Owl Painter


Bosch is probably best known today as Michael Donnelly’s LA detective, and he is named Hieronymus Bosch after the fifteenth century artist of that name. I have read the Bosch novels and have prints of many of the Bosch paintings. The first I acquired back as a student teacher in 1960 Wellington was The Garden of Earthly Delights, from the long-established Manners Street fine art dealer Webster’s, who also framed my McOwl painting and many others over the decades. My brother John in 1980 sent me a postcard detail of the original Bosch Garden he viewed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Reproduced here, it is no surprise it is an owl at the centre of the painting, protecting a dervish dancer from temptation. My print resides in the tin shed in my Paekakariki garden, faded beyond even Webster’s repair skills. However my Bosch Temptation of St Anthony is vivid on the hall wall. It features two owls, a barn owl sitting on a porcine person’s head and a pygmy owl not easy to find, representing hidden wisdom. Pygmy owls are his favourite owl, and there is another in The Garden of Earthly Delights. I envied my brother his close encounter with the Madrid Bosch and thought I had missed out on direct contact until my second visit to St Marks in Venice. The conducted tour was heading to Casanova’s cell. I veered away down a side tunnel into a room with six unheralded Bosch paintings. I was surprised how tiny they were, like Vermeer. It was too dimly lit to identify the owls undoubtedly lurking in these pygmy paintings, but I knew they would be present, as they are in most of his [...]

Owl Boy


The brass owl thermometer is the first thing I bought with my first pay. I was 12, and a school friend Max lined me up with my first job, tying up 800 tomato plants at a New Lynn market garden. I survived the threat of being sacked for lack of application on the first morning and put in 12-and-a-half-hour days for 12 shillings and sixpence. I couldn’t wait to spend the money on a gift for my mother. Owls had not been a big part of my childhood. I went to sleep in the Bay of Plenty to the mournful sound of the morepork. I was amused that Owl in Winnie the Pooh misspelled his name Wol, it offered an outside reference to the problem of spelling, which seemed to obsess adults. When we moved to Auckland for secondary school we left owls behind. I do not recall any reason why I thought my mother would like an owl thermometer. Mum thanked me without indicating what she thought of the present. I was just glad to offer something back, after years of her remarking that we had to live on the smell of an oily rag. At age 17 I went to Teachers’ College in Wellington, where we were encouraged to read Spinster, perhaps to prepare us for sole-charge teaching in remote country schools. It was another New Zealand novel that I took out of the college library, on the strength of its name, Owls Do Cry. It was a liberal college, encouraging us to try different things, like writing poetry and exploring art. I found myself haunting Webster’s Art Gallery in Manners Street, spending what was left of the meagre four pounds odd a [...]

Owl Man


I am transformed into an owl by friend and Wellington/Christchurch painter Julian Royds, co-winner with Colin McCahon of the Hays Art Award. She took photographs of me and worked on them, dedicating this 1984 birthday gift to ‘David McOwl’. Think of it as the cover for a modest collection of owl blogs, marked by gifts from Julian and other fantastic artists it has been my privilege to know. I have interacted with owls most of my waking and some of my sleeping life. An interest in Gothic art and literature was no doubt one of the reasons we became friends. We met when I swooped in 1975 out of the sleepy sanctuary of the Listener to land bothered, battered and bewildered in the raucous Evening Post daily newspaper office. I was hired as an investigative journalist and was supposed to be the local equivalent of Bernstein and Woodward of Watergate fame. I was soon put in my place, a tiny desk in the middle of a frenzy of reporters shouting into telephones and pounding on upright Imperial typewriters in a desperate attempt to communicate over the apocalyptic thumping of the hot presses below, whence rose hot lead and inky effluvia hazardous to health and sanity. I was issued with sheets of what I took for low-grade toilet paper and sheafs of carbons half-foolscap size and told each story required six copies. ‘Why six?’ The chief reporter may have smiled. Whatever he said I could not hear over the demonic din. I tried to get on with it and learned later in the day that many of those carbon copies joined the sub-editorial stacks of spiked stories that did not make the cut. The paper put [...]

Imagine No Authors and No Publishers


Imagine, Matthew Reilly asks in the book Save Oz Stories, the Australian Olympic swimming team will now include swimmers who are not Australian selected by British and American coaches based in London and New York. Matthew is one of 23 Australian authors who have contributed indignant essays to a book that warns the government not to accept the Productivity Commission’s recommendations to abolish the Parallel Import Restrictions and allow parallel imports and reduce copyright to 15 or 25 years. Sadly I do not know Matthew, and among the other contributors I have only read Geraldine Brooks, Kate Grenville, Thomas Keneally, Frank Moorhouse, Michael Robotham and Tim Winton. However they know us better, with New Zealand cited by 12 of them as an example of what happens when you do not protect your publishing industry. Britain and America do, and all countries bar Canada and us, the most frequently given example of a government burning its book industry in the Orwellian double-speak name of competition, cheaper prices and innovation. New Zealand alas did not campaign as these splendid writers and publishers have in Australia. In Wellington alone we saw the closure of such fine bookshops as Dymocks and Roy Parsons, nationwide many publishers have closed. Did New Zealand get any competitive and creative benefit from our destruction of Parallel Import Restrictions? Not according to this free Oz book. Thomas Keneally points out that since the PIR legislation was repealed in 1998, the New Zealand publishing industry has contracted disastrously, shrinking by more than a third and sales down 16 per cent. The cost of New Zealand books has risen, while the cost of Australian books has fallen, and is 18 per cent cheaper than New Zealand. [...]

The Painting that Defined Me


The folksy Grant Tilly painting above my Paekakariki fireplace defined me. In 2003 I left three decades of Island Bay and the southern coast and moved here for the sake of my aching bones.  I wanted to bring the beautiful bay with me and Grant obliged, exactly fulfilling my brief for an oval image of Little Italy with its Italian fishing boats, cray pots, Bait House, bush and sheltering island. It is a permanent reminder of how I found purpose in my life. The story begins with my return from OE in 1973 aged 30, after an indulgent life interviewing the likes of Joan Collins and Peter O'Toole, creaming expenses, and never having written anything I gave a toss for. I was grumpy about being kicked out of the fleshpots of London, the nearest I got to an appeal my Irish grandmother. She did not count as the patrial you-can-stay clause because she happened to be born in London, which I loved as much as Dr Johnson. My first dinner party invite was a fondue party at the Tillys. I soon got the hang of that, you dropped the bread in the fondue and got to kiss the girl beside you, the spectacular Fay. Grant showed us his first book The Old Home Town. God, not only was he a great actor, he could draw in a beguiling fashion old Wellington houses. Two years later, still sulking, I walked up to the old Bolton Street cemetery, cursing the motorway that had driven a vampire stake through its heart. I wrote an indignant letter to a local giveaway.  I applied for a job on the Evening Post, unable to face any more featureless feature writing at the Listener. [...]



Review: THE DEATH RAY DEBACLE Posted: 14 Jun 2016 06:13 AM PDT THE DEATH RAY DEBACLE by David McGill (Silver Owl Press, 2015) Reviewed by Karen Chisholm June 1935: inventor Victor Penny was attacked by foreign agents seeking what the newspapers dubbed a ‘death ray’. The government secretly shifted him to Somes Island to develop the weapon. The novel of this true story is told by Temporary Acting Detective Dan Delaney, seconded to Special Branch, which is monitoring the German Club in Auckland, an increasingly shrill supporter of the Nazi regime.  The unconventional Auckland theatrical scene has made sensational headlines with the alleged murder of an impresario's wife. A mysterious German/Jewish refugee has been involved in both the German Club and this Bohemian scene, and the detective and a helpful Scotland Yard adviser pursue and are pursued by spies determined to steal Penny’s blueprint.  THE DEATH RAY DEBACLE is fiction built around unexpected facts from the period leading up to World War II. New Zealand inventor Victor Penny ran a bus company by day and at night he worked on producing a death ray. His government sanctioned, amateur scientific pursuits did indeed lead to an electric bolt system powerful enough to implode a matchbox, and they certainly created enough interest to make him a target of German spies. Even though it appears that Penny remains pretty well unknown in New Zealand, let alone the rest of the world, his enthusiasm for invention led him to produce a prototype laser, an electric gyro compass for use in submarines, and an early version of a parabolic microphone, used by Radio New Zealand in the end. In a further interesting twist, the British Government used Penny's research materials [...]

Book Review: The Death Ray Debacle, by David McGill


Booksellers New Zealand's blog Book Review: The Death Ray Debacle, by David McGill Posted on May 30, 2016 Available in selected bookshops nationwide. Dear Reader, the facts I am about to relay to you are true. Are you seated comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin. Only one or two names have been added to embellish the story. First of all, inventor Victor Penny is actually real. Or at least he was. By day he ran a bus company. By night he was an amateur scientist working on a top secret, government-sanctioned ‘death ray project’ during the years leading up to the Second World War. And it worked -sort of. He managed to create an electricity bolt powerful enough to set fire to a match box. Who knows, given time it may have become something more but his funding ran out, just before he got there. Major funder Auckland University were not convinced of the project and pulled their support. The dismissed his ideas as “heretical”. The British Government actually went on to use his research material to fully develop radar and put it to use during the Battle of Britain and save England – just in the nick of time! Penny also went on to develop a electric gyro compass, which allows submerged submarines to navigate, and a prototype laser-type device. He also invented an early parabolic microphone, which went into service at Radio New Zealand. Most New Zealanders still haven’t a clue who he was. Now before you claim I’m just quoting the plot from Herge’s Tintin adventure The Calculus Affair or an episode of the long running Dan Dare Adventure comics there is bona fide evidence that Penny did all this. The work undertaken at his [...]

The E-Book Era and the Print Coda


My daughter Kate gave me an iPad for Christmas, and among the many apps she loaded was Kindle. Okay, let’s see how this goes, all those rumours about it being bad for your eyes. Then there is the business of paying for books, not an issue with library issues. We shall see. I ordered up a Fred Vargas, signed in to Kindle with my Visa, paid US$7.93 and in seconds it downloads The Chalk Circle Man. Magic. Try out the three colours and three sizes and the half dozen fonts and get underway. Not bad, but not sure. Maybe a trip to library in case it does not work out. January 2015 issues starting big time with The Black Box, Bosch 16 a cold case, but his daughter wants to be a cop. The Flight is my first case with Bristol coroner Jenny Cooper investigating a plane crash and coping with her own demons. The Collaborator is a woman on Guernsey sleeping with a German and working for the Resistance, a tense and compelling novel by Margaret Leroy. Say You’re Sorry is Joe O’Loughlin in fine form persuading the police to reopen a murder and double disappearance. Dead in the Water is Stuart Woods’ Storm Barrington dealing with murder, blackmail and dodgy justice on a Caribbean island. Moving Target is Ali Reynolds unearthing a cold case and threatened by an arsonist. Now how long would it take me to find such a selection on Kindle? Back to Kindle, typing in Martin Walker and scoring two Brunos, The Resistance Man and Children of War. This is an emphatic answer about Kindle power. There is no need to be going on a library waiting list or, worse, [...]

The Gallic Flavouring of the Last Full Library Year


January is promising with Chief Inspector Jacquot, who could have been a colleague of Bruno’s. They are both into food, wine and rugby, but in his fifth case, Confession, Jacquot is up from Provence to Paris to sort murder and sex trafficking. Martin O’Brien writes a good police procedural, Martin Walker writes better about everything else. Jonathan Ransom for the third and maybe for me last time, as Christopher Reich  squeezes more from his mysterious spy wife in the hyper Rules of Betrayal. Maybe, and I never expected to write this, enough of Charlie Hood for a third time on the border with excessive violence in Jefferson Parker’s Iron River. Bruno I suspect has tilted my perspective towards red wine over spilled blood. Something of a relief when Barbara Parker gets a good chase going from Miami to London to the Swiss Alps, all over a rare map, The Perfect Forgery. Interesting terrain for Stuart Neville in Ratlines, 1963 Ireland and one dead Nazi and the hero charged by none other than Charles Haughey the ‘teasack’ himself as Minister of Justice with protecting glamour Nazi Otto Skorzeny, and himself the subject of many books. Bit of moral dilemma here, and a grand read. February Superintendent Grace has case No 12 in Dead Last, a lady with the lethal touch. Smuggling an Iraqi lady out of Iraq is a torrid task in Gerald Seymour’s The Corporal’s Wife. The Mongolian steppes is a novel locale for a crime novel, Inspector Nergui has a second case, murder and legal shenanigans, in Michael Walters’ The Adversary. A Swedish debut, former journalist Jan Wallentin’s Strindberg’s Star, plenty in there, Norse mythology, Nazis, religious artefact, murder, pursuit by a secret society [...]

Crime Fest Peaks for the Festive Season


The first Harry Hole for the first month of the new year, it does not get better. In The Bat Harry is in Sydney on a psychopath’s trail. Broken Harbour is Dublin cop Scorcher Kennedy solving one family’s murder and trying to sort his own, a good one from a new writer to me, Tana French. In The Cobra, Frederick Forsyth gifts his CIA man unlimited powers to crack the cocaine trade. Vanished is a good missing person thriller from Tim Weaver. The Small Boat of Great Sorrows is as good as its title, Dan Fesperman’s retired Sarajevo detective hired to find an old Nazi and finding much more contemporary villainy. More sedate villainy as Anthony Horowitz resurrects Holmes and Watson in 1890 London and Boston underworlds in The House of Silk. Another January five. Dan Fesperman delivers in The Warlord’s Son a tense caravan trip through modern Afghanistan, a jaded war correspondent and his guide in constant danger. Tana French returns with the Dublin murder squad after a missing girl presumed dead in Faithful Place. The complication is she was the main character’s lost love. If it had not been Robert Harris I might not have taken out a story of a scientist who is threatened along with his huge hedge fund in Geneva, but The Fear Index proves Harris can brilliantly handle more than spies and Cicero. Any crime novel on a Hebridean island has the call of my ancestral home, and cop Fin Macleod does not disappoint when he  returns home to Lewis to investigate a murder in my first Peter May, The Blackhouse. Very different is Sweetheart Deal, set in Bugfest, Georgia, you get the idea, a lawyer investigating her mother [...]