Willie Boy Is Here


A friend emailed me a few weeks ago that Bill Yocum had died while looking after a Nelson house, aged 72. The house was in good hands. Bill described himself as a mendicant carpenter. I live with Bill’s works and he was a wondrous wood worker. Really, he had the skills of a cabinet maker and I appreciate these skills, having a few examples of my grandfather’s cabinet making. I have a lot more of Bill’s skills. I first met him when I lived at Houghton Bay and he moved into a rental at the bottom of the street in the latter half of the seventies. Neighbour Jacob introduced us. I hit it off with Willie, as I called him. I had heard both names used and asked him which he preferred. He shrugged, said either. Okay, I said, I’ll call you Willie after a favourite film, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. It was written by a blacklisted director Abraham Polonsky, his first in 21 years. It was about a manhunt for an ‘Indian’ who had killed in self-defence. I thought it suited this fierce man who told me he was on the run after absconding from the US Navy because he would not fight the Vietnamese. It was not that he was reluctant to fight, as I learned though never to my cost, but it had to be a just cause. Willie was a righteous man. He had an MA in history from Sydney University but chose to work with his hands. I enjoyed his company because he liked to talk seriously about books, even mine, whilst we downed a few drams of best malt. One of his favourites was Foucault’s Pendulum by [...]

Hats Off to Peter!


Peter Fraser’s top hat is held aloft at the end of the book launch of Death of an Agent last 8 May at Vic Books Pipitea. My cousin Dinah Priestley, pictured behind me, brought the hat along to celebrate the occasion. She inherited the hat from the prime minister’s granddaughter Alice Fraser, whom I knew and who featured in a crucial role at the end of The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser. The hat has symbolic value not only for the launch but for the country and indeed the world. Another hat belonging to an American general played a key role in my new book. The hats represent good and evil, light and dark, and remain relevant to world peace today as much as they did in 1945, when my Fraser novel was set. Let me explain. In 1945 Fraser played a key role in designing the United Nations. He won with the then 50 countries agreeing to dismantle colonialism, despite strong objections from Britain and America. He lost narrowly the required two-thirds member vote to deny the Great Powers veto. Ever since those so-called Great Powers have singly at one time or another blocked a UN initiative, or simply ignored the UN proposals for peace, like America in Vietnam and Iraq and Russia just about anywhere it considers it sphere of influence, which means a big or ‘great’ country bullying and invading a smaller country. The UN Secretary-General on his recent visit here spoke of frustration at these frustrating nations blocking UN initiatives. One small country is New Zealand, reminiscent of the classic Peter Sellers movie The Mouse that Roared, standing up to a belligerent big country America. Prime Minister Lange banned nuclear ships [...]



Winston Peters said capitalism has failed too many New Zealanders and addressed the problem by backing a coalition led by Labour with NZ First and the Greens aiming to restore Peter Fraser’s governing ambition to improve the physical and cultural conditions of all New Zealanders. The well-being budget is a centrepiece of this aspiration. Finance Minister Grant Robertson is a Peter Fraser scholar and engages in seminars on the First Labour Government’s Prime Minister for a decade. With National still attracting over 40 per cent of the vote, the Coalition is vulnerable to being ousted at the next election if a few per cent more voters get cold feet about the egalitarian measures intended to right the imbalance that has developed, with a few having much more than their fair share and the country’s proud welfare state collapsing. A largely conservative media even in the state-owned enterprises such as TVNZ -- Jessica Mutch McKay comes to mind as, in my view, delivering negative and disapproving reports on the Labour-led government -- makes it difficult to get the soft political message past the hard political reporters to reach the voters. The perception of Labour incompetence or free-spending is established in slow-drip fashion by negative reporting. One of the indirect aims of my new novel Death of an Agent is to promote the soft politics of Peter Fraser’s legacy that really and truly made this country great – for all its citizens. My novel references Peter Fraser’s egalitarian aims through a number of characters. Here is broadcaster Ru Patterson speaking to a middle-New Zealand left-wing group he is establishing to protest New Zealand sending troops to Vietnam: We fought a war to bring peace to the world. [...]

Death of an Agent launch


Vic Books Pipitea and Silver Owl Press invite you to Hugh Rennie QC launching David McGill’s spy story Vic Books Pipitea, Rutherford House, Lambton Quay/Bunny St, Wednesday, 8 May, 6pm. Most of the story takes place in and around Victoria University in Easter 1965, when students organised the first confrontational protest against New Zealand troops joining the American campaign in Vietnam. The focus of protest was Henry Cabot Lodge, envoy of President Johnson, in Wellington to urge the Cabinet to send combat troops to Vietnam. Threats are made against Lodge. The new diplomatic police unit and the NZ Security Intelligence Service have four days over Easter to track down the source of the threats. An American intelligence presence is independently pursuing the same threat. Hugh Rennie edited the student magazine Salient observing the protests and commenting on the wisdom of New Zealand getting involved in Vietnam. The author was a student protester and has drawn on contacts to develop a cat and mouse story of students taking political threats to a new level and the authorities attempting to hunt them down, along with local gang members and senior establishment figures opposing troop commitment, an early version of Citizens for Rowling. The temporary borrowing of an American general’s hat the previous year and its munting by anarchists ‘a bomb’s throw’ from the American embassy in Thorndon inspired this story. Mindful of American author William Faulkner claiming to create a Nazi before Hitler did, the author features what might be the first fictional home-grown terrorist attacking the heart of our government.  The author contends the social history of the protest marks the start of New Zealand adopting an independent foreign policy. New Zealand fiction reviewer [...]

The First Rotorua Noir


Rotorua’s Taradome is centre stage in my first independent publication dated 1996 and called Whakaari (White Island; advice from publishers and marketers, Do not use a Maori title). It is an eco-thriller set early in the new millennium in our volcano lands. Maori volcano myth and high-tech Pakeha science merge in a terrorist threat to reprise the Tarawera hydrothermal explosion of 1886. In this excerpt narrator Neil Munro visits the Taradome: I walked around the back of the elegant old Tudor Towers Bathhouse museum. Wiremu Waka’s legacy rose like some alien mushroom moon, a glistening giant silver hexagon, bill-boarded as ‘The World’s only Taradome: THE END OF THE PINK AND WHITE TERRACES MAGIC LIGHT AND SOUND SHOW’. As I got closer I could see the webbing of black mesh surrounding and tethering the huge plastic bubble to black pylons. I walked slowly round it, just as astonished at its bulk as the exclaiming tourists. It was like some gigantic soccer sculpture that encompassed an entire football field. I somewhat nervously donned the holomet and entered the twilight tunnel and stepped onto the moving floor. There were yelps of anxiety as we moved into darkness, soft, moaning instruments, bird calls, dense forest emerging. There were giggles and calls to be quiet and oohs of approval as we saw the lake, across it the rippling alabaster fans of the White Terraces, layered up through the bush, disappearing in clouds of vapour. A small canoe appeared, paddled powerfully by a Maori. We followed, past steam and geyser eruptions. We could hear the plopping of boiling mud and the hissing of team. Around a corner at the water’s edge the smaller, exquisitely coloured steps of the Pink Terraces, ascending [...]

Bodgie in the Library 2


Book launch speech Titirangi Library 6 September as part of the Going West Festival   My first bodgie sighting was at St Peters College as a third former in the first term of 1955. I was in the long and jostling queue in the quad for the morning tea cream buns. The only lad not in the queue was standing with legs apart tipping a jar of Brylcreem over his head, using a comb to shape it into a duck’s arse at the back. His lip curled when he saw me looking. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked Jimmy Lagan. ‘Och, that’s a wee bodgie.’ ‘Eh?’ I said, puzzled by his thick Scottish accent. ‘Did you say that was a budgie?’ ‘Nae,’ said Jimmy. ‘A tearaway, ye ken?’ I didn’t then, but I did notice he had somehow acquired a dozen cream buns when the limit was six. Despite his sneer, he scoffed the lot in double quick time and got back to his hair-styling. Bodgies I soon learned were brash and colourful in glitter jackets and neon pink socks in contrast to our grey-uniformed, short back and sides, conventional and so square post-war world. To the bodgies we were peasants. I didn’t know then how different bodgies were from the leather-jacketed bikies, though both were rebels without a cause – 1955 was the year of that James Dean movie, and rock music was just coming in. When I got into Queen Street, the most exciting thing after a John Wayne cowboy movie was the bikies sitting astride their big motorbikes outside Curry’s milk bar, daring you to look at them or their widgie girlfriends with cropped platinum hair and matador pants. The legal drinking age was [...]

Bodgie in the Library 1


Book Launch Speech Glen Eden Library 4 September as part of the Going West Festival   On a Bodgie Bike is set in 1955 Glen Eden and completes a trilogy I wrote about a stolen monstrance in response to my father urging me to write about the family hometown of Auckland. I stayed in Wellington as a student when the family returned to Auckland. Most of my 57 books are not about Auckland. It seems appropriate that this book is set in the place and year where I first wrote between hard covers, aged 12, at the behest of my father. I am a New Zealand social historian, one who abjures footnotes and references in favour of direct quotes. Recently it is fiction but still aimed at some aspect of our social history, the view from below among the ordinary folk as opposed to the movers and shakers. Jim Henderson called them ‘the heroic ordinary’. In this new book I offer the bodgies’ perspective, though it might not be considered heroic. I first consciously started being a social historian in London in 1968, when I jotted down a Kiwi flatmate’s colourful Kiwi slang. Up until then I had thought the Aussies and mainly Bazza McKenzie/Humphries had all the best Down Under slang. Then I began reimagining my Bay of Plenty childhood, which became my first book The Kid from Matata. However it is in Auckland where it all began. I was born in Orakei in 1942. My Auckland roots go deep. I am a fifth generation Aucklander on both sides. My first ancestor buried here was a Fencible, William Waddel, at All Saints, Howick, 1848. His son Mayor William Richard Waddel -- my biography of [...]

Nazis in New Zealand


At the Paraparaumu Library ‘Murder in the Library’ event last 30 April I was talking about Nazis in my crime story The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser when I heard a loud, sceptical, derisive snort of disbelief from somewhere to the back left of the packed house. Clearly the male snorter did not believe we had Nazis in New Zealand. Pity he had not read the evidence in several of my books. Firstly my non-fiction Island of Secrets, the story of Matiu/Somes Island in Wellington harbour, used in both world wars to incarcerate enemy aliens. I listened to Wellington City Librarian Stuart Perry’s interview with one of the socialist prisoners there in the Second World War, John Charles Klingenstein. ‘In 1941,’ Klingenstein says, ‘I saw a document from Hitler (per Himmler) brought to the island by the Swiss Consul (uncensored mail) which contained a list of names of men who would form a Government. Among others was this well-known Cabinet Minister.’ Klingenstein was talking about the puppet government Germany would install once it had conquered New Zealand. I corresponded with one of the German nationalists incarcerated on the island. Johann Braunias recalled pro-Nazis wearing cardboard swastikas and celebrating Hitler’s birthday. I copied socialist Odo Strewe’s grading of fellow inmates from full-on Nazis to those like him and Jews there who opposed the Nazis. I begin my first Dan Delaney mystery The Death Ray Debacle by quoting Detective Stevenson’s report on the Auckland German Club taking on from 1933 ‘a more sinister trend … of increasing nationalism’ which resulted in Auckland Police having the club under constant surveillance a year before Scotland Yard followed suit with its ‘Nazi Squad’. My story draws on press reports of [...]

Tree Recycling


Graham Cooper died over 40 years ago but not a day goes by when I do not practise what he preached. I hug a tree, as recommended to Bismarck by his doctor in a book Graham gave me called The Secret Life of Plants. These days the hugged tree is the mighty gum beside the front gate. After a count of 20, I circle the tree, patting its stumps, then lean on the two biggest stumps and crane my eyes skywards, watching for tui waiting to release mischief on me. It is a magnificent tree and from February through half the year its red flowers attract exuberant pairs. Today I followed another of Graham’s precepts to recycle everything and made use of its shedding to create a gum bark path to my picnic table. I love trees but every so often I have to get Rory in to edit bits of them like the trailing gum branches so I can get some sunlight on the garden and relieve the strain on the gutters. It also provides a goodly supply of firewood. Pohutukawa do not mind pollarding, they are one of the few natives that you can crop and they come again. I am not sure if this is appreciated by those who advocate hands off the sacred tree. Unlike some members of the native forests action groups, to me all trees native and allegedly foreign (nobody told the tui and other birds who distribute their seeds) deserve to be regarded as sacred, though I struggle a little with the damned wattle. Indeed, the seaward neighbour did me a big favour by having his wattles taken out two days ago. I had recently removed one of [...]

In Praise of Praise Be


TVNZ have announced the axing of Praise Be. I hope they might reconsider in the light of the new Labour-led government announcing a shift back to support of public broadcasting. TVNZ have shifted away from that, preferring so-called reality shows and sports programmes and dissing their only weekly half-hour of hymn singing. They dismiss it as only attracting 25,000 and therefore not cutting their mustard. Given they play it at 8am on a Sunday I am not surprised at the low numbers, for most of those who sing so magnificently in the nations’ churches on the programme are likely attending or setting off to attend church at that hour. For the last year TVNZ have saved shekels by repeating past recordings of congregations singing from their hymn sheets. At a time when choir singing is back on the rise, with overseas choir programmes popular on television, this so-called public service broadcaster ignores this major contribution to our cultural and religious heritage. Furthermore, it is a living celebration of our beautiful hymns sung by all ages, not just the grey hairs. TVNZ will screen overseas, usually British, choirs, but is canning its only publicly funded effort with our own. For my part I always watch this half-hour of hymns because I love the music and the churches. It has to be cheap as chips to make, given that the performers do not charge. Point a camera at these well-rehearsed congregations singing their hearts and souls out, track around the organ and piano and other instruments, across the ornate rafters and naves of traditional Gothic and basilica churches and more modest modern ones like the Transitional Cathedral. Easy-peasy programming. I can spend the rest of the morning [...]