Philip Temple on his relationship with the great NZ writer Maurice Shadbolt

by Philip Temple / 12 November, 2018
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Maurice Shadbolt in 1959, on the Chelsea Enbankment in London. Photo/Listener

From the prologue to his new biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Philip Temple writes about why he took on the task of recounting the life of this colourful and controversial figure.

I first met Maurice Shadbolt in 1967, at the Christchurch home of David Lawson, the publisher for Whitcombe & Tombs. Maurice was completing work for Whitcombe’s on his Shell Guide to New Zealand, and I was working on my first book for them.

At the time, he had published two collections of short stories and one novel, Among the Cinders. But he had become best known for his phenomenally successful “coffee table’’ book, Gift of the Sea, created with photographer Brian Brake, following their National Geographic magazine article on New Zealand.

Published in 1963, the book went on to sell towards 100,000 copies. It was both a record-breaker in New Zealand publishing and set a new standard for photographic books. I was impressed by what Maurice, then 35, had achieved as a freelance author, the only one in the country who made a living from books, with some supporting international journalism. His model was one I tried to emulate when I went freelance myself five years later.

During the 20 years that followed, we met at regular intervals. He stayed with us on Banks Peninsula and I went with him to various sites around Akaroa Harbour as he searched for evidence of Shadbolt ancestors. I stayed with him in Titirangi when I was up north on book or article projects. I took all the key photographs for the revised edition of his Shell Guide, and he ushered me into the local and international world of Reader’s Digest.

But differences in age, background and literary goals, and simple geographical distance, meant that close encounters of the intimate kind coincided only with these widely separated visits; yet none of them was without emotional incident or stress. The effect of these became cumulative, so that when he broke with Bridget Armstrong at the end of the 1980s, I broke with him, too, as did others who had known him for much longer.

I saw him once or twice during the 1990s and paid a final, distressing visit to see him at the Avonlea Rest Home in Taumarunui, 18 months before his death. After he died, in 2004, the Guardian newspaper asked poet Kevin Ireland, his oldest friend, to write an obituary. He was so disaffected with Maurice that he could not bring himself to do it and passed the task on to me.

I had mixed feelings, but I retained some affection for the best times we had had together, and gratitude for the help he had given me in my career. Whatever one thought about his writing or personal life, I wrote, he had “believed that New Zealanders should tell their own stories, cherish their own myths and believe in their own big lies before they could stand upright in a post-colonial world … Many literary critics in New Zealand considered his writing to be either flawed or populist – or both [and still do] – but neither his readers at home and abroad nor book award judges cared much.”

Philip Temple.

And the Guardian had considered his passing worth marking, for his books were often better regarded abroad. When a friend looked around a Philadelphia bookshop recently for New Zealand titles, all she found was Maurice Shadbolt’s Season of the Jew.

Over the years following his death, several people suggested that I would be the best person to write his biography, although some thought he was “not worth it”, referring to both the mixed quality of his writing and his reprehensible behaviour towards the women in his life. From my own reading of his work and personal experience of him, I tended to agree. But my inherent scepticism towards the “received” views of others’ character and work kept the idea alive.

My large biography of the Wakefield family had been partly prompted by scepticism that neither their early heroic status as the “founders of New Zealand” nor their later post-colonial status as the villains of early European settlement could be valid; the truth lay somewhere between. In a similar way, the truth of the value of Shadbolt’s writing could not lie at either pole of opinion, especially when he usually claimed to be no more than a storyteller.

And was he only a villain in his personal life? I spoke to one woman who had known him and who described Maurice as a “malignant philanderer”, but who then followed this statement with the comment, “I would have put my slippers under his bed’’, if she had been given the opportunity. The paradox in this suggested something else.

I finally decided to tackle a Shadbolt biography when I realised that, no matter what critical opinion maintained, he had been arguably the most well-known New Zealand writer of the second half of the 20th century. He was a major contributor to the flowering of a New Zealand literature during that time and played a leading role, as a popular novelist, non-fiction author and journalist, in exploring and defining New Zealand identity as the country emerged from the semi-colonial condition of the 1950s into something like independent nationhood by the 1990s.

Shadbolt in 1986. Photo/Gil Hanley

The diversity of his work and his exploration of New Zealand history and life also meant that he had been associated with not only most other writers of his time, but also many of the visual artists – including such luminaries as Colin McCahon and Michael Smither – as well as notable New Zealanders across all walks of life. More than any other writer of his time, his work took New Zealand to the world.

A biography of Shadbolt would, therefore, also be a biography of a time of great change and growth in New Zealand literature, culture and society. As I was a participant in and an observer of this from the late 1960s, it could also be an examination of my own experience and understanding of all this and of the many writers, artists, editors, publishers and friends that Shadbolt and I had both known.

Above all, it would allow me to reach a true appreciation of his work and to discover who this “malignant philanderer” really was. Were his novels the most memorable, or the novel he made of his life?

An edited extract from Life as a Novel: A biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Volume One, 1932-1973, by Philip Temple (David Ling Publishing).

Two lives' work

The works of Maurice Shadbolt, who died in 2004, aged 72, included the novels Among the Cinders (1965), This Summer’s Dolphin (1969), An Ear of the Dragon (1971), Strangers and Journeys (1972), A Touch of Clay (1974), Danger Zone (1975), The Lovelock Version (1980), Season of the Jew (1987), Monday’s Warriors (1990), The House of Strife (1993) and Dove on the Waters (1997), as well as the play Once on Chunuk Bair (1982) and the memoirs One of Ben’s: A New Zealand Medley (1993) and From the Edge of the Sky (1999). Non-fiction works included Gift of the Sea (with Brian Brake, 1963), Isles of the South Pacific (with Olaf Ruhen, 1971), Love and Legend (1976) and Voices of Gallipoli (1988).

Dunedin-based author Philip Temple is an award-winning writer of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books whose past work includes mountaineering memoirs, a biography of the Wakefield family entitled A Sort of Conscience, and the novel Beak of the Moon.

This article was first published in the October 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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