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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: A knighthood well earned

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A night with Sir Paul Holmes provides a snapshot of his appeal and influence.

Paul Holmes' knighthood is richly deserved. Photo / Richard Robinson
Paul Holmes' knighthood is richly deserved. Photo / Richard Robinson

So my mate Paul Holmes is now Sir Paul.

I use the term "mate" loosely since I've met him only twice. The first time was in late 2010 when we were dinner guests of our publisher Hachette NZ.

Also present was former Black Caps captain and all-round good guy Stephen Fleming. When I saw Fleming a few months later, he asked how long Holmes and I had known each other, having got the impression we went way back.

That's testimony to Sir Paul's generous, expansive nature. He doesn't ration his attention in the knowledge that everybody wants a piece of him, or put up a barrier until he's satisfied you're worthy of his charm. He was there to have a good time and assumed we were along for the ride.

To be honest, I hadn't had all that much exposure to Holmes the broadcasting legend because I tend to get information - and, for that matter, infotainment - via the print media. That evening provided a snapshot of his appeal and influence.

Charisma is a big word. Historians use it a lot, but you wonder how many of the historical figures they describe as charismatic were seen that way at the time.

So I'll settle for saying that Sir Paul is a big personality, in ways few Kiwi males of our generation are.

For a start, he's extraordinarily candid. He would probably say it's rather pointless to be otherwise when your audience is well-acquainted with your professional and personal highlights and lowlights, from the heartbreak to the juicy bits.

While not quite a case of "growing up in public with your pants down" in the words of the Lou Reed song, Sir Paul has always understood that there's a price to be paid for fashioning a brilliant career out of engaging with the public.

And, unlike some supposedly smart famous people, he understood that the public doesn't necessarily warm to perfection. Flaws, foibles and falls from grace humanise stars by encouraging the perception that they find life as tricky as the rest of us.

He is also highly intelligent but without pomposity, opinionated, outrageous, hilarious and unashamedly pleased with himself, but with the saving grace of being a sentimentalist who is genuinely interested in other people. This is close to the perfect formula for both a broadcaster and a dinner companion.

Once dinner was over, Fleming and our host sensibly took to their heels. It may well have been my idea to see what Courtenay Place had to offer at that hour of the night, but I didn't have to twist Holmes' arm.

We wandered into a bar. The proprietor was halfway through telling us he was closing when he realised who'd just walked in. As well as drinks on the house, Holmes got earbashed for a good half-hour, an ordeal to which he submitted without a flicker of impatience or ill-grace.

To observe this interaction at close quarters was enlightening. The bar owner had grown up listening to and watching Holmes; Holmes had made sense of the world, helped him to think for himself and sometimes spoken for him. He wasn't so much star-struck as grateful.

A day or two later an email arrived: "How did we end up in that bar? I lost my spectacles that night. Anyway, it was a lot of fun. Were you dusty the next day? I f*****g was. My wife says the fumes nearly bowled her over when I got back to Hawkes Bay."

Our second encounter more or less followed this script, except I was the one feeling dusty the next day.

We had another email exchange last July when he came out of hospital after his heart operation. He signed off with, "Why don't I write another dangerous column and we'll go out on the turps again?"

This was a reference to his notorious Waitangi Day column. My column that day was along similar lines - how can an event we associate with ritualised rancour be our national day? - but without the emotionalism and over-the-top rhetorical flourishes. Nobody noticed mine.

Without that willingness to go right to the edge - and occasionally and inevitably over it - Holmes wouldn't be Holmes. Like most populists he is, to quote Lou Reed again, "a Prince Hamlet caught in the middle between reason and instinct".

High honours are usually and appropriately bestowed on serious, respectable people who do the hard, often unseen, often boring work without which society wouldn't function. Sir Paul has a serious side, but he is not and never has been respectable, which meant he had to work twice as hard for his gong.

He has made New Zealand a livelier, better informed, more grown-up place. His knighthood is richly deserved.

- NZ Herald

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