It is often said that London is a series of villages. I’m not sure I buy that, but I would say it’s a series of neighbourhoods. Most people are very aware of and loyal to their neighbourhood. When I came to live in London people would talk about their manor. It’s not a term I’ve heard for a while, so I suspect that those a generation behind me would find it as quaint as I did expressions from the 1950s.
Celia, Octavia and I all live in the same neighbourhood. I couldn’t tell you exactly where our patch begins and ends, but two or three years ago Celia and I were walking in an adjoining neighbourhood when we spotted a notice for a book group. It was behind glass and the worse for wear from condensation. We peered at it, trying to decipher date, location and book. As we did so, a woman approached with a wide, friendly smile. Do join us, she said. We don’t live here, we answered, wary of trespassing on alien territory. We live up the road; we belong to a different tribe. Alright, we didn’t say the last bit, at least I don’t think we did, but I certainly thought it, despite knowing people from this other tribe. That doesn’t matter, said the woman, smile enhanced by a halo of blond curls. You’d be very welcome.
I don’t think we went straight away. The details are now hazy. But we did eventually go. Gosh I am glad we did. Charlie, aka Mr Celia, has now joined us, as has our neighbour Reinhild, so our tribe now has a certain presence. Last night Jane, late of this parish, now a Bermondsey resident, attended. I hope Cynthia will join us in time. The work under discussion on Thursday night was the Short stories of Katherine Mansfield. M, the woman with the blond curls and welcoming smile, we now know is a respected literary figure, a writer, and someone who definitely knows her stuff when it comes to literature. She is modest about that knowledge, and never ever makes you feel ignorant, even when you demonstrably are. M did an introduction. The short stories are now available in a doorstep volume. The sort of thing you can imagine Adam in Frederick Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes walking around with to make himself look intellectual.I read the four stories M advised plus one more. I borrowed my copy from the library. It wasn’t only the 800 or so pages that discouraged me from carrying it around, though that’s a consideration, I was also reading two other books, one of which was Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto. Also a library book, but I think I shall shortly have my own copy.
M talked about how now we get the short stories in these huge volumes, a sort of job lot, whereas when the short story was at its most popular in C19 you would have read one in your weekly magazine, spent the week letting it percolate through, then you’d read another. That would allow the story to breathe like good wine (my purple prose, not hers) letting the reader savour its notes and flavours. Celia and I had both agreed earlier in the week we’d like our own volume – she had also borrowed a library copy – so that we could dip in to the collection and enjoy the individual pearls at leisure, so M’s words made a lot of sense.
It was a good turnout, around a dozen people gathered around the table. Carolyn and I polished off a bottle of red wine with very little help from any one else. Most people had brought nibbles, so we drank and munched through the evening. Katherine Mansfield came from New Zealand. The novel I’m reading now is by another New Zealander, Janet Frame, and I have my eye on a book by Rose Tremain that’s set in New Zealand. It seems like the stars are conjoined to make this my New Zealand year. Carolyn visited just before Christmas and says she fell in love with the country. I’ve heard that before. I have a feeling by the end of my holiday I am rather going to wish my parents had emigrated as they had planned and I would be a Kiwi. Maybe more of a Kiwi that Mansfield, as my parents would have had neither the money nor the inclination to send their daughters to London for their education as Mansfield’s parents did. Those were the days before air travel, the journey would have been long, home a long way away. Katherine Mansfield identified as other, an outsider, and that’s usually taken to be her outsider status as a New Zealander in the UK, but given her education on this side of the world, I imagine she was equally an outsider in her own land, probably an outsider everywhere, for how could you ever have a sense of belonging anywhere, or rather of having roots that went deep, in those circumstances? To which tribe would you feel you belonged?