Steve Braunias continues his election campaign round of table tennis games with a match against fallen National leader Simon Bridges.
The meek shall inherit the table tennis table. One day Simon Bridges – good guy, someone who listens and cares, and has all the qualities of basic Christian decency – will take me on yet again at the great and revealing sport of ping-pong, and emerge triumphant.
It's his destiny, it's his narrative. He was shafted as National's leader, but he picked himself up and has since staged a remarkable second act in political life as a happy-go-lucky bro switched to permanent chill. The day will come, too, when he has the last laugh in our epic table tennis encounters.
That day is yet to come. He arrived at Te Atatu ranch last Friday for a rematch – we first played back in March 2018, after he'd taken over as National's leader; I gave him a thrashing – and I had to summon all my mental strength and physical endurance to beat him two games to one, the deciding third game going to 27-25.
"I will carry these scars," he said, "to the end of my days." He gave everything he had. He served like a demon. His emotional investment was real and expressive. "You swine of a man," he screamed when I returned his pathetic lob with a pulverising forearm smash. "You dirty cretin," he shrieked, when I sprinted to get to an angled shot and returned it low and hard, the ball blowing a chef's kiss to the net as it gently touched the top of it and fell over on his side of the table.
Gosh, I played well. I had to. Bridges is a changed politician, also a changed man. The idea of the political ping-pong series is that the game reveals the true essence of every opponent. In our 2018 fixture, his true essence was as a man who fought with all he had but didn't have all that much.
I wrote at the time, "Bridges revealed himself as a very, very interesting guy, someone with depth and purpose. He showed tenacity. He showed class. He didn't show anything resembling skill, but he showed strength." But he was also wound-up tight and he took himself too seriously. In 2020, unwound and unable to take himself seriously, he was a better player and a formidable opponent.
He also played well off the table. A striking feature of our first encounter was his behaviour when we stopped playing, and I interviewed him. He instantly put up all his defences and did his level best not to say anything genuine or intelligent. He succeeded. I didn't bother listening back to the taped interview. It was as though he felt the need to impersonate a bumptious phoney, which was the way he routinely came across in the media as National leader. It did him no favours and contributed to his bad polling. I was always baffled by this. He had a lot more class and know-how than his two wretched successors - certainly he never fell down the filthy little well of paranoid accusations and conspiracy innuendo that Judith Collins indulged in this week – but it was as though he didn't trust himself to simply be himself.
The real Simon Bridges turned up last Friday. I asked him whether he hoped New Zealand First might fail to make it back into Parliament, and he said, "Totally. Totally I do. That's actually in some ways more important than the election, eh. Don't you think? Get rid of them. They don't mean anything. It's just a bloody waste of time. Load of bullshit. Winston's an unethical old rooster, who holds the country to ransom."
If only he'd spoken as candidly and appealingly as that when he was leader. I asked about Matthew Hooton, who was instrumental in the coup against Bridges, and he said: "Would it be disingenuous if I said I wish him all the best?"
"Yes, it would," I said.
"Oh well," he said, laughing. "But you know what? Let bygones be bygones. Hey – how are you?"
We talked about my life for a while and then I said, "How about you? How are you?"
He said, "I'm great, too, actually. At the start – it was disappointing. You go through the seven stages of grief. You have your good days and your bad days." He came over to my place a few days after he was deposed. The thing about the seven stages of grief is that they come all at once, they overlap, they run in and out of the corridors of your head and slam all the doors. That is, he was a bit of a mess.
I tried talking him out of staying in politics but he made the right call. He was in fine fettle last Friday. He said, "Would I have liked to have seen it through to the election and given it a good go? Absolutely. But on the other side, I do what I want. I've got time. Before I came here, I had a nice big walk around Parnell."
A nice big walk around Parnell can only go so far. I said, "What do you miss?"
He said, "You get used to making big decisions. I miss not being in charge. But you've got to guard against this. You don't want to be a grumpy old man. I've got to make sure I'm not like, 'Aw, I would have done that better.'"
I said, "You're not doing that?"
He laughed, and said, "Of course I am!"
Bridges knew my neighbourhood intimately well; he grew up in Te Atatu, around the corner from my house and was head boy at Rutherford College. I teased him, and said, "Did you peak too early?"
He laughed, and said, " Probably! I'm just a used-up tired has-been, my friend, but that's okay. Look. No regrets. It's been a heck of a ride. I'm really enjoying being foreign affairs spokesperson and I've definitely got things I'm looking forward to. You always want to have that. I always ask my old man, who's 86, what he's looking forward to. More often than not, it's dinner time."
He laughed again; he was in such good spirits, but this was before our game, and I needed him to contemplate the spectre of death. I asked him what songs he'd like at his funeral. He said, "Well, I wouldn't want people to be sad. The first 43 years have been very blessed and I hope the next 43 will be, too. I might write a novel. You'd probably pan it, you bastard! But, you know, I certainly wouldn't want my epitaph to be, 'Opposition leader for a couple of years who didn't make it.'"
And so the songs he'd like at his funeral are Don't Worry, Be Happy, and David Bowie's Let's Dance.
I have a record player in the games room and put on a fantastic 1979 album by Pasifika funk and gospel band The Pink Family as the soundtrack to our table tennis. It was a personal touch; Bridges knew the Pinks, who attended his father's Baptist Church when he was growing up. The parents and their five children are pictured holding hands on the cover. "That one's Ramon Pink," said Bridges, pointing to a handsome young dude with an afro. "He was The Man!" The Man is now Dr Ramon Pink, chief medical officer at Canterbury DHB.
The soft sounds of Christian devotional music failed to lift Bridges' first game. I whipped him 21-13. But he was just getting into the groove and he was on fire in game two, winning 22-20. The demonic serves, the emotional investment – he was like a blunt instrument, he had no subtlety or nuance, and relied on hammering the ball as hard as he could. Well, whatever works, and it worked out splendidly for him in the third game, too, as he raced into an early lead.
I had to rely on underhand tactics. I said, "How much do you weigh these days?"
He said, "Last time you told you told me I was a bit porky. That was a little unkind."
He lost the next few points, and we drew even. "It's anyone's game," he said. "Just like the election."
I said, "You're playing very well but you have these terrible lapses in concentration, and everything falls apart."
He lost the next few points, and I crept into the lead, 20-19.
I turned up The Pink Family record for an especially tasty funk track. It backfired; Bridges is a drummer, and he picked up the beat and his game. We drew level again, and it went to his serve. I never even saw the ball.
I said, "I haven't been aced since I played Phil Goff."
"I like Phil," he said. "It takes one to know one. Scorned opposition leaders."
That reminder of failure chipped away at his concentration. I took the lead but he clung on and kept drawing level - you need to win by two clear points at table tennis – until a sweet gospel ballad came on, and I drew on the peace and courage of Christ to finally defeat the infidel by 27-25.
We shook hands. It had been good to see him again. His epitaph will be as a table tennis opponent who didn't quite make it – but prevailed and left with his dignity intact.