Tomorrow at 10am (Friday 1 April – no this isn’t an April Fool), with my nine-year-old granddaughter, I will be standing on the corner of Portage Road and Kinross Street, opposite Titirangi Golf Course, to honour my aunty Sister Rene Shadbolt. We will be standing in Shadbolt Park taking part in a ceremony organised by the Auckland Council. There will be an unveiling of a plaque and a tree planting.
The plaque will describe her as a brave and remarkable woman – she was one of three nurses sent by the trade unions to support the republican cause in Spain. She went against the wishes of the Labour Government, having to face a police interview before she left. Aunty Sis was interviewed for alleged Communist connections which was ridiculous because she was deeply suspicious of all organisations, especially Communist ones, and because Shadbolts have always been moderate in politics, though not in behaviour.
She was born in Duvauchelle in Akaroa Harbour in 1903, the eldest of ten children. Her grandfather had settled there from Australia in 1859, arriving penniless – a year later owning a good part of Banks Peninsula, using money from a source never identified (my guess was a poker game). Very quickly he owned pubs, sawmills, shops, and farms – also a lot of racehorses. From a fairly disreputable background in Australia he became a well-known Christchurch squire.
Aunty Sis like all Shadbolts was fantastically argumentative and possessed a lifelong suspicion of her fellow human beings – surprise me by not being self-centred and seriously shallow her expression communicated. She was tall, angular, and acerbic. Her life was a continual escape from boredom, and people who were boring (God help them in her presence). She had favourite nephews and nieces, two of them you won’t be surprised to know were Tim and Maurice (the novelist). I don’t think she regarded me as promising material. Given the size of the family she came from there is no surprise in learning she gave dire warnings about having children. She had the Shadbolt mannerism of looking at children generically, not as individuals – she gave us all the same unfocused gaze – we were boy or girl. Grow up and if you are interesting, and above all not bogged down in domesticity, then perhaps I’ll take some notice of you, she seemed to indicate.
When she returned from Spain she became, for many decades, matron of Rawene Hospital, working with Dr Smith, who laid out in the Hokianga the model for the Labour Government health system. She ran the hospital brilliantly for her community, that is in a relaxed way. On the first occasion I went up to stay with her, I said: ‘Aunty Sis, Aunty Sis, look at all those people getting out of cars and buses. What are they doing?’ The scene was amazing: an atmosphere of considerable vivacity; people in pyjamas and dressing gowns getting out of cars, pickups, taxis, and buses; quite a few people on crutches.
‘What people, what cars and buses? Can’t see a thing.’
It was six-o’clock closing.
One of the last conversations I had with her was to discuss why Shadbolts always seemed to be in a minority of one.
‘Not a minority of one: A majority of one.’
I’m thinking of my Uncle Dardy. During the German sweep through Greece he became isolated from the other New Zealanders. He proceeded for a time to have a fairly good war with a Greek widow and ample bottles of retsina. When the German patrols started to sweep the hills he decided it was time to sail to Africa. He stole a dinghy and with without a compass or skerrick of seamanship set off. There was a storm, he was lost, and there was no food, then out of the morning mist came a destroyer.
‘It’s German’, he thought, ‘Oh well too bad and pulled out his pistol and started firing.’
‘I say, old boy, lay off a bit’, came a voice
I’m just selecting a couple of incidents from a considerable regime of involvement in scrapes, arguments, and issues by Shadbolts over the years,)
I remember my famously litigious grandfather who John A. Lee said had parliamentarians scuttling into their offices whenever he ventured into the corridors of power.
In the 1920s my grandfather took it into his head to stand for parliament. He asked Frank (Maurice’s father) to carry a cow bell and a box to the main street in Matamata. Frank rang the bell, and my grandfather stood on the box, and with powerful eloquence (he was a noted orator) berated a bemused assembly of locals for their misguided thinking, voting like cattle, and being idiots of the first water.
‘How did you think that went?’ he asked Frank.
‘I don’t think you won many votes. When is the election?’
‘There isn’t one.’
Then my grandparents ended up on thirty or forty acres in Portage Road.
I gained some gaze focus from my grandfather for being the one who took his bets to the bookie in New Lynn.
But what I remember most about my grandfather was a large pile of paper with a title page on top called ‘Shadbolts by Land and Sea’. With no publisher interested, my grandfather rented empty shops and used their windows to display the saga – a chapter at a time for the enlightenment of passers-by. Each day he changed the chapter. With his further literary efforts, he carried on this practice for years. They were subversive in nature, calling for most institutions to be levelled, and for everybody to try again – according, though, to how my grandfather saw fit.
Heavens above! Just imagine if he’d been alive in the digital age.
Maurice in his book of the family called him ‘an insurrection of one’.
‘A majority of one,’ said my Aunty.
I’ve brought my eldest granddaughter with me Aunty.