Sto­ries about Mau­rice

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

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In the pro­logue to his biog­ra­phy of Mau­rice Shad­bolt, Philip Tem­ple writes about his re­la­tion­ship with the late, great writer and why he took on the task of re­count­ing his colour­ful life.

Ifirst 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.”

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.

Ifi­nally 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.

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).

Shad­bolt in 1986.

Philip Tem­ple

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