Gadfly: The Life and Times of James Shelley
Auckland University Press, $39.95
Many who know him thought that Professor James Shelley was the most unforgettable man they had ever known. Gwen Somerset recalled him as a comet lighting up the Canterbury sky. Freddy Page was a fan from his first WEA summer school in 1920. C E Beeby changed career plans from law to education under his influence. Malcolm Rickard likened his arrival at the Broadcasting Service in 1936 to a howling gale of fresh air.
It was the personal imprint that remained in memory ‑ compelling eyes, theatrical gestures, resonant voice, arresting words. And Shelley fed off the adulation. As Ian Carter shows in this engaging biography, his energy was prodigious and he caused things to happen that have become settled features of our educational and cultural life.
His charisma was not for everyone. To his critics he was flashy and superficial. Women were captivated more than men. But those whose careers he influenced approached their work in ways they would not have done but for him: Crawford and Gwen Somerset in their pioneering contribution to rural community development; Geoff Alley in rural library services, and, later, the National Library; Walter Harris in educational broadcasting, the National Film Library and the National Film Archive; above all, Beeby in educational research and the reform of the national system of education.
Shelley was a visionary who combined Matthew Arnold’s cultural high mindedness with the educational doctrines of John Dewey, Percy Nunn, and J J Findlay, his early patron. The newly created chair of education at Canterbury College gave him a perfect platform. Education, as he advocated it inside and outside the college, must be broadly conceived and liberal in intent. Its personal riches must be made as widely available as possible in a democracy.
Born into an artisan family in Coventry, he had seized his opportunities to cultivate his own many talents. He was an exciting lecturer who opened new vistas not only in education but in psychology, sociology, anthropology, the fine arts, drama and poetry. He was a fine actor and producer. He painted landscapes and miniatures. His illuminated addresses ‑ two of which, with his miniature portrait of James Hight, are reproduced in this book ‑ were highly praised. He was an inventive and highly competent craftsman. For many New Zealanders he embodied Renaissance man.
His legacy to our national life was correspondingly wide and impressive. It is still visible in the conception of first-year university courses in education. He initiated experimental psychology, industrial psychology, child guidance and vocational guidance.
The ‘box’ courses he pioneered for rural study groups were a brilliant practical solution to the lack of local tutors and would impress current apostles of peer learning. His WEA summer schools offered a new, much valued mode of adult education. His contribution to drama was seminal. He may well have been the first art critic to appreciate modernism in New Zealand art. Under his influence the Broadcasting Service became the main patron of the arts in this country. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was his creation.
Shelley published little, kept no diary, left few personal papers, and was a poor correspondent. He had many acquaintances but few friends. Little of a personal colour is preserved in the records of Canterbury College or the NZBS.
Were it not for Peter Harcourt’s foresight in collecting materials for a Shelley archive, few reminiscences would have been recorded. Writing a biography of Shelley, Ian Carter concludes, is macramé, not bricklaying. The result in this book is a triumph of painstaking research and imaginative construction enlivened by exuberant writing.
The first three chapters show how much the Shelley of the Canterbury years was prefigured in his university appointments at Manchester and Southampton, in his experience of community education and, during the War, of army education. The Canterbury chapters are the centre-piece of the book and are rich in incident. They rather overshadow the later broadcasting years, and readers could have been spared some of the detail of the administrative/ political pettifoggery.
Shelley is treated sympathetically as the first Director of Broadcasting: the political constraints and the fraught relationships with C G Scrimgeour are lightly sketched in. The account of his retirement is a sad reminder of how hard it can be for great public figures to enjoy any kind of life when they are no longer in the limelight.
Gadfly is not a conventional, realist biography. Even if the evidence had encouraged such an approach, the author tells us in his epilogue why he would still think it a mistaken project. Lives, he says, following Erving Goffmann and bolstered with a quotation from Peer Gynt, are an assemblage of the roles each person plays. They can be peeled off, leaf by leaf, as Peer peels the leaves of a wild onion, but there is nothing more than leaves – no core, no substratum, no shaping essence.
Be that as it may. But by privileging Shelley’s role as gadfly in his title, has Carter not sinned against his own principle? Are we to take it that, considering the life as a whole, this was the defining role? SheIley enjoyed the comparison with Socrates during his Canterbury years but the position of Director of Broadcasting called for different qualities.
Broadcasting gave him the authority to prescribe, and he set out to give effect to his cultural beliefs and preferences. This was not a matter of playing a different role for a time. On the admittedly scant evidence of this study, it seems clear that the directive, authorising side of Shelley was an enduring feature of his character. The dazzling gadfly served nobler purposes.
Carter senses a dualism in Shelley’s childhood years and conjectures that he rejected ‘the paternal monochrome of his father’s Baptist beliefs … in the intoxicating fumes of his mother’s Anglican world’. This is said with reference to Shelley’s work in adult education which, we are told, ‘meant capturing students’ hearts and minds through liberal education, through enthusiasm and inspiration’. No monochrome there. But are not enthusiasm, inspiration and the capture of hearts and minds at the heart of a Baptist evangel?
Unlike Socrates, who said he was stinging a dead horse, Shelley set out to influence people so that they might (shall we say?) have life and have it more abundantly. ‘Remember, ‘ he told a group as he left Christchurch in 1936, ‘that we shall not be able to get the nations to come together peacefully until individuals have learnt to get together and work for the common good. It is largely a matter of developing the right sort of feeling and imagination. ‘ This desired state of blessedness sounds very much like a democratisation of the theology of the elect.
When, as he left New Zealand in 1949, he was asked what he had tried to do, he said: ‘It has always been my endeavour to develop the standards of culture – what New Zealand needs most at present… ‘ It was the retiring (and soon to be knighted) establishment figure who was speaking and no doubt the older man was using the opportunity to revise his own interpretation of his earlier life and times. But Arnoldian high seriousness was as much a part of his wild-onion as Socratic disdain. The gadfly image blocks out the Shelley of plain living and high thinking – and other features of a complex man.
These reservations aside, this is a book that will deservedly win many friends. In reclaiming Shelley, Ian Carter has written a key text for anyone studying our educational and cultural development between 1920 and 1950.
William Renwick is honorary senior research fellow at the Stout Centre for the Study of New Zealand Society, History and Culture, Victoria University of Wellington. He is a former Director-General of Education.