For more than a decade, New Zealand’s cultural profile in the world has mostly involved dressing up as Middle-earth. There is no shame in that — Peter Jackson’s cinematic enactments of Tolkien’s works have generated acclaim, pride, jobs and millions of tourism dollars. But New Zealanders are nevertheless to be forgiven for enjoying a breath of fresh air in the achievements of two young and preternaturally eloquent artists.
Royals, the single by Auckland 17-year-old Lorde, again topped the US Billboard Hot 100 last week. When it first hit number one, nine weeks ago, Lorde, or Ella Yelich-O’Connor, was 16 and already the pop world’s most intriguing and important new star.
About halfway through that run, her compatriot Eleanor Catton was called to the stage at the Guildhall to accept the Man Booker prize for The Luminaries, a 19th-century gold rush murder mystery. She became — as is now obligatory to note — the youngest winner in the award’s history (28) with its longest book (832 pages).
To the New Zealand ambassadorial corps of Hobbits must now be added a host of creative women. Alongside Catton and Lorde stand the celebrated film-maker Jane Campion, whose most recent work, the darkly entangling TV series Top of the Lake, has won critical acclaim in the US and Britain; the golfing prodigy Lydia Ko, a 16-year-old who has just turned professional; and Helen Clark, the former prime minister who is now the third most senior figure at the United Nations, where she heads the development program (UNDP).
It’s too soon, probably, to call it a wave. But undoubtedly the islands are enjoying a purple patch. Boastfulness may often be frowned on in New Zealand — apart from humility: you can brag about that — but on the cultural and sporting stages of 2013 there has been plenty to cheer. The most scrutinized New Zealanders of all, the All Blacks, a week ago achieved something unprecedented for a national side in the professional era of rugby union, winning every game in a calendar year. The special celebratory cover around the New Zealand Herald, the country’s biggest newspaper, christened them “The Unbeatables” — elevating the side into the pantheon alongside The Originals of 1905-06 and The Invincibles of 1924-25.
Catton’s Man Booker victory has also been front-page news. A Herald editorial reckoned that their endeavors permitted New Zealanders to “celebrate a reputation for artistic work that combines ambition with startling originality. For now, talk about New Zealand need no longer focus on the All Blacks or the America’s Cup.”
New Zealanders’ predilection for sport — and the last-minute America’s Cup sailing defeat was possibly the biggest story here of the year — has long been a yardstick for cultural achievement. The prime minister, John Key, accidentally summed it up, once writing that “while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us.”
There was no such clumsiness from Key, however, when parliament paused to hear tributes to Catton in the week of her London win. “It is exciting and inspiring that our ambassadors in the arts and culture who right now hold the attention of the world are fiercely intelligent and ferociously talented young women,” he said. “Their successes are testament to their skills and hard work, and an inspiration for all New Zealanders.”