Serving up the ancestors, Harry Ricketts

One of Ben’s
Maurice Shadbolt,
David Ling Publishing, $44.95

Halfway Round the Harbour
Keith Sinclair,
Penguin, $29.95


This here biography and ‘reminiscence’ business … is a bit too near the ‘Higher Cannibalism’ to please me. Ancestor-worship is all right but serving them up filleted or spiced, ‘high’… has put me off.

That was Kipling in 1932 pungently refusing to write a memoir of his favourite aunt, Georgie Burne-Jones, wife of the painter. Agree with him or not, he raised a question autobiographers, no less than biographers, must face: what do you do with the ancestors? What you decide to do and how you decide to do it determine the shape of your own story, reveal much about your sense of self. Kipling, when he came to write his own autobiography a few years later, ignored his ancestors altogether, Maurice Shadbolt in One of Ben’s and Keith Sinclair in Halfway Round the Harbour include theirs but adopt quite different approaches, each equally telling.

Shadbolt, for instance, devotes the first third of his autobiography (over a hundred pages) to his immediate forebears: great grandfather Ben, deported from England in the mid-nineteenth century for theft, surviving Norfolk Island and Port Arthur, rising to considerable affluence in the Akaroa district; grandfather Ernest, hapless farmer and furious litigant; Uncle Jack, professional arsonist; Aunt Sis, nurse in the Spanish Civil War; father Frank, goldminer, quarryman, linesman, communist – to name only a few of the more colourful early Shadbolts. Sinclair, on the other hand, does not introduce his forebears, no less colourful it turns out, until he reaches the point in his own story (in his thirties) when he became aware of them they are then given a shortish chapter. The contrast in emphasis and timing is striking and characteristic.

Shadbolt’s sense of himself (as person, New Zealander and writer) is clearly intimately tied up with his sense of ancestry, with being ‘one of Ben’s’. Only after we have been thoroughly immersed in earlier Shadbolts, ‘also-rans, the residue of the nineteenth century’s pioneer heroics,’ do we come to his own story. And even that, full as it is, cuts off at the appearance of his first book, The New Zealanders, in 1959, with Shadbolt still only in his late twenties. Of his subsequent life we learn nothing.

Sinclair presents himself quite differently. A chronological account of childhood, adolescence and early adulthood fans out when he reaches his thirties into separate chapters which carry his story forward and explore the major preoccupations of his life: literature (particularly the 1950s local literary scene); history (his career as an eminent historian); politics (including his three weeks as MP for Eden); public service (President of the New Zealand Book Council, Trustee of the National Library, majordomo of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography etc). He offers, in other words, a fairly rounded self-portrait in terms of what has happened to him and what he has achieved.

Different as their lives have been in many respects, Shadbolt’s and Sinclair’s stories do contain parallels. Both grew up in relative poverty, partly or entirely in Auckland. Both have been involved in left-wingish politics. Both deal extremely cryptically with marriages and love affairs – Sinclair by a short head the more confessional. Both have travelled extensively. Sinclair tends to play down this aspect, reluctant to let his autobiography ‘become a travelogue, dragging my readers, and no doubt losing most of them, over Russia, Asia, or almost everywhere except northern Africa and South America…’ Which is perhaps a pity since it would have been interesting to compare his version of Russia with Shadbolt’s; the latter’s account of prolonged visits to Russia and Bulgaria in the early 1950s makes compelling reading, his encounters with dissident writers producing some of his best laconic dialogue and crispest prose. And then, Sinclair and Shadbolt are both writers: the one, New Zealand’s most distinguished historian and a biographer and poet of note; the other, a short story writer and novelist (particularly historical novelist) with an international reputation. As such, I’m unlikely to be the only reader eager to discover how they present the local literary scene and their sense of their own relationship to it. Of course, for Sinclair (now seventy) and Shadbolt (ten years younger) the literary scene is predominantly that of the 1950s, the world of Baxter, Sargeson, Curnow et al.

Baxter receives a good press from both. His generosity towards other writers is particularly stressed. Sinclair includes gossip, Shadbolt does not. For both Baxter seems to have become a kind of inner artistic conscience – no small tribute. Sargeson comes off less well. Both Sinclair and Shadbolt deplore his ‘very immature sense of sexual humour’; but whereas Sinclair was fortunate enough to receive some useful writing tips, Shadbolt appears to have encountered quite another side and launches a retrospective, jugular attack. For him, Sargeson was ‘A vain, preening and paranoid man’, holding court ‘among a mafia of mediocrities who put down anyone likely to menace his, standing. ‘The reason for this heavily-alliterative diatribe is that, as soon as Shadbolt published his first story in the Listener, Sargeson apparently tried to ‘kneecap’ him by having an (unnamed) acolyte put his name to a ‘venomous attack on the Listener‘s literary judgement comparing [Shadbolt’s] work unfavourably to [Sargeson’s] own’ – the inference being that Sargeson himself was the real author of the attack. Wounding enough if true, it does seem just a trifle ‘highly strung’ of Shadbolt still to be settling old scores nearly forty years on – until you remember that Sargeson was of course for Shadbolt, though not for Sinclair, a kind of (literary) ancestor but failed to behave like one.

Or did he? Rereading the early chapters of One of Ben’s, it is hard not to be struck by sudden pecularities in the prose style (often again highly alliterative), as though Shadbolt is at times quite unsure how to write about Ben & Co or quite what stance to take towards them. They, like Sargeson, clearly continue to exert an uneasy pressure. To say, a propos of your litigious grandfather that ‘Fools and frauds of lawyers had hardship ahead’ may be factually accurate but it also makes Ernest sound remarkably like a refugee from an Anglo-Saxon poem translated by Ezra Pound – a very odd transmutation.

Equally curious are sudden lurches in tone, as when Shadbolt speculates about his father Frank’s ‘real’ parents. Frank was largely brought up by his aunt Amelia, and Shadbolt raises the possibility that he might have been the child of Amelia and her brother Ernest rather than of Ernest and his wife Ada: ‘my father’s return to Amelia and Duvauchelle tended to confirm all that village gossip said – that young Frank was Amelia’s child, not Ada’s. But by whom? Amelia’s affections seem to have been reserved for family members, first for her father, then for her brothers and sisters; her brothers especially adored her. Further than that I am in dangerous territory. Let my dead rest.’ Admittedly, incest is a difficult subject but to broach it, sidle towards it and then coyly withdraw with a flutter of hints is a strange way to let your dead rest; it is ‘serving up’ your ancestors in a fashion not only Kipling might consider ‘high’.

The contrast with Sinclair’s account of his ancestors’ irregularities, hardly less delicate, is again striking. His father, it emerges, had been married before going off to the First World War to ‘a member of a well-known Kai Tahu family, part Maori’ and returned, after more than two years’ service, to find himself the father of one child more than he could have reasonably expected. Not only that, but when Sinclair collected his mother’s belongings from the hospital after her death in 1953, he found from her marriage certificate that she and his father had only married after they had had all their ten children. The discovery that he and his siblings were all born out of wedlock, and had some hitherto unsuspected relatives, comes as a shock, as it was no doubt intended to, but it is one that leaves neither Sinclair nor his reader feeling at all embarrassed. Do you feel at ease with your ancestors because you feel at ease with yourself? Or should the question be put the other way round?


Harry Ricketts is writing a biography of Rudyard Kipling.



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