Girl With The Golden Flame

 There is a birthday today and it belongs to Katherine Mansfield: colourful character, wisecracking ingénue, and celebrated modernist writer of short stories that are imaginative, intelligent and expressive in style and form.

 Mansfield led a tragically short life blighted by depression and illness, but her existence was also full of spontaneity and freedom. ‘Would you not like to try all sorts of lives – one is so very small – ?’ she wondered, with the same curiosity and lust for excavation into the human character as her contemporary Virginia Woolf, who longed to ‘dig out caves behind my characters’ and peer within. 


Mansfield believed writing to be a form of impersonation; transcending the limits of the personal in order to engage in the vivid exploration of fellow consciousnesses.  A skilled chameleon, she did lead many lives, parallel and contrasting, and moved in varied circles, from the literary salons of Bloomsbury, where she mingled with the Woolfs, T. S. Eliot and Betrand Russell, to immersing herself in other kinds, and definitions, of civilization and culture altogether.  She cultivated friendships – and one torrid love-affair – amongst the Maoris of her native New Zealand, and threw herself into everything with zest and wit – travelling, writing, relationships with both men and women – all of which she regarded as love affairs of the heart.

Members of the Bloomsbury set enacting a garden party of their own

An intense character who inspired extremes of opinion amongst even her closest friends and contemporaries, she was eventually abhorred by D. H. Lawrence as a ‘loathsome reptile’.  Woolf found her simultaneously magnetic and repugnant, remarking that she ‘stank like a civet cat that has taken to street-walking’.  Angela Carter, a great admirer of Mansfield, wonders why ‘someone so gifted, so charming, should have been so universally detested’.

 Mansfield keenly felt the difficulty of shining out in a close circle of literary prodigies, and felt creatively stifled during her relationship with John Middleton Murray, the respected and much-published writer of journals and periodicals.  She wrestled with the age-old challenges faced by women writers that Virginia Woolf addresses in her polemic essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’. 

Mansfield, like Woolf, believed that women needed space and freedom from domestic and prosaic restraints in order to find and communicate their voice.  She complained bitterly of ‘walking about with a mind full of ghosts and saucepans and primus stoves’ rather than succeeding to nurture and channel an inner poetry that lurked deeper, sometimes too deep.

 The dynamic impetus of Katherine Mansfield’s injunction, ‘Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.’  strikes a particular and stirring chord.  Stark rather than eloquent, it is as compelling, in its own way, as Walter Pater’s immemorial commandment to burn always with a hard and gemlike flame.

 Mansfield’s own flame was finally extinguished by her long and painful battle with tuberculosis.  But a shimmering prose, and the stubborn ghost of a strong character remain unsnuffed; bright and iridescent, quick to ignite, and flickering firmly with the light of many hues.



What Price, Inspiration?

Inspiration: a fickle friend. A mighty puzzle. A maddeningly elusive golden snitch that many of us would like to clasp a good deal more firmly. Why are ideas so scrappily born out of threads and flotsam and lint; like torn up confetti-shreds of blotting paper that must be jigsawed together with fuss and the sour sting of labour pains?

Why can’t they fly in, swooping owl-like out of the jet-night, fully-formed and pendulous as a suspended tear-drop, a prism of contained sense-making? Why fore blindness, the dreaded think-block and the agonising scrape-scrape of pen?

For many the ideal (or only) writing conditions are learned solitude; the resin-creak of a mahogany desk, in a panelled library with sunlight streaming onto the page. It seems ideal to be hemmed in by cheerful, huddled tomes of infinite cleverness. The very numerousness and dry, crisp tangibility of these silent paper cheerleaders surely affirm that your quest is a valid, a noble, and an intelligent one?

Personally, libraries, when there is seriously writing to be done, are hell. They contain myriad millions of smug, completed volumes that crowd and jostle upon the shelves in order to jeer and boo. A most disquieting experience that can mortally wound id, ego and total word-count alike.

And then there’s the oft-peddled conceit of the great outdoors, its bowers, glades and peaks providing optimum conditioning for creativity. It is here, Wordsworth intimates, that sublime communion with nature, and the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, can be achieved and properly channelled. Surely a world post-Romantic, post-post-modern, and post-the height of summer will be caught, fatally, in a sticky urban web and even stickier cynicism of spirit, before attempting to deposit a tentative foot over the threshold?

So what are the ideal conditions for harvesting the mind’s ambrosial nectar, the manna of the muses, or even an artist’s bread and butter? Stephen Fry, beatific benchmark, to my mind, for anything vaguely intellectual in enterprise or proper in manner, requires seclusion, silence and early bed-times.

The great Anna Piaggi, who equally deserves elevation into the dizzy, cherub-spattered pedestals of my esteem, can get nothing done without her red 1969 Olivetti typewriter.

 Agatha Christie collated her thoughts and plotted her fictional intrigues whilst eating apples in the bath. Though not, I fear, elect of this gilded circle of true luminaries, I too have honed my own habit of craftsmanship, whilst at university, submitting a 4000 word essay each fortnight. But it’s no cavalier apple-gazing; silently shooting the breeze amid the candyfloss flurries of the hot and cold taps. No, I strongly suspect that it is a method shared with many of my nearest, dearest contemporaries.


For me, it’s bed-ridden, muscularly crippled in my prolonged supine state, propped up by fat pillows like some arthritic seaside aunt. I can only write in bed; cocooned, festering in a vocabulary pea-fog of perspiration. I go for long stretches of the clock without sustenance. The starvation alternative is constant sugar, in the form of chocolate usually, though I do fear I’ll resort to a drip soon, if only to rid myself of the distracting rustle of wrappers strewn, like so many shed skins, as I shift my (probably ballooning) bulk.

Solitude is unnecessary. I entreat those around me, enlisting them in serving up the countless cups of tea, black as mud, I imbibe with feverish belief in its powers, as if some genius-giving potion lurks in the grainy, cinereous dregs. I bark orders like some wounded general. Those brave enough to refuse are soundly cursed as enemies of culture, of literature and all things noble.

I don’t simply burn the midnight oil; I erect great bonfires; fashioning zero-hour pyres and huge conflagrations that involuntarily yield charred and twisted new compounds of ash and glue and feathers. If I periodically surface and arise, Triton-like, from the depths, hobbling bleary-eyed and pillow-faced into the kitchen on sloshing sea-legs, I expect a certain hushed deference from those I encounter. Courting an awed appreciation for the Herculean sacrifice I have undertaken, I deign to make the odd rare appearance (it’s actually a quest for toast), delivering solicitous salutations and zoned-out stares. When my reception is less than reverential, and comments submerged in irony are bandied forth, I am forced to affect an injured air, and gravely withdraw, (unwashed) head held aloft, to my quilted cave.

Of course, the doom and gloom and damp of the bat-bunker isn’t exactly a method embraced and endorsed among literature’s cognoscenti. We all know Keats composed his most famous poem under a plum tree one morning in glorious spring. Wordsworth matched the scansion of his metre to the earth-timbred beat of his walking boot upon the Lake District’s peaks and plains. And Eliot got a grip on The Waste Land whilst drinking deep of the clear mountain air of Lausanne.

I may remain mummified in a duvet-shroud for protracted spells, but I do crave diversion; variety; to dip my toe into the dirty pool of pop-culture. I embrace Twitter, YouTube, Grazia Daily and countless other virtual hubs of mass procrastinators to whom I proffer an apathetic hand across the ennui-void.

Procrastination as the thief of time has long been the bone in the craw of many illustrious writers; Samuel Johnson was near-phobic of this very human flaw. It haunted Virginia Woolf and spurred on Shakespeare, who as usual has the wisest of counsel: ‘Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends.’ (Henry VI)

And yet as Keats’s Odes can testify to, there is a poetry in muggy stillness, a spark of inspiration submerged in the blurred dream-states of idle contemplation, amid ‘evenings steep’d in honied indolence’. But I cannot chase Keats down his daisy and violet tunnels, or trace the elevated paths of his leaps from contemplation to creation, and neither, probably, can you. His is a philosophy few can emulate. And, let’s be honest, there is nothing remotely magical or exquisite, or divinely solipsistic, in the streaming of Britain’s Next Top Model at 2am when a deadline is looming. (Though there is something of the ethereal in my favourite contestant, Joy – a pale Madeline or stricken Lamia, perhaps? – but I digress.)

So although tearing oneself away from the honey-trap of viral distractions is as difficult and distressing as snatching a kaleidoscope from the eye of an enraptured child, tear and wrench and yank I must. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention…