I don't go looking for excuses for losing at table tennis in a televised game with Jeremy Wells but if I were then quite a few come immediately to mind, such as the fact I was playing into the glare of strong studio lights, I was a bit hungry, and he fooled me into thinking he had a limp.
Certainly he seemed a bit unsteady on his pins when he approached the grounds of my Te Atatu estate. I thought: I'd best go easy.
Our game is featured on Seven Sharp tonight. As the Nicky Hager of light entertainment, Wells came to investigate a story: the phenomenon of my series of table tennis encounters with politicians these past two elections. The best way for him to go about it was to challenge me to a game. He did what very, very few political leaders have achieved, and handed out a beating.
His victory revealed two salient facts about my series. One, I'm actually not that good at playing table tennis. Two, most politicians are even worse. But the point of the series has been to use the game as a way of understanding and measuring the essential character of my opponents. James Shaw: unfocused, a bit wet. Billy Te Kahika: shrewd, a fantasist. David Seymour: bags of fun, crazy. Phil Goff: brutal, remorseless. Jacinda Ardern: determined, focused, not actually very kind when it comes to winning.
As for Wells, table tennis laid out his character for inspection in the laboratory of its flat surface, its dainty net, its topsy-turvy ball, and revealed him as someone who has a kind of robotic temperament.
He played without joy or rage. He kept his feet planted firmly on the ground. His hips didn't move. The only thing that moved was his elbow; it was as though he plugged himself in, and ran the wire only as far as his right arm, in the distance between his hand and his elbow.
The rest of him was still as a frozen lake.
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Actually he had less an icy exterior than a surface made of some interesting alloy, perhaps metal and carbon. Impossible to get under his skin. And yet when we warmed-up for about 20 minutes, I was at least his equal. Minka, my 13-year-old daughter, stepped in and played him, too, and her low, fast shots had him gasping for air.
The time came to begin our encounter. Again, no excuses, but he changed the entire course of the game when he dug into the pocket of his nice adidas jacket and brought out a brown bandana, and tied it around his head. I watched, aghast. It was like some kind of spell had been cast. He seemed to transform himself into an unbeatable champion. He played like one, too. God he was good.
Afterwards, Wells asked if any politicians had refused my challenge to play table tennis. Yes, I said. Bill English in the last election, and Winston Peters this time around. Well, look what happened to English ... the only time Peters has seemed alive on this campaign is when he was filmed playing table tennis on a university campus. He needs all the help and exposure he can get right now.
Mr Peters! It's not too late. Let's play. As Seven Sharp will unfortunately reveal, I'm not very good.