Derek McGovern
Derek McGovern

A Sense of Life

"You’ve got a fortnight," growled the editor. "No whingeing, no whining - just do it!" Such was Mr Perigo’s "request" for an article to grace this magazine. I looked around for likely topics. God knows there were enough of them: the Employment Relations Bill, Arts funding, anti-smoking outrages...all worthy issues, yet none of them quite grabbed me. Then I had a thought. A sense of life had been his suggested brief. What better title for a piece on Perigo himself? And so I found my topic.

I first met Lindsay in 1978. And what a meeting it was! Just 26 at the time, he struck me as an intense beanpole with a face of extraordinary alertness. The occasion was a gathering of the NZ Mario Lanza Society, a club which Lindsay had formed to celebrate the lusty tenor and other singing greats.

As such clubs go, this one was remarkably sane. Its members were quirky and musical, and with the sole exception of one female fan - prone, I recall, to making drunken requests for Arrivederci -Hic!-Roma - very interesting to talk to. None more so than Lindsay, its articulate president, whom I recognised straightaway as a musical soulmate.

Here was someone quite different. For one thing, he focused on the speaker - and he really listened - a trait this gauche teenager found both scary and flattering. Later I was struck by his total involvement in Lanza’s singing. Sitting there, eyes closed, his body moving with the flow of the music, he was clearly in his own private state of rapture. "Christ, he likes his music!" whispered my father, intrigued that his son was not the only Lanza "nut" in New Zealand.

Lindsay led a Bohemian life at his Brooklyn flat. Arriving at the first of countless musical evenings, I remember being overwhelmed by the gallery of colourful characters, more richly varied than anything out of Dickens. There was Lindsay himself, a generous host with bottle ever at the ready; Lillian, a marvellously tactile soprano of seductive tone; Armando, an equally seductive Italian of roguish charm; and the late, great Jessica Weddell, broadcaster and human being extraordinaire.

Watching Lanza movies - often procured in bizarre circumstances in this pre-video period - was huge fun. "Oooh, the bitch!" Jessica would call out whenever Joan Fontaine’s malicious character appeared in Serenade. Then, as now, Lindsay would thrill to the supercharged romanticism of Lanza’s singing. To paraphrase Rand, when Mario sang, this was life as it could be and should be. Not that Lindsay restricted his musical pleasures to Lanza. He was passionate about any singer or composer who lifted life from the clutches of mediocrity. And so the voices of Callas, Wunderlich, Carreras, Moffo - and yes, even Elvis Presley - would soar as well, alternating with doses of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

Occasionally he would touch on political subjects. By now he had moved away from the leftish period of his youth. The catalyst was possibly the then-Prime Minister, Muldoon, whose rampant anti-individualism appalled Lindsay. I remember one remark of Muldoon’s that sent Lindsay’s blood pressure through the roof. Boat builders, Muldoon announced with a characteristic scowl, were yet another group whose achievements were "crying out" to be taxed at a higher rate.

"The bastard!" Perigo exploded. "Who does the little prick think he is, claiming the right to other people’s productivity?" Shortly afterwards, Lindsay stunned his National Radio audience by using the Christian-flavoured Morning Comment slot to denounce Muldoonism, mysticism and every other iniquity he could identify in the brief time allotted. Listeners gasped. From now on, whether he wished it or not, Lindsay was a political animal. The era of Perigo the activist had begun.

In March 1982 a tribute to Ayn Rand appeared in the Evening Post signed by Lindsay Perigo, William Weddell, Jessica Weddell and others. I was intrigued. Who was this woman? Lindsay provided the answer on my next visit. Literally throwing The Fountainhead at me, he ordered me to go away and read it. He must have been curious to see if I would "get it", since I was then a Labourite who had clashed with him over the Springbok rugby tour. "It", of course, was Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.

Objectivism changed my way of looking at the world. My initial reaction, as Lindsay had warned, was one of outrage at everything around me and frustration with the "second-handers" and "social metaphysicians" Rand had captured so perfectly in her book. This was the period of wage and price freezes, of carless days and Think Big spend-ups. Beyond New Zealand, a more overt form of communism was still being enforced in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. They were appalling times. Now I understood Perigo’s fury.

Philosophically, Lindsay has never looked back, and his achievements since the early 80s have been huge. He was the philosophical conscience behind New Zealand’s first and only libertarian radio station, Radio Liberty, which in turn led to the formation of the Libertarianz Party. His Politically Incorrect Show is the only radio programme of its kind in the world, and this magazine, now in its seventh year, is testimony to his sheer determination against all odds, and a two-fingered salute at every critic who gleefully prophesied its failure.

Financially, his beliefs have cost him, most notably when he could no longer stomach the banality of TVNZ’s "news" programmes and walked out of a lucrative career. But then Lindsay has never given a toss about money. Philosophy, music, and friendship are what drive the man. Yet he remains a curiously enigmatic figure to many. What’s he really like? I’m forever asked. Is he a nut or what? No man can have that much integrity! To those seeking the full picture of this complex character, look no further than Deborah Coddington’s definitive biography, Perigo: Politically Incorrect. In the meantime, here are a few observations of my own.

The usual complaint is that he is arrogant. This is a facile accusation, usually levelled by those who prefer their celebrities humble. Perigo merely has the audacity to know his own worth. "He could at least pretend not to know! Who does he think he is?!" his detractors reply. What they fail to give him credit for is his complete lack of phoniness. Not only is there no false modesty about the man, but his praise, when offered, is totally genuine. His sense of fairness extends even to his opponents, and he will readily acknowledge a consistent argument, regardless of whether he agrees with it. Would any of his enemies have the courage to reciprocate? In a culture of envy, Perigo stands apart.

There is another aspect to his "arrogance" that is often overlooked. Perigo is shy. People laugh when I say this, yet time and again I have witnessed his genuine desire for anonymity. Being recognised is the last thing on his mind as he walks up Queen Street or Lambton Quay, and the only recognition he desires is for the philosophy he espouses.

Yet he can be choleric, and there is no one grumpier than Perigo on a bad day. Mercifully, the storm passes quickly, but there is always a reason for his temper. What makes him angry? Top of the list are mysteries. He loathes people not being straight with him - particularly friends - and is mystified when he discovers he is not on speaking terms with someone he has unwittingly offended. Why didn’t they say something? he asks. By all means, tell me what I’ve done, or why I’m wrong - and argue a better case - but don’t just walk away!

His temper also arises from sheer frustration with the apathetic "sheeple", and friends are not immune to the occasional tongue-lashing for passively accepting the latest dictate from the government. This has led casual observers to declare Perigo permanently angry, but again their perception is way off the mark. His anger is merely an offshoot of a much grander passion for life. For his closest friends tell the story of another Perigo, an uproarious and romantic man who takes friendship very seriously, as his many tender attachments have shown.

I’ve always imagined Lindsay as a Renaissance figure, lustily carousing in taverns with the great figures of the day, tumbler in hand. Or in a later age, crossing philosophical swords with Hegel or Rousseau, demolishing their arguments with one thrust of his razor-sharp intellect, then repairing to Voltaire’s for supper. Perigo is not a man of his time. He should have been born in an age where ideas mattered, and individual achievement was nurtured and celebrated.

Back in 1995, I was working at Radio Liberty when a colleague encountered a well-oiled National Party Cabinet Minister at a private bash. "Thank God for Lindsay Perigo," the Nat foolishly confided. "That man dares to say what the rest of us secretly believe!"

And so he does. While others duck for cover, Perigo presses on regardless, "a prophet without honour in his own country", as Jessica Weddell described him in her final broadcast. Yet Perigo is no masochist. He continues to speak out because he gives a damn. But his vision is not restricted to the privileged few. His ideal is a country which respects the individual rights of all its citizens. A nation which leaves its citizens free to achieve...and to dream.

"We are all in the gutter," Oscar Wilde once said, "but some of us are looking at the stars." Perigo may not approve of the analogy, but he would certainly applaud its sentiment.

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