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Michele Hewitson Interview: John Hawkesby

By Michele Hewitson

John Hawkesby. Photo / Paul Estcourt
John Hawkesby. Photo / Paul Estcourt

John Hawkesby, as we all know, is the former broadcaster, a much in- demand MC and now wine writer. He is also - according to me and his wife, Joyce and denied, entirely ineffectually, by him - a wine snob. I really had no idea whether he was or not.

He writes and talks about wine for various media outlets, including the Weekend Herald's canvas magazine but some of us just drink the stuff. But Joyce made him tell me about the time he took his own glasses to the Italian joint up the road.

He said that wasn't being a snob. He just refuses to drink good wine out of "Marmite glasses" and it is there I should have left it. But I stupidly told him I couldn't stand sav blanc and he whipped out an imaginary microphone and said: "So, how long have you been a wine snob?"

He likes to get the last word, and I imagine he usually does - but as he had me and his wife to contend with for an afternoon, he hadn't had much luck. So I'll give him that one. He deserves it for generosity of spirit.

He had me shrieking with laughter from the minute he picked us up at the wharf on Waiheke. He was telling a story - his very good stories are usually prefaced with: "here's a story!" - about how when he first came to live on Waiheke he used to bang on about how the island could be "the next Martha's Vineyard". But what he'd said to cause my shrieking was, "I've learnt to shut up."

Here's a story. When I phoned him, he said: Could he have my cellphone number? It took a very long time to give him this number because he interrupted after each set of three digits with a quip. Which is why I found that, "I've learnt to shut up" so amusing.

He would ring me if he got a better offer and I was to ring him if I did. That wouldn't happen. I was looking forward to meeting him. "I wish I could say the same," he said. He could say anything in that voice of his - a wine snob might come up with a description along the lines of rich, rippling liquid velvet with a hint of allspice causing instant swooniness.

Anyway, he only plays at being a bit rude. He is inherently well-mannered and kind, and hates confrontation - except for the one example he no doubt hates being the one thing everyone knows about him: When he dug his heels in and gave TVNZ a $6.5 million bloodied nose after they gave him the boot.

We did, well Joyce and I mostly did, talk about this - to his obvious discomfort. She told me about two TVNZ execs coming to their house to sack her husband. "And when they got up to leave, John shook hands with them! And I went to the front door with them and they went to shake my hand and I said: 'I'm Scottish. I remember Culloden.' And do you know what, Michele. They used that in court!" John said, a bit sheepishly: "I'm not normally confrontational." Then, a bit later still, he said, "umm, I have an agreement not to discuss any of this ..." That didn't stop us and he eventually got a tiny bit cross and said, "enough of that".

Fair enough too. It is ancient history (the court case was settled in 2000.) But I did ask whether they could now look back on that horrible time - he says he came out of it "looking like the gunslinger that shot Richard [Long] in the back" - and think: well, it has turned out for the best.

He gave one of his elegant answers. "This was a wild part of the farm, with thistles and blackberries and horses grazing. And we came over every day for two years and planted ... The builder gave me a builder's apron. I was on site every day and my skill factors were zilch, but I got the boys fish and chips on a Friday and beers ... I helped with the concrete. I helped bend the steel ... You know, it was a complete change. No suits, no ties, gumboots ..."

So the answer to the question is ... ? Joyce: "Yes." John: "Yes. Probably. I mean, I look back and ... it was probably a severe mercy."

We did talk about other things, to his relief. And he would no doubt say I'm even more useless than him at getting to the point. When we arrived I talked to Joyce for quite a while about the house. He said, finally: "Are you from House and Garden?"

He pretended to get fed up with me asking Joyce things, about him. She is, probably, a more astute observer of him than he's ever been of himself. I asked if he'd ever got big-headed when he was on the telly. He said, "you've met my wife".

She's always had the measure of him. When they started going out he was in his evangelical Christian phrase and an awful prig. So she is obviously an optimist, or soothsayer.

He once told his mother she would go to Hell if she didn't stop smoking. When he proposed he asked Joyce how she'd feel about marrying a man who planned to do mission work? She said that would be all right - if the mission was in Hawaii.

He predicted that he wouldn't get a quote in: "There'll be nothing from me in this article. Just: 'And Mrs Hawkesby said ..'."

So better get in now the reason for going to see him, which is that someone has come up with the idea of getting him and Judy Bailey to MC a Red Cross fundraiser for Christchurch. This is a good idea because you can put out a press release: Reuniting John and Judy! So here's the plug: April 2 at the Bruce Mason Centre, with Paul Potts, the NZSO, Dame Malvina Major and others, including John and Judy, Reunited!

You'd think this would be a bit strange for him, but if it is, he's not saying. "It's just an angle." He said: "I am extraordinarily shallow." That's a good line to run with. "Well, I can be! I can be quite once-over lightly. Well, that's ... vulnerability, really, because you don't have to engage too much."

He is also adept at the art of self deprecation, another device with which to rebuff any attempt to get him to examine himself. You go to Joyce for that. She once said that he'd die without the public profile. He looked slightly horrified and said: "Did she say that?" She said: "Yes, I thought it was important to him but I used to talk to him about it and say: 'Do you miss it?' And he'd say, 'no, not at all'."

He said there has always been a difference between the private him and the public one. And that difference is? "Well, the difference is that one is public and one is private!"

He says he doesn't care what people think of him. He used to.

"I wanted to be seen as a nice person, a gentle person, a good person." This must still matter. "Yeah, it does. But I won't be affronted by anything nasty. I've moved on. You know, you may ruin my breakfast; you won't ruin my lunch." I'm not sure I quite believe him. That he likes to be liked is one of his (many) endearing traits.

I asked whether he thinks he talks a lot, and Joyce giggled. I thought his feelings were a bit hurt, so I said it wasn't a criticism. Oh, he said, he couldn't care less. Then he said, "but aren't I a good person to interview? I could sit here going, 'yes', 'no', 'maybe'." I thought: "Oh, no, you couldn't!" And that is not a criticism either.

Joyce told him to tell the story of the morning talk "about the inside of a tennis ball". He said it was actually, "the inside of a ping pong ball", and the short version is that in standard two he was asked to give a talk on the inside of said ball by a student teacher who'd been told about the astounding ability of the young Hawkesby to talk, about anything, for a very long time. Twenty minutes later, his classmates were shouting "get him off!", and the teacher was shouting: "John! That'll do! John! That's enough."

He is an amazing mimic and used to do Tim Shadbolt on the radio. I asked if he could do Mike Hosking (partner of daughter, Kate) and he said, "in the privacy of my own home - and when you're not here".

He did, though, slip in a snippet of Hosking-mimicry when he was telling me about having Hosking and Kate and their boss over for dinner. He'd prepared some ideas to improve their breakfast radio show. Some ideas? Five, hand-written in fountain pen, foolscap, bullet pointed pages of ideas. "Mike is going: 'what!' Kate is going 'err'." The radio boss eventually asked if he could take the ideas away with him. That was at midnight. Joyce: "He was being polite John!" John: "I don't think one of my ideas has been implemented!"

He says he can be quiet, and often is, at home and Joyce backed him up, so, all right, I believe them. Let's just agree that he is a generous talker. They are a generous couple and if they invite you into their home you get expansive hospitality, good stories, a two for the price of one interview, and leave with a bottle of their wine and one of their olive oil.

So I am truly sorry I asked about the Prince Charles watercolour, bought at a charity auction years ago, for Joyce. We looked at it, and I said: "You paid $14,000 for that!"

Joyce: "No, no. It was $1400." Mr Hawkesby chose this moment to prove that he could be very quiet.

Joyce: "You did not pay $14,000!" He can be very quiet for really a very long time.

Joyce: "You're mad! That's what I call a Paul Holmes' bloody gesture!"

It seemed a good time to leave. And having inadvertently caused a marital set-to, I think I do owe the darling, but occasionally daft Mr Hawkesby (14,000 bloody dollars!) the last word. He said, with characteristic good nature, considering, : "And when she arrived, the 42-year marriage of the Hawkesbys was intact ... Do you have the number of a marriage counsellor?"

- NZ Herald

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