I finally got around to reading some Katherine Mansfield, after reading glowing praise from M John Harrison and others, and spotting Harvey Pekar reading one of her books in a scene from American Splendour. I picked up a pleasingly 1950s-looking hardback “Collected Stories” from the book stall on the South Bank, under Waterloo Bridge.
Last night I was reading Je Ne Parle Pas Francais, my mind particularly sharp, and almost every phrase within the story dripped with significance. She starts it off by saying:
I don’t believe in the human soul. I never have. I believe that people are like portmanteauxï¿½packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle.
I was cheering with the appropriateness of this simile, until a few paragraphs further down she puts herself down, calling this a:
rather far-fetched and not frightfully original digression
But the bit which really had me sitting back digging into my own mind for resonances was this:
I’ve no patience with people who can’t let go of things, who will follow after and cry out. When a thing’s gone, it’s gone. It’s over and done with. Let it go then ! Ignore it, and comfort yourself, if you do want comforting, with the thought that you never do recover the same thing that you lose. It’s always a new thing. The moment it leaves you it’s changed. Why, that’s even true of a hat you chase after; and I don’t mean superficially ï¿½I mean profoundly speaking . . . I have made it a rule of my life never to regret and never to look back. Regret is an appalling waste of energy, and no one who intends to be a writer can afford to indulge in it. You can’t get it into shape; you can’t build on it; it’s only good for wallowing in. Looking back, of course, is equally fatal to Art. It’s keeping yourself poor. Art can’t and won’t stand poverty.
Suddenly I was cast back to the days when I had a hat. I was seventeen, studying for my A-levels at Richmond-upon-Thames college. I’m sure that to most people who saw me at the time, I was defined by that hat. I’d picked it up at Kensington Market, during one of my many trips to that magical bazaar, a floppy wide-brimmed felt thing with a light-blue cotton scarf tied around and dripping over the brim, pulling it down on one side. I wore it everywhere. I felt strangely connected to it as my main distinguishing feature.
Then I went to Southampton, for a meet-up with fellow players of the Saturnalia play-by-mail game. I cruised the drinking establishments of Southampton’s red-light-districts with the Southampton Uni students who ran the game, got very drunk, crashed the night in Mo’s flat listening to eternal B52s, left early the next day to catch a train to Woodcraft Folk camp in the Forest of Dean.
I soon realised I’d left my hat behind, in the room of a particularly obnoxious student who had been limbering up for his finals. We corresponded, the hat was still there. He finally brought it along to the next meet-up. Unfortunately, by then the finals had passed, as had post-exam drinking binges, and in a night of excess he had returned to his room to find only one receptacle suitable for holding vomit: my hat. He’d tried washing it, but it had lost its shape, it was not the hat it had been before. I tried wearing it, but it didn’t feel right. Of course, this was largely down to the negative effect of puke on the shaped-felt, and I did lament my hat and wish that I had it back in its previous form, but I think that sick-receptacle or not, that couple of months spent separated from my headgear had changed both me and the hat in ways more subtle that those immediately obvious. Even if it had looked the same as when I’d left it, I don’t think I’d have gone back long-term to wearing the hat. Time had divorced me from my hat.