Dunedin, April 2021
When the big lockdown began at the end of March 2020, I had finished revision of the manuscript for the second volume of Life As a Novel, my biography of author Maurice Shadbolt. Except for the last chapter, which I had yet to write. A friend in Vancouver, who was writing the biography of another New Zealand luminary now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, asked me how I was going to tackle describing Maurice’s decline into terminal dementia. Like him, I had been avoiding the task. I simply did not know. How should I do it? How much should I tell? The silence and isolation of the Level 4 lockdown, the time it provided – without a sense of guilt – for extended reading, listening to music, long walks and contemplation seemed to release the right flow of words. Words of affection, even love, when all conflicts or doubts from my past relationship with Maurice were washed away.
These excerpts from the last chapter of Volume 2 run on from when, in July 2000, Maurice was taken to the Avonlea rest home in Taumarunui, where he was to spend the rest of his life …
“It was not Te Kuiti, where he had grown up; but that was only an hour away, joined to Taumarunui by the Main Trunk Line. And the Ongarue flowed into the Whanganui River just a few kilometres away. Above it floated the ghosts of grandfather Ernest, grandmother Ada, father Frank, Aunt Sis and her siblings. It flowed beneath hills of the kind that had always been the landscape in the mind of a writer who had remained a country boy at heart.
He tried to escape; but there would be no going back to his studio, that ‘cliff-hanging bivouac’ in Titirangi, ‘all but buried in greenery’. The place that had been a ‘sanctuary for more than thirty years … three hundred square feet’ where he had dwelt with his ‘fancies and fantasies’. He recorded that ‘Most of my dozen novels, and more than a score of stories’ had taken form there. In his studio now the piled pages were yellowing; his past was ‘all but buried under the detritus of a writer’s life: pencils, pens and paper clips, manuscripts, notebooks, an extinct typewriter, reference books, a prematurely senile word processor’ that echoed his own condition. Curling on the walls were rows of book jackets and the poems of friends. Dust collected on ‘wholly sentimental mementos’ that included grenade fragments from Gallipoli; a Roman coin he had found at Troy as he read the ‘Iliad beside the wine-dark waters of Homer’s Agean’; a Maori carving from the village where Te Kooti spent his last years.
Maurice had turned over the objects as a way of finding meaning for his second memoir. ‘It must have a beginning. How did I get here? What am I doing here?’ The questions had also puzzled travel writer Bruce Chatwin who had told him, ‘The 21st century is going to be wonderful with people like you and me around’. Maurice was not sure what he had meant and now it was too late to ask: ‘He didn’t make the millennium. I am not sure I shall’.
Over the next four years, there were regular visitors to Avonlea: family and friends, ex-wives, lovers and colleagues. (Son)Daniel walked up the hill every evening with a treat of whisky or chocolate for him. Some of the women found his carnal impulses had not waned. He flirted with the nurses, grasping one by the hand to declare she was ‘almost the first’. Not all could face meeting him in the home on the hill, needing to retain intact their warm memories of convivial twilight evenings spent with him by the picture window that looked out to the Manukau harbour. Or of the stimulating days of working together.
As his dementia steadily worsened they came more to say farewell, as I did one day at new year 2003. Daniel took me to Avonlea at lunchtime and, as he fed Maurice mash with a spoon, I lifted a child’s beaker of juice to his mouth. Dan said, ‘Hold his hand, talk to him’. I did until the hard squeeze of Maurice’s grip signalled recognition through his terminal fog.
Maurice was buried in the upper Waikumete Cemetery with a view to the Waitakeres. There was much that could have been inscribed on his granite headstone, too much, and it was decided to keep it simple: ‘Maurice Shadbolt 1932-2004. One of Ben’s. Dearly loved’. A beloved storyteller and, if Maurice had thought to have his say, he might have chosen words from From The Edge Of The Sky. Perhaps from the dream where he is given a commission to write an article investigating life’s meaning. He asks a scientist who tells him he might be able to give him an answer twenty thousand years from now; and a philosopher who says, ‘Life is under no obligation to have a meaning’.
Or he may have preferred the last lines of his ruminations as he contemplates the favourite memento in his studio. It was a piece of greenstone, pounamu, one half in its original rough form; the other ground to a high polish. ‘It seems to be saying something about the craft of fiction’. But it also symbolised one of the recurring ‘fantasies’ of his life, because it was a ‘gift from a woman I might have married. Instead, for reasons unclear to me, I married four others. Time and chance allowed us just one summer … When she was free, I was not. When I was free she was elsewhere’. Ah – if only they had both been free, thirty years before! ‘We now seldom see each other from one year to the next. She continues to believe that we will finish together … no item in my workplace is more eloquent than that greenstone’. At the end he understood one of life’s meanings: ‘Love makes children of us all. Fools of us too’.
* Life As Novel,A Biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Volume Two 1973-2004, has now been published by David Ling Publishing. Volume one, 1932-1972, was published in 2018.
Philip Temple is an award-winning author of ten novels and more than thirty non-fiction books for both adults and children. His anthropomorphic novels, such as Beak of the Moon, are unique in New Zealand literature. His biography of the Wakefield family, A Sort of Conscience, earned several awards, including Melbourne University’s Ernest Scott History Prize. A number of his books have been published internationally. He has written extensively for television, contributed to countless magazine and journals, and been an editor for the NZ Listener and Landfall. In 2007, his examined work earned him the higher degree of Doctor of Literature from the University of Otago.
Philip was the recipient of the 2003 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers’ Residency and, earlier, held the Menton Katherine Mansfield Fellowship, the Robert Burns Fellowship and the National Library Fellowship. He received a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2005 and has been appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for his services to literature. He lives in Dunedin with his wife, poet Diane Brown.