Jens Lekman's Night Falls over Kortedala

Bernard Zuel

Three years ago Jens Lekman was voted the 15th sexiest man in Sweden by Elle magazine. OK, that's not exactly bachelor of the year status, but it's not bad. Not bad at all for a droll pop singer with what was, at the time, a small but devoted following for his achingly lovely songs that wore their wit and heart openly. Songs about philosophy and Rocky Dennis (the seriously disfigured teenage boy in the film Mask); about using your one phone call after being arrested to request a song on the radio; about pretending to be your lesbian friend's boyfriend to keep her father happy.

Three years on, Lekman's new album Night Falls over Kortedala - more classic pop in the mould of Burt Bacharach and Jonathan Richman with dance rhythms - made it to No.1 in his homeland. Has that seen his sexiest man ranking change?

"It should have, yeah," Lekman says, sounding a little hurt at Elle's evident failure. "I look better now than I did back then."

Where would he rate himself, then, on the sexiest man in Sweden table?

"I'm not the sexiest man but somewhere in the top 10," is his considered opinion. "The problem last time was the whole [Swedish] football team was in there. But most of those players now are quite old and are dropping out."

If you've not seen him perform or heard his songs you may be wondering what is it about Lekman that would make him one of the sexiest men in Sweden. He has the answer.

"I have a very nice voice," he says. "It's pretty sexy, I think. It's not always a sexy voice but it can be sexy. That's my opinion anyway. There are times when older people hear me sing [and] they say that I sing a little bit like Elvis. That may be their only reference point, of course, but still it's a pretty good and sexy reference."

Lekman is an amusing man, made more so by a deadpan face and a dry delivery. It can make it hard to know when to take him seriously (though he insists the much circulated story, started by him, that he is moving to Melbourne from Stockholm is true). It seems that uncertainty about what was serious and what wasn't, evident in his audience, had some effect on him, too, until "Hawkeye" Pierce and friends made it all clear to him. Seriously.

"When I started writing songs and performing them I had this feeling that maybe I was comically retarded," Lekman says. "Each time I sang a song that was very serious to me, people would laugh and when I tried to make people laugh with a funny song, people started to cry. At some point last year I stopped listening to music for a long time and I listened to a lot of comedy. I loved all the comedy records I got and I watched every single episode of M*A*S*H and that last episode - you remember, it's very serious and not a single joke, quite a dignified look at life - when I came to that episode I realised what I had been trying to do with my songs.

"I think a lot of my songs are very silly and very stupid, written to entertain people, but in the end I always come to that last line and I feel that I have to wrap this up with a bit of dignity and a little tear in the eye otherwise the joke would be on the characters in the song."

With Lekman songs, it is possible to laugh and cry a number of times across the album and sometimes within the one song. The thing is, he's not afraid to go there because as an undoubted fan of the pop song and its conventions, he understands that being passionate about something doesn't mean you can't see the silliness. After all, there is nothing sillier than being in love.

"Some very silly songs can have an almost melancholy feeling when you put it in a different perspective," he says. "Like [his new song about a job he had during his year off from playing music] Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo for example. That was definitely just a silly song I wrote so that people could dance to it and sing along but in the end when I heard it, it was a very pretty song and almost made me cry."

Sphere: Related Content

Jerry Seinfeld's Most Demanding Movie, 'Bee Movie'

Dave Itzkoff

In the dressing room of an Atlantic City nightclub, Jerry Seinfeld is explaining the stand-up comedy ritual of "getting in the bubble": a state of mind that a performer seeks before show time, a few final moments of calm before the tumult of an unpredictable live audience.

And make no mistake. When Seinfeld faces his crowd, he is usually thinking of the exchange in raw, physical terms: a competition to be won or lost. "I want to get 'em bad," he says.

Minutes later he emerges from the bubble and onto a stage to riff about the banalities of bachelorhood and marriage, burials and cremations, and to relentlessly mock an indiscreet heckler who has made the mistake of announcing that his nickname is Potato Head.

The hour-long routine is a crucial opportunity for Seinfeld to practice his act at a time when he feels, as he often does, that he's not performing enough. "No matter how many times you've done it in the past, it's got to be polished or it goes away," he says backstage. "The act just packs up and starts walking."

More important, the show is a warm-up for Seinfeld's biggest leap yet out of his bubble, onto an international platform he has not occupied in nearly a decade, and into a medium he has never attempted before.

It is Bee Movie, a DreamWorks Animation comedy that is by far the most substantial project the 53-year-old comedian has taken on since pulling the plug on his Seinfeld television sitcom in 1998.

In the ensuing years Seinfeld has starred in an HBO comedy special, I'm Telling You for the Last Time, and a low-budget documentary, Comedian, and written a children's book, Halloween. He got married and fathered three children. In whatever spare time remains, he continues to perform his stand-up act with a triathlete's zeal.


width="234" height="60" scrolling="no" border="0" marginwidth="0" style="border:none;" frameborder="0">
Yet none of these endeavours - the professional ones at least - has demanded as much of Seinfeld as Bee Movie, a studio feature with a budget of about $US150 million ($162 million) for which he not only supplied the voice of the lead character, a wisecracking honeybee named Barry B. Benson, but also helped write the script and spent nearly four years overseeing every element of the production.

He is also a central component of the film's marketing campaign, showing up in television commercials and at live appearances (occasionally dressed in an oversized bee costume), suggesting that this cartoon movie about talking insects is just another part of his indomitable comedic continuum.

But to many fans, and to many people who worked on Bee Movie, the film represents the first real return of Seinfeld since the end of his television show, a welcoming back after what appeared to be a self-imposed absence. "When you watch this movie, it feels like you've found your best friend who you haven't seen in ages," says Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation. "It's like, where have you been the last 10 years?"

Just don't mention this to the man whose name appears atop the movie poster.

Two days after his Atlantic City appearance, Seinfeld is walking through New York's Central Park, on his way to lunch at the Central Park Boathouse. He is dressed in blue jeans and a pair of John Lennonesque spectacles, offering pointed analysis about anyone who enters his field of vision, whether it is a pedestrian wearing too much makeup ("I think that was a mime"), or Dean Poll, the well-tanned owner of the restaurant, who pays a visit to Seinfeld's table. ("I think he just wants to show people his nice skin," Seinfeld says.)

Much of Seinfeld's success is predicated on the nonchalant persona he cultivated in his comedy act and on his television show, and the apparent accessibility that comes from his insightful observations of the quotidian and the ordinary.


fr" width="234" height="60" scrolling="no" border="0" marginwidth="0" style="border:none;" frameborder="0">
The rewards that he has reaped have been substantial: Forbes recently estimated that he makes US$60 million a year, primarily from his share of the syndication revenue Seinfeld still generates. (A representative for Seinfeld declined to confirm this figure.) His live touring and royalties from Seinfeld DVD sales also contribute to this sum.

Though Seinfeld may wear Nikes, he also lives in an exclusive residence on Central Park West, maintains a fabled collection of Porsches and travels to and from his stand-up dates by helicopter. In person he can be affable, but he doesn't hide a certain earned arrogance. When one stunned onlooker at the Boathouse asks for his autograph, Seinfeld says, "Sure," then keeps walking straight to his table.

On this afternoon Seinfeld is playful but also perturbed about a short article he had read over the weekend in The New York Times, 69 words about Bee Movie that described the film as his effort at "gingerly" re-entering mainstream entertainment. "Gingerly," he says with emphasis. "If they only knew. There was nothing 'gingerly' about this."

Seinfeld likes to tell a story of the film's spontaneous origins, about four years ago, at a dinner on Long Island with Steven Spielberg, at which Seinfeld joked that Bee Movie would be a fitting title for a movie about bees, and Spielberg concluded this would actually be a good idea for a film. "I wasn't pitching him," Seinfeld recalls, "but then he started pitching me: 'You gotta make this.' "

Bee Movie represents the culmination of a campaign more than 13 years long, waged by Katzenberg to recruit Seinfeld into animated movies. Going back to his time at the Walt Disney Co, Katzenberg had frequently tried to persuade Seinfeld to lend his voice to a cartoon project to no avail. "He was always amazingly open and accessible," Katzenberg says, "and incredibly polite and definitely not interested."

What persuaded Seinfeld to take on Bee Movie were the assurances by Spielberg and his DreamWorks partner Katzenberg that he would have free rein to make the film his way (as well as access to a video-conferencing system so he could work from New York when necessary), and his naive assumption that it would take three to four months to write a script, record his tracks and finish the job. "I could not have been more wrong," he says.

Seinfeld estimates that it took him and three hand-picked writers nearly 21/2 years just to complete the script for Bee Movie, the story of a talking bee who falls in love with a human florist and discovers, to his horror, that mankind has been stealing his community's honey.


width="234" height="60" scrolling="no" border="0" marginwidth="0" style="border:none;" frameborder="0">
As Seinfeld became further entrenched in the film's pre-production process, he was in for a rude awakening about how he was really perceived in the entertainment industry.

Working with a casting director to recruit voice talent for the film, Seinfeld was given two lists that supposedly represented all the A-list male and female stars in Hollywood. When he looked at the lineup of male performers, he was surprised to find his own name missing from the roster.

"I said, 'How come?' " Seinfeld recalls. "She said, 'Because everybody knows you only do your own thing.' "

To the extent that Seinfeld engages with Hollywood any more, these interactions are often fraught with ambivalence. "I never get offered things that I think I could really bring something special to," he says, though it is hard to imagine what kind of project he would deem a good fit. Over the years he has turned down his share of offers - most recently a comedic caper written by David Mamet - often because he cannot find the time, and sometimes because he doesn't have an interest. "I could just take parts to act in movies," he says, "but they don't need me."

Nor can Seinfeld understand why the industry seems to believe he has spent his post-sitcom career in a cushy exile of his own design, when he continues to appear at clubs and theatres. "That's what I do," he says. "That's all I can do. That's what a comedian is. Our thing is not disappearing into other characters. It's being this character that you are."

Friends who have known Seinfeld for years say that he has always been sharply attuned to the fitness of his stand-up act, and eager to perform it no matter what else was occupying him in his personal or professional life.

"When he wasn't out there for a period of time, he would start to get antsy and feel like he was losing his edge," says Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm. "The phrase he would use was 'out of shape.' I never looked at it like that."

That Seinfeld has, since 1999, been married to the former Jessica Sklar, the founder of the charitable organisation Baby Buggy, and has a six-year-old daughter, Sascha, and two sons, Julian, 4, and Shepherd, 2, does not seem to have diminished his fervour for hitting the road.

Still, the rarity with which Seinfeld applies his full creative energies to a project like Bee Movie would seem to add pressure on the film's critical and box-office results, if only to prove that its star remains a powerful draw.

But fellow comedian Chris Rock, who plays a mosquito named Mooseblood in Bee Movie, argues that the film should not be judged against Seinfeld's larger body of work. "If he was doing a movie that wasn't animated, where he was dating Scarlett Johansson, his version of Manhattan, then maybe yes," Rock says. "But this is a movie about cartoon bees."

Seinfeld's colleagues agree with his assessment that it was unfair to categorise Bee Movie as a comeback project. "It's not like he's been hurt or injured or anything," David says. "It's not like he tried something and failed, and now has to come back from it. He's just been doing what he wants to do."

When his promotional duties for Bee Movie, which include attending the film's November 19 Sydney premiere, are over, Seinfeld says, he has no concrete plans, except perhaps allowing his daughter to see his stand-up act for the first time and proving to his two sons that their father is more than just a guy who makes films about bees for a living.

He says he takes a certain pride in measuring his life against those of other stars - but declines to name names - who have achieved comparable success, but who haven't found the time or the will to settle down and raise a family. "There's certain celebrities," he says, "where I see where they're at, and I know how old they are, and I know what they're doing, and I'm like, 'Yeah, what are you going to do now, Potato Head?"'

Seinfeld understands that these same people might derive a similar schadenfreude from seeing him - formerly the quintessential single guy - made over as a happily married man, or in secretly wishing that his streak of good fortune comes to an end. "I can't imagine that they wouldn't," he says. "I sure would. 'Enough of this guy, it's about time he fell on his face.' "

Bee Movie opens December 6.
Masters of their domain

The post-Seinfeld careers of Jerry's collaborators

Michael Richards (Kramer)

A year after Seinfeld shut up shop, Richards created the short-lived sitcom The Michael Richards Show (2000), on which he was also a co-writer. He returned to stand-up comedy, keeping out of the spotlight until late 2006 when he made headlines for racially abusing hecklers at a comedy club. Voices Bud Ditchwater in Bee Movie.

Jason Alexander (George)

When Alexander's first post-Seinfeld sitcom, Bob Patterson (2001), failed to fire, he settled for guest appearances in a string of shows including Friends, Monk and Malcolm in the Middle, voice parts in cartoons such as Dilbert and a run in the LA stage production of The Producers. Another sitcom, Listen Up, made in 2004, lasted one season. He recently signed as a regular for Everybody Hates Chris and will appear in an episode of Julia Louis-Dreyfus's The New Adventures of Old Christine.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine)

Louis-Dreyfus's first attempt at a sitcom was a failure: Watching Ellie, made during 2002-03, lasted only 12 episodes. After a star turn the next year in four episodes of Arrested Development as the blind lawyer Maggie, Louis-Dreyfus found more lasting success with The New Adventures of Old Christine.

Larry David (co-creator, writer, cameo role as George Steinbrenner)

Despite his constant complaints about Seinfeld's success (he lamented the thought of having to write further episodes when Seinfeld got the green light), David was the first to jump into another project after the series ended. His improvisation comedy show Curb Your Enthusiasm is now in its sixth season.


" width="120" height="90" scrolling="no" border="0" marginwidth="0" style="border:none;" frameborder="0">

Sphere: Related Content

Dame Anne Salmond's "Trial of the Cannibal Dog"

Kristine Walsh

In Dame Anne Salmond's book Trial of the Cannibal Dog - about the voyages of Captain James Cook - a central narrative device is the event of the book's title, whereby members of Cook's crew stage a mock trial and execution of a native dog.

It was, according to scholar Dame Anne, an illustration of how the 18th-century collision between Polynesians and Europeans changed their world views.

Now imagine that all of the players in that particular drama were themselves dogs. They snap. They bark. They raise their faces to the sky and howl great tracts of opera.

That is how it will happen when the musical adaptation of Cannibal Dogs debuts in Wellington at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts.

And the idea of converting all the singers into canines is not really that fanciful, says director Christian Penny.

"What we are trying to capture is some of the strangeness they must have felt during those meetings of Europeans, Maori and Polynesians," Penny says from his Wellington base.

"Plus it is a good metaphor for the hierarchy of the day. Whether we are humans or whether we are dogs, some of us are always going to be lower down in the pack."

As in the times of Cook, the audience could get a sense of "strangeness" from the canine cast, of meeting a completely different species, he added.

"In a piece of theatre like this the audience has to be slightly destabilised or they will look at it simply as an historic curiosity. That is key in theatre ... always looking for a way to make things real through the unreal."

Published in 2003, the award-winning Cannibal Dog was an enormous work that, through the sheer amount of research and information, gave an indication of the colossus of the sea, and the task before Cook and his crew as they tackled three voyages around the Pacific, Penny said.

"We were never going to be able to portray that on stage so, for us, the question was 'how do we make this story personal? ... how do we bring these people together?' What we decided we could do was to deal with the microdrama of Cook and the crises that were his downfall."

Harking back to that idea of of meeting peoples you never knew existed would also be central, Penny said.

"In this day and age we forget how difficult it is to meet someone who is very, very different from you. The real challenge was to capture the incomprehensibility of what happened for Maori and those in the Pacific."

Commissioned especially for the 2008 festival, it was the brainchild of US-based New Zealand composer Matthew Suttor, a lecturer at Yale University.

"We went through university together and are long-time collaborators," says Penny, who leads the directing degree at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School. "But we haven't worked together for 15 years so it will be exciting to work on his first full opera."

Like Suttor, Penny (Tainui) was undaunted by the scholarly nature of the book that inspired the piece.

"Matthew thought it was wonderful material and I, certainly, have a genuine curiosity about how that early meeting of peoples was a defining moment for us all. We live every day trying to work out the consequences of that time."

Penny says he and Suttor met Dame Anne "very early in the piece" to ask permission to use her work, "which she gave openly and generously".

Though it is described as a chamber opera with four principals and a chorus of six, Penny says the stage version of Cannibal Dog is more like a musical with John Downie's libretto being sung in Maori, English, Tahitian and Hawaiian.

The music, he says, resembles a cross between that of contemporary composer Philip Glass and quirky jazz ensemble Six Volts - which is useful given Volts frontwoman Janet Roddick has been confirmed in the cast.

"It will be visually rich and quite magic in its staging," he says. "And we have taken a few liberties with the story. For example, in examining how Cook lost his European heart, we look back to the story of his wife, the psychodrama that stems from his loss of heart being the loss of his relationship with her."

Despite the subject matter, however, he says the overall feel will be more wild and shocking than maudlin.

"We think it is important to get access to these stories in a new way so with this work we can explore the imaginative side - how these people felt, the hopes and fears they may have harboured."

The Trial of The Cannibal Dog will be staged at Wellington's Opera House on March 2, 4 & 5. Bookings open on November 16.

The book

Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Dame Anne Salmond, won the History Category and the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. It is described as "a fresh and startling account of Cook's three voyages around the Pacific, in which Dame Anne explores the impact of contact on both Polynesian and European cultures"

Sphere: Related Content

Today Is November 9th 2007

Today is Friday, Nov. 9, the 313th day of 2007. There are 52 days left in the year.

Today's Highlight in History:

On Nov. 9, 1965, the great Northeast blackout happened as a series of power failures lasting up to 13 1/2 hours left 30 million people in seven states and part of Canada without electricity.

On this date:

In 1872, fire destroyed nearly 800 buildings in Boston.

In 1918, it was announced that Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II would abdicate. He then fled to the Netherlands.

In 1935, United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis and other labor leaders formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (later Congress of Industrial Organizations).

In 1938, Nazis looted and burned synagogues as well as Jewish-owned stores and houses in Germany and Austria in what became known as "Kristallnacht."

In 1953, author-poet Dylan Thomas died in New York at age 39.

In 1963, twin disasters struck Japan as some 450 miners were killed in a coal-dust explosion, and about 160 people died in a train crash.

In 1967, a Saturn V rocket carrying an unmanned Apollo spacecraft blasted off from Cape Kennedy on a successful test flight.

In 1976, the U.N. General Assembly approved resolutions condemning apartheid in South Africa, including one characterizing the white-ruled government as "illegitimate."

In 1986, Israel revealed it was holding Mordechai Vanunu, a former nuclear technician who had vanished after providing information to a British newspaper about Israel's nuclear weapons program. (Vanunu was convicted of treason and served 18 years in prison.)

In 1989, communist East Germany threw open its borders, allowing citizens to travel freely to the West; joyous Germans danced atop the Berlin Wall.

Ten years ago: A Boeing 707 jetliner carrying first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was forced to return to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington after a sensor indicated an engine fire, which turned out to be a false alarm. (Clinton left the following day for a tour of Central Asia.)

Five years ago: President Bush said in his Saturday radio address that Saddam Hussein faced a final test to surrender weapons of mass destruction.

One year ago: Republican Sen. George Allen conceded defeat in the Virginia Senate race to Democrat Jim Webb, sealing the Democrats' control of Congress. Champion figure skater Michelle Kwan was appointed America's first public diplomacy envoy by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. CBS newsman Ed Bradley died in New York at age 65.

Today's Birthdays: Sportscaster Charlie Jones is 77. Baseball executive Whitey Herzog is 76. Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., is 71. Singer Mary Travers is 71. Actor Charlie Robinson ("Night Court") is 62. Movie director Bille August is 59. Actor Robert David Hall ("CSI") is 59. Actor Lou Ferrigno is 55. Gospel singer Donnie McClurkin is 48. Rock musician Dee Plakas (L7) is 47. Rapper Pepa (Salt-N-Pepa) is 38. Rapper Scarface (Geto Boys) is 38. Blues singer Susan Tedeschi is 37. Actor Eric Dane is 35. Singer Nick Lachey (98 Degrees) is 34. Rhythm-and-blues singer Sisqo (Dru Hill) is 29. Actress Nikki Blonsky (Film: "Hairspray") is 19.

Thought for Today: "He who seeks rest finds boredom. He who seeks work finds rest." — Dylan Thomas, Welsh author-poet (1914-1953).

Sphere: Related Content

Peter Snell: From Olympiad to Scientist.

Michele Hewitson

Peter Snell has a book out, his third, and after he sees me he is going to launch it at a lunch. Will he be giving a reading? I asked. He thought this was very silly and he laughed at me. "It's not poetry."

Still, I suggest page 227 might make for lively reading. This page shows a flowchart describing "the organisation for major clinical trials starting with screening candidates, baseline testing, randomisation and follow up". He looked at this as though he'd never seen it before in his life. He said, "I don't know why I put that in", and he laughed again, at himself.

His book (co-written with Garth Gilmour) is called Peter Snell: From Olympiad to Scientist. He says he wrote it because "it's a big message, I think. That it's not too late to turn your life around and start over, which is essentially what I did." When I ask, "Who's this book for?" he looks a bit startled, then he says, "Umm, well, it's probably for me".

He is really quite funny, although nothing I have read about him, and little in his book, suggests that he will be. I think the difficulty is that he is hard to get down on paper and he obviously found it a bit tricky, too. That's what happens when you write a book where the aim is not to give too much away.

I thought he'd be prickly and asked if he could be. He said, no, he wasn't, which is what anyone would say. But it wasn't an accusation. He makes it quite clear to me (and in the book) that being a legend wasn't all it was cracked up to be, so who wouldn't have got a bit huffy?

Anyway, I wondered what it was like being a legend, whatever that might actually mean. "I'm not sure either. It has a good ring to it. Ha. And if you are, then it's good to be living somewhere else."

He has lived in the States for 35 years now and, whenever he comes back, annoying people like me ask if he's ever going to come home to live.

He once said, in response to this: "Well, no one asked for my resume." He says he meant it flippantly but you can see how it looks on the page. So, he tried being flippant and came across as prickly instead? "No. No, I don't think so. Umm, prickly, as in I deserved more than I got? That sort of idea? Yeah, well I've got to admit, Michele, I did go through a period of feeling a little bit resentful and it bothers me that I felt that, but I did."

I thought being asked over and over whether he's ever coming back might make him resentful. If it did, it doesn't now. "Well, the answer is no. But it's nice that people would want to feel that I might be back. And it's probably a bad idea because I think the expectations of what I could do would be high."

Does he also mean that the weight of expectation would be overwhelming? "Well, I don't know. I mean, I could alter that expectation pretty easily."

He certainly loves coming home and feels a great warmth when he does, which might be a reflection of his state of mind.

He is very happy these days. He loves his job and his second wife, Miki, and their home in Dallas with the diabetic cat, the two chinchillas and the Southern flying squirrel which hides acorns and nuts all over the house. In 2000, he told a journalist that he had no friends in Dallas and no emotional connection to the place.

I read this back to him and it sounded rather bleak. He's too busy to make friends, he says, and he made his friends during his youth in New Zealand when he did have time. "I have lots of acquaintances and there may be a reason for that. It might be that it's because I'm not putting the effort out to make friends. And my wife is my friend and she likes doing things with me. So I don't go out with the boys or anything like that. She wants my time when I'm not at work."

On the cover of his book, he has a nice friendly big smile. He looks like a healthy, happy 68-year-old. It's a picture of Peter Snell, a scientist who lives in Dallas - not a picture of the young man who won three gold medals.

Snell had an idea about a substitute subtitle: After the Cheering Stops. Would he like that as a subtitle to his life? "Well, I could have had it if I'd wanted it. No, this - From Olympian to Scientist - is my suggestion because my first book, No Bugles, No Drums was a bit stupid actually."

I say I'm not sure what that title actually meant and he laughs and says: "Yeah, people have speculated about what it means. They think it's something to do with modesty."

And does it? "No. Hell no. That's my wife's angle. She says, 'You know, you've cultivated this image and I know it's not true.' She claims that people think I'm modest and I don't know that I am. I recognise you don't get anywhere by trumpeting your own stuff. And her view is that the reason I'm so esteemed in this country is that I'm not around to screw it up."

Of course when he's here, we want to talk about those brief, blazing years, from 1960 until his retirement five years later, and he is good about this. He didn't once show any irritation about the focus on this tiny part of his life and he might, given that half of his book is given over to his career as a university professor in the cardiology division at the University of Texas. His wife, he says, is the one who gets miffed. "She said, 'You know, it's about time New Zealanders realised you've been doing something else with your life' for whatever it is, 30 or 40 years."

I wanted to know what he thought his public image was here, and he related a recent description: the relentlessly sane Peter Snell. "I'm trying to figure it out. My original thought was: Am I boring?"

I don't know yet; I've just met him. Perhaps he could tell me? "Hope not."

I think he doesn't really mind being thought boring. God forbid he'd do anything as flamboyant as a book reading. But he won three gold medals; you'd think he might have been tempted to get a bit excited. I asked him whether being a sports star went to his head and he said, very sensibly: "How would you know?"

He had no choice but to go on being sensible. He still went to work at the quantity surveyor's office, on the bus, and paid his two pounds 10 shillings board, which was half his wage packet, and he waited for opportunities that never came, which is what he came to resent. "People said, 'Oh, you know, it'd be nice if you could have a sports shop'. That sort of thing - and it was sort of insulting." He could have opened a nice little sports shop and had a nice little life. "Yeah, that's right, and call it Olympics Sports Shop or something like that. Yeah, right."

You can see why he found this insulting. And you can see why he might have had that reputation for being a bit grumpy.

Now, I just think he was in what he calls "a somewhat crummy situation", wasn't very happy and not very good at hiding it.

I can't quite reconcile the man in the book with the man sitting in this room with me. He is candid and thoughtful and, as I've said, possesses a nice, dry sense of humour. The best thing seems to get him to have a go. How does he think he comes across in the book?

"Well, actually, in the first book when I stood back and looked, I said, 'This is pretty self-centred.' But then I thought, 'Well, that's okay, because this is what it took to achieve'. To get those achievements, you had to be thinking about yourself a lot. So then it became okay. This one? I don't know. I haven't read it yet."

Of course he has; he proofread it. I asked whether he thought it revealed much about him. "No. No, I don't really. Yeah, I'm holding back, quite a lot. Well, it's private, it's personal."

But it is a book about him and I read aloud this: "The fifth decade challenge to translate seven years of formal education into a satisfying career saw the end of my marriage and took me to meet my second wife, Miki."

"Ha, ha, ha. Okay. Well, I don't want to go into it. Don't I say a bit more about it? Well, I don't know how to handle it. I mean, it's apparent that it says very little on the emotional level, if you like."

Which might, actually, inadvertently, reveal quite a bit about him? "Yeah, it probably does." At which point the publicist knocks on the door and he says to her, "Well, this is perfect timing because she's getting me to squirm a little." Then, to me, "Did you have a further question?"

I do, as it happens. He wore a money belt during the interview, which seemed eccentric. Did he think I might rob him mid-interview? "No. It's not a money belt. It's because I leave stuff lying about and this is how I keep track of things. There's no money in here. It's my glasses and my Palm Pilot and some pens. It's keeping track of stuff."

Is this relentlessly sane? I can't make up my mind. But I do know the bloke wearing what is not a money belt is not a bit boring.

Sphere: Related Content