Michele Hewitson interview: What a fabulous year

By Michele Hewitson

Thank you to all those fascinating people who talked to me ... and to the one who didn't

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, the Prime Minister's Science Award winner. Photo / Natalie Slade
Dr Siouxsie Wiles, the Prime Minister's Science Award winner. Photo / Natalie Slade

A chap I know sometimes phones and says: "Michele, I have another fabulous creature for you." The more fabulous creatures the better, I say, and they come in many guises. So this year on this page there have been fabulous creatures, makers of magic, the clever, the charming, the slightly mad (sometimes all of these things) and the occasional silly bugger. As long as they're not boring, I don't mind. I do like a good rotter - but they are, alas, few and far between. Mostly, these days, people are very well behaved - unless they are very silly.

The boxing world is chockful of fabulous creatures. You'd expect it to be: All that hyperbole and dreams of riches and fame which so often turn to dust and rancour. The first person I interviewed for this page, 13 years ago, was the former boxer turned trainer, Kevin Barry. Then, he was talking up his protege, David Tua. He was the last person I interviewed for this page for the year.

Now he is talking up his protege, Joseph Parker. He's still complicated and touchy, still dreaming big. He goes on being interesting. He said: "I'm really frigging tough."

I like people who are a bit battered and tattered around the edges. People are more interesting if the gilt has been rubbed off by life and you can glimpse the vulnerability just under the surface of even those really frigging tough guys.

Mick Innes, the character actor - he plays a lot of bums and alkies - has been battered about a bit and since I saw him, he's been battered a bit more, the poor bugger. He had a heart attack and a stroke on the night after the run of his solo show, Zen Dog, ended. The good news is that he's recovering well. His life has been tough in many ways. He had 14c in his bank account the day we met. He calls his life magical. He has retained an essential kindness and courage. We talked about the stray cat, Chips Rafferty, who turned up one day and who he says has changed his life. He has certainly changed his beard - what I thought might be dust balls frolicking in it turned out to bits of Chips Rafferty's magnificent moustache. I sent him a packet of treats by way of an apology. He emailed a picture, later, of himself with the treats and a note he claimed to have written on a brown paper bag. The director of Zen Dog, Roberto Nascimento, emailed to let me know about the heart attack, but also to assure me that Chips Rafferty was fine. He knew I'd be worried.

Engelbert Humperdinck had a bottle of wine delivered at 10am. Why not? Photo / NZ Herald
Engelbert Humperdinck had a bottle of wine delivered at 10am. Why not? Photo / NZ Herald

I saw Engelbert Humperdinck, in a hotel. He reclined on a fortuitously placed couch with purple velvet cushions and faux Regency upholstery. He had an entourage, a smallish one, including a body guard. God knows why. He had a bottle of wine delivered. Why not? It was 10am. A "small libation" was called for. He has been married for almost 50 years. There have been a few "little happenings", resulting in what his wife once said were enough paternity suits to wallpaper a room with. He's 77. So I took it that the little happenings had were past ones. He said: "Allow me the privilege of keeping that to myself." He was just kidding. I think. He said: "These days I am surely a very, very nice well-behaved gentleman."

We talked about his dog, Katy, now deceased. She could sniff out illness in people. She was a pug crossed with a Jack Russell. "It was a happening that happened. We had two dogs, called Bangers and Mash, and one of them did the dirty on another dog." What a naughty dog. "Yeah, well, you know. It learnt from its master."

The famous runner, Rod Dixon, has had a very up and down life. He used to be obsessed with money and having things, like flash houses, and, quite probably, himself. Girls used to pinch his bum in the street. There may have been little happenings. There was a divorce (amicable, amazingly) and a not-at-all amicable separation from his next partner. He was rich and miserable and, he'd happily admit, a pain in the butt. If he saw a weed on his lawn he'd leap up and pull it out. He now owns a shabby old car and rents a little place in LA and runs marathons for kids and is as happy as the day is long. He can talk all day long and no doubt into the night. I arrived thinking he was a likely rotter and left thinking he was a darling. I still think he'd be pretty much hell to live with, but so does he; so he lives on his own.

There was a mayoral election. I went to see John Palino knowing nothing about him, and left knowing nothing about him. He told me he'd met a chap who thought he recognised him. "So I said: 'Hi. How are you? Did you recognise me from the show? And he goes: 'Actually, I thought you were Len Brown!" I bet he wouldn't tell that story today.

I went to see John Minto, who made plain his horror at the prospect. But needs must. He asked what I liked doing and I said reading and gardening and he said that was what his wife liked doing. We could get married, I said. That is how you make "a hatchet-faced humourless man from the 1980s" go quite pale. That hatchet-faced quote is the public perception of him.

He is not at all hatchet-faced; he is a good person, with steely principles. It can't be easy being him but he is an easy enough person to spend an hour with. Humourless? Well, I am a great admirer of well-delivered sarcasm.

Sir John Kirwan may be the most honest person I've ever interviewed. He said: "As you will probably understand when you've finished talking to me, I don't always say things that really make sense a lot of the time."

He later sent an email thanking me for lunch. "The lambs' fry was awesome." He'd had chicken livers. He's a coach so he tried to give me some training in how to conduct interviews. This consisted of letting him ask the questions. I have long thought that coaches are quite mad. He of course is, weirdly, almost as famous for having been a loony as he is for having been a rugby player. He said: "I've been loony. I'm not afraid of being loony."

Susan Devoy came for an interview because her media manager told her to. Photo / NZ Herald
Susan Devoy came for an interview because her media manager told her to. Photo / NZ Herald

Actually, Susan Devoy, the new Race Relations Commissioner, might have been the most honest. She was getting a right hammering; she was seen as entirely the wrong person for the job. She had done an interview or two and come across as brittle and defensive. She went to ground. I asked why she'd decided to talk to me and she said that her media manager had told her to. That was certainly honest if not, as I noted, particularly diplomatic.

She didn't eat her soup. She had "sort of lost my appetite lately". And, "next time you'll take me to a nicer place for lunch." She's an interesting sort. All sharp elbows and tongue; all utter self-belief and surprising naivete. She is, like many sports stars, former and current, an odd mix of over-confidence and self doubt. She ordered broccoli soup but caulifower soup arrived. She didn't want it, but she didn't send it back. "I was being polite. Doesn't that show you where my mind is? That it took so long to realise that it wasn't broccoli soup, even though it was white."

I had a lot of lunches with people. Some were stranger than others. I don't usually take pictures on my phone of people I'm having lunch with, but the sight of a fabulous creature, a boxer known as the White Buffalo, eating what looked like an entire buffalo leg was too mad to resist. His real name is Francois Botha and he told me that in California his hands are classified as dangerous weapons. Having watched him take to that buffalo with a knife I'm happy to believe him. He wore a do-rag on his head. Why did he? "It's my image." What is his image? "I don't know."

I had a cup of tea with the Russian boxer Alexander Ustinov. He speaks no English; I speak no Russian. There was a translator, obviously. I had been told the translator was hot. She was. I'd been expecting a bloke. He said, through the hot translator: "Were you disappointed? I am not good-looking enough?" He is 1.98m tall and in Asia people come up and touch him: "They think if they touch me, they'll be lucky and grow a little bigger as well." I touched his arm (well, you never know) and he said: "Tomorrow you will be bigger."

I met some people who really do make magical things. The young architect, Nat Cheshire, who is, like the city he wants us to live in charming, and infectiously, earnestly joyous. He makes city spaces glow.

The young scientist Siouxsie Wiles, who has pink hair and black lace-edged pantaloons, who keeps TB in her lab and makes squid and other creatures glow in the dark - and who makes science magical and thrilling.

The young writer, Ben Sanders who at 23 had just had his third very good crime novel published, and who makes, according to him, "sublime" chocolate cake. This week he signed a contract with New York publisher MacMillan Publishing to develop a new, US-based crime series. He is also, annoyingly, clever and funny and breathtakingly bossy. He wanted his dog, Wandy Woo, in the picture. "What are the chances of a failed blind dog ending up on the back page of the Herald? The chances are vanishingly remote. It warrants a chuckle."

Why did she fail as a blind dog? "She doesn't talk about it." Also, I wasn't to write about him as though he was a character. I could. He said he could write about me. "You could be in one of my books. You could be in book four. Depending on how well your write-up goes will determine whether you're victim or witness."

I went to see the rugby player Ali Williams. He professed to have no idea what I was doing there or where I was from and, by the end, appeared to think I was from some other planet - one where beings who go to interview sports stars are not there as a cog in the star's PR machine.

Christopher Monckton up and left in a huff. Photo / Greg Bowker
Christopher Monckton up and left in a huff. Photo / Greg Bowker

The best I can say about that interview is that at least he didn't stop talking to me altogether. Unlike Viscount Christopher Monckton, the visiting climate change sceptic, who got the huff and refused to say Another Word. Not One. He stalked off, into another room, into which I had to follow him - it was the only way out. This was all so dotty and funny I thought he must laugh. But no. And Not Another Word. Not even goodbye and good riddance - which might be what he'd have liked to have said had he been speaking to me. Serves me right for arguing with him. At the very beginning I had asked what was the correct way to address him?

He said: "Well, you go down on one knee, put on your white gloves, touch your forelock, bow a little and you say: 'My lord, would your lordship be so gracious to allow me to address your lordship?' It's really very informal. Ha, ha. Call me Christopher. It's the easiest thing." If I'd gone for the forelock tug perhaps we'd have got on better.

But most people are good sports and the best sport of the year must be Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings who - and this after I was amazingly rude about the taste of the milk in his new light-proof milk bottles - sent me vouchers for 24 litres of the stuff. That might be the definition of an optimist.

Thank you to all of the fabulous creatures who were kind enough to talk to me this year and to everyone who wrote me such nice and sometimes fabulously rude emails.


The Michele Hewitson Interview returns in a month.

- NZ Herald

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