Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Nazis and Steam Trains

David McGill reports on his Saturday book launch:

Only hours before the ABs’ almost debacle, David McGill launched his new novel The Death Ray Debacle at the Paekakariki Railway Station Museum at 2pm on Saturday. It too was heading for a debacle. The whistle was delayed for its launch as the few attendees stood outside the station watching traffic diverted and long queues resulting from an articulated lorry failing to make the corner and tipping its load all over State Highway One. 
Like the All Blacks, the launch proved a trial for the viewers, with the quorum of 25 getting restless waiting for kick-off. McGill kicked his first effort into touch on the full, a joke about his childhood spent in a steam train railway settlement in the Bay of Plenty and now he was in his second childhood in this steam train railway settlement. He got back in the game explaining that he had written what he believed to be New Zealand’s first spy novel about the New Zealand Police and particularly Special Branch conducting surveillance in 1935 of the increasingly aggressive Auckland German Club, which was taking names of Jews and those with German heritage of military age. This he combined with the attack on a Takapuna inventor of a ‘death ray’ by ‘foreign agents’ attempting to steal his blueprints and the government whisking him off by steam train in the dead of night to Wellington. The inventor spent six months on Somes Island in the middle of the harbour under armed guard 24 hours a day trying to develop weapons keenly sought by all the major powers gearing up for war. Hence the cover flags of Germany, Britain and the Soviet Union flanking the inventor on the front cover. 
What we now know as lasers and radar were not yet invented, but claims this inventor could blow up objects at a distance and identify planes before they were in sight were the very weapons all countries were actively seeking.

Fearing he was drifting into touch, the author pointed out the collage he had assembled of the major visual elements, starting in the top right with the gold-painted nude of the dancer Freda Stark, whom his detective narrator shadows to the Civic Theatre. He is hoping to locate her friend a German lady who is one of the spies chasing the blueprint. Unfortunately the detective falls foul of her colleague. A Scotland Yard observer assists the detective in pursuit of suspects in Devonport and at Auckland Museum before he boards the train at Auckland Station to assist in getting the inventor safely to Wellington. All these events happened, McGill assured his audience. Indeed, he realised he had made use as set-pieces in the Auckland half of the book of the iconic structures of his youth, the Civic Theatre, Auckland Museum and the railway station, all of which he had written about as heritage structures. He added that the stamped metal ceiling in the station was imported at huge expense from Germany, something that would not have been contemplated a few years later.

Moving along, he described the steam train chapter as one where he could indulge his interest in steam trains and recreate the sleeping cars of the time. Among the research he made use of was the term ‘sago’ as a code word for steering coloured people, presumably including Maori, into a compartment separate from pakeha.

The second half of the book involved both detectives and armed soldiers protecting the scientists from threats from without and within the quarantined island, which was supposed to be a New Zealand equivalent of Alcatraz.

Recognising the dry coughs and shifting feet McGill cancelled reading of extracts in favour of afternoon tea. No second invitation was needed. Folk made as quick an exit as that South African ref after the game Scotland was denied by his whistle blunder. And thus the game of two halves proved so, the club sandwiches, chocolate sultana squares, asparagus rolls and scones polished off quick smart, washed down with red and white wine and beer, tea and coffee for some. McGill and his colleague Michael O’Leary, who had delivered a few of his railway poems with accompaniment from noted jazz pianist Gilbert Haisman, were gratified that tea was followed by wallet opening. The second half was praised by all and McGill felt he had sold enough copies to get out of jail. Not a debacle after all. A narrow win. One lady fan said she was buying his book because she was interested in Freda Stark.

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