Lunch with George Hook: Roaring at those Lions, raging at politicians, raving about his Ingrid
Maggie Armstrong hears the TV and radio legend talk about mortality, money in sport and, indiscreetly, a saucy fantasy
George Hook is never late. And I don't get the impression he enjoys waiting. So at 12.25pm while I'm in the bathroom looking for a hairbrush, he's sitting tetchily with a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. "Shoot," he says when I sit, glaring down at me.
We're in swish Cafe Novo in the Westbury Hotel where the waitresses are very fond of George – it's his local at the Newstalk offices. He gets an omelette and chips and hands his salad back to the waitress. "I'm not inta health," he says in that inimitable, strangely American drawl.
The outspoken broadcaster has just emerged from a "horrendous schedule", working in New York, San Francisco and Boston over five days. At 2pm he'll record an interview with Vincent Browne for his drivetime radio programme, The Right Hook (he and Vincent go back to 1962 when they studied politics together – "great fella", he says, "mad as a hatter").
Between radio, being an RTé rugby pundit and a sports columnist in this newspaper, he works every day. He goes to Haiti once a year to work for the Haven NGO. He is 72 and suffers from gout. Does he ever get exhausted? George is not one for small chat and launches straight in.
"I'm beginning to sense that I'm not immortal. I used to think I was like Achilles, I was going to live forever. Just recently I think I'm not," he says. "It would be quite interesting if I dropped dead on radio or TV."
Does this mean he's stepping down from Newstalk? "I'm currently in negotiations," he concedes, eyebrow suspiciously raised. "I'm perfectly prepared to pull the trigger and stop working in September when my contract ends, because I have an alternative. At my age, I'd like to play some golf."
Speaking of sport, Hook isn't a fan of the Lions Tour. He says: "I'm completely untouched by it. Since the professionalising of the game the tour has become an entirely commercial exercise – it's not much different from Kellog's Cornflakes. It's not a sporting event, although they sell it as such.
"The travesty of the game last Saturday is that they abused the tour by adding a match. The tour is supposed to be in Australia and as far as I knew Hong Kong isn't in Australia."
Vintage George Hook. Listening to his bumptious broadcasts on current affairs, and his histrionic rugby post-mortems, you forget he ran a catering company, Campbell Catering, selling millions of sandwiches for "30 wasted years", as he puts it.
Ten years ago he wrote a confessional memoir about how choosing the wrong career nearly destroyed him, and it's still a subject he enjoys. "Famously I was sued by about 11 banks on the same day," he boasts. "I was simply not suited to running a business and that catering business almost lost me my house, almost lost me my wife and family."
In his mid-40s he thought of taking his life. "I went to the end of Dún Laoghaire pier because I thought it was a better alternative to what I had – if I had ended my life then there wouldn't be guys with baseball bats coming to the door looking for their money."
It wasn't so much a "breakdown", he says contrarily when I ask, as an "implosion". He carried on in business for another 10 years, coaching rugby for London Irish and Connacht and for the US team for the 1987 Rugby World Cup.
His broadcasting career began at age 56, when RTÉ asked him to sit on a rugby panel. That, he says, is how he saved his marriage – that, and promising to empty and refill the dishwasher every day.
It would fit nicely if George Hook had an unhappy upbringing but he didn't. Born in Cork, his parents were poor but he had an "amazing childhood". His father George was a clerk in CIE and a drummer in a dance band. On long walks with arms linked he taught young George about politics and debating.
He attended the fee-paying Presentation Brothers College where he was "probably the poorest boy in school". Was he among the brightest? "I was but I didn't excel," he says. "I was always held back by my sense of social inferiority."
He moved to Dublin in 1960 after his father got a promotion, and went to London to work in insurance, and later to study accountancy, before stumbling into that disastrous job.
George presents a fall and redemption narrative of his life but it all seems too orderly. What, I ask him, was the real cause of all his misery?
"I don't drink, smoke or gamble, I just like women, but women are more expensive than drinking, smoking or gambling," he says, tipping back his second glass of Sauvignon blanc.
George Hook is vain, bombastic and brilliant fun throughout lunch, prone to bouts of infectious, cackling laughter. No matter how many confessions he has made, I find that he always has more up his sleeve. "So you like women?" I ask. "I love women." Tucking into a bowl of ice-cream, he colours in his type – short, dark, intelligent, aggressive. Whoa! Better leave it there. He won't, though.
"The lovely Ingrid" is a fixture in George's conversation and quite sweetly, he won't shut up about her today. He seems to genuinely worship his wife like a new mistress.
Ingrid Palm was an exotic pharmacist from Austria who turned down his first invitation to dance. "I adored her from the first minute I saw her on St Patrick's Day 1967, adored her, never stopped adoring her. But I was a dysfunctional husband. I thought marriage was kind of bed and breakfast and privileges."
Now in their 70s, the bond is as strong as in 1969 when they married, almost. "It's not exactly the Karma Sutra or anything. But we are incredible friends. I love her and I admire her. Ingrid and I have nothing in common. Nothing. What we have in common is that I know she loves me, and she knows I love her."
He continues: "I'm not giving any bedroom secrets away", and gives too much information anyway. "I often wonder this, if I'm not some kinda sexual deviant, because I like very dominant women. Although we've never actually tried it, would it work if we had whips and boots and stuff? Maybe that's a good idea for the future."
Moving on, is redemption possible? Can a man who hates himself turn around his life, outwardly and inwardly? Does George like himself now?
"I really like myself now, I really do. I'm very proud of myself. Obviously now, in this part of our economic history, there are a tremendous number of guys who failed us, and they are looking out now and saying it's all over. It was all over for me at 55 and I pulled myself together.
"It wasn't as if I won the lottery and I got a lot of money. I got the numbers for the lottery but I could only get the money if I worked very hard. When Newstalk started, they thought David McWilliams was going to be the star, they didn't think the guy at 4.30 was going to be the star."
George is often criticised for, as he calls it, "treble jobbing" on radio, the rugby panel and as a journalist, not to mention those unredeeming Sky ads he's done. He raises this himself, saying: "I love the money. I love the money. Money cannot buy you happiness, but lack of money can destroy happiness."
He paraphrases the actor Michael Caine: "I remember what it's like to be poor, I don't intend going back there."
"I'm not recommending 30 years of failure and bankruptcy to everybody as a career choice. But what makes me a broadcaster today is I have lived – I've seen all sides of life, I'm very in touch with my emotions."
As a man of strong opinions, does he ever intensely dislike his radio guests? "Regularly", he replies. "All politicians annoy me, all politicians don't answer the question." He found Michael McDowell "arrogant" as a minister but now he likes him, while he "hated Mary Harney with an unbelievable passion".
A firm Fine Gael supporter, he thinks Enda Kenny is "incredibly underrated" and in rugby terms a great "captain". His present hero is Leo Varadkar – "I think he's gonna be the next leader of Fine Gael. I'd just love to be Varadkar's adviser, I'd give up Newstalk."
He's in Joan Burton's fan club. "I'm a fan of women in politics," he says. The one time in his life he voted Fine Fail it was for a woman, Mary Hanafin.
I'm pleased. George and I seem to be on the same page. So are you a feminist? I ask. "No, but I could easily be a cross-dresser. I used to steal underwear from mothers of my friends when I was at school. I liked the feel of them," he reflects.
At least I thought we were. With George Hook, you never know.
George Hook - A Life in Brief
From Albert Road, Cork City.
Family "The lovely Ingrid"; children Michelle, George and Alison; six grandchildren.
On sport "Premiership soccer isn't a sport, I even hesitate to call it entertainment. I fear for rugby because rugby will go precisely the same way. Professionalism has been bad for Irish rugby; the ordinary person doesn't go to the rugby. The Aviva is an appalling stadium, it's about drink."
On Leo Varadkar "There's a sincerity about him; there's an integrity about him. He speaks brilliantly, he has a hugely independent mind, he's not afraid to stray off the party line and he's smart. I think he's the business."