Happy Birthday KM

14 October 2023

It’s Katherine Mansfield’s birthday – the 135th turn of the sun since her birth in Wellington on 14 October 1888. On this date in 1922 KM  was in Paris, where for some months she’d been entrusting her health to a doctor who was offering a ‘revolutionary’ treatment for tuberculosis. The treatment involved repeated irradiation of the spleen and, despite clear signs to the contrary, Dr Manoukhin was optimistic that he would cure Mansfield by Christmas. Mansfield really wanted to believe this, but she must have known, as she turned 34 in Paris that day, that she might never see another season of autumnal light dappling the tree-lined paths in the Luxembourg gardens where she used to love to walk.

We’ve been walking those tree-lined paths in that lovely light ourselves this week. We took the train north from Menton for an event held on Thursday evening to honour Katherine Mansfield. The occasion, hosted by the Association France Nouvelle-Zélande and attended by Her Excellency Caroline Bilkey, New Zealand Ambassador to France, combined poetry and music to commemorate the centenary year of Mansfield’s death and celebrate her legacy. 

One legacy that KM could never have foreseen is the existence of a New Zealand writing fellowship in her name. It was very special for me, the fiftieth writer to have this honour, to share the occasion with Owen Leeming, who in 1970 was the first New Zealand writer to be selected as the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow. Owen spoke warmly of his memories of being in Menton, that colourful and beautiful town so beloved by KM, and read an ode, ‘KM’, written for the centenary of her death. 

Caroline Bilkey (New Zealand Ambassador to France), Owen Leeming (first KM Menton Fellow, 1970) and Sue Wootton (50th KM Menton Fellow).

I spoke about Mansfield’s final years in Europe as she searched for a tuberculosis cure. I picked some poems of my own to read that I feel resonate with themes that recur in KM’s work – light and movement, the sea, the natural world and the weather – especially that good old Wellington wind. Here’s one poem I read, from a suite called ‘Wind Quintet’, published in my collection By Birdlight (Steele Roberts, 2011):


Gales forecast, but gusts of only fifty kilometres an hour
in Wellington at present. It’ll be a quick trip. Keep
your seatbelts fastened throughout. Relax. Enjoy your flight.

Javelin-jet, hurled. About Kaikoura that pushy stranger – the one
who stole your window seat – blanches, reaches for the bag. A view
is never free. Yourself, you’re glued to the flight attendant’s

riveted smile, her ready, steady lap-pressed hands,
her tightly clipped criss-cross corset. You eliminate
the gap between your buckle and your bladder

which only makes you think about the sudden squeeze
of impact. Beneath your feet the froth-fanged open Straits
snarl and snap. Tin-pelt slips, quivers, lurches skewed

to the runway. Lyall Bay leaps to standing ovation starboard side.
Wild applause from passengers too, damp palms clapping
and the fuselage rocking to a halt.

Three enormously accomplished musicians performed the musical part of the programme: Sébastien Hurtaud (cello), Isabelle Dutel (piano) and Paris-based New Zealand composer Nigel Keay (viola). Katherine Mansfield’s first artistic love was music (she had originally planned to be a cellist) and perhaps her first romantic love was her infatuation with Wellington-born composer and cellist Arnold Trowell (1887-1966).  What a treat then to be present at the world premiere of Trowell’s Sonato in E-flat Major for Viola and Piano, Op. 21. This was followed by Nigel Keay’s 2014 composition for cello and piano, Prelude. Also for cello and piano were Six Morceaux pour violoncelle avec accompaniment de piano, Op. 20, composed by Arnold Trowell in 1908, the manuscript of which bears the handwritten inscription ‘Dedicated to my dear friend Kathleen Beauchamp’.

Sébastien Hurtaud, cello and Isabelle Dutel, piano.

Merci beaucoup to the Association France Nouvelle-Zélande and Association President Georgia Aussenac for organising such a moving and inspiring evening, with special thanks to Dunstan Ward for getting us corralled and organised. 

Sixth piece from Six Morceaux pour violoncelle avec accompaniment de piano, Op.20 by Arnold Trowell (1887-1966). “Dedicated to my dear friend Kathleen M. Beauchamp” (1908).
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