Sir Paul Holmes is credited with being one of the fist truly commercial entertainers in New Zealand. Journalist, author, columnist and consummate wordsmith Paul Little remembers the days when the radio and television personality had him – well, lost for words.
It’s customary these days for people who receive a knighthood or the title of dame to pooh pooh the honorific. “None of that ‘Sir’ nonsense for me, thank you very much,” they say grandly. “Just call me Reg.” That’s the Kiwi way, but you have to wonder why, if people don’t want the title used, they bother to accept it in the first place.
None of that hypocrisy for Sir Paul Holmes. “I want everyone to call me Sir – I’m unashamed, as you would expect,” he has said. And quite rightly, too. He’s earned the thing and he’s going to make the most of it.
I can’t claim a close personal acquaintance with Sir Paul, although for a few years we spoke every week on the radio. When he began his Saturday morning shows he invited me to do the book reviews. Often wide-ranging discussion ensued, as Paul would ignore my worthy choices in favour of telling listeners what books he had been reading that week.
He is a man of great enthusiasms and there was a period when every conversation somehow seemed to drift around to the life of Captain Cook, when that was Sir Paul’s most recent passion.
One week, when I chose two books that were more specialised than was right for Newstalk ZB, he commented merely that my choices were “a bit flash”. On occasion he would come on the line during the ad before our chat to berate me for something I had written or to make a hilariously cutting remark about someone who had annoyed him during the week.
Like any enthusiastic reader he was always keen to learn and never pretended to have knowledge he didn’t have. This was one of the things that made his programmes so compelling – you felt that you were sharing in discoveries that he was making too.
For several years in a row I was sent to interview him for a magazine profile. It was a task to which I always looked forward as he insisted the interview took the form of a lunch at which never fewer than four bottles of wine were consumed. Along the way he would talk more than anything about his family, his admiration for the people behind the charities he loved, and who, among the emerging broadcasting talent of the day, would or wouldn’t go the distance. Somehow we always managed to cobble together a story the next day.
In the course of these conversations I learnt that Sir Paul is a lot smarter than he lets people think. He is in fact one of the smartest people I know. Broadcasting doesn’t favour the very intelligent – a big brain can be an obstruction and you can go a long way on a little brain. But in person, Paul’s conversation is always stimulating, reflecting his extraordinary general knowledge, a phenomenal memory and a love of words, which comes through in his writing.
He is also a surprisingly modest person. When I told him how good I thought his book Daughters of Erebus was, he was genuinely delighted. Writing that book was a demanding labour and the result is in a class of its own. He was proud that it was recognised with good reviews from the “quality press”, but he shouldn’t have been surprised.
Just as he shouldn’t be surprised that so many people have shared his joy in finally receiving an honour that no-one deserves more than he.
More Paul Holmes:
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