Life stories from the edge, Ralph Crane

From the Edge of the Sky: A Memoir
Maurice Shadbolt
David Ling, $29.95,
ISBN 0 908990 59 6

An Albatross Too Many
James McNeish
David Ling, $24.95,
ISBN 0 908990 55 3

When in 1993 I enthusiastically reviewed Maurice Shadbolt’s first autobiographical volume, One of Bens, my second paragraph read as follows:

The art of autobiography is a skilled one, and more often than is desirable its would-be practitioners fail to impress. Not so with Maurice Shadbolt. In One of Bens he treads with aplomb the slippery path that marks the dangerous divide between self-indulgent anecdote and a story that, without losing sight of the people whose history inhabits its centre, succeeds in providing the reader with a story of much wider, in this case national, consequence. In One of Bens Maurice Shadbolt skilfully mixes the myths and legends of the Shadbolt tribe with those of Pakeha or post-colonisation New Zealand.

In his second volume of autobiography/memoir, From the Edge of the Sky, Shadbolt still impresses, but the feet which tread that slippery path are not quite as sure, the anecdotes – some rather bitter – not of quite the same consequence. This is in many ways a personal or private myth where One of Ben’s is a national or public one.

One of Bens took us through four generations of the Shadbolt family (including the author’s own) up to a point about forty years ago (which according to L P Hartley is just far enough in the past to maintain objective distance) when Shadbolt, with his first book just published, returns to New Zealand. It covers, in other words, a period of well over 100 years and a large chunk of New Zealand’s post-European history. From the Edge of the Sky, on the other hand, which picks up where the earlier volume left off, covers only a period of seventeen years, taking us from 1959 through to 1976, a period which (perhaps because of its proximity to the present), is not as interesting – in terms of history or legend – as the period covered by the earlier volume. The major part of the book, the what-happened-next narrative, is framed by three early chapters and a single final one which all take place in the present.

These self-reflexive, even somewhat metafictional, chapters are intended to create the necessary distance from the main story, and they do that successfully. But more significantly, I think, they establish the Titirangi house and studio as the anchor of both this story and the author’s (writing) life. Indeed the title of the book, we learn in Chapter One, is a translation from Maori: “Titirangi means ‘the edge of the sky’”. And the importance of Shadbolt’s carefully mapped present – Titirangi, Arapito Road, the house, the studio – is emphasised in the use of a detail from Lois McIvor’s painting Titirangi on the cover of the book. It is through the house, or more particularly the studio or “hermit hideout”, that the reader is carefully drawn into the centre of the writer’s world. The house/studio thus functions as both a literal and symbolic presence from the outset. Here, and perhaps only here, Maurice Shadbolt is both creator and controller (which is to suggest that that is exactly why we are invited to enter the story in this way). Only after we are in the writer’s den do we meet the characters who have peopled that world, and the events that have shaped it, and we do so on Shadbolt’s own terms.

So much for the way into the book. What of the main narrative itself? There are a number of threads to this narrative, all carefully woven together. Four appear to be of particular significance.

The first, much as we might expect, centres on the role Maurice Shadbolt plays in a series of events and episodes of domestic, literary and indeed national hue. In  most of these, again as we might expect, the author’s role is presented as a prominent one. A memoir, after all, is less about hard facts than the way the author remembers a series of events (as Shadbolt gracefully acknowledges in his Author’s Note). In this thread we learn, for example, of his part in the “discovery” of the young Albert Wendt, his involvement with famed prison escaper George Wilder (a particularly well-told tale), his voyage aboard the Tamure to protest French nuclear testing in the South Pacific (previously told in his 1970s novel Danger Zone), and so on.

The second important thread, which is closely linked to (if not inseparable from) the first, takes the form of a long list of names – literary and non-literary, but all famous – which are sprinkled liberally through the pages: Brian Brake, Jim Baxter, Patrick White, Murray Halberg, Pine Taiapa, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Michael Smither, Renato Amato, Anthony Burgess, to pick a few almost at random.  Some, like Jim Baxter, are treated with reverence; others, notably Frank Sargeson and Barry Crump, are mauled.

Thirdly, there is the detail of Maurice Shadbolt’s own highly successful writing career, without which the book simply couldn’t exist. This thread is, if anything, underplayed: but then how does a writer recount in detail – and in a way that will satisfy his readers – the process of writing? The glimpse Shadbolt has already allowed us in the opening chapters perhaps makes much further detail redundant. And, after all, it is the result not the process which matters.

The fourth thread I want to pick out is the one I think actually controls the structure of the book, and is its true subject. This is the thread that focuses on his relationships with various women during the period covered by the book, 1959-1976, which further emphasises the personal rather than public nature of this work. Wives and erstwhile lovers are remembered, fondly or otherwise (and it will be interesting to compare Shadbolt’s account of liaisons with certain literary women if or when their own autobiographies are published) in what, by the end of the book, amounts to a rather lengthy catalogue. No doubt it would be prurient to wonder if it is a complete account.    

Of all the women named it is Barbara Magner (his second wife) who is of particular importance. It appears that much of the narrative of From the Edge of the Sky – certainly many of the domestic events – has been constructed with the single aim of (re)placing Barbara at the centre of Maurice Shadbolt’s world. 1973, the year that his marriage to Barbara came to an end, is the one, we are told, he “should most like to rewrite”. Perhaps he has.

There is one further thread I would like to tease out. It’s a slight one, but of importance, a refrain of sorts (it’s described as the moral in the closing line of the main narrative, just before the shift back to the present) that reverberates at intervals through the book: “Mothers know best.” This phrase is used specifically in relation to Barbara, whom Shadbolt’s mother always liked.

Again and again, and in all sorts of ways, the book returns to Barbara, as well as to the Titirangi house. In the closing paragraphs of the book, having leapt forward 20 years or so and back to the present, Maurice and Barbara walk together on the beach below the house, in a scene that fittingly brings the three main protagonists of the narrative together and exhibits a sense of closure that is rare today.

Though From the Edge of the Sky may not be of the same order as One of Bens (and that is no criticism in itself – One of Bens, which is one of the best things Shadbolt has written, is very good), it is nevertheless a compelling read. In his trademark style Shadbolt demonstrates once again that he is (still) a skilled storyteller, and a literary force to be reckoned with.


Maurice Shadbolt features briefly in James McNeish’s An Albatross Too Many, the sequel to his celebrated autobiographical work As for the Godwits:

In 1967 when I began writing about Te Kuaka in the Listener I received a letter from Maurice Shadbolt expressing interest in reading about my “rediscovering New Zealand”, a kindly and thoughtful letter to which I replied less than generously … But Shadbolt was right. I was rediscovering something, if not about New Zealand, about myself.

Thirty years later McNeish is still making discoveries about himself and New Zealand in his writing about Te Kuaka (not its real name), a small, isolated coastal community on the edge of the King Country (somewhere, I imagine, near Kawhia).

An Albatross Too Many begins with McNeish and his wife Helen (rather disarmingly known as Peter – “a family name from her mother’s people in central Europe”) returning to Te Kuaka from France in 1974 and continues through to 1982 when they had to leave. The period covered by this work is short, only eight years, but the story McNeish tells is a big one, a public one, and a striking contrast to the personal and literary nature of Shadbolt’s memoir. It is the story of a community and a way of life under threat, a lament for the passing of a particular aspect of New Zealand life.   

What makes Te Kuaka so interesting is that it is simultaneously a distinct community somewhat cut off from the rest of New Zealand (it can’t be reached by road), a representative small Maori (or Pakeha) community, and a microcosm of New Zealand as a whole. Or as the author himself puts it at one point, Te Kuakans “are beyond the peculiar. Lunacy is our middle name. Perhaps we are, after all, New Zealand personified – only more so.” What happens in Te Kuaka is important on a national level. The battles fought by the residents of Te Kuaka – to keep their school open, to save their postal service, to keep out the land developers (who, in an ironic twist are Maori; the Maori Queen is the landlord) – are battles that affect us all in this age of spending cuts to education, health, welfare, and so on.

And it is that “only more so” which makes the characters in this story – all real people, we are told, with only their names changed – so much larger than life. The day-to-day lives of the motley inhabitants of Te Kuaka are recounted somewhat episodically through a series of carefully selected diary extracts and vivid snatches of conversation. Overall this works well: the story is skilfully condensed; the wonderfully idiosyncratic characters – like Dan, who runs the launch and postal service and provides Te Kuaka’s rather uncertain connection with the rest of New Zealand and the world – are exaggerated just enough to climb out of the pages of the book; and McNeish’s prose is, for the most part, a sheer delight.

Autobiography (the term is a surprisingly modern one, coined only at the end of the 18th century), or life-writing, is a popular form nowadays, and arguably one at which New Zealand excels (as it does in the related field of biography). These two books remind us that life stories can come in very different forms (witness Wordsworth’s great autobiography, The Prelude). Neither is the work of a “painstaking autobiographer” (to borrow Shadbolt’s phrase); but each has been written with painstaking care. Shadbolt’s memoir, with its emphasis on the people he has met and the events that he has been part of, told from the wonderfully unreliable perspective of memory, and McNeish’s diary, apparently a day-by-day record of his life and the life of Te Kuaka, are both very deliberately constructed stories of aspects of New Zealand life. There is clearly a novelist at work in the pages of each.

Ralph Crane teaches in the English Department at the University of Waikato.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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