Michelle Hewitson Interview: Peter Bromhead

By Michele Hewitson

For a man who has just turned 79, this 'famous' Kiwi has lots of vigour

Designer, cartoonist and columnist Peter Bromhead ponders on hard-boiled eggs. Photo / Greg Bowker
Designer, cartoonist and columnist Peter Bromhead ponders on hard-boiled eggs. Photo / Greg Bowker

Amusingly - to me, he didn't seem to find it particularly funny - I ran into Peter Bromhead at a retirement do. It wasn't his. He turned 79 on Wednesday. I've never met him before so I thought: Better interview him now; he can't be around for too much longer. Now that I have interviewed him, I see that this is completely wrong: He'll outlive the lot of us. He has amazing vigour. That is one way of putting it. Another is that he reminded me, except for the hair, of the Lewis Carroll ditty: "You are old, Father William," the young man said, "And your hair has become very white; And yet you incessantly stand on your head - Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

When I met him at the retirement do which wasn't his, he said: "I think you're hard boiled. Yes, I think you'd be a hard boiled egg."

Was that a compliment? It's hard to know. But it made me laugh my hard boiled head off because he looks exactly like a hard boiled egg.

He would tell me later, over lunch, that he believes in good manners. Does he really? Yes, he said, he always opens doors for ladies and tips his hat to people in the street. What hat? He produced a cap and tipped it. "That might be a little bit 18th century, but who cares?"

Somebody told me, at the do, that at an earlier do, the media awards, he told a young thing that her breasts were like "devil's dumplings". Did he really? "Ha, ha, ha! Did somebody tell you that? Well, I wish I could say that that was an original quote from me, but it is from Blackadder." And it is very rude. "But also very amusing."

It's hardly a compliment. "Well, it depends on the size of the dumplings, doesn't it?" What will his wife think? "She'll laugh." I said that I supposed she's used to this sort of carry on, and he said:"You're being waspish now. You're being particularly waspish suggesting I go about just being rude to women." Well, does he? "Not particularly. Talking about bosoms ..." he said and handed over a card for one of his exhibitions called, Buste de Femme, which of course doesn't actually mean "bosoms" at all, but it sounds good and rude. The exhibition was in 2010. So he brought the card along purely so he could say "bosoms", I assume, because there could be no other reason.

There was a reason, or a few reasons because he's always terribly busy, juggling and tipping his many hats, for going to see him. He's opening a new design space in Parnell is a couple of weeks. He told me that the PM, who lives just up the road, has offered to open it. He hadn't yet decided whether to take him up on this, which sounds like some of his silly nonsense to me, because he said I could be invited if I'd like, so that I could meet the PM. Pah, already met him, I said, because if he was going to show off, so was I.

He is also, possibly, the oldest living Herald columnist; reputedly, although he doesn't believe it, the oldest man in Australasia to father a child. He and his third wife, Carolyn, have Oscar, who is 6 and 7-month-old Felix. He likes to joke that he can't retire because he will be paying school fees until he's 96, which is probably partly a joke.

There is a TV3 documentary being made about him. I, perhaps waspishly, asked: "Why are they making a documentary about you?"

He said: "Because I'm f***ing famous." He later said he was only famous in New Zealand and that any time anyone in New Zealand thinks they're famous they should get on a plane and go overseas and find out just how famous they're not. He is certainly well-known at the Rosehip Cafe where we met and where he mock-complained that his spinach and leek soup looked like green vomit. (Honestly, what did he expect it would look like?) The waitress said he has it every day and complains about it every day. I was a bit surprised, although not about the complaining. I thought he only ate chip butties but he said he didn't: "Sorry to disappoint you."

He was the one who once said, in an interview, that he preferred to eat chip butties, because that's the sort of food he'd grown up eating, as a working class kid in Portsmouth, but no longer, apparently. Now he says he doesn't eat bread or butter, and hasn't for about a year, because he wants to lose some weight. This is not, despite him telling me he looked like Gregory Peck in his youth (or both of their youths, I suppose), about vanity but because he doesn't want to have to buy new clothes. He did make sure we were getting butter with our bread so perhaps he was on a day off from his diet.

He seemed to be having a day off from the character he is, or partly is, in his column. This character is a silly old fool who married a very much younger woman (Carolyn is 37, but he told me she was 33 and went home and told her and she laughed and put him right. "How time flies," he emailed) who is, in the column, called The Caregiver. He once wrote a column about how his, er, "appendage" had shrunk, with age. Why on earth would he write such a thing? "That's what my wife said." And what was his answer? That it was intended to be a metaphor for the newspaper business and in response to the idea of the Herald going tabloid.

That mightn't have endeared him to his (and my) employer. He doesn't care and enjoys, I think, a bit of drama, or the potential for a bit of drama, for all he's now settled down and happily married (again) and writes in a pretend moaning sort of way about how hard it is being so terribly old with such terribly young children.

But he enjoys, or at least doesn't actively discourage, a reputation for still being an ageing roué (hence the bosoms, presumably.) He is on his third marriage which he says is not bad going "over my lifetime", and is well-behaved now although he wasn't quite so well-behaved, or "not all the time" in his previous marriages. He's too old for what he calls "dallying" now. "You're quite right. I am too old. Someone said this to me the other day: 'Was it true that you're still screwing three women?' To which I replied: 'Of course.' People are so silly about these things." Are they? What things? "Well, about relationships and things." It's all mythology, he said. So just to get this clear: Was he ever having relationships with three women at the same time? (I didn't put it quite like that.) He said: "For heaven's sake! You know at the end of the day I also have some sensitivity and feeling about other people. I'm not the sort of person who would just mindlessly go about doing these things."

But there might be an idea - not helped by his "of course" - that he might be that sort of person. "Probably." Probably! It must have come from somewhere and it did. It is a long and complicated story involving a relationship he had when he was, he thinks, about 50 with a much younger woman which ended in her taking his furniture and his car and appearing in a women's magazine story about how horrible he was. Never mind. There is a funny story. She also took his favourite watch, a Georg Jensen, which, when returned, no longer went. He sent it back to Denmark and when he phoned about it he was told: "Oh, yes, Mr Bromhead. Your watch has been boiled like an egg."

He has six children and gets on with all of them except his daughter from his second marriage, who no longer speaks to him and didn't invite him to her wedding. He might have been upset about this. "Ha! Count your blessings. I didn't have to pay for it." That sounds like bravado to me. "Well, obviously if you put your daughter through school and give them all the things they want in life ... Well, she feels insulted that I married a younger woman and started another family ..."

Here's the thing about younger women marrying older men: Why would you want to marry an old man? "I wasn't that old 12 years ago." Was that a joke? I got ticked off for being "impertinent" for suggesting that he might worry that Carolyn would leave him for a younger bloke. I was, actually, joking. I didn't for a moment think that such a thing would ever have crossed his mind.

He has an arch manner, in case you hadn't already noticed. It's hard to pick where he comes from. He sounds cultured, and is, but he can't have grown up sounding the way he does now. His mother's father was a road sweeper, who had his own bit of road to look after and had afternoon kips in his wheelbarrow and for every morning of his life had a breakfast called slops: Cold tea poured over bread and brown sugar.

He's reinvented himself, basically from scratch - so the three marriages aren't a terrific surprise. He's a restless, busy sort, and has been since he was 16 and ran away from naval college.

As he likes to remind people, and himself, probably, he doesn't even have School C and ended up becoming a university lecturer in design and a curator at the city gallery.

His father died in the war, at sea, when he was 6 and he had a horrid mother who hit him and once pushed him out of a moving bus. Her last words to him, when she was dying were: "Get out of this room. I never want to see your face again." She really seemed to hate him. He doesn't know why. "You've got to be philosophical about all this stuff. It's a matter of luck whose womb you fall out of."

It could also give you a certain freedom, to make yourself up, many times.

One of his many acts is to pretend he is somebody who just "bumbles" his way through life, and who is still trying to work out what it is he's supposed to be doing with it. Now that really is a complete nonsense.

"Well, what would you like me to say to that? Of course that is nonsense; everything is nonsense at the end of the day. Oscar Wilde said: 'Life is too important to take seriously."'

So he has a lot of fun pretending to be a silly old fool who sometimes goes about saying silly old fool things to young things at dos, and gets away with it. You can but applaud, because that is what you do to reward the performance of a very good actor.

- NZ Herald

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