Obituary: Lord Porritt

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The Independent Online
Arthur Espie Porritt, athlete, surgeon, colonial administrator: born Wanganui, New Zealand 10 August 1900; OBE 1943, CBE 1945; Surgeon to King George VI 1946-52; KCMG 1950, GCMG 1957; Sergeant-Surgeon to the Queen 1952-67; KCVO 1957, GCVO 1970; President, Royal College of Surgeons 1960-63; President, British Medical Association 1960-61; Bt 1963; President, Royal Society of Medicine 1966-67; Governor-General of New Zealand 1967-72; created 1973 Baron Porritt; Chairman, Arthritis and Rheumatism Council 1973-79, President 1979-88; Chairman, African Medical and Research Foundation 1973-81, Vice-President 1981-89, President 1991-93; married 1926 Mary Frances Bond, 1946 Kathleen Peck (two sons, one daughter); died London 1 January 1994.

SIR ARTHUR PORRITT arrived in Wellington in 1967 with enormous fanfare. At that time he represented the highest a New Zealander could aspire to: a Rhodes scholarship, a distinguished career abroad, a link with Buckingham Palace, international honours, sporting prowess, an Olympic medal. Was there anything this man had not achieved? writes Michael Fathers.

Yet when the press brouhaha died down the country found their governor-general was more distant than the English and Scottish peers who had preceded him, more formal and, dared they say so, acted like a foreigner. They thought he would be one of them. When he so clearly was not they were taken aback and kept their distance.

It was unfortunate that Porritt returned home from Britain when the country was mesmerised by the war in Vietnam and was looking more and more to the United States for leadership. New Zealand was in transition. Britain was turning towards Europe, traditional trading ties were being severed, new markets had not yet been found, Polynesian immigration was increasing, the country was changing. New Zealanders most certainly did not see themselves as the furthest outpost of an Anglo-Saxon society, no matter what the tourist brochures said. They believed that at that time they were creating a culture of their own.

Unfortunately Porritt behaved like a particularly well-bred Englishman. His predecessor, the Scot Sir Bernard Fergusson, was laughed out of court by New Zealanders when they first sighted his handlebar moustache and monocle and heard his pukka accent. But they loved him in the end because he was a 'character' and he had made his mark. He spoke Maori, a language at that time hardly understood by New Zealand's pakeha. He showed them up and they admired him for it.

Looking back on Porritt's five- year term it is easy to see now that it was a watershed. His predecessors had come from Britain. While not British by birth he brought with him all the cultural baggage of Britain. He had lost his New Zealandishness. He was anglocentric. When it was time to leave Government House he went back to Britain. There was no reason for him to stay.

His successors were New Zealanders, but none was an expatriate. They have taken office from within New Zealand and when it is time to step down they have stayed there. Porritt was both the first and most probably the last of his kind.

(Photograph omitted)

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