John Brodie's portrait was painted at least three times after he died, and his widow Elinor had plans for all three. One was retained for the family, one presented to New Plymouth Boys High School and one hung in the foyer of the New Plymouth library for more than 40 years - after which it was banished to the basement until the family reclaimed it. It then went to the home of John Brodie's sister, Lady Mary Matthews.
Born in Paeroa in 1905, the year of the first All Blacks, John Brodie grew up at Belt Road, New Plymouth, and was himself a fine rugby player. He made his name as an author and a first class journalist, first as a reporter on Taranaki Daily News and later as editor of Taranaki Herald and Listener and moved to England in 1935 to edit Books of Today. He also worked at World Press News.
Brodie seems to have been one of those people who just go on and do - and very well, too. At New Plymouth Boys High School he played First 11, First 15, became Head Day Boy, prefect and was eventually nominated for Rhodes Scholar.
Making the most of a bad situation
At the age of 26, when Brodie's right leg was amputated due to a blood clot suffered while playing rugby for Canterbury, he immediately made the most of an enforced convalescence by writing his first book.
Published under the name John Guthrie, The Little Country created a huge wave of success. Labelled 'the best New Zealand novel that has ever been written' Guthrie's British publishers fell over themselves with their praises:
'This full, copious novel introduces us to a scene unfamiliar to most British readers. In spite of Katherine Mansfield, we know little about life in New Zealand. By the time we have finished The Little Country we know a good deal... This remarkable first novel is the most ambitious we have published and one of the most successful. We think its author will be heard of again. He is a patriot and a hard hitter; he understands human beings; and he can write.'
The only fault that was ever found was possibly the book's wordiness, though this was forgiven. It was seen by most as being simply full of life - the result of a young man who had found himself perilously close to death, who then peopled his novel with busy, colourful characters.
Living and writing in Paradise Bay
Brodie quickly followed his success with So They Began and Paradise Bay. The latter, set in New Plymouth in 1926, caused a mighty furore when it was published because everyone in town believed they recognised the characters in it.
Brodie, who was again living at the New Plymouth family home, received mail addressed to John Guthrie, 95 Belt Road, Paradise Bay.
'That's the trouble about setting a book in a small town,' he said. 'You know, it isn't quite fair to the novelist to think he models his characters on real people. He may take a physical characteristic from this or that person he has known, but the people in his books are the products of his imagination.'
Nevertheless, local people played guessing games with the characters, some going so far as to write their own speculative Who's Who. Even today, in files on John Guthrie, notes can be discovered bearing two sets of names.
Still using the name Guthrie, Brodie went on to write four more well-received novels, plus a biography of his father entitled The Man in our Lives. All his post-war works used a different setting and style, which added to his growing reputation for versatility.
One of them was written in bed during London's great freeze of 1947, when all Brodie had for heat was the gas ring beneath his kettle, and he lay in bed wearing all his clothes, overcoat and hat.
He managed what was later described as 'almost a fanatical lack of fuss' when it came to his craft, first capturing the story in longhand in an exercise book before typing it into manuscript form, picking away at a typewriter held together by sticking plaster.
He also considered the period after a book was finished and at the publishers 'the most depressing time' where there was nothing for a writer to do but to 'get on with another book'.
A gutsy New Zealand story puts our country on the movie map
It was his book The Seekers that drew him the most praise and attention. A tough gutsy narrative, full of action and colour, The Seekers was written to attract the attention of film producers - and it did. It also contained a thoughtful and sensitive appreciation of the nobility and dignity of Māori - an attitude unusual for the time and something which, unfortunately, didn't come through in the film script.
Shot by in Pinewood Studios, England, by J. Arthur Rank, the movie version starred well-known British stars Glynys Johns, Jack Hawkins and New Zealand singer Inia Te Wiata, who happened to be in London when the film was cast. The film gave jobs to more than 60 Māori students and teachers, already in England, who hired on as extras.
Beryl Te Wiata in her biography 'Most Happy Fella':
'George Brown was openly delighted with Happy's natural approach and apparent disregard for the unfamiliar film cameras and strong lights trained on him, and the role of Hongi Tepe was immediately his. He really enjoyed filming but he was never happy about some aspects of the story of The Seekers in as far as Māori tradition was concerned - in particular, the manner in which his Māori wife (played by Laya Raki) was portrayed - it was so alien to how a young Māori maiden of noble blood would have behaved that he did his best to have the treatment of the role altered. However, what he suggested would not, it appeared, have been 'box office'.
Actress Laya Raki, a Javanese-Dutch dancer took the role of Moana, wife of Hongi Tepe. Raki had been a compromise solution after producer George Brown flew to New Zealand to interview more than 400 Māori girls for the role.
Eventually, he gave up his quest, as it seemed no Māori maiden would play the part of the old-time chieftain's young wife who behaved with uninhibited ardour. 'They were far too reticent, dignified and shy to do justice to the role,' Brown said.
'A pretty little thing,' Brodie called Raki, after watching her on the set at Buckinghamshire. Despite the controversy over her role, The Seekers was said to have set a new box office standard - that of historical accuracy - with most of the action shots filmed in New Zealand and the rest at Pinewood Studios.
A productive life cut short
In 1952, at the age of 46, Brodie married Elinor Roddam whom he described as 'much better than any heroine I've dreamed up'. After confessing, even at his stage of life, that 'he was immensely pleased with himself for having found her', the pair settled in London's exclusive Eaton Square. Something of an artist, Elinor later painted the Sugar Loaf Islands for the cover of The Man in Our Lives.
As for the rewards of writing, Brodie declared there was not much in the way of money, but 'a great deal in the feeling of attainment and a share in the life of literary London'. Among his notes, collected by Carol Wischnowski of BookStop Gallery, New Plymouth and now held at Puke Ariki, are warm letters from such contemporary leading literary lights as Monica Dickens, Godfrey Winn, Somerset Maugham, Compton McKenzie, John Galsworthy and Siegfred Sassoon.
Sadly, on the return trip of a sea voyage home to New Zealand in 1954 to show off his wife and enjoy a happy reunion with his family, Brodie collapsed with a coronary thrombosis and died at the age of 49.
Who knows what other books he might have written had he lived?
In a moving obituary published in World's Press News in March 1955, John Brodie, aka John Guthrie, was described as a 'craftsman of words'.
'John was very modest about his many talents and he rarely spoke about himself but he had a razorlike understanding of other people and an intuitive sympathy of their problems. He was a very gentle man. Vale!'
A colleague, O.N.Gillespie, who had taken breakfast with him on the morning that he sailed for England wrote:
'The bald newspaper headline 'Death of John Brodie at Sea' brought heartbreak to those of us who knew him. His was a rich and rewarding personality and his charm owed much of his strength to a modesty that was almost boyish. But he was sharply perceptive and had an earthy, sly humour which put an edge on his nice irony. There is something stark and haunting about the passing of a friend in the prime of his life...'
Despite the title of best New Zealand novelist, John Brodie has been largely forgotten and his books are out of print, though some can still be found on Puke Ariki library shelves.
Grateful thanks to Carol Wischnowsky of BookStop for her collection of Brodie notes and photos.
First published 1 April 2005
Taranaki Research Centre Vertical file: Family Biography - B
Taranaki Research Centre Vertical file: z823.912GUT
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