Steve Braunias hosted mayoral candidates Phil Goff and John Tamihere at his home to assess their style over a game of table tennis.
Entertaining game, but not a serious opponent
The point of my wanting to play table tennis with John Tamihere – wild and crazy JT, with his bumptious attitude, his random blather, his buffoony humour – was to beat him to a bloody pulp, to smash him to the ground, to stand over his grave and laugh.
He's always rubbed me up the wrong way. I've never quite liked the cut of his jib. I see him around Te Atatu, where we both live, and every single time he says something cutting; he probably doesn't mean anything by it, it's just his teasing sense of humour, but I'm too sensitive for the likes of JT and I usually walk away thinking: hate that guy.
He came over to my estate on Friday morning for our game. I knew he'd say something about the mess that Vector workmen had made during the week when laying cables under my front lawn; and he did, with a dismissive laugh. I knew he'd say something about the innovative way I mow the lawn into strips; and he did, with a shake of his head. He hadn't set foot in the house and I was already determined to get him around the ping-pong table so I could kill him dead.
We had a bit of a chat first. He raved, talked fast, jiggled his leg under the table. I asked if he had any chance of winning the Auckland mayoralty next weekend, and he said, "A great chance. I think I'm going to get there, without a doubt."
I repeated Simon Bridges's remark that Tamihere had blown his chances by saying "Sieg heil!" in public, and he said, "This election is going to be one of the greatest underdog stories. It's a beautiful doozy."
A beautiful doozy! Who else speaks like that? I asked him about Trump, and he said, "He's the only President of the last three who's actually applied to the letter everything he said he was going to do." I asked him about Boris Johnson, and he said, "Cometh the hour, cometh the man."
I'd heard enough. The hour had come; and I was the man to conquer him.
He hadn't played in 25 years and it's not his game. He's a league guy. And it's true that he stood at the table like a man about to go into a scrum. But he was a good player and the essential truth about ping-pong – that it illuminates character, exposes who you really are – made me see JT in a new light. I liked him. He played with verve and passion. He went for the kill and if he more often shot himself in the foot then at least he was active. He was there to play the best he could.
It wasn't good enough. I took great pleasure in beating him to a bloody pulp in the first game by 21-13. He played too short and too long, he had little or no idea of where the angles were, he went for brute strength when he should have drawn on guile, cunning, awareness. What I'm saying is that he was a goddamned mess.
And yet he played the best two shots of the game – fantastic zingers, struck with force and wonderful accuracy. The ball travelled like a rock in the typhoon of his forearm smash. They were thrilling moments and if there had been a crowd they would have broken into a standing ovation.
The moments didn't last. He played better in the second game, more evenly, but went down 21-18 and I played languidly, without effort. Again, he went for the spectacular, but ended up hitting the ceiling or miles wide. Really he was a walking disaster.
Also, he ran out of puff. He was wheezing like a vacuum cleaner towards the end of the second game. Throughout, he kept up a strange soundtrack: when he made a mistake, he'd make an involuntary noise that kind of went like this: "Kik-kik-kik!" It was as though he was trying to say, "Tsk-tsk-tsk!", but making a hash of it. Anyway, it was continuous. He made a lot of mistakes.
But we had some wildly entertaining rallies, and he was a joy to play. I made my peace with JT. Good guy, actually. Fun. Enthusiastic. Just kind of impossible to take seriously as any kind of opponent.
Heart problems? His victory was a landslide
The point of my wanting to play table tennis with Phil Goff was to gently, even tenderly whip his ass.
You only have to glance at him to know that he'd be absolutely bloody hopeless at ping-pong. Look at the guy! He's stiff, he moves without rhythm or grace, he's pale as a sheet and he talks too much. I flew with him and Helen Clark to Nigeria a few years ago when they were in government; I interviewed Goff really just for something to do sometime after midnight somewhere over the Indian Ocean, until Clark, then the Prime Minister, turned around in the seat in front of us, and hissed: "For God's sake! I'm trying to sleep!"
Goff spent 32 years as an MP before he was elected Auckland mayor. He's a career politician who exists in mind but not in body. This is no bad thing. Auckland's previous mayor existed rather too much in body and made a fool of himself.
But I bet Len Brown would have been interesting around a ping-pong table. You can just picture him leaping, dancing, erupting with joy when he won a rally, smoting his head with the bat when he dropped a point, generally acting the goat.
Goff, not so much. He pulled up outside my mansion yesterday afternoon in an electric car. He wore a Puma T-shirt and jeans. The T-shirt was a loose fit except around his middle, where the fabric strained against the Goff gut.
I took him to the back of my property where he complimented my citrus grove, and expressed regret he couldn't eat grapefruit on account of his heart problems. I forgot he'd had a heart attack last year. I thought: oh God I will make mincemeat of the poor wretch. I also thought: good, can't wait.
To play ping-pong is to want to win at ping-pong. All sports inspire the urge to put someone to death; ping-pong puts a sharper, finer edge on things, with its small bats, its lightweight ball, its contained space. It's death in miniature.
"Well, Phil," I said, and placed a patronising hand on his shoulder, "let's play."
It was a massacre. I hated every second of it. The guy was awesome. Goff beat me 21-11 in the first game and then buried me, incinerated me, chopped me into little pieces in the second game which he won 21-8. 21-8! God it was awful.
He last played maybe 40 years ago as a university student. He was rusty in our warm-up and in truth he didn't play with a high degree of skill or expertise in our two games. And so it wasn't technique or experience which led him to victory. It was the last thing I expected: he was just a total goddamned savage.
He hit the ball with maximum velocity and seldom over-played it, unlike Tamihere. He delivered about half a dozen aces. His spin was okay but it was his forearm that really did the damage. He was like Popeye the Sailor Man after he eats his spinach; his biceps swelled, and his arms were a whirlwind of force and speed.
Goff was simply unplayable. Worse, he had no sympathy or compassion. He'd reminded me before our game that I wrote him a comforting email after he lost the 2011 election. He said, "It was nice of you. I really appreciated it." But he didn't appreciate it to the extent that he gave me a break or went easy or allowed me the charity of gently, tenderly whipping my ass at table-tennis. He was completely ruthless. No favours, no mercy.
True, he was covered in sweat. Winning had come at a cost. Not that he stopped talking for a second. I wanted him out of my house asap after those two crushing losses but I thought it polite to ask him a few questions. I asked him about Trump, and he said, "I can't stand the guy." I sked him about Boris Johnson, and he said, "Disaster."
Actually they were just his opening lines. He went on and on and on; I felt I was back on that flight to Nigeria, but this time I didn't have Helen Clark to save me. This was much worse. He had come to my house and committed murder. And then he crowed, "Maybe I should get a ping-pong table!"
I said, "Where? For home?"
He said, "No, for the mayoral office."
Every now and then I do this thing where I go up to a guy and stand with my face an inch away from his face. It's an act of aggression. I needed to do this to Goff after my humiliating loss; I got right in his face, and said, "Yeah? Don't you think that's a little premature?"
That rocked him back on his heels. I'd caught him out in a moment of hubris. It wasn't much of a triumph but I took it for all it was worth.
Fair call to Phil, though. He won a stunning, well-deserved victory. I'd go so far as to describe it as landside.