What Paul Henry was thinking

NO REGRETS: Paul Henry makes no apologies for being outrageous.
NO REGRETS: Paul Henry makes no apologies for being outrageous.

Paul Henry Hopes was a small boy when his father took him by the hand, clambered on to some rocks at the edge of the sea and threw him in.

The story of how Henry, who has since dropped his surname, was taught to swim by his father is indicative of his life  he always bobs to the surface.

This time is no exception. In the nine months since he was shown the door by Television New Zealand, Henry has penned his memoirs with co-author Paul Little, producing What Was I Thinking: A Memoir.

Last year, the veteran broadcaster polarised the nation and almost caused an international incident with his comments on TVNZ's Breakfast programme.

After labelling British singer Susan Boyle "retarded" and mocking Greenpeace activist Stephanie Mills' alleged facial hair, Henry then deliberately mispronounced the name of Delhi's chief minister Sheila Dikshit, despite being told by TVNZ to pronounce it as "Dixit".

"The dip shit woman. God, what's her name? Dickshit ... " Henry said through laughter to stunned viewers. "Dickshit is so appropriate because she is Indian."

The Outraged, as Henry likes to call them, complained again when he commented that Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand did "not look or sound like a New Zealander".

He agreed to resign from TVNZ, he says, because the media storm created by the incident had become so great that his mum received death threats and someone threatened to throw acid on one of his daughters.

Henry argues that before he almost started an international incident, a journalist on Australia's Sunrise programme had asked Ms Dikshit to pronounce her name and she had said "Dickshit".

He says he did not deliberately mispronounce her name for comic effect, as he "didn't need to".

"Too many people go about their lives trying to find things that outrage them. They enjoy being outraged."

His memoirs are titled What Was I Thinking, without a question mark, because Henry makes no apologies and has no regrets. He will apologise for hurting someone's feelings, but never for being outrageous.

"The one that comes closest to a regret is ... I'm pretty sure Stephanie Mills was genuinely upset. Probably not so much by what I said, but by the continuing coverage of what I said, which was, again, blown out of all proportion."

Alongside his broadcasting career, his memoirs encompass Henry's childhood, which, thanks to his father's penchant for gelignite and adventurous spirit, was not dull. However, for all his adult confidence and swagger, Henry comes across as a lonely child. He was nicknamed "Jesus Boots" and bullied at school because he wore sandals, even in winter, because his mother, Olive, couldn't afford "normal" shoes.

As a young man, he admits he displayed an air of "unbridled wankery".

He frequently wore a trilby. He smoked a pipe. He often sported a waistcoat with a fob watch. He sealed all his letters with wax and rubber-stamped his possessions. Rather staggeringly, he also commissioned a quantity of colourful cardboard matchboxes with his name emblazoned on them in gold lettering.

He was on a first date in an Italian restaurant with a pretty girl whose name he can't remember. He was directing her through his numerous magnificent qualities when she commented that she could smell something burning. A large quantity of matches were exploding in the right pocket of his jacket. He excused himself from the table and by the time he got to the bathroom his jacket was ablaze. The date was unequivocally over. Or, as Henry describes it: " 'How was your date, darling?' (her mother). 'He caught fire,' (whoever).

"That was a funny time in my life because I seriously used to think, 'I'm exceptionally good looking, wonderful personality, job with the BBC  I should have girls lining up for me', but that wasn't the case. In hindsight, the monogrammed matchboxes was taking things a little too far."

Henry was born in Auckland in 1960. His father, Brian, never wanted children. Although his parents separated early in his life, they never divorced.

"His mother had said to my mother, 'He's not the marrying kind', before they married. It turned out he wasn't the divorcing kind either."

When Henry was 11, Olive bundled him back to Britain to a depressing council flat in Redcliffe, Bristol. Olive worked in a plastic-bag factory.

"We were short of most things, but never short of plastic bags."

With gypsy blood courtesy of his grandmother and his marine-engineer father, an adventurous chap by all accounts, it is perhaps no surprise that Henry, too, craved adventure.

At one stage, back in New Zealand, he set himself up as an international news correspondent working out of his Masterton lounge, watching CNN and jetting off to war-torn hotspots. In Iraq, he was thrown into jail but managed to talk his way out.

At 15, he had started as a cable boy and gofer for See You Saturday with Arthur Parkman at the BBC. He later worked as a projectionist in the natural history unit.

Returning to New Zealand, he worked as a breakfast host on 2ZD Radio Wairarapa, before setting up his own radio station, Today FM 89.3.

Henry ran as the National Party candidate for the Wairarapa electorate in the 1999 general election, but lost to former Today FM colleague Georgina Beyer.

In the course of his 50 years, he has protested at Mururoa, run an antique shop and a cafe, and sold Lexington encyclopedias.

Henry freely admits he is a man of quirks, but wears his "personal circumstances" - his obsessive compulsions and "dysfunctions" - as a badge of honour. He could count his close friends on one hand.

A peek into the modus operandi of Henry the broadcaster is the story of how he got an interview with actor Peter Ustinov. He was working for National Radio at the time. He lied to colleague Relda Familton that they had a one-on-one interview ahead of a media conference. Ustinov's breakfast was being delivered at precisely the moment the pair got to his room. They shuffled in behind room service. Ustinov appeared in a bathrobe, still dripping wet. He walked to the table and started to lift the covers of his breakfast.

"Well, you'd better sit down, hadn't you?" he said before dividing his breakfast up between the three of them. A magical interview followed.

Basically, Henry writes, his career has been about "bullshitting" and says he has done it to get meetings with actors, guerrillas and prime ministers. To him, an interview is spent searching for "the magic".

He prefers to prepare only three questions. It might be worth mentioning here that Henry's obsessive compulsive disorder is punctuated by "the number 3 and all permutations of the number 3".

After he resigned from TVNZ, he was inundated with job offers, he says, including one from his local garage as a car groomer. He was also approached by an American production company that had first become aware of him via a Breakfast diatribe on YouTube about Americans being sucked into Amtrak toilets. Discussions continue "slowly", which is, Henry says, "the American way".

Since becoming unemployed, Henry has spent many enjoyable months in the United States, driving his 2011 Mustang on long road trips, notching up speeding tickets and visiting his daughter, Bella, who is studying in Kansas.

"When you lose your job, you can think 'Oh no, it's the end of the world' or you can think 'This is fantastic'."

Back into his first broadcasting love, he will be hosting the drive-time talk show on Radio Live from next month, but also expects to appear regularly on TV3, where he hopes to have his own weekly talk show.

On the cover of What Was I Thinking a sticker advertises the opportunity to win dinner with Henry. When asked if he will be treating the winner to a meal in an Indian restaurant, there's a pause.

"If that's what they want, that's what we'll do. I'm not sure how it works, but I think the winner should get to pick where we go."

Hopefully, no-one will catch on fire. 

The Details: Henry will talk about his memoir tomorrow at 3.30pm in the Ballroom at the Amora Hotel, Wellington. Tickets are $25 (door sales only) and include a glass of wine or beer. Doors open at 3pm.

The Dominion Post