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Memoir more than meets the eye

Ian F Grant with a copy of The Little Doctor, the autobiography of Guy Scholefield, and the original manuscript, lent to him by Scholefield’s grandson, also Guy Scholefield. PHOTO/ARTHUR HAWKES

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When historian, publisher, and editor Ian F Grant was deep in the archives of the Alexander Turnbull Library, researching the history of New Zealand’s newspapers, he discovered something quite interesting.

In a mountain of manilla folders, he found nestled a tired, type-written manuscript, the unpublished autobiography of Guy Hardy Scholefield [1877-1963].

Scholefield was an editor, historian, and archivist – until 1948, he served as New Zealand’s first National Archivist.

The Little Doctor, edited by Grant, comprises Scholefield’s memoirs – from his time as a journalist and editor, serving as the war correspondent for the New Zealand Associated Press; to his travels into the Northland bush on horseback, salvaging the last files of collapsing regional newspapers; to his historical recording, where he worked as the Parliamentary librarian, producing more than a dozen books over his lifetime.

The breadth of Scholefield’s non-fiction authorship was extensive, and he was recognised at the highest level for his scholarly efforts.

He died both an Officer of the Order of the British Empire [OBE] and a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George [CMG].

Scholefield’s career was defined by concise documentation of provincial records, newspapers, Parliamentary figures, and a commitment to well-researched journalism – he wrote for the The Press in Christchurch, The New Zealand Times, The Otago Daily Times, and The Otago Witness – and was a part-time radio broadcaster from 1930, where he would become one of the country’s most-recognised voices.

Considering this illustrious career, Grant found it surprising that Scholefield’s autobiography had never been published, and later discovered several possible reasons for this.

The first was Scholefield’s demeanour.

Despite some exploits to the contrary detailed in The Little Doctor, he was thought of as a modest, rather timid man, and of very small physical stature.

One can only make guesses as to Scholefield’s views on the inherent egocentricity in writing one’s memoirs, let alone publishing them, but a controversy towards the end of his life could also have been a contributing factor.

The last thing Scholefield ever produced was The Richmond-Atkinson Papers, in 1960, three years before his death.

These were the amassed correspondence of two prominent New Zealand families – wealthy land-owners, highly involved in politics.

In the late 1940s, they gave to the Parliamentary library all of their letters, going back to the time of their first arrival.

Scholefield, to the horror of many in the archival field, heavily edited and omitted certain parts, and in some cases left out important sections entirely.

This was highly uncharacteristic, but may have been the unfortunate fruit of rushing into publication, a move cast under the shadow of old age and faltering health.

“He did things that were a bit barbaric in terms of how you treat documents of that nature,” Grant said.

As well as his extensive research of New Zealand’s history and politics, Scholefield was someone committed to the power of quality journalism.

He recounts working in Christchurch in 1903, where there were four dailies and two weeklies, all vying for a city of just 53,000.

He also owned and edited the Wairarapa Age in Masterton, from 1921 to 1926, which would later merge with the Wairarapa Daily Times.

This, coupled with their commitment to the local community, served as the motivation for the Wairarapa Times-Age to co-publish the memoirs, alongside Diane and Ian Grant’s imprint Fraser Books.

Chris Szekely, chief librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library, will be launching the memoir today at 3pm at the Masterton District Library.

Local newspapers, Grant said, were vital to the success of colonial New Zealand – and an area Scholefield was the first to thoroughly document.

With a wild topography, a primitive road network, and a tiny population, local journalism was the vein through which information was passed among the disparate groups who had settled at the end of the world.

While his career was steeped in the rigour of non-fiction archival research, much of Scholefield’s autobiography utilises novelistic tension and creativity, building a thoroughly readable work, suitable for a general audience.

This came as something of a surprise to Grant, and to those he showed the manuscript. And although he wasn’t the first to discover its existence, Grant was able to truly recognise the value in its publication.

The book launches today and is available for purchase through Hedley Booksellers, Masterton, The Wairarapa Times-Age, and Fraser Books [fraserbookspublishing.nz].

Event details

Book Launch — The Little Doctor, 3pm Saturday, Masterton District Library

Launched by Chris Szekely, chief librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library

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