Our very own “Queen of Hearts”, Jane Bowron

Paul Holmes
Hodder Moa Beckett, $44.95,
ISBN 1 86958 758 8

There is something to be said for writing your autobiography at the end of your innings. A life recorded by those who have lived to the fullness of time, marbles still intact, is usually more interesting than the vast array of lightweight autobiographies written by 30-something retired sportsmen which litter our bookstores.

Broadcaster Paul Holmes is nudging 50 and is the classic workaholic, hosting a broadcasting show at one end of the day, a television programme at the other, and grabbing whatever else he can get. He is a small man who dominates in a small country, and whether you like him or not he is presently the only game in town in populist broadcasting, though TV3’s John Campbell is giving him a run for his money.

At the height of his powers and having weathered a hugely soapy marital split and a very public affair with the mandatory younger woman, one wonders what on earth Holmes was thinking of when he sat down to compose his memoir, then allowed it to be published when the New Zealand public had forgiven and forgotten his lurid dalliance with Fleur Revell. While this book is not all about that amazing legend in her own lunchtime, Miss Revell, the last chapters, all devoted to the love that dare not speak its blame, dominate the book and ruin the early chapters which are quite moving.

Holmes’s father, Henry Holmes, was a stretcher-bearer in the Field Ambulance Corps in the Second World War who picked up pieces of the dead and the dying at Tobruk and Alamein, Sidi Rezegh and Monte Cassino. He returned to Hastings, became a motor mechanic and bought six acres of of land where he passionately grew things as a reaction to the constant diet of death he’d seen during the war. Though Henry Holmes read widely and had a rich sense of humour, the grisly war years took their toll and towards the end he became increasingly eccentric, hit the bottle, and there followed an Auden-like slow death and drawing-down of blinds. The way his son describes this process is the high point of the book.

Holmes’s childhood was apparently happy and he hits the idyllic 50s childhood theme right on the nail, even managing to sound literary:

But the summers, those long, fierce Haumoana summers! We played at the river, biked to see friends, went for drives on Sunday and sucked mountainous ice creams from Rush Monroe. Cousins came and stayed. Dad grew white Christmas lilies along the sunniest side of the house and through the warm and expectant nights of summer their perfume filled the quiet house where children, exhausted from the heat and the playing, happy from secrets shared at night, slept in crowded beds.

Holmes the kid is hugely likeable but clearly the outsider who grows up wanting to be loved by everybody. He grew pansies, pressed flowers, and early on had a developed sensitivity for the underdog. He writes about the hunchback girl at Karamu High School who lived up the road in a state housing area:

One day I went to the sick room with one of the bad headaches I used to get. The hunchback girl was already there, waiting for her Mum to pick her up for lunch, I guess. She smiled and chatted politely. She was gracious and I was aware of an unexpected strength. I lay down on the narrow bed while she sat by the window in her wheelchair. I lay with my eyes closed from the fury of the headache. I opened them to see her pull a hairbrush from her school bag and tidy her stringy, meagre hair using the window for a mirror. In reflection she saw me looking at her. “Oh dear,” she said, “aren’t I vain.”

I never forgot this. I suppose I realised then that everyone has dignity, everyone wants to look their best, to do their best, to be their best. She was ill-formed but she was sweet and funny and mocked herself for her vanity.

Here we have Holmes the nascent humanist, who goes on later in life to become patron of the disabled Olympics and parylmpics [sic]. That is, Holmes at his best; and this is the part of his persona which translates so well on television where he excels at human interest stories which he claims were only previously seen on page three in newspapers. But, as the book moves on, the endless name-dropping and accounts of hopeless obsessional love affairs with women who move offstage never to be seen again eventually forfeit the dignity established in the early chapters.

What is so fascinating about the Holmes story is that Holmes not only becomes his own human interest story but he starts to enthrone himself as well. Look at what he writes about Princess Diana:

Diana broke the rules. If your personality as a whole is good, if you do your job well, if you display generosity and humanity, if you’re all right as a person, the public forgives. Indeed, the public likes you more. None of us is pure.

The inference is that Holmes is like Diana. Holmes is the Queen of Hearts whom the people love because he speaks for them and has his own troubles just like the ordinary flesh and blooders he has on his show every day. As His Royal Highness says of his own audience: “Many of the people I meet in broadcasting are the downtrodden and outcast. On television and radio we represent them and give them a voice.”

His autobiography becomes a type of royal command performance in itself where famous politicians, opera singers, sports heroes, rock stars and The Star Downtrodden are wheeled out onto the Holmes stage for a quick medley performance in a sort of print version of the end-of-year Holmes Christmas party.

I suspect one of Holmes’s secret yearnings – currently unrealisable because he himself is in charge of this particular noxious television fantasy – is to be the subject and star of This is Your Life: Paul Holmes.

Where’s Bob Parker when you need him?

Jane Bowron is the TV reviewer for the Dominion. 

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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