NZ LISTENER #3749, MARCH 17, 2012
“She told the doggies, ‘Daddy in trouble again.’” – Paul Holmes, Newstalk ZB.
PAUL, Paul, Paul. And it was all going so smoothly. Holmes’s really very good book, Daughters of Erebus, was launched late last year amid a hail of publicity and slightly surprised critical approval.
After a January newspaper report with a distinctly elegiac air – Holmes hospitalised with a “health scare”; friends quoted as being “shocked” – his health was, we were relieved to hear, fine. “My eyes watered,” confessed Labour leader David Shearer on Holmes’s Saturday morning radio show, of the graphic account in the broadcaster’s Herald column of his latest post-prostate-cancer procedure. “Just like a bought one,” Holmes reassured on-air contributor
Kevin Milne. “No drippy-drippy.”
Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that Holmes chose this relatively calm and drip-free moment to lob another cherry bomb in the direction of his own often-turbulent celebrity. “I’ve written quite a scathing column tomorrow about Waitangi Day, I must say,” he confides abruptly when we meet, a flicker of unease in his eyes. He’s referring to what he calls “my noble column in the Royal New Zealand Herald”.
We’d been talking about his Erebus book. On one level, it’s about the on-going hurt and damage of injustice – how deep that can run. “You’re quite right,” says Holmes. “I know that people have a lovely couple of days at Waitangi. I’ve been to Waitangi in the days of Holmes and it really is a very special coming together, actually,” he broods. “I might have been a bit harsh in my column.”
I seem to recall Holmes once said, after the 1989 helicopter crash on the East Coast that took the life of cameraman Joe Von Dinklage, that he would always do right by Maori, such was his gratitude for the care he and his fellow survivors received after swimming to shore. “I said if there’s Maori in me, my heart is Ngati Porou,” he says. “I know what you’re saying.”
In fact, he named his son with ex-wife Hinemoa Elder after Ngati Porou chief Api Mahuika. Reuben Thomas Apirana. “It was deeply emotional and spiritual … We were gathered in the Shanks’s house when we got in from the sea. Rana [Waitai]arrived in his police commander’s car with Api and Api said, ‘Shall we say a prayer?’ Because Joe was missing. Well, I’ve never forgotten it. That’s why Reuben’s got his name,” he says. “Yes,” he sighs. “I forget things.”
Sure enough, the column – “Waitangi Day a complete waste” – has Herald readers spluttering over their muesli with, depending on their viewpoint, approval or utter dismay. In a lurid rant that bears the hallmarks of the premature pressing of “send”, Holmes declares Waitangi Day “filth”. The column moves with the grace of an out-of-control wheelie bin from Waitangi protesters – “hateful, hate-fuelled weirdos” – to a blast of wild stereotyping: “never mind the hopeless failure of Maori to educate their children and stop them bashing their babies”.
A few days after it runs, a small but vocal chorus of protesters gathers outside the building that houses the Herald’s Auckland HQ, chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” and lumping Holmes in with Michael Laws and Paul Henry. By then the column has more than 300 comments on the Herald website.
When we speak again, I have to ask. Does he still stand by the column? “I’m a private citizen and I’m entitled to my opinion,” he snaps down the phone line. Maybe, but he’s also the host of a current affairs programme, TV1’s Q+A, which has just resumed for the year. It’s a role that possibly calls for a little restraint in the ranting department. You could suggest he apologise. But that would probably produce the same sort of result Holmes got when he famously tried to make America’s Cup skipper Dennis Conner say sorry for dissing New Zealand yacht designer Bruce Farr: thanks for having me and goodnight.
So what is he up to now? Maybe it was a stunt. Of course he is entitled to his opinion, if it is his opinion. By the end of the whole business I really have no idea. But it’s sad. He remains one of the most naturally talented broadcasters we’ve had. Just as his book earns him new admirers, the column will make some people think less of him.
Of course many website commentators loved the column: “You have said everything I have been saying & thinking about Waitangi Day & the Maoris (not that I have anything against Maoris as a whole),” wrote one. Others did not: “Thanks for your insight. Very thought-provoking. The main thought that comes to mind is you’re an idiot.”
Dear oh dear. The idea was to meet in Parnell for a relaxed chat about Holmes’s book, his bladder and whether, if there’s a second act in New Zealand celebrity life, it’s comedy or tragedy. As it turns out, it’s more like French farce. Holmes had phoned earlier in the week to confirm arrangements: his chosen watering hole, TriBeCa, at lunchtime.
When I arrive, Leighton Smith is there. Paul is not. For a second I wonder if I’ve got my maddening middle-aged male broadcasters mixed up. Paul was here, I’m told, but he left. I suppose he may have popped out for a cigarette (though he’s reportedly given up), or another quick body-part rebore. I wait. Eventually, I ring him. “Oh God!” As he says, he forgets things. “I’m so hopeless.” Still, I save the price of lunch. He’s already eaten.
When he eventually turns up he has a glass of chardonnay he doesn’t finish. “I don’t drink. It’s well known.” Perhaps the occasional glass of wine? “The occasional glass of wine.”
He quotes something the late Neil Roberts once told him: “You can do anything in television as long as you stay in character”. The trouble with Holmes is that it’s hard to know which character – writer, current affairs broadcaster, curmudgeon, clown – you’re talking to at any given moment. There was another recent rant with NewsTalk ZB host Larry Williams about the Occupy movement – “scum of the Earth”; “stink to high heaven”; “sit on the floor with bare feet”. He sounded exactly like our generation’s parents during our hippie phase. And the hippies changed the world.
“We did actually. Have you read the book about Steve Jobs? He did lots of acid and all that stuff.” It turns out Holmes was a bit of a hippie himself. Bare feet? “Bare feet. I got a job in British radio in the late 70s in Swansea with an afro and an earring with a piece of shell hanging from it. Hello!” These days he says “Hello!” more often than David Hartnell, which just adds to the confusion.
“I just can’t stand bludgers,” he says. Fair enough. Though these days there would be disagreement over whether it’s the hippies in their encampments or the financiers in suits who are the chief leeches on society. Still.
In person Holmes is whimsical, entertaining company, far less “prepare to go ballistic” than his public persona suggests. You suspect he’s smarter than he lets on. “Well, that’s for you to wonder. Look, I was a bit of a flibbertigibbet.”
He used to look down on seriousness. “Though in my work I’ve always been serious. But it used to amaze me in the early days of Holmes … Do these people think I’m thick? The writers, the critics and so forth. I just don’t wear it on my sleeve.” He says he doesn’t hold a grudge, which is true or he wouldn’t be talking to the television critic. He can be quite insecure, asking more than once if I really like the book.
I do. It’s unashamedly on the side of pilot Jim Collins and Justice Peter Mahon, to the ire of those who believe the flight crew should carry the blame. Holmes is immovable: the co-ordinate change, which the pilots weren’t told about, and whiteout conditions, for which they weren’t trained, caused the crash. Some have said the book is harsh about people such as Chief Inspector of Air Accidents Ron Chippindale, who are now dead and can’t reply. “F— off,” says Holmes. “Jim Collins is dead, too.” He tells the story of Collins’s wife and four daughters with some sensitivity.
At its best – on the death of Justice Mahon; the recovery of the bodies – the book has a vivid, haunted, almost epic quality that does justice to the hold the disaster has on the national psyche. Out of respect to the families, Holmes shows a lot of restraint. A little restraint, it turns out, becomes him.
Naturally there were jibes about Holmes’s credentials, after his own airborne mishaps. “I knew there’d be the odd comment like that but in the end I do have a private pilot’s licence and it is hard work getting one of those. And the basic principles of flying are the same. Money and airspeed are all you need,” he says. “That was a very good little aircraft – on the ground …,” he says of the one he crashed. “It was tricky in the landing and sure enough it got away on me.”
There’s been some crashing and burning in his professional life, too. Cheeky darkie. What was that about? “I don’t know. I got a bee in my bonnet. I hate to use the cliché ‘political correctness’. It was like we were in a prison of PC at the time. Plus I can’t stand the United Nations. I think they’re all bloody talk and no trousers. But I don’t know why I did that. That’s a regret.” His producer, past whom he ran material, was away that day. “He’d knock them back. ‘Nah. In the bin’. You know, we did very well for a long time, walking the line. Not quite crossing it.”
But repentance is not Holmes’s natural setting. “The majority of people, people who are not precious, saw that it wasn’t malicious. Then, and still now, I’ll be standing on a corner and a truck will come round with a big Maori guy hanging on the back and he’ll yell out, thumbs up, ‘cheeky darkie’.” He can’t help himself.
He’s seen fire, he’s seen rain. And that’s not just the reviews of his CD. There was the business of leaving Holmes for Prime, thinking his audience would follow. They didn’t. “Tom Scott told me when I went to Prime there were no second acts in American public life. F Scott Fitzgerald. Do I look back? No.”
He still sounds hurt. TVNZ hobbled Holmes, he feels, by offering him a one-year contract. “There was a kind of word around that Holmes’s days were numbered. How could I take that? Why did I deserve that?” TVNZ at that time was poisonous, he says. “I didn’t know where the friends were any more. If I have any regrets at all it’s that I didn’t ride it out. I had been very good at riding things out. And then along came a very charming Australian offering me three years and a new challenge. Ach! Never mind.”
The highs and lows all played out in public. The drug problems and court appearances of his daughter Millie were no exception. “They are great now,” he says of his children. “Everything passes. My daughter is wonderful. The thing about life is that shit happens sooner or later, but it will happen. Shall I tell you my greatest regret? The kids grew up too fast on me.” Working both ends of the day made family life difficult. “I used to crawl home broken-arsed.”
There was the break-up of his marriage after his affair with Fleur Revell, recounted in gruelling detail in his autobiography. “She … handed me something in a closed fist. It was her underwear.” How to put it to him that this all seemed a bit mad? Does he think maybe he went a little … “Yes I do. Do you mean barmy or too far?” Take your pick. “Well, the fame business makes you barmy.”
Indeed. As we speak, the young woman at the table next to us suddenly starts bellowing: “Paul Holmes? Paul Holmes? Paul Holmes? What does that mean?” Many of us have had occasion to ponder that eternal conundrum. When I look over, she’s peering at her phone. Her dining companion is gazing heavenward as if seeking divine intervention. He was trying to be discreet. “I was. I was,” he groans. “Paul Holmes!” says the woman. “Hello!” says Holmes. We attempt to return to the interview, to the backdrop of slightly hysterical laughter from the next table.
Such is his life – a series of scenes from a sitcom. “But that’s nice isn’t it?” says Holmes, happy he can still cause a small uproar in a public place. It must be crazy being him. “It’s been crazy for 30 years.”
Photos are taken at the apartment Holmes rents in Remuera. He’s happy to don a bathrobe and stare moodily at the spectacular, moneyed views. The building has stately names on the letter boxes and an air of faded respectability. “I’m comfy there,” says Holmes, of Remuera. “People let you alone. I don’t like going west of Queen St now, really. It frightens me.”
The lobby is decorated in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a funeral parlour. The lift is tiny. “You’d have to get coffins out of here on end,” muses Holmes. Despite the gallows humour, he is, he says, as fit as a trout; could go on forever, with a bit of tweaking. “Cancer is a bugger of a thing, which hangs around a bit. You’ve gotta keep scraping it out every few years.” He doesn’t have the strength he once had. “It’s aged me all this,” he says, of being Paul Holmes. “Too much bad love and hard work.”
He watches the Crime & Investigation Network, the History Channel. There was an investigation into the assassination of Julius Caesar. “He knew it was coming. He’d dismissed his guard two weeks before. It was a way of engineering his own suicide, knowing that his son Octavian, who became Augustus, could take over.” Not unlike what happened when he lost his breakfast radio show, then. The king is dead, long live the Hosking. “Oh no, that’s fine. That was completely a commercial decision and I accepted it,” he says briskly. “That company had been wonderful to me and still are.”
He’s comfortable financially. Comfortable enough. “I thought the money would never end, if you know what I mean,” he sighs. There’s the farm 20km south of Hastings; his wife, Deborah, who keeps the doggies apprised of his high jinks. Time moves so fast now. He intones a line from his Erebus book. “What was it Mahon said? ‘I nightly pitch my moving tent a day’s march nearer home.’”
On his Saturday morning radio show, with bloggers blogging and editorials busy tut-tutting about the Waitangi column, Holmes is positively smug. “Feeling, well, I suppose, a certain pride that I retain a small ability, perhaps, to initiate a discussion.” He doesn’t apologise, doesn’t explain.
Yet when we met he’d said, “On the whole, you know, I think we’re an amazingly tolerant place. I always try to remember that when I lived in Europe and England and an All Black test came on, when I saw that haka I knew where I was from. We had nothing without Maori culture.”
Which is why, many feel, we have to keep grappling with Waitangi until we get it right. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.” But then that wouldn’t have made nearly such a headline-grabbing column. “An old hand once said to me before I started that current affairs has got to have danger if you want people to watch it,” says Holmes at one point. He has only just, he tells me, watched the full version of that first Holmes interview with Dennis Conner. “May I say to you I sat there thinking ‘My God, that’s good.’ It built beautifully to the slam-dunk. It had a nice, burning quality, that interview. It smoulders. It had a scent of danger.”
Perhaps in the end that’s what he can’t do without – the possibility of crash and burn. He’ll do everything but set his hair on fire to keep our attention. “But I was a poncey little prick, too, wasn’t I?” he says, of his Conner interview. Some would say nothing’s changed there, but you can only conclude that’s just how he likes it. Daddy in trouble again.