Monday, June 2, 2008


One tends to be cynical about honours lists. They are a handy means of rewarding political favourites, of honouring paid-up members of the establishment – many of whom have done no more than their job, for which they are generously remunerated anyway – and of currying favour with constituent groups whose support the incumbent government is eager to secure. The list often reflects the fashionable political values of the moment. But even honours committees can’t help but get it right from time to time.

Today’s list recognised Sue Carty, a former editor of Wellington’s Evening Post. Her appointment as a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit was richly deserved by a journalist whose career, if not exactly cut short, was severely constrained by multiple sclerosis.

As an editor, Sue was ferociously energetic, capable and dedicated to her paper. Though physically small and by no means extroverted by nature, she could be formidably tough and resolute. I think she trained herself to be, because that was what the job demanded.

She was determined that the Evening Post would defy for as long as possible the curse that had seen metropolitan evening newspapers wither and die the world over. It was largely due to her commitment that when the paper eventually ceased to exist in 2002, a year after she stood down, it was still in a position of such strength that it was able to merge with The Dominion as an equal partner.

Sue fought MS for several years before bowing to the inevitable and resigning her editorship. For much of that time no one knew of her illness, nor suspected anything. It’s typical of her spirit that, more than 10 years after the diagnosis was made, she continues to work at the paper several days a week, editing letters and writing editorials. She was also a long-serving member of the Press Council.

By a remarkable coincidence, today’s honours list also recognised another distinguished journalist whose career was foreshortened, like Sue’s, by a progressive neurological disorder.

As founding editor of Metro in 1981, Warwick Roger effectively re-invented magazine journalism in New Zealand, demonstrating that there was a market for the long feature story (some of Metro’s articles ran to 10 pages at a time when even the Listener, which was then overwhelmingly dominant in the market, rarely gave any subject more than two). And as well as being a highly accomplished writer himself, he was an astute spotter and nurturer of new talent (including his future wife Robyn Langwell).

Warwick had the self-assurance to stamp a provocative, assertive personality on Metro from Day One and refused to be thrown off course despite the carping criticism of former colleagues, some of whom resented his success. (A prickly personality, highly sensitive to criticism, Warwick cared little for the opinions of some fellow journalists and sometimes gave the impression he relished public feuds with his detractors.)

Warwick was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1996 – about the same time Sue Carty got the news about her illness – and again, like Sue, is still tapping away at his keyboard, though not as prolifically as he once did.

The old Metro feature-writing formula, which was subsequently picked up by the magazine’s stablemate North & South, now seems rather jaded and formulaic. But that doesn’t detract from Warwick’s achievement in taking New Zealand journalism in a bold new direction. He has been made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

THIS HAS nothing to do with journalism, but I spent yesterday in the company of another Parkinson’s sufferer: the redoubtable Brian Lambert of Masterton.

I wrote an article about Brian for the Dom Post recently and called it The Unstoppable Brian Lambert. He is a phenomenon; a prodigy.

Brian, who runs a bike shop in Masterton, holds the record for riding a bike from Auckland to Wellington. It took him 19 hours, 59 minutes and 27 seconds.

That was in 1984. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1999 but at 56, still has extraordinary stamina. He not only rides long distances but organises group rides like the one I took part in yesterday, a 55km mountain bike trek on a rugged and remote part of the Wairarapa coast.

Several times in the course of the ride, Brian left me in his wake. I finished ahead of him only because he dropped back to look after some slower riders.

It was a great ride on a raw, spectacular part of the coast that is succumbing, in the few accessible places such as Tora, to small-scale development. Fortunately it’s unlikely ever to be another Coromandel: the coast is rocky and the weather gets pretty wild, as is evident from the big steel fishing trawler that still sits eerily upright on the coast near White Rock. I understand it was dumped there 40 years ago after it got caught in a violent storm only hours out of Wellington on a delivery voyage to Samoa. The force of the storm can scarcely be imagined, since the shelf of land the trawler sits on is at least four metres above the high tide line.

It was a tiring ride and I arrived home feeling like a wrung-out rag, but Brian was still at it. Having ensured everyone finished the ride safely and got transport back home, Brian sent an email at 9.30 pm with photos of the trip. Tomorrow he’ll probably be planning the next excursion. Unstoppable indeed.

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