Gold town's new luminary

Last updated 06:14 09/02/2014
Hokitika history buff David Verrall
LUMINARY: Hokitika history buff David Verrall.

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An enterprising West Coaster is running tours of Eleanor Catton's 19th-century Hokitika, based on her Man-Booker prize-winning novel The Luminaries. Deidre Mussen went along for the ride.

It turns out former prime minister Richard Seddon is quite the poster boy for Kiwi prize-winning author Eleanor Catton's fiction.

The then 20-year-old Englishman stepped off a boat at Hokitika's wharf in 1866 to join the gold rush, the year Catton based much of her epic novel The Luminaries in the West Coast township.

"The first guy mentioned in her book, well, that was Seddon at 20," Hokitika history buff David Verrall says, referring to Catton's Walter Moody character as we stroll Hokitika's streets on his Living History tour.

London-born Verrall began his tours a few years ago, soon after starting to work part-time at Hokitika Museum, which sparked his interest in the area's history.

The Luminaries' meteoric rise to fame has focused the world's spotlight on Hokitika so he has tailored his tours to suit, and it's proving popular with visitors.

While Catton admits her book is "not a factual account", much of her colourful prose about life on the West Coast coincides with fact and tourists are eager to witness it, says Verrall.

His one-hour tours take visitors on a history adventure with Catton's novel interwoven, his timbre adding theatrical drama as he quotes from The Luminaries in apt spots.

It's certainly evocative. He points to Hokitika River mouth and the remains of the 1860s wharf while reading about "the shattered graveyard of the Hokitika bar".

Large copies of historical photographs around the town add reality to Catton's fiction in his tours.

"Sagging washing lines and a marshy allotment, that is Wharf St," he says, showing a photograph dating around 1867 of the street that is mentioned in the book and reading quotes that also match the scene.

The 66-year-old retired nurse has lived in New Zealand for 35 years and is finally about to gain citizenship for the country he loves.

About six years ago, he moved to Hokitika and discovered his second calling. Not only has he become absorbed with the town's history, he is also fascinated with Seddon. "I worship him."

For his Living History Tours, Verrall dons garb identical to a stately Seddon and looks so realistic, a passerby mock doffs at him and says "Your excellency" as he passes.

Last year, he became the proud owner of a set of Seddon's original opal cufflinks at an auction of the former prime minister's memorabilia.

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"I was going to have something of his," he says. "When I'm doing Richard Seddon, I'm channelling him."

He's met four of his great- grandchildren and has had contact with his sole surviving granddaughter, who lives in an Auckland rest home.

Since The Luminaries has gained such acclaim, Verrall's tours have become increasingly popular: "People just love it."

He has been asked to take part in Catton's planned visit to Hokitika next month for "An Evening with Eleanor Catton", when she will talk for an hour with British publisher Max Porter about her novel at the town's Regent Theatre.

Location scouts are also heading to the township next month in preparation for a television series based on the book.

Verrall admits he will be happy if his shoulder is tapped for the series.

"Yeah, I'd do that."

- Sunday Star Times

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