Herald journalists have been spending time with party leaders for election series Leaders Unplugged: eight parties in eight days. Today, Green Party co-leader James Shaw has a beer with Isaac Davison.

On a recent winter evening at a bar in the Aro Valley, Green Party co-leader James Shaw pauses over his craft beer while recalling an odd part of his life's story.

"Shall I tell him?" he asks his close friend Danyl Mclauchlan, a biologist, novelist and former blogger for the political satire website The Dim-Post.

Shaw, an urbane politician with easy confidence, reveals he was once a keen Dungeons and Dragons fan. It was a fixation which began when he worked in a central Wellington store called Mind Games in his teens.


"If you were a Wellingtonian in the 1980s, you would know it," Shaw assures me.

"A nerdy Wellingtonian," Mclauchlan says.

"I think it's total geek chic these days - it's cool to be a D&D player again," Shaw replies.

"Not really cool," Mclauchlan says.

"Not like 'cool' cool," Shaw says. "More like Wellington Central cool."

We are in the Garage Project bar on the main street of the valley. Shaw takes his beer seriously and ponders a minute or two to pick from the 17 brews on tap. It's a stormy, bitterly cold night and he opts for a warmed Irish stout called Snug.

The Green MP lives a few minutes' walk away, high on the hill. His suburb has gentrified over the last 20 years, but it's still pretty shabby. There are clusters of student flats with corrugated iron walls among the done-up Victorian bungalows. The slopes on either side of the valley are overgrown and weedy. Across the road from the bar is a small park with eucalyptus trees where on warmer days drunks mix with students dozing on the grass bank. Next to it is the Aro Valley community hall where you can do yoga for $5 on Saturdays. On election day in 2014, 45 per cent of people at the hall's polling booth voted Green - more than any other place in the country.

Shaw traces his own history in the area. He was raised by his mother Cynthia in a house nearby - she split with Shaw's father before he was born. Despite her history teacher's salary, she sent him to the prestigious private school Scot's College for primary schooling - Wellington's equivalent of King's College.

From the age of 12, Shaw was raised by two women after Cynthia began a relationship with another teacher. It was around the time of homosexual law reform. "It was unusual, and a source of curiosity," Shaw says. "But no one ever talked down to me about it." It is one of his great regrets that he was not in Parliament for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2012.

James Shaw says he was raised by two women around the time of homosexual law reform in NZ. Photo / Mark Mitchell
James Shaw says he was raised by two women around the time of homosexual law reform in NZ. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He recalls the exact moment when, as an earnest, intense kid, he became politicised: discussing the Rainbow Warrior bombing in 1985 with friends in the back of a Wellington High School classroom. "Up until that point I think I had been pretty focused on my Dungeons and Dragons and my immediate kind of world. That was the moment I began to get a sense of the outside world, and I was outraged by it."

Five years later, he was spellbound while listening to the Green Party's Wellington Central candidate Gary Reese talk at a high school debate about the madness of treating the environment as a limitless resource. Reese's arguments "made complete sense", and he joined the party on the spot. A year later, aged 18, he ran for council, door-knocking in a paisley waistcoast. "It didn't go well," he says.

The Herald photographer asks for some advice on a beer. Shaw recommends Hatsukoi, a Japanese-influenced pilsner. For himself, he orders a coffee-flavoured, malty ale called Dark Arts. "They make it by playing heavy metal inside the beer tanks," he says. It's as thick as oil and stains his glass.

At age 23, Shaw's wandering began. He was based at PricewaterhouseCoopers's London office and later co-founded a consultancy, Future Considerations. He travelled to 30 countries to consult on green projects, including remote parts of the Andes and the Himalayas. I don't know any Kiwi that's been to the Andes, and I can't even picture the place. Later on, I Google it and there is a photograph of Shaw, tanned and smiling, sitting on an otherworldly salt plain which stretches to the horizon.

Mclauchlan was also working abroad at the time, and says Shaw was not the average Kiwi on OE.

"I went to Reading or Slough. He got sent to the Andes to do micro-finance or the jungles of Borneo to set up a hydro-power thing. I don't want to disrespect Ipswich, but it wasn't quite the same level of travel."

He adds: "Lots of New Zealanders when they live in London mostly see other New Zealanders or Aussies or South Africans. I just remember going around to this dinner at James' once in London, and I got seated between these two people, and one was the daughter of a Russian general who was working in the private space industry and the other was an Algerian dissident."

"Tunisian," Shaw says.

"Yeah," Mclauchlan says. "I just remember thinking this is a really, really long way away from the Aro Valley."

Shaw tells a story from his time in India which neatly sums up his political philosophy. He was working in a village based at the foothills of the Himalayas in the state of Uttarakhand. The villagers lived on protected forest land and depended on bamboo which they illegally harvested from the area. Their food sources were being diminished by changes in rainfall patterns, and their illegal forestry put them into conflict with the forest rangers. It was a condundrum for Shaw's organisation, but he found a way through it. The forest rangers created a loophole to allow the villagers to harvest the bamboo - but only if they planted two bamboo seedlings for every one they took.

"When we're presented with this conflict between the economy and the environment it is almost always a false choice," he said in his first-ever speech in Parliament. "There's almost always a solution that delivers both."

For all his time in exotic locations, Shaw eventually opted for familiarity and returned to Wellington in 2010 after 13 years abroad. He settled down in 2013, marrying Annabel James, an adjunct law lecturer at Victoria University who he was set up with on a blind date. She also grew up in the valley and had recently returned from living in New York.

"I didn't take her name," Shaw says, despite the urging of his friends.

"It would have been the progressive thing to do," Mclauchlan says.

Over three hours, Shaw gives only brief glimpses into his personal life, often shifting the conversation to politics or sustainability or tax policy. His fellow Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei recently admitted to possible benefit fraud. Shaw, on the other hand, appears to have nothing to hide. His biggest political risk used to be that he was a Kiwi bloke who couldn't drive. After cramming in driving lessons on Saturdays, he got his restricted licence last month, aged 44.

He wants a house which gets the sun in the Aro Valley but he hasn't had the time or energy to find one since becoming an MP in 2014. "We just haven't got 'round to it," he says. He instead flats in the bottom storey of a three-storey house, a few blocks away from where he grew up.

After two or three pints, Shaw realises he's late for a family dinner and heads out into the rain and wind, his coat pulled up around his ears. The south-westerly is making it difficult to open the French doors at the front of the bar. We couldn't be further from the salt plains of the Andes.