Steve Braunias fetches up in one of the capital's more unique establishments, and finds his muse in a hotel room
I ran into Prime Minister Bill English recently at the QT Museum Wellington. It was in the lobby. He was on his way to the elevator to head up to the celebrated Hippopotamus restaurant for a private function — a National Party shindig, for donors and assorted supporters.
Quite a few of donors were staying overnight at the hotel. I'd flown from Auckland and got in at dusk, light purple over the cold, black harbour. After I checked in I went for dinner at my favourite Chinese restaurant in Wellington, the Shanghai on Manners St, and ran into Labour candidate Willie Jackson.
I was finishing my nasi goreng when he came in, and I said, "Sit here if you like."
He said, "What brings you to Wellington?"
"I'm launching my latest book tomorrow. You?"
"Politics," he said. "Where are you staying?"
"Opposite the waterfront at the QT Museum."
"Really? I tried to book a room when I got in this morning, but they said it was full."
"The National Party have beaten you again, mate," I told him, and explained that right now English was meeting and greeting wealthy benefactors at the Hippopotamus.
I'd been standing at hotel reception with some of the donors and their wives when English entered the lobby. There was applause, and someone in the bar yelled out, "Hurrah!"
English waved at the drunk, and then looked over at reception, where everyone had turned to look at him.
"Gidday, Bill!" said a large fellow next to me.
"Gidday," he said, with a nice smile.
"Hey," I said.
"Oh," he said.
He didn't stop, and kept moving in that prissy little way he has when he walks. Men look at women's bodies — you may have heard about that — but they routinely look at men's bodies, too, and get a reading of their physical strength, their weight and height, their reach if it came to a fight.
Earlier that week I'd publicly challenged English to a game of table tennis. The idea was that I'd write about it for the Herald. It seemed like a good opportunity to examine his character. He revealed his character without even playing: the chicken said no.
He flinched when he saw me. I narrowed my eyes and regarded him with scorn. I thought: I'd have beaten him like a cur.
I finished my nasi goreng and when Willie Jackson's prawns arrived, we shook hands and I went back to my hotel room and sat down to work on my speech for the book launch. It was getting on for 7pm.
One of the hats I wear — it's a big fat hat, for my big fat head — is as a public speaker.
Mostly it's at literary festivals, or at the Wintec Press Club media lunch extravaganza held three times a year in Hamilton, the occasional corporate or conference event, and also at book launches.
A number of these things are held up and down the country, so I'm on the road here and there throughout the year. I travel light. One change of clothes, toiletries, a block of A4 paper.
I only ever write the speech or introduction or whatever it is the night before, in hand, on paper, in the hotel room. Sometimes it feels like waiting for an execution. Dying onstage is an acute and unique kind of pain, and it's best not to think about it. It's best to do the work. No point, I figured, as I arranged myself at the writing desk in my room at the QT Museum Wellington, in thinking back to the time I bored a health professionals conference to death in an after-dinner speech, or to a nightmare event in Invercargill, or ...
I laid out my paper and the Stabilo point 88 art pen given to me by lawyer Brian Henry at the Colin Craig defamation trial, and wrote and wrote and wrote without interruption until I finished just after 1am. I'd never go so far as to say I enjoy writing but actually I felt okay writing the speech in the hotel room, with its many beautiful lamps, thick expensive blackout curtains, leather divan — who puts a divan in a hotel room? The Museum Hotel specialises in eccentricities, strange details, personal touches.
The last time I stayed there I got talking to the manager, Steve Oakley, a very relaxed fellow who I suspect hardly ever wears a tie, and mentioned in passing that I wished the rooms came with sachets of instant coffee. When I checked in for the book launch, there were sachets of instant coffee conspicuously fanned out beside the kettle.
The main thing the hotel specialises in is art. It has a lot of it, mostly paintings, all of it New Zealand, some of it plainly terrible and none of it meant to impress anyone who sees it. That's the point of it: it's a personal statement by former hotel owner Chris Parkin, his own collection and his own taste, slapped up throughout the lobby and all of the rooms.
"There's nothing intellectual about it," he said, when we met earlier this year. "Yeah," I said.
Interesting guy, though. In his late 60s, small, lively, richer than you — he sold the hotel for $28.5 million. He lives in an enormous apartment on the eighth floor. He talked about how he'd never really given art a second thought until one day when he saw a painting by Brett Wong.
He said, "I'd never seen anything like it. I thought, 'What's going on in that guy's head?' It kind changed my life because I started seeing art in a totally different way."
It became more than an interest, it was an obsession, really, and he began to buy and collect.
I wasn't sure I liked Parkin much. He talked a great deal and seemed to be a shameless egotist, but the fact was that his art collection had succeeded in establishing the QT Museum Wellington as something very, very distinctive, very, very memorable, and absolutely very Wellington.
"Well," he said, "you have to do something different, don't you? You have to give guests an experience rather than a bed."
Pretty much every hotel I've ever stayed in on my travels to make speeches has gone out of its way to not give guests an experience. There might be an opulent or faux-opulent lobby, and a cheerful bar and a nice restaurant, but that's about it; otherwise, hotels aim for neutrality, and operate like malls and airports — it's hard to tell one from another, you could be anywhere in the world. They're blank canvases. Parkin's whole philosophy at the QT Museum Wellington was to festoon it with painted canvases.
I was a bit worried about that when I sat down to write the speech. The good thing about hotels is that nothing about them gets in the way of your attention, or competes with it; writing speeches in hotel rooms is writing in a vacuum. It's boring, but there aren't any distractions. My room in the QT Museum Wellington was all about distractions, including a print of one of the first paintings that Parkin bought for the hotel.
Lady by the open window by someone called David Knowles shows a woman wearing a white slip, sitting on a chair by a window, in dim light. She has shoulder-length hair and bare legs, and her head is slightly bowed. I looked at the picture now and then during the hours of writing, and I thought: What's going on inside her head? The possibilities kept me alert and made writing something that resembled pleasure.
Getting there: Jetstar flies daily from Auckland to Wellington.
Accommodation: For information and bookings, see qthotelsandresorts.com.