A view from afar, Simon Upton

My Father’s Shadow: A Portrait of Justice Peter Mahon
Sam Mahon
Longacre Press, $39.99,
ISBN 9781877460173

I like Sam Mahon’s writerly qualities. This book confirms the literary reputation inaugurated with The Year of the Horse and broadened with delicious malice in The Water Thieves. He is one of the best descriptive writers and literary portraitists in the country. This book provides cut-crystal exhibits of both, to which I shall return. But at the outset it is important to be clear about the subject matter of this exceptional piece of writing.

My Father’s Shadow is ostensibly, as its subtitle avers, a “portrait of Justice Peter Mahon”. But I cannot quite convince myself that he is the true focus of the book. I rather think that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Growing up in the Shadow of a Remote but Distinguished Father might have been a more accurate title. Mahon says as much in his introductory disclaimer in which he asserts respect for the biographer who sublimates his own voice but then apologises for having his “fingerprints all over it” on account of having of inadequate material to draw on.

This lack can only be true in the sense that family relationships often trap their members in a circle of proximity that renders them permanently out of focus and obscures completely traits that are more easily decipherable by the outside world. If this is primarily a portrait of Peter Mahon, it is one that has had to be painstakingly distilled from the impenetrable emulsion of a strained relationship characterised by a mixture of awe and remoteness. As the record of a son’s deep meditation on his father it is utterly compelling. As a guide to the life of its intended subject, it can only be very partial.

Peter Mahon was, by Sam’s admission, a conservative. This comes as no surprise to me. My now deceased uncle was one of a circle of friends with whom Peter intersected at golf and at the Ellerslie races. My uncle was a farmer and, having represented him in Parliament over the years, I know what I mean when I say he was a conservative. He was a shrewd man but had little time for fancy theory or “the broad view”. He had human nature taped and knew the difference between understanding human frailty and making excuses for it. That Peter Mahon apparently enjoyed the company of his ilk is entirely comprehensible to me.

Mahon suggests that his father liked to see himself as a liberal while playing the part of a Victorian reactionary. This, he declares, was cover for an eclectic philosophical position that in practice amounted to “an undeclared conservative stance, a position of logic and order from which he could hold the world in clear focus.”

His unprogressive stance on South Africa is explained as a “conscious decision to remain uninformed” for fear that it would in some way destabilise his entire (conservative) world view. The human dimension of that view is revealed in an extraordinary letter to the Reverend Bob Lowe in which David Lange’s charitable view of human nature is met with Hobbesian disdain:

I can understand David’s frustration at the systematic conviction and sentence of so many of his constituents and his wistful search for the Golden Grail in Mangere, but unfortunately his search will be in vain. If there had ever been a Golden Grail in Mangere it would have been stolen by now and melted down, like copper wire belonging to the Post Office.


As Sam Mahon observes, “armed against any illusions of altruism in the world, he went about his job as an agent of the law, looking humanity in the eye and expecting the very worst.”

Naturally enough, Mahon, the unashamedly poetic, artistic, leftish soul, is troubled by the granite of a conservative patrimony. How can an educated man who cites Dante and Shakespeare be this way? There is a tendency on the son’s part to search for a more congenial intellectual hidden beneath this grim exterior. So he latches eagerly onto a suggestion that Peter’s love of horse racing was rooted in Dickens and a fascination with the human broth. Maybe. But while the eyrie high in the member’s stand at Ellerslie from which he and people like my uncle watched the turf may have provided a superb vantage point from which to view “this fascinating brew of human nature”, it was a view from on high and from afar.

So, when Mahon looks approvingly at the bust of his father he has cast for the Auckland University Law Library and judges it “very much at home there among the ‘bohemians’ of the ‘left bank’”, we are in the presence of the father this son wished him to be. But, on Sam’s account, it was as a naturalist, bird watcher and shooter that his father came closest. So there seems almost a whiff of envy on Mahon’s part that the letter of his father’s he most values – a minor treatise on Dante – should have been addressed to his sister.

For it is in Peter Mahon’s words that Mahon the writer finds his most enduring legacy. It is a facility for words, an effortless faculty for the creative (and destructive) use of language that links father and son. It is a promethean faculty that can delight and destroy. Peter Mahon’s famous pronouncement as the Erebus Commissioner that he had been presented with “an orchestrated litany of lies” was his undoing. His findings of fact have never been challenged. But in succumbing to “perfect iambic pentameter, the rhythm of Shakespeare, of true speech” (as Sam Mahon puts it), he opened himself to attack from which he would have been impregnable had he simply stated that he had found the airline’s evidence lacking in credibility.

Mahon’s handling of the great drama of his father’s life is inevitably contentious. A huge cast is subpoenaed, tried and judged with wit, compassion and not a little venom. As with Canterbury’s rivers, Mahon is a brilliant guide to the poetry and poignancy of the situation but not necessarily a reliable guide to the man. But that would be to expect too much. How many of us know our own parents?

However, as a guide to the natural world, as a poet of the visual and tactile universe, he is as sure as any man I know. Scratched vinyl records are like “gazing at a landscape through a nest of barbed wire”; suburban sprawl is “a spilled basket of children’s building blocks.” Of the moment he is told his father has died he remembers “the hills beyond my window, the scratched, fly-stained sky, the gum trees hanging against a windless day and every grass blade in place as if the world was, for a moment, too embarrassed to move.”

There are Whitmanesque passages of a childhood in the hills above Christchurch that take the breath away. There are beautiful sketches of the Italian landscape through which his father fought in 1944. Indeed, beauty is never far away. It is just human beings who fall short, as father and son both attest with lucidity and erudition.

Simon Upton is a Ngaruawahia reviewer and Dominion Post columnist. 


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Posted in Biography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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