Monday, October 10, 2016

Table Topics

Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. ANZ set up a club in 2015, and I joined up. In June 2016, I was appointed president of our club, and I started to get involved in the wider Toastmasters organisation outside our club.

As part of this, we held our first Table Topics contest in August. Table Topics is a regular part of a Toastmasters meeting, where members are given a subject title with no prior notice, and have to speak for between one and two minutes on the subject. The challenge with Table Topics is to speak in an organised way, with some structure, on the subject. At this competition I was placed first. The first and second placed contestants were then eligible to go forward to the area contest, which was held on 13th September. At this competition I was placed third, and my colleague, Olivia, was first.

“That’s that” I thought, so far as my continued participation in contests was concerned for the year…at least, as a participant. I had volunteered to judge at other clubs’ contests, and was called on to do so at two clubs in the following weeks. Judging gives a good insight into the quality of competition at other clubs, and I was fortunate to judge both a Table Topics and a humorous contest.  

However, there was a further twist; Olivia was in Auckland for work reasons on the weekend that the divisional contest would take place. The division is the whole of Wellington, so it’s getting quite serious by this time. A week later, I received an email from our Area Director: the second placed contestant was also unable, or unwilling, to compete further, and could I step in to represent Area E6? By all means, I replied.

So it was that I found myself competing in my first divisional Table Topics contest. The contest is part of the divisional conference, which is held twice a year. The other competition held on the day is the humorous speaking contest. There are also various awards handed out, recognition of clubs and individuals, and also a workshop and a warm-up act for the humorous speaking contest.

The conference started at 10am. The contestants briefing, however, was at 9:30am. And there’s only limited parking at the venue, which was the Royal Society of New Zealand. I made a plan: we drove into town for breakfast at Vista café, before heading up to Thorndon and, luckily, nabbing the last free parking spot. With plenty of time for the briefing, to boot. We collected our name badges and Nicola took the opportunity to visit New World, there to expend enough spondulicks to qualify for another Little Garden pot. Not that I’m saying that that was her sole motivation, oh no, no, no…yes.

The conference got under way and pretty soon I was escorted from the hall to the waiting area, where we are held until it’s our turn to speak. This is because all contestants are given the same topic, and they mustn’t hear what it is before their turn. I had drawn number 5, so didn’t hear the first 4 contestants speak. This was an improvement on the area contest, where I’d drawn 8th out of 8, so hadn’t heard any of the others.

When it was my turn, I was escorted to the hall, and mic’d up. Then I was introduced, and the contest chair gave me the subject: “Can money buy you happiness?” And I was off.

In some ways, doing a Table Topics speech is the longest minute of your life. In others, it’s the shortest. You’ve got to organise what you’re going to say in a matter of seconds. Open with an arresting statement or quotation; dispense the honorifics (“Mr. Chairman, fellow Toastmasters, distinguished guests”); give your speech, and get to that crucial one-minute mark (speaking for less than a minute gets you disqualified); then wrap it up in a good way, returning to the original question. It doesn’t matter if you say “yes it can” or “no, it can’t” or even if you sit on the fence and offer both sides of the argument; what the judges are looking for is how you deliver, vocal variety, engagement with the audience, body language, speech structure, and use of language; all that kind of thing.

At the end, I walked to the back of the hall to be de-mic’d, then took my seat again to hear the final three contestants. And…relax!

I’d originally planned to sneak off and miss the afternoon session, but the results of the Table Topics competition wouldn’t be announced until the very end of the meeting (I guess to stop people doing just that), so we stayed for the humorous speaking contest in the afternoon. And it was a good job we did! Not only was the warm—up guy very funny (he is, in fact, a stand-up comedian by trade), but the speeches were well-crafted, and very enjoyable.

After a bit more award-giving, the results of both competitions were announced. Whilst the scoring is not made public, there was, according to Nicola, one very clear winner of the Table Topics contest. Unfortunately, it wasn’t me. As the results were announced, it became obvious that I’d come fourth…along with four other contestants. Places are only announced for the top three, so the remaining contestants can all kid themselves that they just missed out. Results for the humorous speaking contest gave top spot to another clear winner, who stood out from the others. Both winners now go on to represent Wellington at the national convention, held in Invercargill in November.

That was my first foray into competing in Toastmasters. There will be further opportunities to compete in the international and evaluation contests next year. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Last Legs

Blimey, Circa Theatre is putting on a lot of good stuff this year! The latest offering, starring Ray Henwood, is called Last Legs, and is the story about growing old disgracefully…something we have every intention of emulating! Ray Henwood is a grand old man of the Wellington theatre scene – we last saw him as King Lear in…umm…what was that play called?

But first, inevitably, dinner. Pravda Café has revamped its menu, so I thought we’d better get ourselves down there to see how it’s changed. Yeah, any excuse! Pravda is part of the Nourish group of restaurants, that include Crab Shack and Shed 5 in Wellington, as well as various other restaurants in Auckland and Queenstown. They serve tasty grub and I don’t think we’ve ever been disappointed there. I had a scallop ravioli followed by wagyu bavette steak, whilst Nicola had zucchini fritters and chilli shrimp linguine.

We hurried out of the restaurant and down the road thinking we were cutting it fine; but when we got to Circa, a quick look at the tickets revealed…the show didn’t start until 8:00pm. So we needn’t have rushed away from Pravda and hassled the staff for the bill (they were also hosting a lot of “ladies who dine” for a pre-WoW dinner, so there was a bit of a scrum at the till).

We sat down and had an ice cream and a glass of wine whilst waiting for the show to start, and chatted to a lady down from Auckland to see the show, largely because her sister had a starring role in it. She played Kitty, who is the femme fatale of the piece.

The theatre was packed – a sell-out – which I put down to the Henwood factor. The play is coming to the end of its run, and the remaining nights are completely sold out. As it is, we were up in the back seats, far from the more usual row B or C that we get when I book these things.

The play is set in an upmarket retirement home, and concerns the goings-on of some of the residents, notably those on “ResCom”, the resident’s committee. A new resident is co-opted onto the committee to fight the stranglehold which retired (disgraced) estate agents Gary and Trish seem to have. The four female characters also play a gang of older residents, who meet up and argue over games starting with bridge, with all four of them, and moving through scrabble for three, mah-jong for two, and finally, patience. You’re not allowed to mention the D-word, but you can figure out what’s happened to the participants.

The play is really a series of vignettes and character studies; the plot is a bit thin, and leads more to characters explaining about their pasts, rather than the “incident and example” to illustrate their personalities. It made the whole thing a bit disjointed. Yes, the two estate agents are venal and petty; we needed to see more of their venality and pettiness, not just be told about it.

It was light and fluffy. I doubt they’ll be performing it in 400 years’ time, though.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Sweeney Todd

Sunday afternoon saw us going to the matinee performance of NZ Opera’s production of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at the St James theatre. As the show started at 2pm, we decided to get some lunch first at Noble Rot wine bar, which is fast becoming a favourite haunt in that part of town. Looking around the bar, it appeared that I was the only male patron of the place. Of course, the All Blacks were playing (in fact, had just finished by the time we sat down) the Pumas in Argentina at the time, so all the "ladies who lunch"’s menfolk may have been down the pub watching the rugby instead. Even so…odd. Never mind, we made our way through the cured salmon, venison tartare, duck liver parfait and littleneck clams, washed down with a glass of Pegasus Bay riesling. Very tasty it all was.

A quick trot round the corner, and we ensconced ourselves in row O. Clearly we were in the first row of the cheap seats, as the next five rows in front of us were empty. As soon as the lights started to dim, there was a rustling and a tumult…people in the seats behinds us all rushed forward to grab the empty seats nearer the stage. We took the opportunity to shuffle up the row one seat, so I had room to man-spread.

The story, you’ll know, is about how Sweeney Todd, a barber, supplies meat in the form of dead people to Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, downstairs from his barber shop. This production is based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical version, which was also filmed in 2007 with Johnny Depp in the lead, with Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett.

The production was very slick, with a  revolving stage to accommodate the shop and the barber’s above it. The singing was of course very good. The Beadle seemed to have modelled his character on someone…I couldn’t recall the name. “He’s like that bearded annoying bloke” I said. “You’ll have to give me more clues” replied Nicola. “Bearded, annoying, tall and thin, gaunt face…” “Oh, Russell Brand!” “That’s the fella!”

The show was nearly three hours long, so we emerged blinking into the sunlight of Courtenay Place at almost 5 o’clock.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Vanilla Miraka

Vanilla Miraka is Hayley Sproull’s take on being a quarter Māori, with white skin and no clue what is happening on the marae. Avid readers of my blog (I fantasise that such beings exist) will remember Hayley from Miss Fletcher Sings The Blues. She’s also part of A Slightly Isolated Dog, who we saw putting on their version of Jekyll & Hyde in April this year, and who will be performing Don Juan in November. 

Her show is a mixture of song, acting, comedy and serious moments. She gives us some of her history of self-discovery, and how she explored her Māori ancestry by the obvious method of travelling to India. Along the way, she demonstrated her skill with poi, and told us the story of her grandmother's funeral. Not many comedy moments at a funeral, you might have thought...wrong. The final scenes played out are about how she wore her traditional cloak to her graduation ceremony, and how that felt to her.

It's clearly a very personal story, and at the end of it I felt we knew more about the unresolved conflicts of identity that make being a New Zealander not quite as simple as being from most other countries. Whilst a lot of it, particularly in the second half, was quite serious, there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as well. I liked this show, and look forward to seeing more from Hayley in the future.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Perfect Nonsense

The Jeeves and Wooster show, Perfect Nonsense, has come to New Zealand. After extensively touring the UK and a residency in Mumbai (the Indians are weirdly keen on PG Wodehouse), the touring company, including original writer/actor Robert Goodale, has arrived in New Zealand for a short season. What’s not to like? Off we toddled.

The story revolves around Bertie Wooster deciding to re-tell his adventures of the previous weekend. He’s put on a play about it but hasn’t quite finished it. Fortunately Jeeves steps in, and with the help of Aunt Dahlia’s butler, Seppings, they manage to get through all the action. The two butlers have to play numerous parts, including an ever-increasing-in-height Spode, whilst Bertie recounts the tale of the silver cow creamer, to be found in The Code Of The Woosters, and also forms the opening episode of the second season of the quintessential adaptation, Jeeves And Wooster. Jeeves, with the help of Seppings manages the scenery and costume changes whilst Bertie, oblivious to most of their efforts, blithely assumes that all the goings-on backstage are working like magic, in much the same way as a magic coffee table works. It’s all very funny and foolish, and well worth watching. In many places the fourth wall is broken as Bertie, and occasionally Jeeves, address the audience directly.

We’d caught the matinee performance, and were ejected into the evening air in time for a date at favourite Wellington eatery Logan Brown, or “the staff canteen” as I’ve started to call it – scene of many a lunchtime over the last couple of years. Well, they keep sending me discounts and special offers! I’d be a fool not to take them up on it! Latest offering is a lunchtime dish with wine for $25, so we’re heading back there this Friday to fill the old nosebag. Pip pip! (That’s enough Wodehouse talk – Ed.)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

King Creole

It’s the last day of Wellington On A Plate, and I chickened out. “What?” I hear you cry "you didn’t have a burger?” No, that’s not it. I went for a chicken burger.

Coco At The Roxy have gone all Creole for WOAP. They’ve changed the name of the restaurant to The Kings Of Creole, and we went to see King Creole at their Eat The Film event. Their Burger Wellington offering also fits this theme.

It was a sunny winter’s day, and we’d been for a walk along the Eastern Walkway, building up a mighty hunger. A burger was just what the doctor ordered (he’s a very, er, burger-friendly doctor).  We arrived at the restaurant to be told that they were serving the creole brunch, and if we wanted the burger, we’d need to order at the bar and sit in the café. So we did.

The King Creole burger is described like this:

Creole spiced and fried Meat Direct chicken with bacon jam and pickled shrimp in a Pandoro brioche bun, with crispy grits.

There’s no Garage Project beer match, so I chose, on the barman’s recommendation, a Tuatara Ardennes.

The burger is served in a plastic basket like this:

First impressions: One of the components, the bacon jam, had leaked all down the side, and into the tray, making this a sticky mess to pick up. Inside, there were two bits of chicken, as well as some shrimp. The whole thing looked unstable and slippery, so I didn’t bother trying to eat it with my hands. There was some sort of pesto spread on the top of the bun, which clearly didn’t make the credits. The chicken was breadcrumbed, but the creole spices were hiding, I think. There certainly wasn’t any overpowering flavour sensation associated with the chicken other than, well, fried chicken. It was very well fried – moist and juicy – but I was expecting a bit more of a kick from it. The fries were grits. What is a grit? Apart from the unappealing name, it’s similar to polenta.

Overall I felt a bit let down by this. I scored it a 7.

So that’s the end of my burger odyssey for 2016. Over the past 17 days I’ve tasted 18 burger recipes, which have ranged from the classic beef, including two wagyu; and kangaroo, venison, lamb, pork, chicken, duck, salmon, crab and octopus. I’ve had sweet burgers. I’ve had a burger where the bun was made of lasagne. My favourites have been the pork burgers put out by Capitol and Zibibbo. All I’m waiting for now is the invitation to join the judging panel for the final decider for the winner of Burger Wellington 2016.

Saturday, August 27, 2016


It’s the final weekend of Wellington On A Plate, and I’ve been thinking hard over the last few days what my final few burgers are going to be. I was thwarted in my ambition to get to Five And Dime yesterday, but I’d already made my decision for the final weekend. After our dance lesson had finished, we moved the car and headed to Muse Eatery and Bar, to try their BBW burger. Muse, you’ll remember, was an offshoot from the now-defunct White House restaurant on Oriental Parade, and they’ve consistently provided top-class nosh. Since their move to new premises in Victoria Street, they’ve “democratised” their offering somewhat with lunchtime specials, and a pasta menu, as well as their fine dining.

Their Burger Wellington entry, The BBW Burger, is described thus:

Wairarapa wagyu beef with baby watercress, Kāpiti aged gouda and mayonnaise in a Clareville Bakery brioche bun, with triple-cooked chips.

There’s no Garage Project beer match, but they are offering a choice of regional drinks as their Dine Wellington menu, so I chose the Panhead Pilsner from the list. Nicola decided to try the Dine Wellington menu of beef cheek pappardelle, with a Nga Waka sauvignon blanc from Martinborough.

The burger comes in a box:

Opening it up, you can see what’s going on:

I lifted it out of the box, and noticed that the meat juices had leaked out of the burger already. The bottom of the bun was soggy. I tried to eat it with my hands, but bun integrity was immediately compromised, so I put it down and used a knife and fork. It’s a double patty burger, with plenty of cheese and mayo, and baby watercress (not lettuce, thank god). The triple-cooked chips were good, but the tomato sauce didn’t have a look of being made in the kitchen. The beef had been cooked through – there was hint of pinkness in the end of one of the patties – so this could have been better. This was a good burger, but it’s not perfect. I’m scoring this an 8.