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What Was I Thinking: A Memoir by Paul Henry review

Paul Henry’s memoir shows him determined from an early age to stand out in a crowd whatever the cost.

Paul Henry acknowledges Paul Little’s contribution as co-author of What Was I Thinking by inserting a photograph on the dust jacket of the pair of them in bare feet staring po-faced at the camera like two off-duty mime artists. No one thinks twice about actors and models enlisting the services of a ghost writer, but it does seem more than a little odd for a journalist, albeit a dyslexic one, to require assistance in writing his own memoir.

The title leads one to suppose a sizeable portion of the book will be devoted to the storm created by the infantile joy Henry expressed over the pronunciation of Chief Minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit’s name, and his interview with the Prime Minister where he asked disingenuously whether Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand was “even a New Zealander”.

However, those unwise utterances on TV1’s Breakfast show are only dealt with in the last slim chapter, while the rest of the book is a mix of autobio­graphy, photographs, contrived school-boyish lists – favourite cars (Aston Martin Rapide, Hummer H1), poshest actresses (Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren), famous friends to get him out of a jam (Darren Hughes, Pam Corkery, John Banks, Annabelle White, Pippa Wetzell) – rants about tipping and advice on cooking a steak.

In the margin of the pages, the publisher has seen fit to include Henry’s barely decipherable spider-like scrawls on his galleys (eg, “f--- sorry” and “Kate is a very very good sort”).

From the account of his early years, spurred by the influence of a distant and absent (but I must say incredibly handsome) father, Henry seems to have been dead set on becoming rich and famous, and was possessed with a drive to stand out in a crowd whatever the cost.

During his training years, he travels back and forth from New Zealand to Britain so many times he breaks flow in the narrative to assure the reader, “This is the last time I’ll change countries”, as he makes himself indispensable at the BBC and at National Radio, where “Dick Weir had the superfluous task of mentoring me”.

Although it would be churlish to describe What Was I Thinking as airport literature, it would be just the ticket to while away an ash cloud or two as Henry relishes in telling tales of his derring-do in Bosnia, Iraq, Africa and India as a foreign correspondent for Radio Pacific.

If you are looking for Henry to dish the dirt on his journalistic colleagues, you will be sorely disappointed, although he confides that when he worked with Sharon Crosbie at National Radio she had a reputation for tantrums, “liked to throw large objects” and hit him with her glitter wand, which he found “stimulating” because he had a crush on her.

Peter Williams QC, with whom Henry sailed to Moruroa Atoll to protest the French testing, is described as “a firm friend – but like most friends I hardly ever see [him]” and is applauded for his belief in absolute fairness, “except when he is arguing with you”.

Negotiations with the then boss of news at TVNZ, Bill Ralston, for Henry’s Breakfast job were made at a long lunch after an edict had just been passed that no bottle of wine charged to the company account should exceed $60, so Ralston made a point of finding bottles for $59.95.

Henry would have us believe that journalism is secondary, that he doesn’t need to work, because, after a career selling anything from encyclopedias to roofs, he has developed a talent for buying a property or a business, adding value to it, then flicking it off at profit.

He regrets parting with his wife, who hovers in the pages and never really takes shape, although he is at pains to paint her as a thoroughly decent woman, while he wonders if his daughters ever really came back to him after the split.

Henry comes across as genuine in his love and respect for all the women in his life (his dear old sidekick mum continues to twinkle) and rates former lover Diane Foreman as a friend to be relied on when the chips are down. However, in the rare moments when he allows himself to get over his epic sense of self, and manages to take his tongue out of his cheek, he wonders what he’s doing living alone in a big mansion lost in admiration of his furniture and watching the Living Channel.

Perhaps the self-proclaimed loner has achieved distance, exactly the perspective he loathed in his father.

WHAT WAS I THINKING: A MEMOIR, by Paul Henry (Random House, $39.99).

Jane Bowron is a TV critic for the Dominion Post and Press. Her post-Christchurch earthquake columns will to be released in October as the book Old Buck & Me.