Sir Robert Jones is shouting down the phone because he says we have bad reception in rural areas. "Can you hear me? My voice is clearer because I've given up smoking. And I'm not drinking so much. I was near death, I tell you."
Jones is typically extravagant. After agreeing to an "interview over lunch", one week later he's smoking a pipe and three of us consume four bottles of wine.
"I had two MPs in my office last night but, unusually, we didn't drink much because they left early. So-and-so and what's-his-name? The duck?"
"Yes, Mallard. Only one glass each."
When I arrive at Featherston House with its sweeping views over the harbour, the property investor who could probably buy and sell Lambton Quay several times over is scrabbling around in his cupboards searching for bookmarks which "some bastard pinched".
The office is beautifully decorated - there are two vases of flowers picked from his garden.
In 1998 his former gardener, Todd Sissons, was found not guilty of poisoning $30,000 of trees, lawn and ivy in that garden, overlooking Lower Hutt. After the case, Jones said he laid the complaint "on principle" - and, provocatively, that the estate now looked "improved".
Today his office is also obsessively neat - despite metres of desk space, there is just a telephone, a coffee mug, leather satchel, paperweight, and a clean blotter.
Original Tom Scott cartoons, paintings by Australian artist George Morant, and framed promotional posters for Jones' books are on the walls. It's an office furnished as much for entertaining as working.
And Jones entertains anyone who isn't boring or pretentious - MPs from all political persuasions, ambassadors, writers, artists, lobbyists.
When I once told him Tariana Turia was one of the nicest MPs in Parliament, he told me to bring her over for a drink. She walked through the door, he told her the Maori Party was racist, she told him to join up and prove it wasn't.
In November Jones will be 70, but despite momentarily forgetting Mallard's name, he's physically and mentally on fire - challenging me to beat him in a 50m sprint.
Certainly, there has been a vigour about his family life. Last month he told M2 Magazine: "I have vast numbers of children ranging from 4 to 40 years of age. All have been produced by diverse women without my consent, my participation having been fleeting."
(His partner of 12 years, Kham Phom Souv Anh, to whom he has three children, was yesterday at her sister's house in Auckland and confirmed the couple were going through a "trial run" separation.)
He is relishing the prospect of a "multi-million dollar defamation claim" against the Sunday Star-Times for a column published on October 11.
This is not the first time he's threatened such action and probably won't be the last.
After years of not-so-sotto-voce gossip about the 1993 Securities Commission case against Robert Jones Investments, the man in question is looking forward to another public airing of the details.
"It will be lovely to get the facts out in the open as I was never surreptitiously selling RJI shares and, in fact, over the period it was claimed I was, I actually increased my holdings. And why did the Securities Commission only hit on me when there were 38 other 'offenders'?"
Fighting Talk, appropriately, is the title of his next book, an etymological monograph on boxing and the modern lexicon. The introduction is by Oregon-domiciled author Katherine Dunne (Geek Love, Why Do Men Have Nipples?), described by the Willamette Week as "one of the better boxing writers in the United States".
Dunne's prose can be unsettling, but also brilliant. Her article, "Defending Tyson", written when the champion faced disciplinary action after biting Evander Holyfield's ear ends with the timelessly appropriate line: "There is no roar to abolish the Catholic Church when priests molest choirboys. But boxing is different."
Jones was moved to write this latest work because of the multitude of boxing-sourced aphorisms and metaphors - the gloves are off, in his corner, boxing on, punching above their weight - commonly used in everyday speech.
He'd read a mother's letter to the editor complaining about the poor quality of toddlers' clothing and realised she'd be appalled to realise the word toddler, "with all its connotations of sweetness and innocence, was sourced from the raw and uncouth world of 18th-century bare-knuckle pugilism".
Then there are some who painfully remember Jones' own pugilism, including the time television reporter Rod Vaughan, determined to get an answer from Jones about the future of his New Zealand Party, flew by helicopter to Jones' trout fishing patch at Turangi. Jones moved like lightning out of the undergrowth and punched Vaughan on the nose.
When fined $1000 in court, Jones asked the judge if he paid $2000, could he please do it again?
When Lindsay Perigo launched his magazine, The Free Radical, in stuffy Turnbull House in 1994, two journalists baited Jones until he gave one an open-handed cuff around the ear. Outraged, the journalist turned to his mate and asked, "Did you see that? He hit me?"
When everyone suddenly found something terribly interesting to study on the ceiling, out the window, anywhere, Jones said: "He didn't see it so I'll do it again."
Fortunately, a wiser head intervened.
Nonetheless, police complaints were made. The story made headlines, but no charges were pressed.
These days Jones is more mellow and today he's looking chipper as he paces the room, glass of wine in hand, pausing to lean all his weight on the long-suffering sculpture in the centre of the coffee table which one day, guests swear, will collapse.
"I had a medical check-up. The doctor told me I'm abnormal for a 70-year-old. More like a 50-year-old in mind and body."
Others may beg to differ, but one thing's for sure, Sir Robert is one ageing knight who will burn and rave at close of day. Tennis champion and long-term friend Chris Lewis once remarked, not unkindly, that you socialise with Bob to give him a good listener.
But that doesn't mean he ignores others' opinions. Just don't mumble when you offer them. He abhors sloppy speech and bad grammar, one reason he predicts John Key's honeymoon polling will not last and the National Government will be a "one-term pony".
He doesn't dislike Key. "He's an affable chap and a natural smiler, just like Nelson Mandela and that fraud from Tibet. But he mangles the English language. Look, it's not hard to speak properly. I'm a state-house boy from Naenae and I can do it. Give Key to me for two days and I'll teach him to stress the consonants. If he doesn't improve it will become a source of ridicule."
Jones says Phil Goff is a clone of Key and if Labour keeps him as leader they'll be back on the Treasury benches, but with one other proviso - Winston Peters makes it back. And Jones says he will because Peters' timing is perfect. "Despite the scathing editorials and cartoons, it's television that matters and Winston loves television.
"By 2010 the recession will be really biting, National will be suffering, perhaps unfairly, from the backlash of their traditionally tight-fisted policies, and voters will look to the left."
TIME, AS they say, will tell. Now Jones is focused on local body politics - specifically, rounding up a bunch of energetic enthusiasts prepared to stand for the Wellington City Council at next year's October local body elections.
In a speech this year to the Wellington Property Council, Jones challenged Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast to rid the city's "golden mile" - Lambton Quay, Willis St, Manners St and Courtenay Place - of vehicles and create a pedestrian mall.
For the first time in human history, Jones said in his speech, half the world's population now live in cities, and for this we should rejoice.
"I've been to about 150 countries and observed cities which plainly have living appeal. The one particular characteristic of all vibrant and appealing cities is pedestrian malls. "Wellingtonians like to boast of their cafe society but we're pathetic compared with numerous other cities when it comes to cafe culture.
"People and motor vehicles don't mix. Traffic, in particular buses, introduces an abrasive element to city living. It's not necessary. People love shopping and strolling amid diners, relaxing and watching the passing parade."
Jones also sees a skating rink in Courtenay Place, "with pretty girls to watch".
But if Prendergast thought she was killing the idea with her response that the city was "too young for that to happen yet", she could not have been more wrong.
At least a dozen prominent Wellingtonians, who won't be named at this stage, have put up their hands to stand for council. Now they're looking for a suitable mayoral candidate.
Suddenly the capital's elections are looking a lot more exciting, though Jones won't stand for mayor.
He asked me to consider the mayoralty or council but I'm not interested in returning to political life in any shape or form.
He'd probably poll well. Recently, Jones ended regular appearances on TVNZ's Good Morning programme, where he was popular not only with viewers but with the makeup artists and crew.
Host Sarah Bradley says Jones was a "whirlwind of personality in the office, entertaining the guests. He was gorgeous. We'd love to have him back."
But the charmer also loves to shock. A few months ago he invited me to join him for lunch with Wellington lawyer Mai Chen. When Jones was informed by Chen that she doesn't drink alcohol he claimed to be horrified: "You poor bastard. Tom Scott's coming along. Deborah's got no pants on (not true). There'll be an orgy later (also untrue). I feel sorry for you."
Chen was unfazed.
Then there are the myths about Jones, such as his dislike of cellphones. It's not the phones he hates, but the use of them. He finds it rude that people talk on them in front of him.
His aversion made headlines three years ago, during the first series of The Dragons' Den. Jones stopped the company car on the way to Wellington Airport, got out and walked, when Annette Presley from Slingshot insisted on talking on her mobile phone.
Jones also has a thing about dark glasses, especially when worn on the top of the head. As if on cue, this bete noire popped up near the end of lunch.
As we filed out of the Arbitrageur restaurant Jones spied a woman sporting a flash pair of sunnies atop her blonde mane, and started muttering about people wearing sunglasses on their heads. I recognised the wearer as Wellington blogger "Busted Blonde", and guessed, correctly, that Jones would be repaid the next day on her Roar Prawn blogsite.
But Jones enjoys fomenting mischief and critics should ignore him. He's been insulting me for nearly 20 years and I'm not particularly thick-skinned. When he decided I should meet Colin Carruthers, I was instructed to not "dress like a whore, none of that paint smeared on your face, just lipgloss".
When the progressing relationship pleased him, this unlikely Dorothy Dix offered more advice: "Don't let him take you away to an island resort. At your age, you can't be seen prancing around in a bikini. Get him to take you skiing so your body's well covered."
So how, my feminist friends ask, can you remain close to someone so obviously sexist? The Listener's Jane Clifton, who has been his good mate since she was a "baby journalist", gets the same queries and laughs them off.
"Way back before I even knew him well, someone wrote something spiteful and gutless about me and Bob wrote me this letter which was not just of comfort but which said, 'the problem as I see it is that **** is a conspicuously hideous beast and you are not'. It was bloody useful and restorative to be told that. Bob saw an injustice, and was extraordinarily nice about it.
"For all his tendency for monologues, he's a bloody good observer of human nature, and good company, which is just as well because there's no getting out of lunch or drinks in under five hours. If you're busting to go to the loo, having surgery, collecting kids from school - no excuses."
Every occasion with Jones reveals a hitherto unknown story. I knew he once was a fierce chess player but in this interview I discovered that decades ago he regularly visited Arohata Women's Prison with the late Tony Dominik, journalist and New Zealand junior chess champion, to teach prisoners how to play chess.
"There was a Maori girl there, three feet tall and eight feet wide, who became so skilled she beat Dominik every time. Couldn't play any more. No one to play with," recalls Jones, pointing to the chess set they used, now sitting in the corner of his office.
"We used to sit in the matron's room, or whatever she was called, girls with their arms around each other, all cosy. I asked to see their cells and they were nice and neat with pictures on the walls, soft toys on beds, none of the stuff they probably ever had at home."
He's a multimillionaire who loves to travel - last was the Baltic States in July - and could live anywhere in the world but chooses to live in Lower Hutt.
At the last elections he described his MP, Peter Dunne, as "the town bike of politics ... available to anyone who will have him but the ravages of a quarter-century's political promiscuity have induced an electoral impotence".
But, as Paul Holmes attests, Jones can also be very generous. "He'll ask why some critic is attacking you, 'when you do the job better than any other'?"
A decade ago Jones and Holmes went on holiday together to South America. Most stories are unprintable, and Holmes remembers being lectured, "but as it was a low time in my life I didn't mind because Bob's knowledge is astonishing, he's seldom wrong and I didn't feel like talking".
New Year's Eve in Paraguay stands out. It was hot, "humid as hell", says Holmes, and they climbed into a van to visit the city, when "Bob had a tantrum because the seating was lower in the back than the front.
"Then the storm breaks and it's rain like I've never seen before. Bob says this will be chaos because there are no stormwater drains. I say there must be.
"Bob says 'no there aren't. I was here in 1972, it hasn't changed'. The next thing I see buses sliding towards us on their sides; cars too. Bob was right. He's right on a lot of things. Extraordinary.
"Bob's also very funny. He'll be talking to me and he'll say: 'That Prime Minister, the Easter-Island-headed man', and I know he's talking about Geoffrey Palmer."
SO WHAT lies ahead for the polarising Jones? A quiet fade-out? His company recently bought a Wellington landmark he's hankered after for years, the Public Trust building on Lambton Quay, which is being refurbished in RJI's typical no-expenses-spared manner, widening the foyer and commissioning paintings to cheer up the tenants.
Since the 1970s Jones has been hanging paintings in the public spaces of his buildings and, to date, not one has been vandalised. "Once, one got scratched and that was purely accidental when furniture was being shifted."
Only a fool would dare invite his wrath, such as those who carry water bottles, wear baseball caps backwards, put MBA after their names, say "no problem" and, as Sean Plunket insisted on repeating when interviewing Jones on Morning Report, begin sentences with "firstly".
He'll be lecturing us, correcting our grammar, entertaining us and making this country - and himself in the process - richer for a few years yet. There'll be no retirement to bowls. Sir Robert Jones will never go gently into that good night.By Deborah Coddington Email Deborah