Tuesday 21 October 2014

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 with Maggie at Cafe Novo. Photo: Dave Meehan.
Ingrid Hook
AIB League, Blackrock v Dungannon , Stradbrook Road. George Hook Coach of Blackrock College. Photograph © Brendan Moran SPORTSFILE.

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.

George Hook pictured with his daughter Michelle. Picture: GERRY MOONEY.

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."

George Hook. Photo: Sportsfile

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.

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.

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