Stop Press: New Minister of Finance Pledges to Address Public Radio Funding


At the launch of David McGill’s spy story The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser at Unity Books, Wellington, March 30, launch speaker Grant Robertson, MP, responded to the author’s enquiry by pledging to address the frozen public radio funding under three terms of the National Government. And that was just the start of an arts funding overhaul, he said. The Labour Party was setting up a committee to assess the legacy Peter Fraser left behind of state patronage of the arts, including setting up the Literary Fund and literary pensions, as well as establishing our National Orchestra. Author David McGill said his book was set in 1945, when Fraser took those initiatives after returning from the San Francisco Conference to set up the United Nations. He lobbied hard to end colonies and deny the Great Powers a veto. This made him enemies within the British, American and Russian establishments, and readymade assassins for hire among the Nazis being released from Somes Island detention and making threats against the prime minister. Fraser has disestablished the Security Intelligence Bureau and is indifferent to personal security, obliging Commissioner of Police Cummings to charge Detective Delaney with identifying the threat. The book puts real people into a spy story, not unlike The Day of the Jackal, the mix of fact and fiction known as faction. Grant Robertson thought it interesting the author talked about faction when Donald Trump practised something similar in alternative facts, but at least McGill was honest about what he was up to. It is a rollicking read, Grant said, which has all the elements of a great spy novel, including a nice little twist at the end. It is an historical novel which shines a [...]

Pushing Peter to the Punters


The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser was launched last night at Unity Books in downtown Wellington. I stepped up in my kilt to the gratifying sight of people wanting signed copies the moment I entered the door of what Canada mate Roger Boshier emailed is ‘one of the last reputable still-standing bookstores in Wellington’.  He added that ‘Comrade McGill will probably survive in grand style and, we hope, sell boxes of books.’ It was a pity, he added, the Security Service have not tried to make him shut up because that would help sales. He must have had Nicky Hager in mind, his book launch there the previous week had the television cameras and so many books signed by him, the bookseller agreed he needed a rubber stamp signature. I do too, but not because of huge sales so much as a signature that looks like the dying scrawl of a palsy victim. Worse than a doctor’s scrip, was one of the kinder remarks. If you see my speech, when it goes up next week on my website, you might understand why I referred to the crowds welcoming Peter Fraser home in 1945 as ‘Good old Peter!’ when he was 14 years younger than me. He was in actual fact, not alternative fact, aged 60. I come out way whiter on video than I thought I was. Funny thing was my launch speaker Grant Robertson, local MP, said it was interesting I talked about my book as faction, all these assassins after Good old Peter, when Donald Trump practises something similar in the way of alternative facts. At least, Grant said, I was honest about my faction. And, he added, it was a rollicking read [...]

Past Books into Peter


The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser is my 54th book and it owes a research debt to many of my previous books, of which almost one third are about Wellington. Most books evolved out of previous books, but none have drawn so extensively on my Wellington writings. My first book was in 1961 and called Miscellany, being poems and prose by myself and other students of Wellington Teachers’ College. I was 18 and not afraid to tread where angels fear to. I published it myself without funding, sold it on the streets of Wellington and recovered my outlay of £30, all to pay John Milne Printer of Cuba Street. I had achieved the first objective of any publisher, covering my costs. I am still not sure why people bought the book, maybe because they felt sorry for me standing on a corner of Cuba and Manners Streets opposite the Sallies’ with War Cry and the communist Vern peddling his vision of a better society. I was just peddling our noodle doodles. I guess I had a cheek, but given the previous year my first foray into book pages was sandwiched between James K Baxter and David Mitchell was cause for head-swelling. Alack and alas, nothing developed from that poetically enthralling start. All has been Kiwi social history from me, some fiction, or faction, if you like, real people and events in a story form. First off several decades of journalism, what Malcolm Muggeridge called Chronicles of Wasted Time. He was a disenchanted Englishman, I was of Scottish heritage, practising the waste not, want not mantra I learned at my father’s stern knee. So my articles went into books, starting with the newspaper vignettes of old Wellington [...]

The Breath of Death: In Memory of a Jogger


Sunday morning I was strolling home past the school when a black muscle car with massive exhaust accelerated past me. It is a steep rise and last week it was sealed, with a lot of loose gravel not yet bedded in. I thought the car was going too fast when I heard an almighty thump. I turned around and could see nothing. I walked up the rise and saw a crowd gathering on the corner. Then I saw the black car nose first and almost perpendicular among the trees. My first thought was whether the driver was injured. The driver’s door was open, the back window shattered, pieces of panelling lying next to the crumpled bonnet. A boy of about 12 was saying he saw it, right in front of him. He seemed dazed. I looked where people were pointing, down the slope on the corner. A woman with a cell phone was crouched over a crumpled body. It appeared to be a female jogger. I could hear the woman calling for an ambulance. A woman appeared with a blanket. People around me were saying the driver had scarpered. I said to a young man crouched above the victim I heard the car accelerate. Yeh, he muttered. It was my fault. I think he said that. My hearing is not the best. The sirens were approaching. First the ambulance arrived, followed by two fire trucks, four police cars, the officials taking over, taping off the approaches. The police were taking notes from witnesses. A woman asked me if I had given the police particulars. I said I had not actually witnessed the accident, unlike perhaps half a dozen people. I returned home, where I could [...]

Peter in His Pomp


Peter Fraser was to me and perhaps many others the archeytypical dour Scot who dutifully delivered the First Labour Government’s security blanket in the dire drone that turns many off his national instrument, the bagpipes. It was only when I began researching his life for my spy novel The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser that I realised how much more there was to him. His principles and pragmatism forged a better country, a better world and a better deal for our arts and culture, including my own writing and publishing. My novel is set in mid-1945, when Fraser returned from a major role in setting up the United Nations. His championing of decolonisation and denying the Great Powers a veto made him serious enemies. Nazis released from Somes Island detention are for hire. This was Fraser’s annus mirabilis. My novel posits how it threatened to be his annus horribilis. Fraser returned to a Labour vote declining. He offered no sops, stuck to his guns, so to speak. He advocated secure family incomes and a safety net that would stop another Great Depression when the opposition and many in his own party wanted freer markets and less austerity. Part of his vision was to put government money into creating a literary fund, more public broadcasting, more theatre and other performance arts, establishing a national orchestra. Our wartime Prime Minister returned to international acclaim as a champion of the peace-keepers. My novel The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser has him welcomed like a peaceful version of a conquering Roman general. The cheers from the crowds that packed Auckland and Wellington town halls for ‘Good Old Peter’ were reported enthusiastically by a Tory press that loathed his communist [...]

Top 20 Albums 2017


Astral Weeks  Van Morrison Highway 61 Revisited  Bob Dylan Twenty Years of Jethro Tull  Who’s Next  The Who Eagles Complete Greatest Hits Bob Dylan The Collection Elvis No 1s Everyone Is Here The Finn Brothers Buddy Holly Oh Boy! Rust Never Sleeps Neil Young Van Morrison Montreux 1980 Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band The Beatles St Dominic’s Preview Van Morrison Wavelength Van Morrison Olias of Sunhillow Jon Anderson Roy Orbison 12 of His Best Salty The Muttonbirds Out of Our Heads The Underground Sound 1965-70 The Joshua Tree U2   Bonus:  Cat Stevens The Ultimate Collection   A decade ago in The Treadmill Tapes my Top 20 albums had the same first four positions, losing thereafter Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Wishbone Ash, Dire Straits, Bob Seger, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood, Deep Purple, Loreena McKennitt and Annie Lennox, displaced by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Roy Orbison and Neil Young. The Underground Sounds of 1965 to 1970 allow tastes of Fleetwood Mac, Santana, The Byrds, Leonard Cohen, Chicken Shack with Chrissie McVie in my favourite version of I’d Rather Go Blind, and Van Morrison’s astonishing T.B.Sheets. This Top 20 is what I most frequently play, but all of those who have dropped out of it and many more like the Rolling Stones and the black blues singers who inspired them and indeed Dusty Springfield, and Jimi and Richie Havens and all those Woodstock performers come my way in DVDs and television documentaries. If I have a hankering to hear Thunderclap Newman, Wishbone Ash, Moby, Mumford and Sons, Melanie, Annie Lennox, Dave Dobbyn, Poi E!, Bob Seger or Steve Winwood, then Spotify obliges. Essentially my [...]

Top 20 for 2017


The Treadmill Tapes, Confessions of a Compulsive Pop Picker was published in 2007, launched at Paekakariki’s Kakariki Bookshop in Wellington Road with proprietor Michael O’Leary leading the singing of Happy Birthday to Ringo. The bookshop has moved to the station, bookending the Paekakariki Railway Museum with the tearooms where I have subsequently launched three books. The treadmill did not survive my shift to Ocean Road, but all my cassette tapes, CDs and LPs continue to expand, and my Spotify library is significant. The decade since has been dominated by the music and books associated with the museum complex. In 2009 Wayne Mason from the adjacent steam train complex sang his engine driver tribute What Fred Said to launch my book about travelling the New Zealand rails, The G’Day Country Redux. Wayne’s Nature has been voted New Zealand’s top song. He stood on a chair on this occasion, saying it was the smallest stage he had performed on. Pictured is local troubadour Francis Mills and his Cecil Road Trio, Gary Allen on flute, out of picture Ray Butler on drum, delivering in 2014 the world premiere of the poem Matata. Fellow train enthusiast Michael O’Leary wrote it for me after I told him about my happy childhood with my brother Michael riding jiggers at the rail settlement of Matata in the Bay of Plenty. The occasion was the final of the Up the Creek trilogy Stamp in the Creek, comic novels about my fictional Matata. Go to my website and click on the first page arrow for my launch speech; 16 minutes in Francis sings Matata. Shortly after the launch my brother died, and Matata was played at his funeral. In his nearby studio Francis [...]

Crowded Owls


The selfie photograph is in the bathroom of the house I moved to two years ago. On the wall behind is Paekakariki mate Michael O’Leary’s painting of us as two donkers or barn owls, in the foreground my Aussie cousin Patricia’s painting of Summer Owl. Billy Bunter the Fat Owl of the Remove was a favourite childhood character. These days I am an Owl Man of the Move. I relocated to Paekakariki in 2003, celebrating the shift by asking my long-time Wellington colleague the late Grant Tilly to paint my new island environment with owl prominent. The morepork is bottom left on his epic Kapiti painting, a 3-D owl in fretwork. It shares the hall with the Bosch Temptation of St Anthony, with its owl observing.  Both survived inside the downsizing to a smaller home, but many of the owl collection have had to take up residence in the tin shed, the carport or somewhere outside. The twilight shed is not inappropriate for owls, particularly the battery-driven owl Jacob gave me. It dangles in front of the window, when activated its wings flap and its eyes glow like a forest creature out of Midsomer Murders. The tin walls are well stocked with Alice Fraser’s David Parry painting of a barn owl protecting her eggs, Julian’s gift copy of the 1508 Durer owl painting, Nicky’s delicate paper fabric owl, cousin Dinah Priestley’s Silver Owl flag. The winds of Houghton Bay shredded the edges of the flag, Dinah repaired them with leather, alas the winds and salt air took a toll. Now it is safe in a frame. Galya’s stuffed owl seemed happy for a year in the shed, but the rats or birds started taking tufts [...]

Owls Ascending


Murray Reece matched Burton for over a decade with birthday gifts of engaging black and white owl cartoons. In 1981 it was Large Footed Jogging Owl (Pedestalis Athleticus). An owl is hunched in rugged jogging shoes not unlike those I used along the southern flank of Wellington. The next year I received Glaucidium brasilianum, Lost in Clover. Two years later it was Houghton Dwarf Owl (telephotus pentax) Confronting an Ant, referencing perhaps my Pentax camera. In 1985 Murray went aerial with Jumbolus Elephantus aeronautica (overshooting). Murray noted my 1990 birthday with a Little Owl preparing for a self-portrait, bringing colour to the box camera. Two years later his series ended with the a cat looking in the mirror at an owl. Burton marked my 1989 birthday with a cassette of ‘Great Moments in NZ Literature, Fugue in AHHHHHHHHHHH! Minor, Michael King at Huka Falls’. The cassette contained a bound figure hurtling over the falls, referencing a stinker of a review I received from the historian and Metro magazine reviewer and my intemperate response. Julian also referenced my writing travails with a drawing of an owl superimposed on a photograph of a lamppost ‘rising above his detractors who have met their doom in the still and icy waters of Wellington Harbour’. Other photographs she decorated with owl drawings depicting Angel Owl, an owl fence across my hillside, owls at the bottom of the garden, an owl with an Afro swimming in a boat harbour, and an owl under attack on my hillside by ‘something wicked this way comes’. For her owlsong Julian drew a magnificently naturalistic owl in dishevelled cloak of bronzed chainmail feathering. Many years later Burton marked my 70th with a little red book [...]

Owlandish Gifts


In the late 1970s the owl figurines came thick and fast, and I bought the featured bamboo cabinet to display some of them. Glum carved wooden Indonesian owls alongside ferocious red and green owls, Korean brass wedding owls, tin Indian owls studded with red blobs, green and red soapstone owls, hollow-eyed Eskimo owls, owls in crystal, glass, silver, brass, brightly knitted weave, Bangladeshi gold straw owls, elegant plastic owls, dinky ivory owls, owls in white granite, owl keyrings and owl necklaces, owls made of every kind of metal and wood and carvable substance. Owls are the most widely represented creatures in folk and fancy art. On my birthday, December 1, 1981, my old university and London squash mate Burton Silver delivered his first owlandish gift, the claws mounted on a log on the lower shelf of the cabinet. ‘Great Gripping Owl’ says the plaque. ‘Sceloglaux albifaeces grippa. As found after gale force winds near Houghton Bay, Wellington.’ Some sceptical visitors to my Houghton Bay home reckoned it was chook legs. Spoilsports. They couldn’t fault the evidence in the specimen jars of the follow-up birthday gift. The jars sat in a wooden stand with the heading ‘The Last Days of Owl Capone’, visible in this accompanying image at the back of the top shelf. From the left: First jar March 28, Owl versus Skylark, winner Owl in 8.7 seconds. Second jar April 2, Owl versus Mouse, winner Owl, 10.3 seconds. Third jar April 8, Owl v Starling, Owl win 28.1 seconds. Fourth jar April 12, Owl v Rat, Owl win 34.5 seconds. Fifth jar April 15, Owl v Pheasant, Owl win 51.9 seconds. Sixth jar April 18, Owl v DC10, winner DC10 0.5 seconds. Burton was [...]