Man overboard. There are a set of very nifty long-handled nets used for collecting ping-pong balls at the Auckland Table Tennis stadium in Gillies Avenue; the thought occurred on a recent afternoon, when I was rather dreamily beating Act Party leader David Seymour two games to nil, that I ought to scoop him up with one of the nets and deposit him to the side of the court. He was drowning. He was lost at sea. But sympathy has no place in sport or politics, so I got on with the task of killing him dead.
It was a particularly humiliating loss because he was on home ground. Sometimes it takes a bit of remembering, because you hardly ever hear anything about Seymour in-between elections, but he's the MP for Epsom. His electorate office is just down the road from the stadium in the Gillies Ave Office Park - that's the big, brutalist tower block with the eye-catching giant clock on both sides. He's got a billboard at street level. His face almost shyly pokes out of the corner; with his brushed hair and his little smile, he wears a hopeful expression. It says: Do please have a nice day. It says: Can't we all just get along?
And this is the central paradox of Seymour. As the leader of Act, he stands for individual achievement, right-wing tally-ho yo-ho-ho piracy, the freedom to chase down a dollar and hold on to every last red cent of it. The party was built in the image of its founding MP, Richard Prebble. Rodney Hide (leader from 2004-2011) took no prisoners until Don Brash took him out and shot him. When the smoke cleared, Seymour was the last Act man standing, its only MP and new leader - nice, soft-skinned Seymour, boyish and open, definitely likeable, possibly even sensitive.
I said to him, "Are you even a libertarian?"
He said, "I'm a better libertarian."
We were standing by the table having a chat before the game. Seymour showed up wearing a loose and quite badly cut grey suit. Once again the impression was one of vulnerability. He said he was "caring"; he said he was "co-operative".
I said, "You're talking like a socialist. Don't you think the best government is no government?"
He said, "Well, we need government for things like the law."
I said, "Pshaw! I'm more Act than you are."
He said, "You're a caricature of Act."
I said, "Really. Well, how do you feel about winning and losing? Because this is what today is all about, bro."
He said, "I haven't played for a while..."
He stripped off his jacket. I handed him two bats and asked him to choose whichever he wanted. All the time we were bantering, I was watching him, sizing him up as an opponent. The first thing I looked for were signs of confidence. I didn't see any. Good. Seymour had unnerved me during the week when he sent a few trash-talk texts. The upshot of the messages was that I would be his bitch.
He last played in 1998 as a boarder at Auckland Grammar. It seemed entirely possible he'd spent many, many hours working on devilish spins - there's something diabolical about Seymour, a cunning, a wickedness. He has a very good sense of humour and nothing seems to faze him.
And so I'd practised hard for the first game in my series of armed combat against New Zealand's political party leaders. I paid $40 to ping-pong maestro Albert Cheng for a lesson at Rodney's Table Tennis, Auckland's best supply store. Nothing he said or did made a lick of sense. Albert demonstrated dropping the ball on to his bat, and spinning it. It was as though he were dropping an egg, and whipping it into instant omelette. I tried it. I dropped the ball on to my bat, and it rolled off on to the floor.
I stuck to my usual game - hit and miss - when I played a few games with passers by at the stadium in Epsom, and I also found time to make my way to obscure Sunnyvale, in West Auckland, where I played for nearly two hours with wily opponents at the Waitemata Table Tennis stadium. I lost every game. Everyone was too good, too clever, too kind - they let me get in a few points here and there.
Most of the time I was made to act the fool, swiping at thin air, lunging at shots played short, whimpering at shots played long. I wondered what that looked like. I found out at the stadium on Gillies Ave: it looked like David Seymour.
I sent him scampering hither and thither, his little feet running in all directions, his arm stuck out like a man trying to hail a taxi that had long since driven past. A line from Allen Ginsberg's classic poem Howl came to mind: "you scream in a straightjacket that you're losing the game of actual pingpong of the abyss". Seymour stood on the edge of the abyss until I finally pushed him off, and beat him 21-12.
The first thing I looked for were signs of confidence. I didn't see any. Good. Seymour had unnerved me during the week when he sent a few trash-talk texts.
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There was a dreamlike quality to my play. I imagined the angles, and made them real. Seymour was all arms and legs, whirling like a lunatic, in need of a straightjacket or a pep talk from Ayn Rand. Now it's true that Rand is as old hat to the Act Party these days as Marx is to Labour but surely some ideological integrity has remained. There's a famous passage from Rand's terrible novel The Fountainhead where her hero Howard Roark tears off a branch from a tree, and bends it. He declares: "Now I can make what I want of it: a bow, a spear, a cane, a railing. That's the meaning of life." Seymour had the material - a bat - but lacked meaning or purpose. In my view, it was a reminder of the cruel assessment of Seymour as little more than National's useful idiot.
So much of table tennis is all in the mind. I wondered when he would reveal its inner workings. Answer: in the very next game. Seymour was unfazed by his 21-12 loss and maintained the same calm, jovial demeanour. He lacked focus, and skill, also fitness and determination. But he showed tremendous daring and wit, and played the three best shots of the two games. They were tricky and audacious, highly original - you could quite say they were entrepreneurial, because the word is defined as "managing an enterprise with considerable initiative and risk". In those few exhilarating seconds he lit the Act flame and held it aloft. He was a torch of the individual spirit.
Then I got on with it, and beat him 21-18. He had no time for more and no energy, either; he admitted he'd put on 10kg since his regime of door-knocking at the last election, and could no longer do up the top button of his shirt. If I'd studied his body language before the game, now I studied his body. He was out of shape. He was thick-set. He had breasts - at 34!
The final report on Seymour: you're a loser bro, but a good sport and a hard worker. Table tennis confirms you have striking ideas. You just need a whole lot more.
Series score: Braunias sets the early pace and leads 1-0.