Obituary — Maurice Shadbolt

Maurice Shadbolt (1932-2004)

Dear Maurice – We could not have a conversation the last time we met, so a letter will have to do, and, as your superstitions always allowed, you’ll be sure to read this, with more time than usual for contemplation – though whether in peace or in torment I couldn’t possibly say.

You may not remember this, but you knew about me before I knew about you. In 1959 you were in London enjoying plaudits in all the best rags for your first book The New Zealanders. Neither the title nor the praise went down well with some of the literati here, but your readers didn’t give a damn and it was the start of a long career of international publication that other New Zealand writers could only dream of. In London, you were interviewed by Sunday Express literary editor Robert Pitman, who had moved into that job after teaching English for years at Sloane Grammar School. At the end, he asked you if you had come across an ex-pupil of his, who had gone to New Zealand a couple of years before, aiming to be a writer. You hadn’t, but agreed to look out for him.

I knew nothing of this – Pitman died soon afterwards from cancer – and your and my paths didn’t cross until 1971, when I was working on the New Zealand Listener, and the editor asked me who might review my first photographic book Mantle of the Skies. I had been enormously impressed – like most of New Zealand, it seems, given the huge sales – by your book with Brian Brake, Gift of the Sea, and suggested you, expecting you’d pay as much attention to the words as the pictures. And you did, fulfilling the promise, you then told me, you had made to Robert Pitman 12 years before.

This began a friendship that was at its strongest over the 15 years that followed. We’d see each other a couple of times a year, although you lived in Auckland and I was on Banks Peninsula. There would always be a project that gave me an excuse to come and stay with you at Titirangi, and you found several excuses to come south, not least to explore the family history around Akaroa that led to One of Ben’s. We poked around local cemeteries together or you’d go off on your own for the day and come back with the kind of tall tales of ancestors – yours and others’ – that, one way or another, invested all your writing. You even roped me into The Lovelock Version, quoting, fictitiously, from my so-called Trails of New Zealand’s Wild Westland about a “dubious oral tradition of a large family group, with young children, adventuring through this area at a time when it was still considered too hazardous by many hardy explorers.”

It was the kind of story I might have included in one of my walking track guides. You were a past master at wandering along the line between fact and fiction – in all your books, no matter how they were described – long before the advent of postmodernism. One evening as we sat drinking whisky in your book-cluttered lounge, watching the light fade over the Titirangi bush, you laughed and said it was all lies, fact or fiction. It was the story, the myth that mattered most. And then you told me about your biggest whopper.

Dimi Panitza, your mate at the Reader’s Digest European office in Paris, had rung you to say he wanted a story about the spinster sisters who, a century before, had come upon an elaborate garden party at Versailles, perfectly re-enacted in the costume, manners and language of the 18th century. But when they tried to obtain more information about the event from officials, they were told they were crazy, had imagined it all. Yet they insisted on the verity of what they had seen to their dying day. It was the kind of tall story that appealed to you and Dimi knew it. You agreed to go to Paris and London to do the research, and eventually submitted a great yarn which sold through most of the Reader’s Digest editions around the world. But you hadn’t travelled further than the Auckland Public Library and had just applied your powerful imagination to the material you found there. Dimi happily paid the overseas travel expenses you claimed, even if your mind only had flown business class. If he reads this now, he’d say the money was worth it for the chutzpah.

You probably appreciated the warm and loving things said about you at your funeral. There was a lot of forgiveness about. But not much has been written or said elsewhere. Most of your life was a grand opera, your tenor to a succession of divas, but you didn’t manage the last act well at all. What did that critic say about a bad opera? That all would be forgiven if you left the audience with a final great aria? That long fade-out to silence was all wrong, you must admit. You should have gone with a bit of drama, tragically and memorably in the final scene. Then people would have left the theatre more moved, and you might have had a fellowship named after you by now. But Bryan James had it pretty right in the Otago Daily Times: 2004 was the Year of the Great Literary Death and, putting you alongside Janet Frame and Michael King, he wrote, “When all the books of these three writers are taken together they constitute a very large proportion of the cream of our post-war literature.” Lawrence Jones, in the New Zealand Listener, said some of your books would be read long after the works of currently more admired literary types were well forgotten. Not far off the mark, I’d say. Though you could never write well about women, could you?

Whatever the shortcomings, the achievement was massive: a couple of dozen books, half of them novels; featuring in the old Wattie Book of the Year Awards four times (first prize twice), and the only writer so far to have won the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award three times. And there were several fellowships, eh? In the 70s and 80s you had no peer. When I took the rash step of becoming a full-time writer in 1972, you were both my mentor and example of how to do it. I think I’m right in saying you were the only New Zealand writer at that time who had succeeded in fashioning a reasonably well-paid career from writing full-time.

A mix of quality non-fiction and fiction seemed to be the formula that worked, with some well-paid international journalism for insurance. You introduced me to the latter in the late 70s, when you were tired of writing for Reader’s Digest and wanted someone to fill the local breach. I had reservations (later confirmed) but you assured me that not only did they pay well but the stories would take me – all expenses paid – to interesting places. They sure did – from Mount Olympus to Spitzbergen – and helped to pay for an unforgettable family tour of Europe in 1979. Of your own widespread story locations (Versailles excepted), I remember your tales of the trip to Cappadocia, when your car was progressively demolished in a series of traffic accidents. And Troy, which led to Gallipoli, which led to Once on Chunuk Bair and Voices of Gallipoli and a whole new understanding of what ANZAC Day meant.

Your international journalism always led back home. With one or two exceptions, all your books were about the New Zealand experience, steeped in its history, its geography, its heroes and legends, both Pakeha and Maori. And this did not prevent many of those books selling well in Europe and North America, something we tend to overlook in the trendy internationalism of much modern New Zealand novel writing. You tended to play down expectations of your work by saying you were just a storyteller and “New Zealand just happens to be the place where I live.” There was a kind of clarity and self-confidence in that which is missing in the climate of creative writing mumbo-jumbo that afflicts a deal of New Zealand writing today. You were proud and uncomplicated about being a New Zealander and gave us books that will always be part of our popular canon.

I started from a different place, but thanks for the example and your generosity in assisting me where you could, in listening to me, introducing me to your friends, putting in a word with publishers. What remain strongest in the memory, though, are those long Titirangi evenings, after you’d cooked a feed of fish caught off the beach at the bottom of the hill: wine, whisky, pipe and cigarette smoke swirling among the books as we jaw-jaw-jawed about writers and writing into the wee hours. The evenings were occasionally interrupted by a scene of domestic opera or the arrival of unexpected guests, like Mervyn Thompson, wild-eyed, seeking refuge when he thought the vigilantes were after him again. My own life at the time seemed utterly banal compared to this.

As I said at the beginning, we weren’t able to talk about all this the last time we met. But that brief squeeze of my hand told me that, even in that terrible vacancy, you retained a vestige of those memories, too. When you finally died, there was a photo of you in the New Zealand Listener taken in about 1980 by Gil Hanly. And it gave me the idea that it was about time I started a rogues gallery to fill the empty space above the picture rail in my study: photos of writing and publishing friends, now gone, who have meant most to me. Yours will be the first up there. It is just right, you see. You are sitting in the armchair in the corner by the window with the bookcase behind – a position you jealously guarded. You are wearing jeans and one of those striped shirts you favoured, pipe and ashtray on the side table, and you are looking directly at me, as if to say, “Yes, now that’s a fascinating story.” And that’s the way it will always stay, ok? Here’s hoping you’ve ended up wherever you expected to be.

Philip Temple


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