A life of long labour

David Grant 
Te Herenga Waka University Press

This compelling biography of Jim Anderton is a big book, as befits a subject who liked to talk... a lot.

The former Labour president and backbench MP, and former Alliance and Progressives leader, was a gifted but also an inexhaustible conversationalist.

Once, when working for The Press, I was summoned to his Sydenham home ‘‘for a chin-wag’’ and only returned three hours later, after the batteries in the recorder had long since expired.

David Grant has a track record of chronicling working-class heroes, having already taken on former Labour PM Norm Kirk and, in fascinating fashion, former CTU president Ken Douglas.

In terms of the sheer amount of material available on Mr Anderton, both in the public domain and within his extensive personal papers, one suspects Grant had something of an Everest to climb.

Happily, he has not been overwhelmed by his task and a true warts-and-all portrait emerges of a man still often beset by self doubt despite his successes as a politician and an athlete, of a man who sacrificed his family for his career and may never have forgiven himself for that choice, and of a driven workaholic who still made time to go to the pictures every Friday night; but who also vanished from family holidays without any announcement so as to complete some unfinished business.

Mr Anderton was a man who cared, who perhaps cared too much. Grant does not gloss over the fact that it was often Mr Anderton’s way or the highway as he sought to achieve what he thought was right.

But for all the bitter break-ups and squabbles, Grant still captures the charisma which captivated political aspirants of many stripes, and the man’s wry sense of humour.

As much as it is biography, Anderton is also a potted history of the shifting sands of New Zealand politics during the past 40 years, as its subject moved from tribal Labour, to condemnation of the party he always said left him rather than the other way around, and his final willingness to sit around a Cabinet table with several of the politicians he felt had compromised to devalue his ideals.

From chequered childhood to deputy Prime Minister, it was a hell of a ride, and it makes for a hell of a book.

Mike Houlahan is the Otago Daily Times political reporter