Interview with New Zealand’s Capital! Steampunk group

Stanley is Sir Hawthorne's entry in the Teapot Racing
Stanley is Sir Julius Hawthorne’s entry in the Teapot Racing

You all remember Tea Bombing and how everyone was going to try it, but never did? Well recently I became aware of arguably the best steampunk past-time in the world. Teapot Racing is a sport seemingly exclusive to the Wellington steampunk group “Capital! Steampunks”. Having raced radio controlled cars when I was around 15 years old, I was fascinated by what it entailed, so I got in touch with Col. Sir Julius Hawthorne – administrator of the group – to ask him all about it. This is an interview that you’ll really enjoy.

I was interested to find out who invented Teapot racing and how they came up with the idea.
“The concept was created by Simone Montgomery of Dunedin (in New Zealand’s South Island), a city with a strong Scots heritage (which probably has nothing to do with it). I understand it was one of those ‘why don’t we do this?’ flashes of inspiration which come to all of us from time to time; Simone has been active in steampunk in the south for several years and any inspirations she had would generally have a steampunk twist.”

From my experience of racing buggies, we would be split into groups according to our skill and this is likely to avoid unnecessary upset when the rich guy with the fastest car inevitably won. However, it seems that in order to race teapots, you have to have thicker skin.
“The principle is to make it difficult (and funny) without being too terrifying or damaging the vehicle. We’ve found generally that the more hopeless the driver, the funnier it is. This may reflect an antipodean equivalent of schadenfreude, but a very competently-driven teapot which completes the course without incident is, frankly, dull.”

Therefore, the worse you are at racing, the more praise and recognition you will get. To begin with, the cars will race a slalom type event one car at a time and have to negotiate a course of ramps, teacups balanced on candlesticks and sometimes a tunnel. Time permitting, there will also be a drag race. This will involve all the vehicles together.
“This can get quite interesting; radio-controlled vehicles sometimes share the same frequency, resulting in one person’s teapot being under the control – ‘influence’ may be a better word – of somebody else. Mayhem ensues. The audience is encouraged to stand back.”

I have been out of the racing game for around 18 years now, but I’m led to believe that in Britain, the problem of cross frequencies are a thing of the past. However, that’s with the more expensive cars and I’d be inclined to agree with Sir Julius and use inexpensive ones with crystal frequencies in order to pick up other cars as well as stray signals from nearby televisions and satellite dishes. It makes the cars unpredictable in close range to cars with similar frequencies and they get themselves into all sorts of hilarious situations.
Sir Julius Hawthorne agrees with this theory. He says the ones that are raced in Wellington are generally small, with the odd larger one. There are size limitations with no car allowed to be over 30cm (approx. 12in) in width or height and no more than 40cm (approx 15.5in) long. That includes flags and accessories. That being said, cars larger than that can still compete, but with penalties and the possibility of having trouble navigating the course.
“The vehicles are smallish radio-controlled battery-powered cars or trucks with their bodies removed and teapots attached, then embellished to taste. We did have one entrant last weekend with a steam-powered vehicle but he unfortunately had to drop out with technical problems unrelated to the steam bit. What you’re looking for is agility rather than sheer speed; as a rule larger wheels work better than small ones, but it’s the variations on the theme that contribute to the amusement value.”

Racers line up for a final drag race. Hopefully there will be a couple of cars operating on the same frequency.
Racers line up for a final drag race. Hopefully there will be a couple of cars operating on the same frequency.

There could be, of course, competitors who will take this more seriously than is necessary, but in order to make it open to everyone, there’s no bottom line on how much you have to spend on a vehicle. You can spend hundreds or pennies.
“The event is intended to be inclusive. If some competitors have the budget and technical skill to produce, fast, agile, bullet-proof vehicles, others with more modest means may feel disadvantaged. We haven’t done it yet, but for future events we may need to think about vehicle classes so the kid with the cheap vehicle has just as much fun as the expert. And the kid’s effort will probably be more entertaining anyway.”

As an example, Sir Julius’ own vehicle was purchased from an electronics store, not a toy shop (which would have been more expensive and dedicated to racing). ‘Stanley’ then had the top removed, a teapot fitted and some Victorian themed “sponsor” stickers including Stephenson’s Rocketworks and Babbage Computing (We make the Difference™).
Teapot racing is proving more and more popular with around 100 in attendance and 11 competitors. It started in 2014with the first public Splendid Teapot Racing event held at Steampunk NZ Festival in Oamaru.
“It’s a magnificent weekend, encompassing fashion, silly events (teapot racing), dinners, markets, readers’ and writers’ workshops, other silly events (airship racing)and more. Last year was our first time there; this year we’re going down early to help set up and absorb more of the splendidness.”

The town features a gorgeous Victorian precinct and at the end of May each year, the largest steampunk gathering in the Southern Hemisphere takes place.
It was the Oamaru “Head Office” that asked Sir Julius to get things started in Wellington.
“It seemed there were a number of individual steampunks around who came out of the woodwork once a year for a convention but nothing otherwise. Wellington should be big in steampunk. As the heart of the New Zealand movie industry (you may have heard of one or two of the films that have been made here), there are a lot of creative people living here; steampunk is just made for their talents (and vice versa). So our purpose is primarily to grow the steampunk community in the lower North Island, simply by being a visible hub. We manage that sometimes by organising our own events, like the Splendid Teapot Racing or last year’s Big Steampunk Weekend, where we wrapped a few of our own events around a couple of existing things that were happening at the time. More often, though, we just appear at other people’s events – community festivals and the like – in our full steampunk glory. As an example, a couple of weekends ago we were invited to a miniature railway festival a little north of Wellington. People are beginning to know we exist and are happy to have us along to add some colour (and the odd tea duel – I’m one of three New Zealand Tiffin Masters, and have the hat to prove it).”

"The first rule of Splendid Teapot Racing is..."
“The first rule of Splendid Teapot Racing is…”

Given the amount of events they appear to arrange for the members of Capital! Steampunk NZ, they aren’t a club per say with a regular meet up. They have around 200 members of the Facebook group and they normally have a 10% turn out (which I think is actually pretty good). Given that they don’t hide in their own events, what do New Zealanders think about people wandering around in top hats muttering about tea and eating cake?
“I think New Zealanders are fairly tolerant of eccentricity, although as with (I imagine) anywhere there are some who can’t handle it. Here, though, that seems to manifest itself in an ‘I can’t see that’ attitude or at worst a mild sneer. But we’ve completely lost count of the number of photographs we’ve been asked for since we’ve been involved in this wonderful world.”

Sir Julius and his lovely wife found steampunk through an event that was attended by Dr. Grordbort. He’s the gentleman who designs ray guns and features on the new Media Leap Augment Reality system. What a way to get introduced to steampunk! I wondered if there were any other inspiring steampunks that they had met.
“It’s difficult to pin point one particular person because we’ve met so many wonderful, creative, funny people through this other world. If we had to name somebody, though, I think it would have to be Lady Helen and Agent Darling of the League of Victorian Imagineers in Oamaru for their friendship and encouragement to get Capital! Steampunk NZ going.
“What we like about steampunk is the aesthetic, the creativity and the humour. Our preferred style tends more to the Victorian/Edwardian than the post-apocalyptic, say. Mrs. Hudson (the younger) has rediscovered sewing and has learned so much since she’s been making most of our outfits.  I’ve discovered I can design some pretty spiffing devices if I put my mind to it – my construction skills are still somewhat lacking, but I’m slowly improving. And we’ve met so many like-minded, creative people in the past few years. It’s marvellous! Reaction from non-steampunk friends and colleagues has been mild – they always knew we were mad anyway.”

They certainly seem to have a wicked sense of humour in New Zealand, but I was curious to see if – like it is up North (hemisphere) – there are any false perceptions of steampunks and what we represent?
“The only one I can think of was voiced by a fellow patron of the splendid cocktail bar we frequent and to which we have introduced several out-of-town steampunks, who was surprised to see how good we looked one evening as she’d always thought steampunk was ‘skanky’. I attribute this to a past association between one of our semi-national conventions and not-very-classy burlesque. The only way to counter the impression is by doing what we’re doing – getting out in public looking splendid. I think it’s working.”

I’m fully under the impression that the amount of work that has been put into this steampunk group and the popularity of Splendid Teapot Racing has given Sir Julius and, indeed, all the members of Capital! Steampunk NZ group a rich and fulfilling life. Is there anything else that they could possibly want?
“If we could ask for anything in steampunk, I think the only answer could be … ‘more’.”
What could they possibly want more of? I think the answer was cut off at that point in order to retain that enigma and leave it swirling in my mind.

You can visit the Capital! Steampunks by going to their Facebook page or a local travel agents. Capital! Steampunks NZ Facebook page

You can start your own Teapot Racing event by looking at the rules of play here: Splendid Teapot Racing rules

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