Reminiscing about the good, the bad and the ugly
"How long have you been doing this?" asked the frock designer Elizabeth Emanuel, who came to town in October. She was delightfully dotty, in that English way, which means we talked about her rescue cats, mostly. Anyway, the answer is: 10 years. Thanks for asking! She said: "You should have a party! And invite everyone you've interviewed. If any of them are still speaking to you!"
What a grand idea. The boss didn't seem to think so. He was possibly remembering a bill for a lunch in 2005 with that professional smoother and charmer Richard Griffin, then in some sort of never-able-to-be-defined-by-either-of-us role for TVNZ. Those were the days. Now you can hardly get anyone to have a glass of wine, let alone triple shots of single malt. That's one thing that's changed over the 10 years.
Unless you're interviewing Duncan Garner. He was having such a good time - he could have a good time on his own, in a broom cupboard; he'd just talk to the mops - he wanted me to miss my flight. He said "I'll pay!" I knew I'd be the one to pay so, wisely, for once, I made my flight. He went on to have a few more beers, and to tell his boss (who knows my boss) that I'd had a few. So he is my squealer of the decade. The PM comes a close second for telling Paul Goldsmith that he was my second choice for that week - the PM not having been available.
Harrumph, I'd already talked to him, back in 2006, when he was the brand new smiling Leader of the Opposition. He said then: "I'm like the Inland Revenue Department, firm but fair." I might not have reminded him of this but for the squealing.
In 2008, I went to see Dr Michael Cullen, then Deputy PM. I put in my bid for the exit interview. He laughed, rather too loudly and for too long, I felt, and said: "You might beat me to it. You never know."
Well, one doesn't like to crow (or not too loudly and for too long) but one doesn't mind out-lasting a politician, even one as challenging an interview as Dr Cullen (like an elegant and deceptively polite game of ping pong).
Challenging is good; boring is bad. Actually, that's not always true. If somebody is mind-numbingly boring you can get an amusing piece out of an interview which has had you losing the will to live. You just have to live long enough to write it. In 10 years hardly anyone has been so obligingly boring, but it's amazing the number of people who say they're boring. It's a very New Zealand sort of thing to say. You wouldn't want to be seen to be skiting. In 2006, I asked John Rowles, that delightful ham, what his sex appeal was. He said: "I always had a hairy chest - but not too hairy."
That was not, by the way, my finest question. That was asking our most famous pig hunter and VC winner, Willie Apiata, whether he'd ever killed a pig with his bare hands. He, modestly, declined to answer (he's not a big talker, at the best of times) but that famous moustache did twitch.
Ten years, one scoop. Pretty good going, I'd say - although the news people seemed a bit sniffy about the fact that I'd failed to get any information out of Gareth Morgan other than the scant detail that he was going to give the $47 million he'd made from the sale of son Sam's Trade Me to charity. This was of so little interest to me - after I'd failed to convince him to pay off my mortgage - I buried the news in the penultimate paragraph. I later heard he went home and said to his wife: "You'll never guess what I've just done. I've just told a bloody journalist I'm giving that $47 million to charity!" He never knew how close the bloody journalist got to not putting it in, even in the penultimate paragraph.
I prefer a famous trashy writer to a brainy one any day so I did enjoy sitting in silence for a very long time with Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare, otherwise known as Jeffrey Archer, while he sulked about my questions about why he'd done such idiotic and criminal things. It gave me a chance to eat my lunch. He perked up eventually and said to the photographer: "Isn't she awful?" lI said to the photographer: "Isn't he awful?" The photographer, in a perfect imitation of His Lordship's responses to almost everything I'd asked, said: "No comment." Properly serious journalists hate "no comment" answers; I love them, they make me laugh because no answer could be sillier.
On the tenth anniversary of NZ First, in 2003, we got Winston a cake. I can't remember why. I can remember that he refused to eat any of it (watching his figure; he hardly ever eats bread either). He did relent enough, two hours later, to be photographed blowing out the candles. I asked what he wished for and he said (you can probably provide your own answer here): "Wouldn't you like to know?"
I asked who he was drinking whisky with and he said, "I'm not." What? Not drinking whisky? "No," he said, and put his hands up, like a human stop sign. He hadn't yet got around to making a "NO" sign. He didn't pry into my private life, he said, and so I wasn't to put in that he was then smoking extra-mild fags. But when I said extra-milds weren't worth the smoking, akin to accusing of him of being a less-than-macho sort of smoker, no doubt, he pulled out a packet of cigars. I'd invite him to a party, but would he come? Only, probably, if I said he wouldn't.
Dr Brian Edwards might come to a party. He could bring his unlikely friend Michelle Boag who is terrifying and funny and sharp as spurs. She gave me a pot of her famous plum jam, as a bribe. A few weeks ago I spotted a (larger) pot in charity queen Gretchen Hawkesby's pantry. I thought: She's bribed her way around the town with jam!
I was a bit wary of Dr Edwards because he can be sharper than his mate's spurs, and I knew he'd write about the interview on his blog. It was worse than that. He wrote that I came back to his house to ask if he knew who owned a silly dog that had almost been bowled on the road. His imagined headline: "Total bitch saves life of small white dog!" Yes, very droll, Dr Edwards. I liked him very much and, much to his amazement, he liked me. He wrote that he had feared one of my "hatchet" jobs. That rather amazed me. I'd like to write a hatchet job; it would be tremendous fun; I never have written one.
This is what I do. I go and talk to people and have a very good gawk at them and record what they say and do and then I go home and write about what they've said and what I've seen. It's not my job to make them look better (or worse, for that matter); it would be dishonest and plain daft to do so. I suppose I do tend to say when I think people are talking rot, so perhaps that's it.
Politicians are fun because they can, of course, talk some rot. Also, they know how to play the game and the game, from my side, is getting them to stop playing it. It's up to them whether they want to go on talking rot. I did enjoy Russel Norman (I've just remembered that we perhaps had a few drinks more than was strictly necessary), who I always thought was a bit of an uptight, arrogant prat. He's certainly, of course, an Australian. So, yes, I did, as he threatened to Tweet, "have certain preconceived ideas" about him. Imagine that! He's a politician, and a marketer of politicians. He was snarkily entertaining, and clever.
The most interesting politician I've interviewed is Tariana Turia, who is complicated, prickly, wary and sweet. Hone Harawira is the only politician who has ever given me the fingers; he is the only politician you can imagine giving any journalist the fingers. It made me laugh.
Do we breed strange politicians? I have no idea whether ours are any stranger than those elsewhere, but we have had some odd ones. I nearly laughed my head off when I heard that the PM had, perhaps, said, of Don Brash to John Banks, over the cup of tea, that Brash was a strange fellow. He was taking tea with a man who, last time I interviewed him, shook my hand, shook the photographer's hand and then announced he was just off to wash his hands. An OCD thing? Probably, he said, before drawing my attention to the fact that the pictures in his office were "hanging absolutely correctly perpendicular, horizontally ..." He then investigated the amount of milk in my coffee: "How much milk did you need? It looks like about 12mls. It might be too much." "Twelve mils!" He said: "I've taken a rough estimate." I wanted to interview him again after he lost the mayoralty to Len Brown (who despite the head-slapping and his past as an amateur rapper, is not a bit eccentric, alas). So I sent him a request by text message to which he replied: "Thank you." Then, 10 seconds later: "No." Now there is a genuinely strange fellow. I eagerly await his next transmogrification.
Strangest reason for going to see someone? The then Police Commissioner Howard Broad about the viewing, in his youth, of a porno film involving, in some way I don't care to think about, a chicken.
Strangest setting? A hotel room covered entirely in white sheets and filled with followers for an audience with a Pringle-loving Indian guru called Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. He came to spread joy. His followers laughed at every guru-ish utterance. I left with a headache.
Scariest people? Debbie Harry, so coolly beautiful is she that her very presence intimidates. And Helen Clark, who like Harry wears an impenetrable carapace, at least publicly. Clark told me that actually she was very funny but had given up being funny in public, because nobody got her jokes.
Yes, ha, ha. She almost gave me a heart attack at the airport one morning by looming over me and cackling: "Who's your victim this week? Ha, ha, ha." I almost gave her press secretary a heart attack on another occasion when, while waiting for her, I jumped in the prime ministerial car. He shouted. "Move over! That's her seat!" The most interesting thing I learned about Clark came from her very nice husband, Peter Davis, who told me he said to the PM: "We need a new fridge; we need a new washing machine. She said, 'what's wrong with them?' I said, 'that fridge we've had for 20 years and it was second-hand at the time."' As he pointed out: "For God's sake we can afford them." He said, a bit mischievously perhaps, that thankfully the fridge "gave up the ghost". I wouldn't put him past a bit of tampering.
He said, when I told him about the heart attack moment: "I'm sure she didn't mean to. She wouldn't like to scare people." I said, and still say: "Hmm."
What funny things people tell you. The (very rich) golfer Sir Bob Charles takes avocados to restaurants. Sir Michael Hill, who farewelled me with odd patting caresses, like being stroked by a kindly praying mantis, takes a little blender everywhere so he can whiz up disgusting concoctions of green vegetable tops (I think he plans to live forever). The writer Penny Vincenzi told me, very loudly, in the lobby of the Hilton, all about her theories of pubic hair. Joanna Trollope said, confidingly: "You haven't got to that age yet, but legs last quite well. Better than bosoms." Christine Rankin is allergic to her cheap trademark earrings. Why wear them then? "I love them. Why shouldn't I wear them?"
Max Gimblett, that great and gentle painter was a beagle in a previous life. The really strange thing is that I believe him.
Terri Irwin told me that her late husband, Steve, had been "hot in the cot", to which the only reasonable response could be: "Crikey!"
Are people weird? Rocky Horror creator Richard O'Brien flashed his chest at me in a posh restaurant. He said: "All men have tits, Michele. You must have led a very sheltered life."
The cricketer, Lou Vincent, told me a story about a firewood seller who had ripped him off for $20 and how he was planning to pinch his Herald from the letterbox, every morning, until he got his $20 back. Amazingly the wood guy contacted me, asked Vincent to contact him so he could make it up to him, and he did. So there's a happy ending. I do like a good weird cricketer. He later emailed to say he thought people were perfectly normal until I turned up to interview them after which they became weird. I took that as a compliment, but really, all you have to do is scratch the surface, I find.
Hardly anyone is really horrible, although of course it's wonderful when they are. Nicole Kidman said she was too tired to answer questions. I wrote that she was an actor, for God's sake, couldn't she act awake? Zara Phillips, here to promote a charity for people with spinal injuries, took a break from her texting to say that she did hope I wouldn't fall down the stairs on the way out.
You don't, of course, go to interview people to make friends with them. You're both mad if you think that's the deal. But I did love Sir Howard Morrison. He was all front, a great showman, a sensitive petal, really. He'd phone, from time to time, on Friday afternoons, when he knew I was still working to boast that he was already in his pyjamas, having a glass of wine, and a curry for tea. Bob Scott, the famous talking (he never shuts up), barefoot kicking All Black kicked me in the shin, bloody hard. "Served you right. You wanted to see my foot. You saw it."
I liked Joyce and John Hawkesby so much I hoped they might adopt me, so I should never have asked to see the Prince Charles watercolour John had bought for Joyce. And I really should never have said: "You paid $14,000 for that!" He'd told Joyce he'd paid $1400. "You're mad!" said Mrs Hawkesby. And, "14,000 bloody dollars!" Mr Hawkesby dropped me off at the ferry and said: "And when she arrived, the 42-year marriage of the Hawkesbys was intact ... Do you have the number of a marriage counsellor?"
How odd it seems now that, in 2005, a suspected terrorist from Algeria had become a celebrity. Ahmed Zaoui published a cookbook (Conversations over Couscous), a book of poetry (Migrant Birds: 24 Contemplations, introduction by Bill Manhire), sang at the music awards (with Dave Dobbyn.) I interviewed him at The Priory, where he lived with the monks, including Friar Peter Murnane, who would later be arrested for his part in sabotage at the Waihopai Valley spy base.
Come to think of it, that pig killing question wasn't my best ever. This, to Zaoui, may have been: "You are a terrorist, aren't you?" "Yes. Thank you." His lawyer, Deborah Manning said: "Michele Hewitson has cracked it! Case solved." He said: "Ha, ha. You push me to say yes! Aaagh!" Manning, a careful, bright, deceptively fragile slip of a thing with a will of iron, finally agreed to an interview, after two years of asking, in 2006. I'd interviewed Murnane in 2004. I told him he was known as the Mad Monk and he said: "I thought that was Rasputin." Which is by way of saying: We are a very small country.
Sometimes you just have to turn up. Sam Hunt leapt up, declaiming, gloriously unaware of the cushion attached, mysteriously, to his backside. I had an interview with Cath Tizard and daughter Judith happened to turn up too. The result? A screwball comedy. The former GG said to Judith: "Who invited you?" And later: "Shut up Judith." Judith lost her keys. Her mother said: "Your car keys are over there, dopey." She also told me a fantastic story about how she heard from a colleague a rumour that she was having an affair - with someone called Allan Clarke. She said the only Allan Clarke she'd heard of sold cars. "Then the penny dropped. I said, 'No, you've got it wrong. I live with Helen Clark [who was boarding with her.]' And she said, 'Oh! I never thought about you being in a lesbian affair!"' No, well, the mind does boggle.
The Dalai Lama was a laugh a minute, which is about how often he laughs, at who knows what. He seemed to think whacking my leg - quite hard, I noted, for a smiling monk who preaches non-violence - riotously funny. He was very sharing. He told me all about his bowel movements.
Sir Richard Branson is all strut and pose from a distance, and nervy and afraid of eye contact close up. Although he sprang to life when I suggested that, if he was going in one of his Virgin planes to his next appointment, eight minutes away, it would take a lot longer. I had mentioned that a mate had gone to Sydney on one of his planes which went via Brisbane and took eight hours to get to its destination. This caused him to attempt to strangle me. I can't think why.
Robyn Malcolm offered to show me the placenta she keeps in the freezer. Brian Tamaki offered to find me a husband. His wife, Hannah, offered me a feel of her boobs, to prove she hadn't had them done. The writer Brian Turner, who only pretends to be a grumpy bastard, gave me his possum fur hat to wear on a night of hoar frost in Central Otago and held my hand and looked up at the stars and said: "You could put your tongue out and taste them."
I did love him. He said, hopefully: "You'd be a bit mad, wouldn't you?" Oh, probably, but what came first: the job or the madness? Perhaps Lou Vincent could let me know.
* A really big thank you to everyone who has been kind, or mad, enough to appear in my column, to the Herald photographers who have provided the wonderful portraits, and to everyone who has written to me over the decade (although maybe not you lot who write to the editor calling for my immediate sacking).
* The Michele Hewitson interview returns in a month.