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Icons of the West – Maurice Shadbolt

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Maurice Shadbolt

The name Shadbolt has been intertwined with New Zealand history for almost as long as there has been a New Zealand, and with West Auckland for at least half of that time.

A history largely unknown until the late Maurice Shadbolt wrote One of Ben’s in 1993. One of Ben’s traces the longer history of the Shadbolt family from 19th century Britain via transportation to Tasmania to Akaroa, where the family patriarch first settled them and became a pillar of that early colonial settlement. From there the family spread across New Zealand, with three of them becoming major historical figures: Nurse (Rene Mary) Shadbolt who gained fame (or infamy) as a nurse volunteer with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, former student radical Tim “I don’t care where as long as I’m Mayor” Shadbolt and cousin Maurice, one of our literary giants.

All three were closely connected with West Auckland: New Lynn’s Shadbolt Park is named for Nurse Shadbolt; Shadbolt House in Titirangi where Maurice lived and worked for many years, has been preserved as an historical icon; and Tim left his mark as the unlikely but revolutionary Mayor of Waitemata City (before its amalgamation into Waitakere City in 1989).

Maurice’s legacy is international. His very first book, 1959′s The New Zealanders, won him critical acclaim in Britain where he was living at the time. It was the foundations of a world-wide reputation as a very significant author that grew through the 25 books written over the next 40 or so years until Alzheimer’s stole away his once brilliant mind. He died in 2004, aged just 75, leaving a legacy that will not be easily exceeded.

His great standing was acknowledged in the fact that he was one of our most awarded authors and the recipient of the CBE in 1989. Auckland University saluted his contribution to the arts with a Honorary Ph.D in Literature in 1997. In all, Maurice Shadbolt’s work was acknowledged with 18 major awards, a number of them several times. Among others, he won the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award, the James Wattie Award and the New Zealand Scholarship in Letters three times each and the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship once. He was Otago University’s Robert Burns Fellow and recipient of the Montana New Zealand Book Award.

Shadbolt began his writing career as a journalist on the Auckland Star and then as a documentary writer for the New Zealand Film Unit before going to Europe in 1957 and travelling extensively. His fascination with New Zealand and New Zealanders emerged first in The New Zealanders and was to remain his constant theme throughout his life.

In 1973, one year after producing Strangers and Journeys, Shabolt put his fame and his personal convictions in the service of the protests against French nuclear testing at Mururoa, by sailing to the test zone in the protest vessel Tamure. It was a story he later retold in Danger Zone.

Strangers and Journeys, a complex story of two generations of two families that took him 10 years to write, is considered his magnum opus, but it was his New Zealand Land Wars trilogy that perhaps set him apart as a world-class writer of historical adventure stories. Wilbur Smith put South African history into the minds of a global audience; Shadbolt’s trilogy should do the same for New Zealand’s adventurous past.

Clearly extraordinarily well-researched they tell with vivid authenticity and gentle humour and compassion, the stories of Te Kooti in Poverty Bay, (Season of the Jew), the sad and inevitable incidents leading to the land wars in Taranaki and their aftermath (Monday’s Warriors) and Hone Heke’s uprising in the Bay of Islands (House of Strife).

Shadbolt takes his readers into the New Zealand bush and countryside and sets them down to live alongside the main players, the real life historical people, to hear their hopes and fears, their joys and despairs as their stories unfold. These are the true adventures of the people who helped shape New Zealand and it is unlikely they will ever be surpassed. They deserve to be filmed and brought to a wider audience.