Mike Williams: Fifty years with my friend Sir Paul Holmes

By Mike Williams

Fun in the Hawke's Bay sunshine and a long and sometimes rocky road travelled since.

Photo / Doug Sherring
Photo / Doug Sherring

Sometime in next fortnight Sir Paul Holmes will have been my friend for half a century.
For me, this has been an unalloyed piece of great good fortune. Paul is quite simply one of the most extraordinary Kiwis of his generation.

In February 1963 I started at Karamu High School in Hastings and it was there that I and Peter Beaven, (recently retired CEO of Pipfruit NZ) who was already my mate from Hastings Intermediate School, first met Paul.

---
Read tributes from more of Sir Paul's friends and colleagues here.
---

Although Paul was not in the same class as Peter and me in the third form, we got together to eat our lunches in what seemed to be the endless Hawkes Bay sun and found much in common.

We were sons of the manual working class. Paul's dad grew crops in his glasshouses at Haumoana, mine was a factory fitter and Peter's was a plumber.

World War Two was part of our upbringing and I rapidly discovered that Paul's father Henry had, like my father, survived the nightmare battle of Monte Cassino.

Neither Henry Holmes nor my dad liked to talk about this part of their lives, and one day, I understood why.

There was a photograph on the Holmes family mantelpiece in which six young soldiers in uniform stood at ease in the desert and smiled into the camera.

I asked Henry if he'd kept contact with who were obviously his wartime mates. No, he told me - he was only one to return.

A year later when Paul and his family moved from the seaside village of Haumoana into Hastings, their family home became a second home for Peter and me.

When I attended Paul's Mana Lodge investiture I marvelled again at the stunningly beautiful garden he and Deborah have created and I recalled that he's always had what my mum would have called 'green fingers'.

On the way back I went past his former family home in Reka Street to see if the Pepper Tree he'd planted in the front garden had survived all of these years.
It's still there; large, gnarled, healthy, and beautiful.

There was a warmth and inclusiveness about the Holmes family and, what seems with hindsight, joyful eccentricity.

Henry always had a batch of home-brew going in the garage and one day I made the mistake of insisting on a sample. Henry tried manfully to buy me off with a Tui from the fridge, but I was not to be deterred.

This was an experiment I didn't repeat. Shortly after ingesting a jam-jar of Henry's innocuous looking brew, the veins on my arms were protruding in an alarming fashion and the television set was coming and going.

Paul's mum, Chrissie, treated us all like family and we loved her for her warmth and good humour.

There was sadness about her which I inadvertently fathomed when I played The Skye Boat Song on my bagpipes one Sunday evening.

Chrissie quietly wept.

Besides Paul's brother Ken, there had been a third Holmes boy, Christopher, who died shortly after his birth. The same bagpipe tune had been played at his passing.

Chrissie was a quiet achiever and for most of her life was the administrator at the largest Law firm in Hastings.

We used to marvel at how she could add up an immense column of figures in her head and get it right every time, a talent which didn't extended to punting on the horses.

When I expressed an interest in the odd flutter, Chrissie told me that the only sure way to make money out of horse was to "follow it with a shovel".

Looking back, Paul demonstrated many of the talents that were to take him to the very top of his profession while a young man.

In the Fifth Form Paul and I learnt an entire scene from the Moliere play Le Bourgeois Gentihomme in French and performed it to the great mirth of our peers. Paul had designed "period costumes" for us both which consisted of ingeniously draped bed linen.

I was the Maître de Philosophe and Paul was the main character.

We can still recite the opening lines:

It is a measure of the man that, while I carried on with French at University, it was Paul, not me, who was to become fluent in that language.

Peter, Paul and I formed the Karamu High School debating team and tasted success at an inter-school tournament in the Hutt Valley.

Our sports teams were generally thrashed and when the results were announced to the school assembly we found that, just for once, debating was mentioned before rugby.

Even then Paul could be side-splittingly funny.

One of his party pieces was a racing commentary whereby he called the 'Royal Auckland Cup Race' at three hundred words a minute replete with dodgy double-entendres - "There's the Royal meet up in the Royal Box".

Early in 1968 Peter, Paul and I boarded a train to Wellington.

Typically Paul was accompanied by a house plant, some sort of aspidistra, I think, which he'd christened 'Foreskin Fred' after the lewd Australian doggerel, much of which we knew by heart.

We got off the train somewhere along the Kapiti Coast to stretch our legs and Foreskin Fred got left on the platform.

We'd enrolled at Victoria University and been accepted as residents at the large men's student hostel, Weir House.

In all of our extended families, we were the first to go on to University and our families were justifiably apprehensive.

These were blissful years, and we linked up with Peter Taylor and John Armstrong from Hawera and John Heath from Napier.

The time at Victoria University now fades into a three year party interrupted by lectures and exams; we didn't allow our studies to interfere with our education.

Paul decided that his future was on the stage. The success of Dustin Hoffman had got his juices flowing.

Finding little enthusiasm for his talents amongst the executive of the Victoria University Drama Club he resolved to stack its AGM with Paul Holmes supporters and make a takeover.

Peter and I were willing conspirators.

This was my first, but not last political takeover.

The coup caught the old guard napping, Paul was elected President and the new executive resolved to mount a production of the Shakespeare's Scottish Play.

The plot was that Paul would come to the attention of the scribbling class for his stunning portrayal in the leading role.

This was not entirely self-serving. The play was, at the time, part of the School Certificate syllabus so audiences were guaranteed.

We must have had access to some funding, because the club hired a director and auditions were called.

This is where our carefully constructed plot came unstuck.

When the cast list was published, Paul was insulted by the offer of the role of third murderer.

To make matters worse the lead role had gone to an unknown interloper from Canterbury called Sam Neill.

Paul then turned his thespian talents towards a series of late-night revues at Wellington's seminal Downstage Theatre sequentially called Knackers, Knickers and Knockers.

He involved Peter and me.

Peter was persuaded to lead a marching team complete with tiny tutu and full makeup. I played some appalling imitation classical piece that I'd transcribed for the bagpipes.

There was always a comedic anarchy about Paul.

Early one frosty morning my girlfriend and I arrived at Paul's flat on Mt Victoria to pick up a parcel to take to Hawkes Bay.

Paul answered the door clad only in a pair of purple scants.

Feigning horror at discovering my girlfriend also at the door he exclaimed "Oh my dear lord, I'm not properly dressed".

He briefly disappeared back inside and quickly re-emerged clad in a pair of purple scants, plus a matching cravat.

After Victoria University we went our separate ways, but met often and always made a bee-line for Hawkes Bay at Christmas.

Paul began his broadcasting career, but was quite soon fired by Radio New Zealand for phoning the Archbishop of Canterbury in the wee small hours and getting through.

Paul had the dismissal letter framed and for as long as I can recall, it has graced a wall in his lavatory.

This apparent misfortune was great good luck.

Paul headed overseas and built a career in broadcasting in Amsterdam, Bedfordshire and Vienna.

On his return to New Zealand his now well-developed skills were in high demand, and he again became a fixture in our lives when Brent Harman of 1ZB hired Paul to front a radical experiment in radio, the newstalk format.

Paul moved to Auckland and bought a Grey Lynn property around the corner from Peter and myself.

At first this was not an easy time for Paul.

He'd replaced a long-serving radio legend and it took the ratings a while to justify station manager Brent Harman's brave (and we know now), brilliant choice.

By this time Peter and I had wives and families and were engaged in raising buckets of money for the Labour Party.

Peter and Paul became popular and welcome uncle figures for our kids, though their determination to teach swear words to the toddlers, tiddlers and rug rats who adored him (and still do) was of limited appeal to my wife.

With the advent of the Holmes programme, Paul became public property; wealthy and in demand.

We were all delighted when he, like me, found a wife and an instant family. He was just as good at fatherhood as he was on the airwaves.

Paul had entered the most public and demanding phase of his life, bracketing the day with a dominant radio programme in the morning and a top rating television show in the evening.

It demonstrates his diligence, professionalism and plain grit that he was at the top of two of the greasiest of poles for so long.

I suppose inevitably, Paul's marriage broke down and a sad, lonely period followed when the children he loved became rationed.

The dawn broke when he met Deborah Hamilton in a Takapuna bar.
Paul's opening gambit missed a generational difference. "You look like a young Lauren Bacall", said Paul.

"Who the f*** is that?" Deborah replied

For Paul, that was it.

He found her beautiful, earthy, sexy, bright and grounded. She didn't seem impressed with him at all but in short order they were inseparable.

When we got to meet her, we all nodded sagely, as if it was any of our bloody business.

Close friends will agree that Deborah is the best thing that ever happened to Paul.

Deborah brought Paul management, focus and peace of mind, all of which were in high demand as his career reached its zenith and his health and family problems began, all played out in the glare of the portable flood-light.

I'd begun my long slog as president of the Labour Party and repeatedly met Paul over microphones and in front of cameras.

He gave me no quarter, nor I him.

He was simply the best interviewer I ever encountered. His memory alarmingly faultless, his preparation deep, and his eyes could drill into your soul.

I learnt more about Margaret Thatcher with one Paul Holmes question than I'd gleaned from the hours of reading time I'd invested in that pivotal political figure.

Before the historic interview, Paul had discovered that it was Mrs Thatcher's grandchild's birthday.

What, he inquired, have you got for a present?

A cheque for his/her trust account, she replied.

I beg your pardon? Some granny!

With the luxury of a little time for reflection, I don't believe it was Paul's natural talents, which are extensive, or his extreme diligence which took him to the very peak of his profession(s); it is the character of the man.

He has a huge heart. Everywhere you'll hear tales of his generosity from the down-at-heal bride-to-be (a complete stranger) who got to travel to and from her own modest wedding in his spanking new Jaguar, to the depressed DJ who came right when Paul shouted him an expensive new suit out of the blue.

Two years ago Paul invited Peter, me and our wives to celebrate his 60th birthday at a boutique resort in Fiji. I remember paying for our fares to Nadi, but nothing else.

He'll give anything a go that takes his fancy and whatever it is will get his full attention - fast cars, aviation, singing, journalism.

He's dead honest, sometimes too honest. A female friend was advised "don't let yourself go" when she answered the door in her dressing gown.

He's tough. I've lost track of how many times he's been counted out - fired by RNZ, a serious car accident, two plane crashes, and one health crisis after another.

He didn't seek this, but he became a beloved rock in the landscape of this country.

At the investiture the 1ZB reporter brought folders congratulatory emails. Paul was too weak to take them so I did.

There were nearly a thousand.

Were there too many women earlier in his life?

Maybe, but it takes two to tango.

Does he like the firewater too much?

Maybe, but all of us did and it never affected his work.

Should he have put his feet up and smelt his roses years ago?

Maybe, but that wouldn't have worked, he would have just found another passion.

Fifty years of friendship with Paul Holmes: You could live ten lives and not have my luck.


- Mike Williams is the former president of the Labour Party

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 20 Dec 2014 05:46:21 Processing Time: 583ms