Bill English Opens the Books
Marsden School, 1 August 2017
A full house on a cold winter night heard that Prime Minister Bill English’s earliest memory of a story was his mother reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to her 12 children.
The prime minister was interviewed for the first of a planned series by Katherine Mansfield House & Garden of leaders talking about literature. He is also the first New Zealand prime minister to have an Honours degree in English Literature, graduating in a class that included broadcasters John Campbell and Paul Holmes as well as novelist Elizabeth Knox.
His deep engagement with literature was evident during what was a relaxed and conversational interview in which he said the humanities had been the most helpful of his studies as, after all, “You can learn about economics from reading the newspaper.” The works he cited as having a significant influence on him included Middlemarch (George Eliot), Paradise Lost (John Milton) The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) and Hamlet (William Shakespeare).
The power of storytelling to create understanding was a theme on which the prime minister spoke eloquently, as was the lack of a positive, lyrical narrative tradition about rural New Zealand. He also expressed the view that future literary development in New Zealand would draw on Maori and Pasifika as well as European culture.
The responsive audience had plenty of questions and were appreciative of an unusual insight into a leading politician’s experience and sensibility.