Michele Hewitson Interview: Ray Avery

By Michele Hewitson

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Father to Amelia is just one of the roles Sir Ray Avery plays. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Father to Amelia is just one of the roles Sir Ray Avery plays. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Sir Ray Avery, scientist, inventor, philanthropist, former street kid and ladies man, is now the most trusted man in the country - according to "the dear old Reader's Digest", as his PR person called it in her pitch.

He is certainly one of the most surprising people in the country and that is much more interesting. Going to visit him is like popping in for a cuppa with a conjurer - you never know what's going to happen next, or who he's going to be, or what's going to come out of his mouth.

He is famous enough to be named New Zealand's most trusted, a jolly nice thing for a scientist, but he is most famous for his story. Potted, it goes like this: physically abused by his parents and sexually abused by caregivers, abandoned orphanage kid who ran away and lived on his wits, his newspaper rounds and by charming stale rolls out of ladies at bakeries, under a London bridge; rescued by professors who taught him how to talk properly and to dance
and play bridge, of all things; became a scientist and inventor and, and you almost forget to mention this because it is so unlikely, a Sir.

He is also, to the best of my knowledge, the only person to have topped the most trusted list to have admitted to a ménage a trois. I know this because it was in his memoir Rebel With a Cause. Why would you put that in your autobiography? (And let's not even begin to count the flings involving only one lady at a time - although that description's pushing it; he once had four ladies in four different cities at the same time.)

I happened to be asking about all of this as his wife, Anna, came in with coffee. She said, fondly: "He's just a tart!"

Ray: "Ha, ha. Actually, it wasn't necessarily my fault."

In his book he makes out that two women just decided they'd have him and that was that. But he means the inclusion of this in his book wasn't his fault. He and the ghost writer got "trolleyed" and he told him and he put it in. Oh, well, that's all right then.

I said, to Anna, "and one day your daughters will read that!" But she'd left the room. When she returned she was carrying a large piece of cardboard covered in photographs of her husband and many different young women. This was a montage he had put together for an art exhibition "and the whole middle section is just women in various states of dress and undress".

And what is that? I said, faintly.

"A nipple," said his wife cheerfully. "He's into aesthetics, you know."

What did she think when she first saw this montage? He had showed her his snaps before they got married (a first marriage for both) as a sort of explanation of his earlier life, or the period he calls "looking for love in all the wrong places".

"Well, to be honest," she said, "when I saw these really attractive women I thought: 'You must be okay because if you could get all those women ... !"

I was wondering what the dear old Digest would think. Their most trusted man said, "I don't get out of bed every morning trying to be the most trusted person! But I know that one of the seductions that I do ... I'll do it with you right now." There is no escaping a Ray Avery seduction once he's put his mind to it - the montage is evidence of that. "Here we go!" he said, happily.

His famous Ray Avery seduction involves getting rich people to give him money. It involved giving me a little talk. This was so charmingly done I didn't realise until later that he was telling me that what I did for a living was a waste of any talent I may have and, he wanted to know, why didn't I "do something that actually makes a difference?"

I should have wanted to wring his neck. He has such amazing charm though that he can get away with telling you that you are a useless bum. He really wasn't being rude. I doubt he'd know how: he gives you a big kiss on meeting and two big smackers as you leave - hardly anyone could get away with that either. He gets such joy from doing good that he simply can't see why everyone isn't like him - given how many really rotten sods he's had the misfortune
to come across in his life, he has a curious and loveable naivety.

He doesn't believe in God; he does believe in goodness. He likes a Nepalese saying: "I worship the God within you, or the good within you." His mother, a drunk who bashed him, "probably" had some good within her. "She could have, you know, probably done far worse." Really? "She could have put me on a doorstep or something."

He's not, though, drippy about goodness or do-gooding. He told a story about being introduced at a conference in Nepal and the guy was explaining that Ray was abused and he had this terrible life "and this guy, who was very spiritual, put his hand on my knee and he said, 'you have been so blessed to have such a challenging life'. And I said, 'Yeah, that's great. I got it after the first five years, I didn't need 14 f***ing
years of it!"'

Anyway, he is very good with journalists because he is always after PR because often, when he's been in the papers or on the telly, someone will ring him up and give him money - and you need money to do good. So hopefully someone will do just that after reading this and then my meaningless existence will have some justification.

He needs the money for his tinkering, which is what the doing good grows out of. He has enough money to be comfortable but inventing takes real money, even when you do it out of your Mt Eden garage which, he never fails to joke, looks like "the biggest P lab in Auckland". Sometimes, after a truck with enormous frozen slabs of "mechanically de-boned chicken meat" arrives from the processing plant, he goes and tinkers in the garden. This involves a
chainsaw. The chainsaw doesn't cut ice; it melts it, so he ends up with blood everywhere. "It's great for getting rid of real estate agents."

What strange and possibly useful things you learn when you pop around to his house. You get the tour of the garage first (he is a mild-mannered fellow but I got a bit of a ticking off for calling it the factory. "The factory! It's a lab!" So, in the lab then, it is obligatory to peer into the freezer at the disgusting slab of the ground up bits of chickens nobody else wants. This is for making his chicken and pumpkin concoction, really a very sophisticated cup of soup,
a super and cheap protein food, for malnourished children in the developing world.

Can you eat it? "Well, you can, but it's terrible." It's only fat and ground up carcasses but the stomach recoils. Still, you could make stock out of it, couldn't you? That was the right thing to say. He beamed and looked, oddly, exactly like a kindly, if bearded, grandmother offering soup. "Exactly! The trick is inside." There are peptides and other things I couldn't hope to decipher inside those ground up carcasses, he started explaining enthusiastically. I didn't
have a clue what he was on about. He said, kindly, because he knows when he's talking to someone with the comprehension skills of a 3-year-old when it comes to matters scientific: "all the good things! You know, grandmother was right: chicken soup is good for you!" I asked if I could taste his soup and so of course he rushed off to make me a cup. I can see why people give him money - there's something about him and his enthusiasms which make you want
to make him happy or at least ask to taste his soup. His wife, Anna, came in and looked a bit sick and said she'd never tried it. It tasted like very weak pumpkin soup but it would have tasted better had I never seen what gunk it was made of.

The gunk in the freezer tour came after the incubator tour. He is still working on his incubator, for use in poor countries. He has a standard incubator in the lab, which he says looks alien. That looks alien! His streamlined, slim and "sexy" model looks as though it should be incubating an alien baby. "Ha, ha, ha. But if you look at the size of that, what we found in three months of research, watching babies, we never saw one get up and dance." His incubator
looks a bit like one of those weird helmets speed cyclists wear. The standard incubator looks like ... oh, let him tell you: "Like a brick s**t house".

He is always tinkering. He designed the bathroom. His shower looks like a giant incubator, I said. I was having a nosy and he came in and put his arm around me, in sheer delight at being told his shower looks like a giant incubator. He'd designed all the lighting too. I'd have thought bathroom lights were pretty standard but no, apparently you need good lighting when you are on the "s**tter".

He should sound like a Cockney. He sounded, for a time, like a well-educated, upper class English toff after his amazing "Pygmalion" transformation at the hands of a bunch of Oxbridge professors. (When he blew into Australia in 1973 he went to a pub in a rough part of Sydney and said: "Could I have a pint of your best bitter young man?" That got him what he calls a "snotting" and that was the end of talking like a toff.)

His story is so breezily told and has such a happy ending - he married the divine Anna, 20 years his junior, in 2007 when he was 61; they share office space at home and he sends her emails saying, "You look beautiful today, would you like to have lunch?"; they now have two young daughters - that you forget somehow that it all happened to a real person.

Or, almost a real person. He talks about this other person called Ray Avery, the one who has won all the accolades, the one who is a Sir. He said about his gong, "Imagine wearing that! You'd be a real tosser, wouldn't you? It's the sort of thing a Greek person would wear!" Anna is Greek. He looked at his gong as if it belonged to some other geezer, who he observed with equal parts amazement and amusement at the idea that he exists at all.

He showed me, as part of the seduction, what he calls the Ray Avery smile.

"Well, you know, it's a disarming sort of smile that gets you stale rolls at the end of the day."

- NZ Herald

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