Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Crack open the bubbly for a real luminary

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New Zealand author Eleanor Catton, with the Duchess of Cornwall. Photo / Sarah Ivey
New Zealand author Eleanor Catton, with the Duchess of Cornwall. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The New Zealand news drought of October 2013 ended with a downpour this week. The Wanganui River overflowed. So did Simon Bridges. The Mayor of Auckland was shamed for an extra-marital affair. The former Mayor of Auckland was sent to trial on charges of electoral fraud. And a 28-year-old from Christchurch won the Man Booker Prize. As one journalist put it, all of a sudden it was bonks, Banks and books.

There is much to dwell on in the tawdry detail of Len Brown's misdemeanours - his stated devotion on Tuesday evening to "uniting the body politic" seemed an especially unfortunate choice of words.

As there is, by contrast, in the serious potential for political upheaval that could follow a guilty verdict for John Banks.

But the story that has made, by far, the greatest international splash, and, I'd wager, is likely to prove the most enduring and important for New Zealand, too, is Eleanor Catton's triumph with The Luminaries.

The top Man Booker judge, Robert Macfarlane, called it "a dazzling work, a luminous work". It was "a novel about value, which requires a huge investment from its readers ... but from which the dividends are astronomical". In her acceptance speech at London's Guildhall, Catton drew on Lewis Hyde's description of the differences between value and worth. "Gold being pure currency, can only be bought and sold. Pounamu as a symbol of belonging and prestige, can only be given," she said. And: "The two must somehow be reconciled in the life of an artist who wishes to make a living by his or her gift, by his or her art."

For New Zealand, the worth of Catton's victory is plain in the immediate reaction: tributes in Parliament, plenty of celebration in the media. But in the leadup to the ceremony, with one or two exceptions such as the Listener, the coverage was muted. On Wednesday morning, the wind and tidal conditions in London barely ranked a mention on Radio NZ's Morning Report. When Catton was named on the shortlist, it went mostly unremarked, seemingly lost in the wall-to-wall America's Cup fervour. As one observer put it at the time, perhaps she should have been called Eleanor Catamaran.

And if the sport-culture trade-off seems a little reductive, or facile - personally, I want lots of both, if that's all right - it's a calculus being adopted from our highest chamber.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters began his congratulation, "It should have been this case for the America's Cup but it didn't happen. But in this case we congratulate Eleanor Catton." Prime Minister John Key remarked, "New Zealand generally celebrates our sporting successes on the international stage with enormous vigour. We should be celebrating this success with equal enthusiasm."

Which is quite right. And a marked improvement from another time Mr Key assessed the relative worth of sports and the arts, in his contribution to a flyer for Otago's NZ Literary Heritage Trail. There, he said, "I have always believed we should enhance the literary skills of our young people and while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us."

Never? Oh well. One of Mr Key's likeliest successors, Judith Collins, did her bit to put literary types in their place more recently. In a Twitter exchange with her friend Cameron "Whale Oil" Slater on the subject of book awards, she joked that the "Brookers" (sic) were the prize for "best unreadable book". [Update: It's since been pointed out to me that Brookers is a legal publisher, so I may have missed Collins' joke here and be doing her a disservice.]

Who knows what Chris Finlayson might say to all of that. The Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage - who, by the way, reckons the paintings of Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere are "bleak" and "boring" - recently declared that New Zealand is entering a "golden age for the arts". Catton's all-conquering gold-rush novel certainly supports that boast. From the global stars such as Catton and singer Lorde and filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson, to the flowering of domestic culture prizes and fellowships, he may well be on to something.

And while former Prime Minister Helen Clark, who took the culture portfolio herself, warrants her share of any golden credit, Mr Finlayson has managed to keep the culture budget largely intact. (The same can't be said for public broadcasting. The decision to pull the plug on TVNZ 7, for example, leaves television dictated almost entirely by value over worth.)

"It's exciting and inspiring," as Mr Key said this week, to see New Zealand artists "hold the attention of the world". The Man Booker win was "a tremendous boost for young people in the arts".

Hear, hear. Let's hope that enthusiasm lasts, and that Catton's achievement can be a boost, too, to editors, producers, politicians: to amplify artists' achievements, whether or not they are in line for major world prizes.

And, meanwhile, hold nothing back in celebrating Catton's victory.

The Canadians can't have her. Open all the champagne - even if you bought it in the hope of winning a boat race.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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