Reading obituaries I often wish that the subjects had lived to see them. Writing them, I always wonder why it is much easier to acknowledge the worth of people in public life when they have died.
Sir Paul Holmes, who has defied many a convention in his writing and broadcasting, has defied this one too. He got a sense of his obituaries this week when he received the honour he deserved.
It is a pity this could not happen for more of those we put on the public stage, whether by electing them to a political position or tuning in to their television programme. Inevitably, their work divides the country into supporters and opponents, admirers and critics.
Like or loathe them, in the end we tire of them and it is not until their death that we are moved to give them their due.
When the end comes for Paul Holmes, much more will be written of course. There will be more complete assessments of his career and they will include a note or two of criticism. He is such a professional that I suspect he would like to read those obituaries too.
He might have winced every time recently that TV tributes have replayed the moment in the first Holmes programme that Dennis Conner walked out of the studio. It was not, I hope he would privately agree, his finest hour.
It became obvious in his questioning that his producers wanted Conner to walk for the sake of the launch, and it certainly worked. But Holmes went on to do so much better things that it is a pity the stunt remains memorable. Sometimes these things work too well.
Goading turned out not to be his style, except in a sympathetic sense. His programme introduced the television tear, which I still find unwatchable but it worked.
His political interviews proved that they didn't need to be done with the dogmatic antagonism that in the era before him, had become tedious. He listened to answers and asked intelligent follow-ups.
He had a fine grasp of public policy and the national interest as well as its possible consequences for some folk.
He could not abide intellectual display but his warmth and sometimes child-like sentimentality hid a mental agility that became most evident when he was chairing election debates. He listened, and threw every issue to the leader whose policy made it most awkward.
Writing this, I am conscious that he might read it. That may be one answer to the question I asked at the beginning. Why is it easier when the person has gone?
It is not that we are more cruel once they can no longer speak for themselves, quite the reverse. Perhaps it is the fact they they know themselves much better than anyone else and it seem presumptuous to speak for them when they are alive.
I think any writer who has done a considered obituary about somebody well known would agree that it is an unexpectedly pleasant task and an unusually satisfying one. You feel you can express the essence of the person and their life more accurately than you could before. And you don't quite know why.
You are rehearsing events that are familiar to everybody but doing so in the light of the person's passing and that, I think, makes the difference. The tone is more reverend because the subject has succumbed to the fate that awaits us all.
Whatever we thought was wrong with the person's thinking, words or deeds, it pales in importance beside the fact of our common mortality. Criticism becomes gentle, rueful, wry, and proportionate to the goodness of a public life.
The goodness is the truth that "goes without saying" at other times. Criticism makes better copy; praise we find more difficult.
Paul Holmes' journalism was a rare exception. He was better at praise than criticism. Some of the best reviews of Auckland's theatre or other performing arts could be heard on his breakfast programme for Newstalk ZB. He didn't seem as interested in panning productions.
He wasn't as good at criticism. On radio, and sometimes in print, he would do it with a rant that let you know he didn't want to be taken too seriously. Coming from him, comments such as "cheeky darkie" did not sound racist to me; he liked people too much.
Around this time last year he wrote a petulant column against Maori protests on Waitangi Day. It wasn't very well-considered and had it appeared under anyone else's name it would have seemed racially hateful. But when you read Holmes you heard his voice. To my ear, he never had the dark undertone of a Michael Laws where Maori are concerned.
Holmes could never be truly nasty. He loves us all.