My drunken dinner with Duncan Garner
Steve Braunias backgrounds his alcoholic interview with Duncan Garner, extracted below.
We both enjoy a drink. Drinks.
We were going to meet earlier in the week, over lunch, but I cancelled, and suggested dinner. At around about midnight, he said, “What have I let myself in for? You are going to completely nail me. I’ve been thinking about this for days. It’s like a stay of execution.”
I like him a lot and we met after the story came out. He was happy with it. The Herald were happy with it, too, devoting half a page to Garner’s angry speech (in Heraldese: “an expletive-laden bitter rant”) about his Newstalk ZB rival, Leighton Smith. I think we’d gone through about three bottles of red by that time.
But my intentions were honourable. I brought one bottle of red – his own mother recommended it. I got there at seven. I figured I’d be home at maybe 10 or 11. It was the next morning that I staggered out of his front door; we’d spent the last hour or so whispering, for fear we’d wake up his wife, Deanna, who had angrily got out of bed sometime long after midnight and told me to go home. I stayed, cowering in the kitchen, and kept saying to Garner: “I’m so frightened! What if she wakes up again?” My role whenever we meet is to fret; his role is to look after me. He said everything would be alright. He kept opening another bottle.
I wrote the story up as a record of what went down that crazy night. I wanted it to stand as a not especially pretty glimpse of the kinds of things journalists say to each other, the way we talk about stories. I asked him what sort of things would have been said if his best friend Guyon Espiner had been there instead, and he said, “We’d be re-enacting our part in some scandal, embellishing it. We would be solving issues, we’d be talking journalism, scalps we’ve taken, idiots we’ve known, stories we’ve been involved in – we’d be telling half-truths, bullshit, lies, and fun. And you’d be asleep on the couch, bored.”
I was shocked at that last comment. Garner had me pegged as some wan, dainty figure of feature journalism. I suppose that’s accurate but I’ve always felt envious of really good daily news reporters. Garner said that in his opinion, the best in the country were Espiner, Patrick Gower, Oskar Alley, and Eugene Bingham. He added a bit later, “There are some really great journalists I haven’t mentioned – Phil Taylor, Tony Wall, Andrea Vance. These guys are a lot better than me. I just scrap and fight to survive on the margins. And you’re sitting there smiling, and you’re thinking, ‘Jerk.’”
He was doing it again. I think I was smiling indulgently because I knew Taylor, Wall, and Vance, and rated them just as highly as Garner. Or maybe I was smiling foolishly because I was drunk.
In any case, the other object of writing the story as it a narrative of our boozing was that it seemed the best way to get across a sense of Garner’s character, his bombast, his humour, his sensitivity. Before I arrived, though, I wondered about treating the story as a study of two characters – Garner’s friendship with the newly appointed co-host of Morning Report, Guyon Espiner.
The two are close. They’ve spent the last three out of four Christmases together. Their friendship is witlessly described as a “bromance”. They talk about how they complement each other. Big guy, slender, marathon-running guy; chaotic Garner, considered Espiner. They make such an unlikely pair. But which was chalk, and which was cheese?
The usual understanding of Garner is that he’s a yahoo, ripping and shitting and busting with every breath; as the former political editor at TV3, he was aggressive, without mercy. He wasn’t exactly subtle. As for Espiner, he’s thought of as a kind of aesthete, who provided something resembling an intellectual approach when he served as former political editor at One News. He’s known to write verse. It’s said to be nowhere near as awful as the lines written by that other news broadcaster and poet manque, Richard Langston, of Campbell Live.
They enjoy each other’s company and need each other’s company. After Espiner left Wellington to live in Auckland, Garner was pretty much bereft. The fun went out of his job at the press gallery. He quit and followed Espiner to Auckland about a year later – to host the drive show on Radio Live, and also to work with Espiner as co-presenters on TV3’s current affairs programme 3rd Degree. Their promos for the show have become famous, the two of them with their heads close together, talking in heated, elliptical bursts about journalism, about speaking truth to power, about…what, exactly? Espiner: “We are going to get flak for this!” Garner: “I don’t care!”
But they did care. When Espiner’s matey profile of Labour MP Shane Jones was mocked, Garner wrote a passionate editorial on the Radio Live website: “In defence of Guyon Espiner.” His defence took the form of attack, claiming that the journalists who held their noses at the 3rd Degree story were envious of Espiner’s brilliant career. The same kind of tactic was at play in Garner’s expletive-laden bitter rant (catchy phrase!) about Leighton Smith. Garner was upset by a dig Smith made at him when they bumped into each other at a sushi bar on Khyber Pass Road; his way of responding to it was to attack Smith as “a prick”, “a fucking prick”, etc.
In part, Garner comes out swinging because he’s an outsider in Auckland. He’s the new kid on the block after all those years as an ultimate insider in Wellington at parliament. Also, it’s due to his loyalty, which is something he takes seriously to the point of mania. “Extreme loyalty,” Espiner describes it, admiringly; he said, “He’s got this massive belief in me. ‘Oh you’re brilliant at this and this. Even in small stuff – like the other day he moved my brother [journalist Colin Espiner] which took all day. Colin was too tight to get a mover. Duncan did it with a smile on his face and a bad back for eight hours. This is a guy who works bloody hard, and it was a Saturday. He gutsed it out all day. And he loved it, too, raving on all day. That’s the sort of guy he is.”
Patrick Gower, who succeeded Garner as political editor at TV3, also talked about Garner’s loyalty and support. Garner headhunted Gower, taking him from the Herald to TV3, chatting him up outside parliament one day with the stirring line: “I’m tired of fighting these pricks. I need some help.” Gower: “He had me at pricks. What fucken better job offer is there? “ Even so, Gower was afraid of failing in the new job, his first on TV. But he said Garner stood by him in his first difficult year. “He made a big commitment to looking after me. It was a lot of extra work, but he never shirked his responsibility.”
Looking after Gower, looking after me – what was Garner, some kind of godfather? True, he was as a big as Tony Soprano. Radio Hauraki presenter Matt Heath has memorably described him as, “A couch inside a suit.” Did he look after Guyon Espiner, too? He had gone one better than that.
I visited Espiner and his wife Emma before I went to see Garner. Emma was a few weeks away from giving birth to their daughter Nico. They lived in a townhouse. It was very quiet and tasteful. It felt like a yoga retreat or something. They spoke with deep affection for Garner; he had always been in their lives.
Emma explained, “He’s been an incredible supporter of me from day one.”
Guyon said, “Well, that’s an interesting story, isn’t it. He was a strong backer of our relationship when others weren’t.”
They exchanged a look. Guyon said, “Shall we tell him?”
Emma said, “Yeah. I was working for a Labour MP when we met. It was a bit contentious.”
Guyon said, “And I was the political editor at TVNZ. And so certain people inside Labour, I won’t say who, quite powerful people, were telling Emma it was a problem. ‘Oh he might only be wanting to go out with you for stories. He’s using you.’ And Duncan, to his credit, went up there, and he said, ‘You lay off.’ He was a big supporter of ours from the get-go. And that was quite a big deal for you, wasn’t it?”
Emma said, “Yeah. It was. It was lovely.”
I said to Espiner, “In many friendships, someone will lead and someone follow. How’s that dynamic operate with you and Duncan?”
He said, “It’s a good question. A genuinely good question, as opposed to the ones people say are good questions but aren’t.” I suggested it might be helpful if he answered the question, and he said, “I suppose he would be seen as the leader. Outwardly.”
He let it go at that and I didn’t pursue it, but it was a revealing answer. He meant that it was obvious to assume Garner took the dominant role – he’s louder, has a bigger physical presence. But his postscript (“Outwardly”) hinted that it wasn’t that clear-cut. I saw this for myself after the story came out, and I met Garner and Espiner for a drink at Chapel in Ponsonby Road. Garner was kind of like Espiner’s wingman. It was Espiner who was more at ease socially, more confident in the bar; he sat back, surveyed the scene, a cosmopolitan and sophisticated presence. Garner sat forward, rounded his shoulders, now and then dared to look around him. Espiner led, Garner followed.
Which was chalk, and which was cheese? Garner was actually the more sensitive of the two friends, the one with the poet’s soul. He poured out his feelings about his father’s death in our interview, wept, said things he’d never told anyone.
I said to Garner and Espiner at Chapel that they were the other way around. Garner was actually the poet. Espiner was actually more trouble. They nodded, and thought there might be some truth in that. I was going to add that Garner was more intellectual than Espiner, and cite Brian Edwards’s opinion that he rated Garner as the better interviewer of the two, when some guy walked past and patted Garner on the head. I couldn’t believe it. You don’t ever do that to another man. I was livid. I began making noises about wanting to smack the guy over, but Garner called for calm, and put a halt to any nonsense. The godfather, taking care of business.
Below, an edited extract from Dinner with Duncan, from the January/February 2014 issue of Metro.
You could hear him talking to himself — “Oho! Here he is! Action stations!” — as he bounded to the front door of his house in a wide quiet street in New Windsor just after seven on a Wednesday night. I told him I asked his mother what to bring, and she recommended a bottle of red wine. He took it, and said, “Did she? What’d she say?”
I said, “Just that you liked red, but for you to go easy.”
He said, “Ha. Mumsy!”
There was a delicious smell of roasting pork, and a chook was shitting on the back deck. Radio Live host and 3rd Degree presenter Duncan Garner, 39, scampered down the hallway, surprisingly nimble for such a wide load — “the Big Man”, as his close friend Guyon Espiner (“G”) calls him. There was something Greek about his features — the black hair, the olive skin. Also, he was shaped like a Grecian urn. Later in the evening, he wobbled from side to side, and I was afraid he might smash.
It was the first time we had properly met since Nigeria. In 2004, as a tender feature writer, I tagged along with Garner and the rest of the gang of daily news hacks in the parliamentary press gallery to Abuja, the dusty, hopeless capital of Nigeria, for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
Garner was political editor at TV3. Helen Clark was Prime Minister. She had a term for the press gallery: “Chooks.” Garner ruled their roost, was always at the head of the pack whenever Clark gave a stand-up interview in the heat of the African sun. He asked short questions and spoke very softly. He looked her straight in the eye. His own eyes were cold and mirthless. I was frightened of him, and yet he had come to my rescue.
We travelled on an RNZAF 757. It took three days to get there. Even before it was out of New Zealand airspace, I’d managed to outrage Newstalk ZB jackass Barry Soper to such an extent that he furiously declared he’d make sure no one in the press gallery would talk to me for the entire journey. I put on a brave face, but actually I felt terribly upset. Garner broke the embargo. He introduced himself and said, “Don’t worry about it. You’re all right.”
I always remembered that act of kindness, and always wondered, too, about the sensitivity behind it. A brilliant interviewer, and a smart, successful, aggressive journalist, Garner projects himself as a tough guy. He makes adamant statements on his drivetime show on Radio Live, strikes impatient attitudes on 3rd Degree. As a political journalist who served a 17-year sentence at the press gallery, his stock in trade was busting open petty little scandals that ended political careers — as Patrick Gower put it, “Shit, mate, he’s got some scalps. Fuck, he’s got scalps.”
His wife Deanna (“D”) got their three-year-old son Buster ready for bed. Garner opened the red, and we stood and watched Campbell Live. Rebecca Wright was conducting her famous interview with the wretched John Palino — that is, she was preventing the failed mayoral candidate from getting in his car, and demanding that he account for his alleged hideousness. It made for excellent TV. It was garish, very physical, possibly meaningless. Garner watched admiringly.
He said, “Good old Wrighty.”
I said, “As a TV professional, what did you like about that?”
He said, “She found the prick. Pushed him up against the car. Made sure he couldn’t get in. Delayed him, delayed him, delayed him.”
I loved this kind of talk — aggressive, jeering, almost heartless. I felt warmed by it. It implied a firm belief that the half-crazed and vaguely disgraceful practice of journalism was a worthy calling.