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Speech

New Zealand Post Writers' and Readers' Week

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 10 March 1998
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Karanga mai, mihi mai, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Our distinguished guests, writers, readers, listeners, good evening everyone.

I am, truly, delighted to have the privilege of formally opening the New Zealand Post Writers' and Readers' Week. This is not because I lay claim to being a writer. I have in fact written a great deal, but even the best of it is to be found only in the Law Reports, which no-one with any sense wants to read. Rather, my delight is in part because had the family testamentary disposition been different, I might today have been the part-owner of what was once a quite outstanding bookseller's business. And it is also in part because of my love of good writing, of well-crafted words that carry us on the wings of imagination or that penetrate deep into our souls, or that speak to us of our past, of ourselves, of the human condition in all its wonder, or in all its wretchedness. It is this priceless art that we celebrate this week.

Someone wrote that, in America, only the successful writer is important; in France, all writers are important; in Australia, you have to explain what a writer is. I am sure that is a little unfair, at least to the Australians. New Zealand was not mentioned in this comparison. Perhaps the writer knew about the distinction between us. Nonetheless, New Zealand has had a reputation as a land of cultural Philistines, and certainly there are those among us whose public or private acts and utterances might suggest that the reputation is deserved. Yet it must be true that the arts contribute substantially to our national identity. And, in the final analysis, is it not the humanities that distinguish us from the barbarian?

Shakespeare put it very succinctly in Love's Labour's Lost, when Sir Nathaniel the Curate explained why Dull the Constable is the person he is:

Sir, he hath not fed of the dainties that are bred of a book;
He hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink:
His intellect is not replenished; he is only an animal,
Only sensible in the duller parts

We must not take this admonition too literally of course. One man who did was Menelik II, emperor of Ethiopia between 1889 and 1913. He, if he felt unwell, would eat a few pages of the Bible in order to feel better. (Perhaps he had in mind Bacon's maxim: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.") And his print intake seemed to do him little harm; evidence, perhaps, that he kept his Biblical consumption modest. However, to aid in his recovery from a stroke in December 1913, he demanded that the complete Book of Kings be fed to him, page by page. Unfortunately, he died before he got to the end. No-one should leave a good book unfinished. Had the Emperor not done so, who knows what might have become of him?

Particularly during this International Festival of the Arts, but indeed day by day, there is visible, all about us, exciting proof, that as a nation we are not sensible only in the duller parts. Our painters, our sculptors, our potters, our craftspeople, our singers and dancers, our musicians, are full of creative vigour, and are well-appreciated and enthusiastically-acclaimed.

And this, the seventh Writers' and Readers' Week, booked out as ever, is a very clear demonstration of the vitality of the literary arts in New Zealand, and of the value New Zealanders place on reading and writing.

There were those gloomy souls who prophesied that television would toll the death knell of reading. But that has not been so. If anything, it has had the opposite effect, not only in increased sales of works on which the rare screenplay of quality is based, but simply because people turn in despair from the small screen and find that there is a wonderful world of discovery right there on the shelves of their local bookshop. New Zealanders are reading more and more, not just pulp fiction, but books of quality, old works and new works, works from around the world. And so our guest writers are as well known here as they are welcome; and welcome they truly are.

It's hard to say which is cause and which is effect, but with this resurgence of reading has come a great tide of New Zealand writing, and an eager readership of all that reaches the shelves. We should be grateful to all those who put pen to paper, for they perhaps more than any others are shaping our New Zealand character, establishing our New Zealand identity.

The other day I came across an announcement. It was headed "Technological Breakthrough in Information Retrieval." It read: "Announcing the new Basic Open-standard Organised Knowledge Device; acronym B-O-O-K; commonly called BOOK. BOOK is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries to be connected or switched on. It's so easy to use even a child can operate it. Just lift its cover Portable, durable and affordable, the BOOK is being hailed as the entertainment wave of the future."

The truth of that is to be proved once again this week. It is to be proved in the most companionable and agreeable of ways, in the perfect conjunction of writing, reading and listening. I am sure it will be a wonderful week. To all the writers and to all the readers and all the listeners taking part in the Week's activities, may it be seven too-short days of celebration, enlightenment and enjoyment. Sure that it will be so, I now declare the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, New Zealand Post Writers' and Readers' Week, officially, (as opposed to unofficially), begun.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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