George Hook: ‘I’ll retire in despair if I don’t overtake Matt Cooper’
Behind the Right Hook – the cartoon character he inhabits to maximum effect on radio and TV – is an ambitious broadcaster with complex views on ambition, retirement, dementia and the right to die
‘The inscrutability of the living cartoon enables Hook to be, by a considerable distance, the greatest Irish broadcaster since Gaybo, entering into the imaginations of his audience, inviting love and loathing in equal proportions.’ Photograph: Eric Luke
George Hook is Desperate Dan. Or perhaps Fred Flintstone going yabba-dabba-doo on the radio, with “the lovely Ingrid” back home in Bedrock. Or, perhaps Dagwood and Blondie, with a dash of Popeye and Olive Oyl.
Hook is pure cartoon, self-penned, calculated self-caricature, redrafted in his mid-50s to meet the opportunities that suddenly dropped in his path. His backstory helped: a series of careering disasters in the catering trade, involving bankruptcy and petty fraud. His autobiography, the sublimely titled Time Added On, tells of his rise from Corkonian poverty to national iconisation and in between those calamitous 30 years in the wrong job, ducking and diving to dodge the blows and judgments of an unfathomable world. Hook is a man who seems repeatedly to have walked off cliffs, hung momentarily in mid-air, plummeted to the ground and survived to stagger into the next frame.
Reborn as a national broadcasting icon at the point when other men were retiring to play golf, he has played up this cartoon dimension to maximum effect, creating a legend behind which the “true Hook” recedes into oblivion.
When I arrive for our appointment in the lounge of the Westbury Hotel, he is on the phone to one of his researchers, emphatically instructing that they shouldn’t have the same old politicians saying the same predictable things. His vehemence, he explains to me, is linked to the reasons he recently announced his staggered retirement – from television next year and radio the year after. He wanted to choose his moments rather than let others tell him. When the moment arrives, he wants to have reinvented Irish radio for a new age.
“It’s all about me. It’s not about my employer, or helping them,” he elaborates, with that blend of seriousness and irony that renders it impossible to say whether he’s deadly earnest or engaged in some elaborate self-parody.
“Why do we in radio think that, 10 years from now, people are going to be consuming radio the same way as they are now? Why do we assume that people want an interview with Ruairí Quinn at 4.45pm; 5pm interview with Shane Ross? Why do we assume people are waiting for the news at 6pm?”
Newstalk, he says, has had the same format since it opened; RTÉ has been doing it for decades. “This next generation isn’t gonna buy that, because they get their news in a different way. So I’m going to deliver, between now and the day I go, what I believe is the radio of the next generation. I’m a bit like Glenn Miller in pursuit of ‘the sound’. In his head he had this idea of what the band should sound like. I know what the Right Hook’s supposed to sound like, but I haven’t got it yet. And I’ve got a date I must have it by: October 26th, 2016. So every day that goes by, I say, ‘S**t! Another day gone and I haven’t got it’.”
He spends a while every day studying his JNLR listenership figures, and he has discovered that, although his top-line figure remains below those of his direct competitors – Matt Cooper on Today FM and Mary Wilson on RTÉ – his audience among younger listeners is far higher than either.
“I can tell you how many people under a certain age listen to me, what day of the week people listen to me, what county they listen to me in. Matt Cooper is 20,000 or 30,000 ahead of me. Right? At one point he was 200,000 ahead, so I’ve done pretty well. But I’ve more than double his audience in Dublin. I’ll retire in despair if I don’t pass out Matt Cooper.
“Mary Wilson is more than 100,000 ahead of me. Right? If you strip out the over-45s, in fact the over-50s, I’m ahead of her. I don’t have the slightest difficulty with the idea that the entire old-age pensioner population of Ireland listens to Mary Wilson. No problem.”
Even if you’re one of them? “Even if I’m one of them.” The inscrutability of the living cartoon enables Hook to be, by a considerable distance, the greatest Irish broadcaster since Gaybo, entering into the imaginations of his audience, inviting love and loathing in equal proportions, forcing people to break out in reluctant smiles at the absurdity of his verbal adventuring, his brass cheek, his apparent indifference to slings and arrows, which bounce off his hide like hailstones off a rhinoceros. On his Newstalk show, he reads out attacks on himself with the insouciance of a dentist surveying a recalcitrant wisdom tooth.
‘It hurts like a bee sting’
“If some fella sends out a tweet and says, like, ‘You fat f***, what do you know about rugby?’ – why am I going to be worried about that? They must think that I have, really, self-esteem issues about my weight. Ahahahahahaheheheh.” He laughs with a spontaneous eruption that is not feigned for social lubrication. He finds life funny, and “Hook” funnier still.
“Clearly it’s untruthful to say that it doesn’t hurt or sting. Because of course it does. It hurts like a bee sting. Or like a slap in the gob. Or a heavy tackle. But you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. And the reality is that when you’re fat, bald, toothless, with bad eyesight and erectile dysfunction – like, who’s gonna offend ya? D’ya know? How can I get offended? Ahahahahahheh.”
He speaks of himself from different angles, sometimes using “I” or “me”, but as frequently referencing “Hook”, or, occasionally, “George”, as though walking around himself in fascination at what has become of him, how he transmogrified into this phenomenon near the end of his sixth decade, and maintained it into his eighth.
He’s an entertainer, he insists – not part of the Fourth Estate. No bulwark, he, of democracy or freedom. “My job is to bring things to an audience that largely doesn’t understand the topic, to try and bring it to them in a way they can understand it. Bill O’Herlihy was crucially important to my development at the very beginning. He said to me, ‘75 per cent of the people who watch sport on television don’t understand it’.
“Therefore, there’s no point in going on television and saying, ‘The loose head’s left leg is 33 degrees at an angle to the North Pole, and therefore that’s the problem, why the scrum is dipping, yah know, six inches on the left hand side’. The object of my radio programme is not to prove that the gross national product of Estonia is half that of Ireland. My job is to bring somebody in and have a conversation with them.”
In April he will have been on the air on Newstalk for 12 years, the last one standing from what he calls the “stellar cast” of that opening day. “Giants. Like McWilliams, and Kiberd. Like, where was Hook among these giants? Yah know? But Hook’s there and they’re not. And the reason Hook’s there is that Hook understood what he was, and what he was trying to do.”
The words seem to burst out of him having found their way around some naturally existing dam. It’s like he has rescued them from some etymologically virginal existence and led them astray with his verbal anarchism. “Technique” becomes “tacknaeke”; “message” becomes “massa-ege”; “chips” become “cha-aps”; “sitting” becomes “sateing”. He breaks words up – “So my job is to make it understandable” – like a butcher wielding a cleaver.
Cartoon or human?
That cartoon thing may be his most lethal weapon. While other broadcasters create cardboard cutout Paddy Paxmans or Leppy Lettermans – or don their mortar-boards to deliver lectures with every question – Hook writes himself into his own large frame. There’s a warmth about his persona that only a cartoon character could achieve in something as unreal as a radio studio. His plagiarisms are contextualised in one believable character. Whether the “true Hook” is in there is irrelevant, because the cartoon version is so complete and adaptable, having history, heart, humour and a hunger for things that few humans could access in themselves.
He knows stuff – a veritable Hookapedia of American politics, movies, cookery and music of peculiar and uncertain vintage. He conveys a passion for the most unexpected things, and an avid ignorance of others. I’ve been on Hook’s radio show a thousand times. Each time, he rises to greet you like a slow predator wearied by sleep. Each time he becomes energised when the red light comes on. Each time you find yourself engaged in what appears to be an intense human interaction: enjoyable, annoying, intense, funny. Each time, or almost, you want it to continue. There is something about Hook that I’ve encountered in no other broadcaster: he is in love with this moment of talking. He cannot believe the grace and mercy that have defined his life.
Terrified of dementia
Yet, he is sanguine about the fact that it will all come to an end. He is 72. “I have no problem about death. I actually have more problem with living. I am terrified of dementia. I think about it every single day. The thought of being in a wheelchair, not even knowing my name, with some nurse stuffing rice pudding down my mouth, with a bib. I just can’t abide. Right? So if I can get some advance warning, I’ll take some pills. Or go to Switzerland. No doubt.
“Funny enough, my mother [he becomes conspiratorial] . . . rang me and she says to me, ‘George, I want you to come out for a cup of tea’. You know? So out I go to her and she says to me, ‘I’ve been saving these up’, and she produces a bottle of about 36 sleeping pills. Right? And she says, ‘Now George’, she says, ‘you can have a cup of tea and then I’ll take the 36 pills and then we’ll chat. And . . . job done.’ And she says, ‘I’m 88 and I’m here on my own, and the dog’s died, and you’re never around’. She didn’t quite say ‘You’re never around’, but that’s what she meant. So she said, ‘It’s time to go’. And I said, ‘Mum’, I said, ‘you can’t f***ing do this. I’ll go to jail. Ahahahahahah. And she said, ‘Would you, really?’ And I said, ‘Of course I’ll go to jail for helping you out’. ‘Oh, well that changes it, I suppose’.
“But she was right, because the next four years were terrible. She had a bad end, in pain and everything else, and no son there to look after her. I was f***ing around America, you might say trying to keep body and soul alive, but that’s no excuse. It’s no excuse. Not a day passes that I don’t regret my parents. Not a day.”
God and such
Hook and I have had a few on-air dingdongs about God and such. He repudiates organised religion and often seems adamant that he’s not a believer. “I don’t know how I’d describe what I am, but I believe there is something else than what we’re doing. Because if there’s nothing else to life, we’re writing off half the population of the Earth, and centuries of effort and science and everything. And then, just as importantly, when I boil it down to myself, there has to be another reason for what I’m doing here than just picking up a cheque on a Friday. I hadn’t thought about this, until you asked me.
“Like, I believe that somebody, somewhere, has set me a challenge in my life: they’ve given me all these skills, and I have to make the best of these skills that they’ve given to me, or otherwise I’m like the prodigal son. Yah know? And I have that kind of spiritual belief about what I do.”
He pauses and gestures towards the stairs. “But if the grim reaper walks in there now and says, ‘George, time to go’ – I’d say, ‘Fine. I’m ready’. He stops and considers. “I just haven’t passed Matt Cooper. Can you just give me few days to do that? Gaaud, let me pass Matt. Ahahahahaheheheheheheheh.”