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Why former high-flying book publicist Jaki Arthur made Whanganui her home

Jaki Arthur at Whanganui’s century-old Sarjeant Gallery. She says the planned redevelopment “will do so much good for the community”.

From London via Bondi, former high-flying book publicist Jaki Arthur has now landed in Whanganui – and she couldn’t be happier.

When her dreams of buying a home in Bondi evaporated as prices soared, expat Kiwi Jaki Arthur reckoned she had two options: head down to Wollongong or up to Woy Woy. It’s what Sydneysiders often did when they couldn’t afford to stay in the city. With a substantial rent rise looming and after two unsuccessful attempts to buy a home, Arthur was desperate. Her teenaged daughter would have to leave her school; her elderly mother – also facing a rent hike – would have to move with them.

But on a winter Saturday morning in 2017, another truth dawned. She had no connection with Wollongong or Woy Woy, but she was still a New Zealander. She didn’t want to return to Auckland, where she’d worked before, but surely there were other places back home? Sitting on her bed, laptop on her knees, she entered the search term “Arts jobs, New Zealand”. It yielded just one result: relationships officer for the Sarjeant Gallery te Whare o Rehua Whanganui. “I didn’t really know where it was, but I thought it was in the North Island.”

Another quick search delivered images of the 100-year-old art gallery’s stunning white-domed building and details of its planned $35 million redevelopment, which includes strengthening and the addition of a new wing to be named for Māori leader Sir Archie Taiaroa. The wing will house the Sarjeant’s nationally significant permanent collection, and also feature a shop, cafe and function spaces. “I thought, ‘How brilliant.’ You look into the future with something like that and it’s so bright. It’s going to do so much good for that community. It also appealed because I had never lived in a small town and I thought how cool it would be to work in an art gallery surrounded by creativity and ideas.”

Left, Jaki Arthur and her mum, Doreen. Arthur was able to buy a home for herself, and a two- bedroom unit for her mother, for a total outlay of $627,000. Right, Jaki Arthur beneath the 14m-high dome of the Sarjeant Gallery.

She fired off her CV and a job application and, two months later, had flown in for an interview, which lasted nearly three hours. By the beginning of spring, she’d traded publishing for the provinces, exchanging a jet-setting work and social life rubbing shoulders with literary celebrities such as David Walliams, Sir Michael Palin, Candace Bushnell and Sarah Dunant for regional politics and relationship building in small-town New Zealand.

Many moves from big smoke to small involve retirees selling up and slowing down. For Arthur, then not yet 50, a single mother and at the peak of her career, it was a bold gamble to leave Sydney for a city that doesn’t boast a shopping mall, a silver-service restaurant or a shoe repairer; a job that required a stonking pay cut; and a social scene short on prospective dating talent.

But there are significant upsides. For the first time in her life, Arthur has bought a property: a three-bedroom character home opposite Whanganui Collegiate, complete with white picket fence and just a 15-minute walk from the gallery. She could even afford a two-bedroom unit for her mother, Doreen. Total outlay, $627,000 – less than two-thirds of what she’d have had to spend to get even a toe-hold in the Bondi property market, where Maseratis are parked on Campbell Parade outside apartments worth $20 million.

From left, former ABC publicist Emma Rusher, Sir Michael Palin and Jaki Arthur. Photo/Supplied.

More important is her peace of mind. “I realised when I got to Whanganui that the level of my stress and discomfort in Sydney was even more vast than I’d allowed myself to realise. I’d felt very trapped, and I felt such relief when I got to Whanganui that it generated a real gratitude to the place. I immediately loved it deeply. It’s very beautiful, natural, vibrant and packed with authentic, artistic people who are doing their thing because they can afford to be here.”

Arthur broke into publishing PR through British novelist Sarah Dunant, when she was running Dunant’s author tour in New Zealand in 1997 with very little experience – her career to that point had been as a book retailer (with Unity in Auckland) and a publishing company rep selling to bookshops. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was out of my depth.”

Arthur, then 27, who’d travelled to Australia and France with her musician boyfriend, told Dunant her real aim was to work in book publicity in the United Kingdom, but that she didn’t know anyone there. Dunant made her a life-changing offer: move in as au pair to her two children for six months and then she’d shoulder-tap her many contacts in the industry to find Arthur a job. And she did. “She was the most fun, interesting, intelligent woman I’d ever been around. I thought, ‘Now I know how I’m going to do this adulting thing – like you are!’”

Jaki Arthur’s daughter, Marianne, outside the bungalow her mother bought for a fraction of the price it would have cost to get a toe-hold in the Sydney market.

Dunant hosted a series of Friday night dinner parties, where guests included naturalist David Attenborough, photojournalist Eve Arnold and author Michèle Roberts. Within a few months, Arthur had landed a job with former Bloomsbury publicity maven Fiona McMorrough, for whom she worked for the next four years at her London arts PR agency, before returning to Sydney after 9/11.

Now, she’s left the big smoke behind, probably for good. “I don’t need the big city – it’s such big pressure. There was a large part of me just looking to calm down, bring it all down a few notches. I’ve enjoyed working like a crazy person, but Marianne needs to commune with her mum, and my mum is getting older and I need to pay attention to her, too.

“It was a great decision for my family. Mum’s happy and secure and going to water [aerobics] classes and a seniors’ gym, and she’s not the only 87-year-old in town or on the bus. Marianne’s getting a better education, with more focus, smaller classes and a genuinely spiritually cohesive school scene. It’s a more vibrant learning environment than in the public school system in Australia.”

With the Sarjeant preparing to celebrate its centenary with a series of events in September, and the inaugural Whanganui Heritage Month (2 August to 14 September), Arthur’s workload won’t be reducing any time soon. But she’s enthusiastic about the challenge, and the chance to reconnect to her heritage – her father is Ngāi Tahu. “Though I have never experienced the Māori world through him, it is tremendously exciting to connect to New Zealand and my New Zealandness. We are so grateful to be here.”

David Walliams and Jaki Arthur. Photo/Supplied.

Star crossed

Jaki Arthur has got to know some of the world’s biggest names in literature and entertainment through her time as a book publicist.

David Walliams, children’s book author and Britain’s Got Talent judge: Arthur returned to Australia to run Walliams’ book tour for HarperCollins at the end of 2017 after working with him in 2015. “I got on very well with him and he trusted me to make things work efficiently and not kill him by asking him to do too much (that can happen). Even then, he would sometimes be up at 5am for live TV and not in bed until after 11 or midnight when he’d signed the last book for the last kid standing in the line. He never said no to anyone. He and I had a lot of fun, and I laugh at all his jokes, though that’s not hard at all – he is brilliantly funny!”

Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City: “It was only after we shared, gulp, more than two Cosmopolitans that I really ‘got’ her and got over my own nervousness and fangirl-ness. Let’s just say it’s very, very hard to be very, very famous. She’s a total babe, smart, erudite and kind as all get-out. My heart really goes out to some of these people who have to weather the public’s very critical eye – in her case, over her every choice of man, fashion, make-up. Famous people are incredibly on show. All the time. My job was to allow them to be at their best at the right moment in a genuine way, which meant shielding them and a lot of cosseting and calming. A person like Candace travelling the world alone is very exposed and without a protector. She was very vulnerable and I really sensed her fear of being attacked.”

John Taylor, Duran Duran: “I was only around him for a couple of days as he and Duran Duran were touring Australia, but he took time out to promote his book, which I helped him with. He was very charming and friendly, and still drop-dead gorgeous, It was his wife who was a little scary… I’ve noticed that is sometimes the case that the partner of the more famous person is the one who tells it like it really is and who might actually say, ‘This is taking way too long, I’m bored, get us a car, we’re off.’ They might play the bad guy, and the famous person remains all charm. But I really liked him and he was always my favourite, so it was a thrill to meet him.”

League star and former Warriors skipper Steve Price: “He updated his end-of-career memoir called Be Your Best in 2010. All the big country Aussie blokes would come up to him, punch him HARD on the arm and say, ‘Mate! You’re a f***en legend.’ Punch. ‘A f***en legend, mate!’ Even harder punch. His arms were black and blue. He insisted the tour take in a large number of schools, which is not what you’d call profitable for the publishers, as the books weren’t for sale at the schools. But as soon as we got into the schools, I saw fidgety, excited kids go still, and every eye and ear was tuned to his every word. He was hugely inspirational.”

Singer Jimmy Barnes: “I worked on both his memoirs [Working Class Boy and Working Class Man], and worked closely with him and his wife Jane. I’m proud that I came up with the line ‘To understand the man, you need to meet the boy’ to market the first book, which doesn’t talk about music at all except in the final pages. It was a challenge to convince fans they needed to read (and buy) two books when the first didn’t even include anything about Cold Chisel. But once you read Working Class Boy, everything you know about Jimmy Barnes makes sense. The only thing I haven’t quite figured out is how such a wild, loose, crazy, hedonistic, self-sabotaging rock’n’roll animal managed to build and hang on to the loveliest, closest, most creative family I have ever met. Talking about his childhood has been very hard for him – but very good for Australia.”

TV presenter and former Monty Python star Michael Palin: “We drove all over Australia together as he did interviews and events. He was unfailingly kind and genuinely lovely to everyone he met. I often stood back and marvelled at how he could be so genuine when there were so many fans – and some of them were really, really weird. I can now quote Monty Python along with the best of them. He came back to Sydney several times after this tour and we always caught up.”

Rush to the river city

Real estate sales figures show former Sydneysider Jaki Arthur isn’t the only one who’s been drawn to buy property in Whanganui. The district has outstripped New Zealand’s main centres for sales volume increase, and beaten Auckland and Christchurch in median price rise over the past five years.

This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of North & South.

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