Maurice Shadbolt (Photo: supplied)

Threesomes (and foursomes) in Titirangi: Fleur Adcock reviews a biography of Maurice Shadbolt

Fleur Adcock reviews Philip Temple’s vividly presented biography of the great Titirangi author Maurice Shadbolt – and sets the record straight about an alleged phone message she left for her ex-lover, provoking his (third) wife to throw a chicken at him.

The prologue of Philip Temple’s biography of Maurice Shadbolt features an entertaining anecdote in which my name is mentioned as the reason for Shadbolt’s then-wife Bridget Armstrong throwing a half-cooked chicken at him in their kitchen in Titirangi. This is said to have happened in April 1984, and apparently what set her off was a telephone message that I left for Maurice. Throwing chickens and other missiles is totally in keeping with Bridget’s volatile nature, as she would be the first to acknowledge; and sitting passively in a corner, sucking on his pipe and waiting for the storm to abate, was equally characteristic of Maurice. Nothing is more maddening to an enraged partner than a complete failure to react.

But the telephone call that had aroused Bridget’s ire was not from me. By 1984 I had no romantic interest at all in her rather shop-soiled husband. Temple has somehow conflated two widely separated episodes, inserted the wrong name, and created an almighty tangle. He writes, “I deduced that the message on the answerphone had been meant for him: from Fleur Adcock in London, as she mentioned a recent trip she and Maurice had made to Dublin. He had told me about this the evening before.”

Well, his deduction is wrong. It was in November 1975 – hardly “recent” – that Maurice took me to Dublin, on Reader’s Digest expenses. He was thrilled when just after we left the airport a UDA terrorist bomb exploded in the men’s toilet in the arrivals lounge, which he had actually visited a short time before: a gift for the sensationalist in him. This was his first visit to the country of his Kearon ancestors, and here he was, narrowly escaping death, as his self-dramatising imagination would have put it. The event went straight into his myth kitty, to be recycled and embroidered at every opportunity – he found himself remembering a shifty looking individual he had vaguely noticed as he washed his hands…. Quite possibly he was still going on about it in 1984, but it was very old history for me.

So who could have left the message? For enlightenment I rang Bridget herself (a friend of mine from long before she met Maurice, and now happily remarried and living on the other side of London from me). She was overflowing with apologies about the mistake, although it was not her fault but simply the result of a lack of fact-checking. The phone call had been from an old flame of Maurice’s, an opera singer calling herself Beverley Bergen. She was Beverley Ganderton as a student in Dunedin when I first came across her in 1960 – in fact she was one of the “female student camp followers” mentioned on page 167, who trailed Barry Crump and me, his newly married bride, to our honeymoon destination in Central Otago in February 1962. Susceptible as he was to flattery, Barry spent much of his wedding night boozing and dancing with his fans in the bar downstairs while I tried to get some sleep. Although these were technically the days of six o’clock closing in New Zealand, pubs in Alexandra never closed when there was money to be made.

Beverley had moved slightly upmarket as far as literary heroes were concerned, and in 1975, when Maurice and I met up again in London, she was his most recent ex-partner. But she was not a woman to give up easily, and even in 1984 apparently still had the habit of trying to reinstate herself in his life whenever she thought there might be a vacancy. I have no idea which Dublin trip came into her supposed telephone message or into Bridget’s kitchen tirade as reported by Temple, but it occurs to me that by the time he and Maurice arrived at the Shadbolt house that night for a chicken dinner they had spent several hours at a party; no doubt drink had been consumed and memories blurred.

Maurice in his A-frame study at Te Marua, 1960 (Photo: supplied)

I found this more than slightly disillusioning. A biographer’s job is to present the facts, and if in doubt to check them and recheck them. Temple interviewed me at some length for his research, and I now began to wonder what might be waiting for me in Volume 2. The easiest way to check his reliability, at least on the evidence available so far, was to look at the episodes involving me. They are rather few in this volume, and most of them seem to be accurate as far as I can tell, but in continuing the Crump episode he mentions that later in 1962 Barry was writing his new novel in longhand and that I was typing it. No way! I was far too busy working as a librarian in order to pay our rent and buy groceries (any request for a contribution from Barry would be met by him saying, “Where’s your independence?”). His typist was a young woman called Lorraine whom I assumed Barry paid with sexual favours, although his publishers may have backed this up with actual money.

The portions of the narrative based on Temple’s actual interviews with me are more accurate, except when he has misheard: there is a quaint phrase in which he refers to Maurice Duggan, who was in fact rather tall, as “a little square ivory man”. This briefly baffled me until I realised that there was a missing “of”; I’d been talking about the painstakingly meticulous Duggan style, and quoting rather loosely from Jane Austen’s description of her own writings as if done with a fine brush on “a little bit (not two inches wide) of ivory”, in contrast to the expansive and sometimes sloppy Shadbolt method.

But this is a solid and patiently researched opus, and its virtues are not inconsiderable. They include psychological insights. I learned, for example, how hopelessly damaged Maurice was by his mother’s extravagant cosseting of him as a child; it explains a good deal about his future relations with women, from practical Gill, his first wife and the mother of his first four children, a woman of sense and competence who supported him for years while he established himself as a writer, through the long parade of variously assorted female visitors who accompanied him and his trolley through the aisles of the Titirangi supermarket over the years, to his second wife Barbara Magner (mother of his fifth child, Brigid), who was ousted before too long to make way for her inevitable successors, but who returned to keep him company in his old age when no one else would put up with him.

Brian Brake and Maurice on the road for National Geographic, 1960 (Photo: supplied)

I met her in December 1975, on my first visit to New Zealand for 13 years, when he picked me up from my mother’s house in Wellington in a car already occupied by his own mother and little Brigid, and drove the four of us up the North Island. This somewhat fraught journey was made no easier by the fact that the said little Brigid threw up in the back of the car just as we arrived at her mother’s house to drop her off. I was wearing casual clothes and jandals, and feeling rather frazzled from the trip (although fortunately I had escaped the vomit); Barbara, whom I’d never met, was dressed for seduction in a stylish blue outfit with high-heeled sandals and blue nylon stockings. Clearly she wasn’t going to let her standards slip just because her husband was hers no longer. When the handover had at last taken place and Maurice and I were alone in his house at Titirangi we found the fridge full of provisions left for him by Barbara, who although they were separated still had a key. They included several salads featuring soya beans, a favourite of hers. Maurice didn’t like soya beans, but had never had the courage to say so; now here they were, pursuing him beyond the marriage. Right at the beginning of this holiday I felt daunted; how could I compete with yet another of his clinging mother-figures?

Fortunately I didn’t have to; this was a brief visit, squeezed in between many other commitments in the course of my two months in New Zealand, and as a holiday companion Maurice had one great advantage: he had just finished writing the new edition of the Shell Guide to New Zealand, and was not only a walking guidebook but one with a passionate attachment to the country of his birth and its culture. He had taken care to surround himself with some of his most iconic elements: the paintings on the walls of his house and his writing studio were by famous New Zealand artists, many of them friends of his. The track from his house down to the sea led through native bush (including a kauri) and ended among mangroves, an unfamiliar feature to a Wellingtonian like me; there were fish to catch in his nets, cockles on the beach and oysters to collect from the rocks. Well-known writers came to his parties. He seemed to know everyone.

There was much about all this to enjoy. The dark side was his moodiness: never live with a depressive for longer than you have to! A grown-up who has been a spoilt child is also bad news for harmonious relations, as Gill realised early in their marriage. During their first great overseas trip, which took in China, the USSR and parts of Europe, they found themselves in London with Maurice suffering from severe depression after breaking up with his Bulgarian lover Jenny Bojilova. “Ever the martyr to his own inadequacies”, as Temple puts it, Maurice came to the conclusion that he and Gill should separate, so that he would no longer torture her. She patiently won him over, recognising this as “an appeal for maternal reassurance” and writing him “wonderful letters” (they have not survived). Meanwhile he had managed to find time and opportunity for another affair: another stick to beat himself with.

He had also, however, finished his first book of short stories and sent it off to a British publisher, Gollancz. Their letter of acceptance made him happier than he would ever be again: “London glowed.” New Zealand was a little less enthusiastic. Both his soon-to-be-dumped mentor Charles Brasch and his close friend Kevin Ireland had warned him that the rather grandiose title The New Zealanders, implying that he was uniquely qualified to define the national character, was unlikely to be popular. “It will piss people off”, wrote Kevin from Bulgaria (where he too had fallen in love, but in his case married and stayed). Maurice was unconcerned about pissing off his compatriots; he had a wider audience in mind – the world at large. Sure enough, Alan Sillitoe and the poet Stevie Smith were among big names attached to favourable mentions of the book in Britain, and the New Yorker published one of the stories.

Maurice on a Pacific assignment, possibly Samoa 1962 (Photo: supplied)

The biography continues at a brisk pace through the life and works, examining the genesis and character of the novels and touching on other matters, including his political activities (he was born into a communist family, but later switched his allegiance to Labour; he was also involved from time to time in popular protests such as the Greenpeace trip to Mururoa). There is no index, but the notes on sources give some clues (to me at least) to what may or may not be trusted. Maurice’s final volume of autobiography From the Edge of the Sky, often cited in some early chapters of this book, is not to be relied on, as he and Barbara Magner concocted it together when their memories were failing, his from the inherited form of dementia from which he died. On the other hand, his earlier memoir One of Ben’s is probably no more given to exaggeration and fantasy than the rest of his writings. It was certainly a book that went down well with the public. Elsewhere the notes give references to published autobiographies by other writers, which I have no cause to disbelieve.

Chapter 17 is called “Threesomes”, but the arithmetic escalates upwards: “foursomes” is sometimes more accurate, and larger multiples can seem appropriate. In chapter 26 we read of “Gill, Marilyn, Barbara: all preoccupied with Maurice’s emotional, sexual and domestic needs”, while a very recent girlfriend writes from England “My darling Maurice… You know I loved you passionately” and various friends and relatives are called into service as childminders, for the kids or for Maurice himself. Barbara was Barbara Magner, shortly to be wife number two, and Marilyn was my novelist sister Marilyn Duckworth, with whom he was desperately trying to negotiate a way of living that wouldn’t get her into trouble with her husband’s divorce lawyers. Apart from legal problems, any possible future with Marilyn was doomed from the start by the fact that each of them had four children – not to mention Maurice’s clear assumption that his writing would always take precedence over hers.

As the situation hurtled downhill, one bizarre event following after another – including the recruitment of my mother, Irene Adcock, to move into Titirangi as house mother when the divorce laws debarred Marilyn from being there – he gradually reached the conclusion that grand passion was all very well, but what he really needed was a “housekeeping partner”. This role fell to Barbara Magner. When Marilyn met him again a year or two later, having herself moved on by then, he complained that Barbara didn’t really understand marriage. Also he hadn’t been able to find any socks that morning.

In spite of his occasionally shaky premises, Philip Temple has vividly presented Maurice Shadbolt as a prolific, determined and unevenly talented writer with a life full of activities and people, many of them women. Volume One ends in 1973 with his mammoth novel Strangers and Journeys winning the literary awards he coveted and Barbara, the “pretty television lady” loved by his children because she made him laugh, still in post as wife. If chunks of the narrative read like farce, this is all the more reason for looking forward to Volume Two.


Life as a Novel: a biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Volume One: 1932-1973 by Philip Temple (David Ling, $45) is available at Unity Books.

 

POSTSCRIPT: Philip Temple responds to the question of why the chicken crossed the room, as claimed by him and as Fleur Adocock claims to have corrected

When I interviewed Fleur Adcock in London in April 2014 I referred to the chicken throwing event in 1984. My notes indicate I understood my version to be correct and also when I related it shortly afterwards to Bridget Armstrong. My wife, poet Diane Brown, was present on both occasions and confirms the incident was raised. Fleur believes that I conflated the chicken throwing event with her visit to Dublin with Maurice Shadbolt in 1975. In fact, where I quoted Maurice in the Prologue, he had been referring to his visit to Dublin in 1983 to research a story for Reader’s Digest. Both of these visits are being dealt with in Volume Two of Life As a Novel.

Fleur says that the easiest way to check my reliability was by “looking at the episodes involving me” and, in questioning that, states there is “No way!”  she typed Barry Crump’s new novel in 1962 (page167). In a letter from Maurice to Kevin Ireland, dated 2 April 1962, he referred to Fleur and Crump’s current situation in a flat not far from where he was living in Wellington. In this, he wrote, “He’s been writing in longhand, and Fleur has been typing the pages out.” (Maurice Shadbolt Papers, 91-047-17/08, Alexander Turnbull Library).

All of this illustrates the slipperiness of memory, how misunderstandings can occur, and how important it is to use, wherever possible, contemporary documents. A few weeks ago, for example, I was emailing with Fleur about her visit to NZ in 1975-1976 to clarify some of her interview details which did not accord with other contemporary accounts. All of this also illustrates, only too well, the desperate complications in getting Maurice Shadbolt’s devious life and relationships right.

Before publication of her Spinoff review, when I learned of her distress about the Prologue, I emailed Fleur, asking for more details surrounding the 1984 event so that I could correct the passage if Volume One was reprinted; as well as covering the issue in Volume Two. I am happy to do both.

(Note: And there is an Index to the biography – 17 of 45 pages of Appendices which include references, bibliography, acknowledgements and other notes.)

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