Paul Holmes, the most successful broadcaster of a generation, reveals how poor health has forced his retirement as he relives his career's highs and lows
The sawg of television shows Paul Holmes has fronted include This is Your Life - now it's his turn to talk candidly about his own.
The prostate cancer he subdued more than a decade ago has returned - and is more aggressive than before - but in the sun- drenched porch of his Hawke's Bay home, he isn't much in the mood to discuss his health.
All that needs to be known, he says, is that he's not well - the cancer is back and it's aggressive.
"Tell people that. That's all they need to know," he says.
"One of the things people keep telling me now is 'you've got to slow down if you want to survive and live longer'.
"A friend told me 'you could have years ahead of you, having a lovely life that you've deserved and lived for, if you just take it easy'.
"My farm manager Nigel the other day said 'I think you've just got to slow down, don't you'. I said 'Nigel if I slow down any more I'll be going backwards'. He said 'yeah by your standards'."
Fan or not, you can't question Holmes' drive and work ethic, including fronting a morning radio show and a 7pm current affairs programme at the same time.
"I am unrelenting, yes, you're right. I've never forgiven myself. For what, I don't know," he says.
"I can look you in the eye and say, 'Look, I'm 62. I've worked pretty continuously since I was 22 in radio and TV and writing books - three books now.' I've done my work, I've retired."
"I think so. The thing was my health simply can't do this stuff. Going to Auckland and my little apartment every weekend, my health just wasn't up to it. I just packed up.
"There was no future. Do you know the honest truth? I've said just about everything I want to say on radio and TV. What I love now is my writing. I'll persist with the [newspaper] column, health permitting."
It seems then, Holmes' last broadcasting moment was a Kim Dotcom interview on TVNZ's Q+A, which he felt was a good way to finish.
"Someone the other day said 'you started your career with Dennis Conner and you finished it with Kim Dotcom'. I did an interview I am very proud of with Kim Dotcom a few weeks back. I was very sick that day. The medication for my cancer was making me very ill that day. I think I had a throw up and we carried on. I liked him, and I think he liked me. Intellectually I found him extremely interesting. I forgive anything if there's an intellect . . . almost."
The grand house and striking grounds he shares with wife Deborah at Poukawa, south of Hastings, is just 25km from the small roughcast house his father built in a paddock at Haumoana after returning from the war.
It's 46 years since Holmes left that house as an impish teen with a love of radio. Enough time to survive a fatal helicopter crash, two plane crashes and a car crash that nearly killed him and robbed him of his sight in one eye from the age of 23.
And to change forever the nation's broadcasting.
"If I'm remembered at all, people will probably remember me for being a complete arsehole for the way I interviewed Dennis Conner," he says.
On the evening of Monday, April 3, 1989, Holmes launched his eponymous show and New Zealand was treated to a diminutive newcomer in oversized spectacles eviscerating one of the world's most competitive men, and New Zealand's public enemy No 1 at the time.
Conner, the four-time America's Cup-winning skipper who scuttled Michael Fay's Big Boat Challenge in 1987, infamously stormed out of the pre-recorded interview.
"I got so much flak for that interview. I never really watched it until 18 months ago when I sat here at home in Hawke's Bay and watched the whole seven-and-a-half minutes. It was the first time I watched it. Even until the very end of the Holmes era, we would only played parts of it very cautiously. It was so inflammatory to people."
It certainly struck a chord at the time. The TVNZ phone lines were bombarded by complaints in an unprecedented siege that lasted more than a week.
"So I watched it. And I thought, if you don't mind my saying so, 'this is very good work'.
"I really needed that interview. It was the most important of my life, and I was terrified. I remember those blue eyes [of Conner's] almost turn black. Michael Fay once said to me 'did you suddenly find yourself looking into the face of the toughest competitor in the world'. I said yes.
"He's never, never forgiven it. He'll tell anyone he's sitting beside on a plane what an arsehole Holmes is. But it was 20 years ago. I think people have to get over stuff, don't you? Also, all's fair in love and war too, eh?"
"Like my topiaries," he says suddenly, in the habit he has of leaping between topics.
"I bought them from a mate recently to replace a bloody old magnolia."
They are nice topiaries. The whole property is breathtakingly beautiful, and immaculate. Holmes delights in it.
"This is my treasure, this property, my dream."
There is a hot dry nor'wester. The hills are a light brown beneath a blue sky and a few fluffy clouds.
"My father and mother were very beautiful people, very decent people. We weren't flash, but they always taught me I should be good to people.
"In journalism that's hard because you have a hard job to do, and you know sometimes you're going to be writing stuff, or speaking stuff, that people are going to be deeply offended by. So I've always been mindful that you should be fair when you have power. I believe in kindness," he says.
"It's a very important part of my belief system that you get back what you put out."
He quotes John Lennon: "The love you take is equal to the love you make" and St Paul's Letter to the Corinthians. "There's this wonderful line at the end '. . . but the most important of these is love'. And I totally - in my core - believe that."
Holmes' core was certainly shaped by his parents' Presbyterianism and extended family's strong Left-wing leanings, but mostly it's innate, he says.
"I'm not really of the Left anymore. Economically. I started in a Left family, with the picture of Michael Joseph Savage on the wall sort of thing, and my great heroes were the Labour leaders of the '35 government. This was a household where there was only one way you voted, and if you didn't you were a godforsaken f...... Tory. And Tories were never to be forgiven. For what, I don't know.
"Somewhere along the line I felt we're all responsible for our actions and we've got to get off our arse and make a life. You can't expect a government or anyone else to do it for you all your life.
"There are things you want to do that no-one can help you with. There are things you've got to do alone, or you'll never be happy.
"Come on, let's go for a drive, I'll show you the place," he says.
We drive down the long limestone driveway toward a field of olive trees and lavender.
"I've done a lot of work here but the bones of it were all here. Swing a right, we'll get a nice gap in the trees," he says.
"I used to feel terribly guilty when I was interviewing National Party politicians. I'm thinking, 'You have no idea about my family. We ain't National.' Mine was a public service family. I came to learn I could get on just as well with National people as Labour people. What's more, I found I enjoyed the company of National Party people even more than Labour Party people," he says.
Holmes is candid about life's highs and lows. Walking out on his first wife Hine Elder and young family to take up a disastrous and short-lived relationship with colleague Fleur Revell ranks highly amongst the latter.
"I left my children. I look back and I can't believe it. But that's what happened. But there was no going back, and things do end for a reason. I had no reason not to be happy, but I was not happy. I would like to think I did right by Hinemoa in terms of settlement and everything like that. I tried to be friends but it never quite worked out," he says.
"Hinemoa and I have an agreement. I don't talk about her and she doesn't talk about me. I have no attitude towards Fleur now. She was too young. I was too mixed up."
Son Reuben, 21, flew home from his OE last week and is upstairs sleeping.
In Holmes' study are recent photos of daughter Millie at a surprise party held for him in Auckland a few weeks back. That was another low - the years of Millie's drug abuse.
"My daughter has now left that mad episode of hers behind and is now just flying into life. Look at her now, look how stylish she is. She's so beautiful. She's the greatest kid," he says.
He still doesn't think much of former United Nations secretary- general Kofi Annan but acknowledges calling him a "cheeky darkie" was a mistake. He apologised. What appears to have hurt him most over that episode in 2003 was his own reaction to Tariana Turia's call that he resign.
"I made a very obnoxious and unpleasant attack on her in one of my radio programmes. My mother rang me straight after the programme and said, 'Do you want to get fired? Why did you say that to Mrs Turia?' Months later I said to Tariana I was sorry about saying that, but I felt upset that you demanded my resignation. She said 'I know, I understand'. And we've got on beautifully ever since. I really do like her. She knows her onions. I love her and I love Pita Sharples," he says.
"See the bricks in that wall over there?" he asks. "They come from a building that came down in the '31 earthquake".
"Why are you trying to take off in f...... fifth gear?" he fumes, as we leave the lavender.
A column he wrote about Waitangi Day in February threw him back in the maelstrom. "I got whacked hugely for that column. What I hadn't realised is that it would make me seem anti-Maori, and I so am not. My son's third name is Apirana. I wasn't objecting to everything about Waitangi. I just objected to that discourtesy. But, nevertheless Hone Harawira makes a good point, there's a lot to be discourteous about. I accept many have that view.
"One day in the Green Room before Q+A I was sitting down with Tariana Turia. I said 'Tariana, I'm sorry about the column. Not that I'm sorry I wrote it, but I'm sorry it hurt and offended so many and that it may have been misinterpreted'. She looked at me and she leaned forward, didn't take her eyes off my eyes, and she said, 'Well sometimes things just have to be said.' I said 'thank you'.
"See that seat there," he says pointing to a red bench seat in one of the dells, "I painted my study that colour. I ordered 12 litres and used two. Because I'm a f......."
Asked what he is most proud of, Holmes replies quickly that it was his Erebus book, published last year.
"That was a massive project. There was a terrible injustice there. Yes, I'd have to say the book. I'm proud of the Dennis Conner interview and I'm proud of the [Newstalk ZB] radio show, which was on its arse and I brought it back to number one.
"I would love to do another book. I rang my publisher the other day and said I'd do another book. He said, 'Great, what is it?' I said 'I don't know yet'.
"I had the vain idea when the Erebus book came out that I would take on and do a readable and exciting biography of Captain Cook.
"The world of academia thinks it owns Cook. I'd like to take him off them. Imagine the reaction if I wrote that book. 'Holmes has done it this time', 'he's gone too far this time', 'who the hell does he think he is'.
"I just love working around this place. It's got a lovely charisma. I felt it on the first day. It's hungry on the maintenance. My aim has been that no-one will have to worry, not in terms of having to be dragged down with expenses."
He points to a large glass conservatory that extends from the house. "That was Deborah's idea. She's very, very clever, my wife. I love her dearly."
Is there anything else he thinks people might remember him for?
"God knows. Being a nuggety little bugger? Yes, being a nuggety little bugger will suit me."
- Sunday Star Times
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