushed and disillusioned by life on the French Riviera, each writer’s response testified to the various riches mined from the experience.

The content of Rowley Habib’s rather weighty address was, for me, one of the highlights. His experiences were intensely personal, particularly his memories of having to justify his need as a Maori to spend time in the South of France. Yet in exploring these issues, Habib did manage to articulate a sentiment shared by many of the writers: the need to leave New Zealand and to leave the self – “looking for a geography of the mind”, as Michael Gifkins expressed it.

As the afternoon progressed, this forced absence emerged as one of the most valuable experiences the Fellowship bestowed: an isolation and a clearing of the mind that brought New Zealand into sharper focus for its reconstruction from abroad. And for those not writing about New Zealand in particular, Elizabeth Knox spoke of the adventure of travel “priming the pump of the imagination”; Maurice Gee of the gift of time; Michael King of the joy of meeting international writers.

While some experiences were shared, it was the huge variety in the content and tone of each writer’s response that was enormously satisfying; evident in an audience that remained captivated for the entire four hours. Vincent O’Sullivan’s succinct and witty address – a loose comparison of KM’s Wellington with that of Jenny Shipley’s – sat alongside Fiona Farrell’s more earnest rendition of her “pilgrimage” and her evocation of a grim Mansfield brandishing her bloody hankie.

Michael King’s amusing recollections of shared intimacies with Patrick White (dinner and a drunken sing-along) and Michael Gifkins’ of Anthony Burgess (tangled trolleys in a supermarket in Monte Carlo) was literary gossip appreciated by an audience equally enthralled by Lisa Greenwood’s and Maurice Gee’s tender recollections of Menton’s inspiring beauty.

Some writers leant towards a more direct approach to representing their time in Menton, proffering the fruits of their labour: C K Stead and Michael Harlow both read some of their own poems which, while providing variety to the afternoon’s content, were less interesting than the tailor-made and more personal responses of the other writers.

Louis Johnson (who died in 1988) was also represented through his poetry, read by his daughter Miranda. Strangely, his words – as much as anyone’s – articulated the sentiment Menton Writers Day was celebrating: “Where the faith of others supports you/ Into believing you can make a little of much”.

Given the reasons behind the event, however, the poignant moments were inevitably interspersed with those more political: Rowley Habib got to the heart of the matter with his statement, “Writing has kept me poor.” The irony that this personal cost – a burden shared by most New Zealand writers – is the price of contributing to the country’s cultural wealth, strengthened the day’s sense of purpose and underscored the necessity of financial support for writers in New Zealand. Later on in the afternoon Roger Hall observed that over 40 fellowships a year are available for French writers to research and write overseas.

The line-up at Menton Writers Day was a literary dream team, convincing most of us that the Fellowship is a solid – and necessary – investment. For the unconvinced, there was the forum on Sunday to clinch the matter. “All Blacks or Janet Frame: Is this the choice for New Zealand?” was enthusiastically debated by various representatives of the arts and Chris Laidlaw (a rather lonely figure who confessed to feeling the shabby curate).

Not that it was a debate, for this was preaching to – and by – the converted. That both the arts and sport equally express our cultural identity yet sport receives more financial assistance; that writers are undervalued and underpaid, is an open and closed book really. Still, it was an entertaining discussion. Now all that remains is for more sponsors to join with Hydro Energy in giving literature a sporting chance.

Susan Paris is a Wellington reviewer.

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