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The English tribe took a head count when writing a eulogy for their matriarch, Norah English of Dipton, after her death two years ago. Twelve children, 43 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. A jaw-dropping legacy and endangered family species at the turn of the 21st century.

Among the prodigy are public relations high-flyers, successful farmers, school teachers, and the deputy leader of a ferociously polling National Party.

Yet youngest son Conor insists there's nothing extraordinary about his family. "We're no more or less amazing than anyone else. We are a pretty normal family - we just want to make a living, have happy children and enjoy life. We are pretty low key."

At 43, Conor's track is in the ascendant. Next month, he's leaving his 2IC role as commercial director for Wellington consultancy The Property Group to pick up the reins from Charlie Pedersen at one of New Zealand's most prominent lobby groups, the Federated Farmers.

His wife, Jo Coughlan, has led a top-flight public relations career, including a stint as press secretary for then Foreign Affairs Minister Don McKinnon in the 90s. She's a Wellington city councillor and runs her own consultancy.

The couple has "just six" children, he says. (His big sister has eight.)

"Jo is amazing. She took four months off every time she had a baby, commuted to Auckland for a while, travelled around the world with Don McKinnon when we had four kids - now she runs a business, does some voluntary stuff, has just been elected a Wellington City councillor."

Conor no longer farms, but for about 15 years he and brother Bill were partners in a mixed sheep and crop farm in Southland.

Conor too had a stab at politics when he stood for the former rural Southland Ararua seat in the 1990s and was later press secretary for then Commerce Minister John Luxton.

Nowadays, discussing work can be touchy for the two brothers.

Conor: "I've been in situations where I've been advocating, or involved in business that has a different view from whatever Bill's view is. You're very guarded in terms of anything that might be sensitive, you just have to be professional.

"New Zealand is a small place and there are plenty of examples of husbands and wives or close relatives who operate totally professionally on different sides of commercial or political situations. It's just a reality in a small country that I think people handle pretty well."

Conor says he has very good relationships with high-ranking members of the Labour cabinet.

"I get on just fine with them. You just play it with a straight bat, do the job your employer expects of you. It doesn't matter who is in government, it's the ideas that matter. I think Michael Cullen's not a bad bloke and when I've ever had anything to do with him we seem to get on just fine."

As the youngest, the art of massaging diverse personalities and agendas is something he learned early. "You're at the bottom of the pecking order so you have to survive."

BILL ENGLISH is extremely - almost bizarrely - protective of his family's privacy. He's only let slip to journalists tiny glimpses of his Catholic, farming childhood in Dipton, south of Gore. How he was milking the cows twice a day by the time he was eight, cooking breakfast for 15 and making 36 school-lunches by age 10.

And how politics were part of everyday life. "My parents always had strong opinions and tended to act on them - to do with farming, education for their kids," he once told the Listener. "They weren't interested in politics' for politics' sake."

The image that coalesced around Bill in his 18-year political career, in which one coup gave him leadership and another took it away, is that of a scythe-sharp brain and thoughtful pragmatism behind a slow-talking, untucked exterior; the boy from Dipton who can hold his own with the Wellington intelligentsia, gumboot vowels and all.

Personally a moral conservative (openly anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia), lately he's positioned himself as the modern conservative, his rhetoric thick with words such as respect, values, character and trust.

He's married to Mary, a GP of mixed Samoan and Italian heritage, and they have six children.

His personal reticence could have something to do with the unwelcome media attention he received last year when gay website alleged in an article that one of his teenaged sons had posted abusive statements with homophobic overtones on Bebo. Bill reportedly called the allegations a "disgusting and sick attack" on his son. It was an issue which affected the whole family, many of whom share Bill's desire for privacy, despite his public life.

"Everyone's really loyal. My mother was always really discreet," says Norah Young, sibling number five and a physiotherapist in Gore.

Young, 57, and family friend Gerry Forde recall the English family home as a household full of learning, debate and great expectations. Norah senior was sent to university by her mother, a formidable woman who bought her own farm in the 1920s. Norah sang opera and once arranged for an opera company to come to Dipton; father Mervyn, who died in 2000, read her Shakespeare while she fed her babies.

"My father was more intellectually rigorous than my mother," recalls Young. "When we were around the table Dad asked and expected us to have an opinion, so mindless gossip was never tolerated."

The family farm, Rosedale, was a big operation, employing full-time staff. Mother Norah was a driving force of the National Party and founded the Farm Workers' Association, which survived from 1974 to 1987.

"She was a huge personality," says Forde, now brand manager for Venture Southland. "She rated us highly, and expected a lot of ya."

The Englishes defy research findings that children from larger families tend to have lower levels of education, and that this effect increases for those born later. All five daughters went to university, as their mother had done. "We all grew up thinking we lived in the world and the world was our oyster."

Says Young: "They [her parents] were well-grounded. A young man with a large farm recalled when he spoke to my mother and said she was the first person who hadn't talked about real estate - she asked about microbes in the soil and if he was using the latest organic fertilisers.

"They never got into the material thing, which is why Bill's the way he is. They weren't into show, they were into substance."

Growing up in a big family, says Young, you had to learn to fend for yourself. "You can also be quite individual because you don't get someone focusing on every single little thing good and bad, that gives you a chance to be original. And you've got to be very aware of the atmosphere and to get on you have to become very solution-oriented. A lot of our family are involved in solution-oriented jobs."

Forde sees this in Conor and Bill's careers. "They know how to work people but it's not in a cynical way. This was Bill's political downfall: he's not ugly enough, not ruthless, he's seen as too nice."

Research into how birth order shapes personality would suggest Conor, and to a lesser extent Bill, should have maverick or rebel tendencies, and be outgoing.

Maverick, no; but original, definitely, says Young. "Conor's a real lateral thinker - being the youngest of 12 you had to be a good lateral thinker. He had a real lateral sense of humour and he's really bright, he'll always come up with an original take on something."

To the extent he has middle-child tendencies, Bill should be affectionate, creative, helpful and sociable.

Forde: "The Englishes look you straight in the eye, not in an abrasive way, but in an 'I'm interested in you' way. Bill was always positive, always interested."

Conor won't be drawn on his positions on farming issues, saying he'll simply be the mouthpiece for the federation's views. He'll only promise "commonsense and balance" in policymaking and a constructive, collaborative leadership style.

Young says her brother will take after his parents. "He'll know there's forward-thinking farmers and traditional farmers. He won't be interested in the old arguments. He's not going to have preconceived ideas; he'll be looking at problem-solving."