Forever young

Colin James’s comments in commemoration of Sir Frank Holmes St Paul’s Cathedral, 31 October 2011

Frank was forever a young man, which makes our business here today incongruous. Death is an old man’s calling.

Helen Clark, in that way she had of speaking an observation that caused it to sound like an instruction, once said to me: “Someone should write Frank’s biography.” Not because she said it but because she was right, I suggested it to a couple of people. Then I thought when I cut down the work I am doing I could do it.

His biography, when it is written, will be of a life still lived. Frank has left a lot of his life with us.

By that, I mean that Frank’s public life — and much of his personal life — was the exploration and advocacy of policy and policy options. There is a pile of publications in his name, often in collaboration with others. Frank was unique but he was also collegial. He was not self-effacing but also not celebrity-seeking. In the war he was a bomber pilot but was modest in later life about the courage that required. He was a knight who was Frank far more than Sir Frank. We who are from mid-twentieth century Otago-Southland know that character: substance, not form; a gentle firmness and intolerance of sloth or charlatanism.

Frank was a man of respect: respect for others; respected by others — a catholic range from 1970s-left Helen Clark to 1980s-right Don Brash to young journalists needing an informed perspective, from his 30s until well past his 80th. The respect was not deferential: deference would not have respected the value Frank placed on intellect and honesty banked on evidence. For Frank new evidence or a variant perspective on evidence required open inquiry. Frank was never a slave to system. Perhaps that was because he came of age as an economist before the equation and the algorithm claimed a Newtonian certainty about human behaviour.

To mark his 80th birthday the Institute of Policy Studies organised a day-long conference. My task, at the end of the day with a celebratory dinner beckoning, was to look ahead. I mapped a 20-year brief for Frank of many big questions which needed his sensible and acute attention. That was, first, my way of recognising that over more than half a century he had made a huge contribution to learning and foreign and public policy, including the foreign service, the university, the money, banking and credit commission, the Monetary and Economic Council, the Economic Development Conference, the Planning Council, roles in education policy and strategy, the first and second trade agreements with Australia, Britain’s entry into Europe and Asia-Pacific cooperation, private sector boards and much more. Second, the 20-year forward timescale of the work programme was intended to make the point that for Frank there was always a future, always something more to puzzle over and to suggest solutions and resolutions and be actively involved in.

Frank was a big man in a small, polite frame. Very big in my life these past 20 years in the Hugo Group, which would not be in business without him, at the Institute of Policy Studies and elsewhere. And always young, rocking-and-rolling with Nola at her 70th with a grace that belied his Otago beginnings.

Always young. So he will be in death, as in life.