Steve Braunias has challenged all the party political leaders to a game of table tennis. Third lamb to the slaughter: Labour leader Andrew Little.
Labour leader Little loses by landslide. I could feel the presence of Gower, Soper, Dann and all the other hacks of the press gallery at my side, smirking and gloating, when I gave Labour's Andrew Little a hiding last Saturday at the Auckland Table Tennis Stadium in Epsom. There's nothing the hacks love more than blood and defeat. I'm that kind of vulture, too, I suppose, and come to think of it I'm probably worse. I operate as a non-violent psychopath with a fancy prose style. No empathy, no remorse. And yet I took Little apart with a heavy heart.
He's a decent rooster and I hope he gets the chance to lead the next Government. It's not something I'd bet the house on however and I realise that one of the things standing in the way of victory is Little. People dig him not. People hold him neither in high regard or low regard because they pretty much forget he's there to be held in any regard.
Labour aim to get around the problem by presenting Little standing next to the warm and memorable deputy leader Jacinda Ardern at every single opportunity. I half-expected her to show up at the stadium on Gillies Ave and offer to hold his bat.
But Little is not a fool and neither is he dull. He displayed a surprising flair for comedy in the fairly incredible video posted on Labour's Twitter account ahead of our game. It showed Little prancing around a ping-pong table. He called me out by name, and said to camera: "Listen, Sunshine, I've been working out, I've been practising ... Ain't nothing stopping me."
Sunshine! I admit I was worried. He looked fit in the video, strong, well-built. I made inquiries, and found he had form as a table tennis player - his family had a table when he was growing up. I studied the video. He held the bat well, although I couldn't tell if his shots were filmed in slow-motion or were just really slow.
I got in a bit of practise at home with Emily. It was her idea we should get a table, last year, and it's provided hours of fun, which is to say she's had more fun than me because she's the better player and wins more. When she's in the zone, she's unbeatable; she seems to be able to return any shot with interest. I play a humourless game. I plug away at it and work hard for every point. It's also the way I approach writing, drinking, and life.
On the morning of the match I decided I needed some music to get me going. I remembered Little was from New Plymouth so I went on YouTube and found an old track from New Plymouth punk legends Sticky Filth. It was okay. It made me think of other New Zealand bands from the 1980s, and I found two songs that became the soundtrack to my match with Little - Adults and Children by Ashburton punk legends The Gordons, and Done by Straitjacket Fits.
To Epsom. A few weeks ago I played Act leader David Seymour at the stadium, during an intermediate schools' competition. The singles winners were David Guo from Remuera and Cathy Ming from Auckland Normal. There were 140 kids, all snappy and skilled; they made Seymour and myself look like fat old clowns. The stadium hosted the New Zealand Chinese Table Tennis Association last weekend and once again the play was fast and furious. I recognised former magazine publisher Sarah Sandley, the best woman table tennis player in New Zealand during the 1980s; she's now in her early 50s and still a dynamic competitor.
Little, too, looked the business. He arrived with a gym bag, and stripped down to shorts and T-shirt. He had broad shoulders and what appeared to be a washboard stomach. He had a strong handshake, and excellent posture. "Let's just play a few hits to warm up," I said, and his first shot was so hard and fast I barely saw the ball. In our first game, I went down 0-4 within about a second.
I closed my eyes, and heard The Gordons screaming a line from their song: "Read the schedule!" It gave me the lift I needed, and I played a beautiful shot out of his reach. I chanted the line under my breath: "Read the schedule!" What did the words mean? I had no idea, but they sounded like a demand, a challenge, something hostile and mocking. I muttered the line to myself throughout the game and won 21-16.
We chatted in between games. I liked Little. One on one, he has a quick wit and an easy, affable manner. I don't see that when he's on TV. John Key mocked him as Angry Andy and the line has stuck, but there's something else at work when Little is on camera - an uneasiness, a shyness. Awkward Andy. It was there in his table tennis, too. I whipped him 21-11 in the second game ("Read the schedule!") and it wasn't a matter of his technique being at fault as his psychology.
He didn't back himself on the table. He threw away easy shots. His backhand was particularly worrying: he didn't have a backhand. It simply didn't exist. The ball went through it like a sieve.
I said, "What's that about? It speaks of something missing. It suggests an absence. What is it?"
His press secretary Phil Reed said, "I think it's the nimble barb."
We looked at him.
He said, "Well, you know. I just mean that a nimble barb could really work in our favour sometimes." And then he said: "Do I still have a job?"
Reed meant well. But I don't think it was a matter of Little needing to come up with a few zingers now and then. The problem with the backhand went deeper. It betrayed some kind of weakness, perhaps, and I wondered whether it was Little's way of exhibiting an insecurity about being the leader of Labour. He's a one-on-one man, not a crowd-pleaser; a modest joker, not a show pony.
We talked about finding reserves of strength when the chips are down in table tennis and life. I said that I was fuelled by a nameless black resentment against the world and everybody in it, and Little said that was interesting but he tended to think in terms of always holding out for some hope. I remarked that you also needed reserves of strength when you were winning because the danger was that you could get carried away or complacent, and he said that one of the things his mother Cicely was very big on was the need to reject vanity, to stamp it out, to always show humility. I wondered whether he'd taken that one a bit too much to heart.
Game three was hard-fought. I took it 26-24. Game four went to Little, 24-22. He'd mastered the very effective tactic of playing shots that made me run around the table like a dog chasing a stick. Poor old Sunshine! I was a mess, drenched in sweat and dragging my feet; he was fresh, agile, steady. Beating Seymour and Green co-leader James Shaw was a walk in the park with a piece of cake in each hand. Little made a tough opponent.
We chatted about music and I asked him what song he would have chosen to amp himself up for our game. He thought for a while, and reckoned on Lazy, a track by Deep Purple from their classic 1972 album Medicine Head. Interesting choice! It's a 10-minute freak-out, more prog rock than heavy metal, with a duel between Jon Lord on Hammond organ and Richie Blackmore on Strat. Crazy, bro.
But it wasn't leadership music. For our final game I summoned the Straitjacket Fits song to mind, and kept muttering the line: "Red lights flashing madly!" Red for the emergency services, red for Labour - I felt terrible that our match might be an omen for the election result, with Little trailing way, way behind, but I didn't feel so terrible that I let it put me off wanting to kill him dead. I won 21-15. "Done," sings Shayne Carter on the chorus. "Good as done."
We shook hands goodbye and I asked what he was up to later that day. He said he was going to see the Lions-All Blacks test at Eden Park. Wow, awesome, I said. He said he was going with Jacinda Ardern.
• Series score so far: Braunias scorches out to a 3-0 lead.