A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950
The Changing Cultural Climate
The Changing Cultural Climate
In the 1948 annual report of the Wellington Co-operative Book Society, marking its 10th anniversary, the president gave an assessment of its progress which underlines the distance and the direction in which it had moved from its origins in the International Bookshop and from the early debate over 'political' versus 'literary' interests:
besides the tangible benefits to the members from their participation in this cooperative enterprise it can fairly be claimed that Modern Books has been no mean influence in the cultural life of the City and Province. Not only have we brought to the attention of citizens important works which would otherwise have been unavailable to them but we can claim credit for having raised the standard of bookselling here. No one who remembers the state of the stocks of local booksellers ten years ago can dispute this point. We now carry as wide a range of stock as any shop in Wellington. In children's books, in political literature, in music and in drama we can justly claim that we excel.126
Modern Books is here perceived not as a radical political bookshop but rather as a good general and progressive bookshop; not as a political centre but instead the 'living cultural and intellectual centre' the members of the society envisaged at its founding.127 Similarly, reflecting on the history of the Progressive Book Society on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, Willis Airey located the cooperative book movement within a wider cultural context than that signified by Progressive Books' Basham's Bomb Shop origins:page 128
The kinds of books in which our bookshop specialised were not so widely available as they are now. ... in the days I am thinking of there was a whole sector of literature that would not have been available but for the special effort that created Progressive Books and maintained it through difficult times.128
The difference between Modern Books and the Auckland and Christchurch shops was really one of degree not of kind. In the development of Modern Books one sees an earlier and more pronounced process of broadening and diffusion of purpose which each of the societies experienced as they came to cater to a demand for a wide range of literature 'which would otherwise have been unavailable'. Progressive Books and the Co-op Bookshop also stocked Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Faber poetry alongside Maxim Gorki, Stephen Spender and Michael Gold. In addition to modern and classic literature, all of the shops sold books on science and psychology, 'Christianity and Marxism', Freud, health and sexuality, university textbooks, foreign language texts and children's literature, as well as a wide range of political and social criticism—all areas which were not adequately covered by existing bookshops.
The cooperative bookshops catered to artists, architects and others interested in contemporary developments in the arts. The young Colin McCahon pursued his interest in modernism in the 1930s through 'a few inadequate books on the subject that filtered through to the bookshops and libraries from overseas'. At a time when there was an 'absence even of minor paintings to act as samples of European modernism or of contact with artists profiting from contact with the avant-garde. . . the artist interested in the new forms of art was left to sort out the difficulties of modernism in lonely isolation.'129 Not only was there no significant body of modernist work being produced in New Zealand; there was very little access to the books and periodicals which would facilitate discovery of and experimentation in 'avant-garde' forms. Australian writers and artists were likewise bemoaning their isolation from the European centres of modernism, but the greater influence of international developments such as modernism and socialist realism on Australian art in this period has been attributed in part to a more extensive cultural infrastructure. This included the significant number of European immigrants among the art fraternity and greater access to the literature. The Leonardo Bookshop in Melbourne, for example, run by expatriate Italian and modern art afficionado Gino Nibbi, played an important role in catering to the young artist-radicals of the Contemporary Art Society, such as Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker, and more widely to Melbourne's intellectual avant-garde.130 In New Zealand the cooperative bookshops went some way towards catering to this need for the stimulus of international culture felt by artists and intellectuals in a colonial culture.page 129
They imported extensively from American and Continental publishers, not just from the British market on which the New Zealand book trade had traditionally relied. The library committee of Wellington's Modern Books observed that its 'policy of catering for political books and the best modern literature particularly' had proved correct, while also noting a strong interest in American literature, 'particularly in the sociological novel'.'131 The strong interest in things American was no doubt partly a consequence of the presence of American servicemen in New Zealand from 1942 to 1944. But it also signified a broader developing interest in American literature in the 30s and 40s. Frank Sargeson's writing was strongly influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, while American drama dominated the repertoire of progressive theatre. This was only one aspect of the growing American influence on New Zealand—militarily, politically and economically as well as culturally—after the 1930s.
Sexuality and birth control was another area in which the cooperative bookshops played a very significant role. As Eileen Coyne of Progressive Books recalls, it was there that she was introduced for the first time, at the age of 28, to literature on sexuality and marriage as well as to radical political ideas: 'any book with sex in the title was likely to be seized by Customs'.132 This hardly overstates the case, for Marie Stopes was, it seems, as dangerous as Lenin in the eyes of officialdom. Although the cooperative book societies themselves were primarily concerned with the restrictions on political material imposed under wartime sensitivities, public concern over literature and censorship throughout the 1930s had been focused not on radical political literature but on violence and indecency. The influx into New Zealand of American comics, which had become increasingly sensationalist and violent as publishers sought to maintain their market during the depression, provoked a 'comic scare' in the 1930s. The editorial and correspondence columns of the newspapers expressed a widespread community concern akin to the 'moral panic' over comics in the 1950s. Public concern was roused not only by the violent and sometimes lurid content of the comic strips, but also by the advertisements for contraceptives and books on sex that the comics often contained. Nor did the flood of American magazines onto the New Zealand market raise only conservative moral fears. Robin Hyde, for example, writing on political censorship, referred to 'the erotic, vulgar and dangerous twaddle of American backdate magazines, on which the New Zealand Government has never dared to lay a finger'.133 Booksellers, librarians and educationalists were among those who campaigned to have comics banned or censored. This campaign obtained a voluntary agreement from distributors to cease importing or to censor a number of titles, while others were banned under the provisions of the Indecent Publications Act 1910, by which any publication which made reference to contraception could be ruled illegal by the Board of page 130 Censors.134 This legislation also had more pernicious implications. In 1935, 138 books were banned outright or had restrictions placed on their sale under this act, compared with 62 under the regulations defining 'subversive' literature. Twenty-five tides on sexuality and family planning, including Marie Stopes' Contraception, Married Love and Wise Parenthood, The Woman's Book of Health, and Ettie Rout's Practical Birth Control, could be imported, but with no guarantee against subsequent police action. In the same category came James Joyce's Ulysses. The prohibited list included titles such as A Commonsense Treatise on Birth Control, and How to Prevent Pregnancy alongside Les Nuits Voluptueuses, Spicy Stories, The Virgin's Progress, The Butcher Shop by Jean Devanny—'New Zealand's one and only home-grown banned novel',135 Lady Chatterley's Lover (unexpurgated version) and an issue of Art in Australia. Twelve works were permitted on the condition that they would be sold only to medical students and practitioners, scientists, psychologists, sociologists, law students or art students.136 While restrictions on political literature were partially lifted in 1936 the Indecent Publications Act was not amended until 1954, 'in the public interest'.137 It is hardly surprising, given this repressive moral climate, that there was, as Coyne recalls, 'a great deal of interest' in material on family planning, from men as well as women: 'Men would come into the shop at lunchtime, gradually move over to that shelf, pick up a book and browse through it, and come back again the next day.'138
Throughout the 1940s the co-op bookshops maintained a virtual monopoly over a broad range of serious, quality literature. They survived, despite economic constraints, because they filled a vacuum in the literary market. And in effect they survived in spite of their left-wing basis. For, as became increasingly obvious, 'no progressive bookshop . . . could survive just on the sale of left material', had this even been the intention.139
The range of literary interests contained within the cooperative book movement, the size and nature of the market, economic factors, and the change in the political climate in the post-war years were all contributing factors in the difficulties and the development of the bookshops in the 1930S-1940s. They were also influenced by a number of other external factors.
The war may have created a demand for radical literature but it also presented obstacles of a more practical nature to its sale. There was the difficulty of maintaining any kind of voluntary organisation under the highly mobile, disruptive and regulated conditions of wartime society. Then there were the unavoidable hazards involved in transporting goods from one side of the world to the other, although these proved not so great as initially feared. Winston Rhodes noted in his 1941 annual report that the society was 'fortunate in that only two shipments of books have been sunk by enemy action during the year'.page 131
The manager of Progressive Books added to this concern 'import restrictions, bombing-out of London publishers, labour and paper shortage . . . sky-high prices and heavy war-risk insurance'.140 But the greater obstacle to getting the books actually into the country was the zeal with which Customs Department officials pursued their task of guarding the country against material 'aimed at converting our people to Communism or other isms, and . . . against the war effort',141 in the words of the Comptroller of Customs of the time, under the provisions of wartime emergency regulations. Doris Basham of Progressive Books wrote to the Wellington Modern Books librarian in August 1941, in reply to a request for stocks of left-wing and Marxist literature: 'we can be of very little use to you ... as we are finding it practically impossible to obtain enough supplies for our usual customers, and the censorship is getting worse.'142
It was not only the amount of material that was held that irked booksellers but the lack of information given. It was not until July 1940 that Customs made public the fact that incoming packages were being impounded, and the list of banned books was not published. Nancy Taylor sums up the confusion, official obfuscation and overkill which characterised wartime censorship:
booksellers repeatedly asked to be told what titles were proscribed; censorship, showing much skill in dodging questions, refused this information and was itself uncertain about many books and periodicals on which it awaited higher direction. Postal and customs authorities had further confused the issue by withholding some obviously virtuous books, guilty only by association in packages with suspected ones, thereby increasing the bewilderment and exasperation of booksellers.143
In Parliament the Prime Minister admitted that
The Government will probably have to pay compensation with regard to the holding up of literature. Quite a range of absurd administrative actions are possible under the Regulations. Every individual officer of the law cannot possibly distinguish between what is subversive and what is not.144
The cooperative book societies made several protests to the Minister of Customs over the stringency of censorship restrictions, particularly over the practice of impounding books without notice for unspecified duration, and sought support from local trade unions, LRCs and the Federation of Labour. Wellington's Modern Books also protested over the censorship of its incoming mail. In February 1941 the WCBS wrote to the Minister suggesting that a committee of 'competent and open-minded persons' be appointed with the power to override the censor, that importers be immediately informed of any confiscation, that the list of banned books be made public and that anything passed by the British censor be automatically allowed into New Zealand.145 But page 132 their constructive criticism was of as little practical avail as their indignation. It was not until 1953 that the government heeded repeated calls from interested parties, most insistendy from the writers' organisation PEN, for the establishment of an independent supervisory body with the setting up of the Literary Advisory Committee. (This, however, was a largely impotent body, and a significant development in this direction was not to come until the establishment of the Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1963.)
A related and no less vexatious problem was import licensing. Licensing was introduced by the Labour government at the end of 1938 under the Import Control Regulations as a means of conserving overseas funds. Initially this had little effect on the importation of literature; there was no effective restriction on material imported from Britain or Australia, although imports from America were 'considerably reduced'.146 But the restrictions were extended at the beginning of 1940, with a reduction in the amount of books and periodicals that could be imported in the first half of that year to 50 per cent of imports for the same period in 1938. By January 1943 the licence allocation represented 62.5 per cent of the 1938 level, but price increases of 10-20 per cent, in the booksellers' estimation, meant that the real level was around 45 per cent.147 When the regulations were first introduced a meeting of booksellers, publishers and the New Zealand Library Association lobbied unsuccessfully to have books exempted, although later educational books for schools and libraries, and religious, medical and legal texts were all exempted. Winston Rhodes suggested in Tomorrow that: 'If there must be restrictions let them be restrictions on detective novels, stories of the wild west, crime fiction—anything you like but not on serious thought of which New Zealand needs as much as she can get.'148 (In fact, one side-effect of the licensing regulations was to impose a further restriction on the importation of American popular magazines.) The cooperative book societies were continually having to apply for an increase in their licence allocations, particularly for American literature—in 1946 the CCBS was granted licences for £1830 worth of Australian and British literature and £300 of American. It was a problem to the extent that Modern Books in Wellington was considering closing the shop and opening a smaller room when, having applied for a licence of £1500, it was granted £225. The Customs Department was evidently convinced of the absurdity of this amount for in subsequent years licences of between £1000 and £2000 were granted. Yet in 1949 J. C. Beaglehole still had criticisms to make of the impact of the licensing system in 'driving out good books by trivial ones'.149 Speaking in a radio panel discussion with Walter Nash, Roy Parsons and British publisher Stanley Unwin, Beaglehole complained of the disincentive of the bookseller having to apply for an additional licence to import each specialist title not normally stocked, in response to a customer request, and in this area, he observed, 'it has become increasingly necessary for the customer to order the page 133 books specially'.150 For as Unwin noted, under the licensing system importers were forced to use a larger part of their quota on 'saleable' lines in order to maintain profit margins.
Import licensing restrictions were substantially relaxed in 1951. Meanwhile, the end of the war had brought a relaxation of censorship, but also, as we have seen, a change in the political context and a lessening of the demand for political literature. Social and cultural as well as political changes also affected, and were reflected by, the development of the literary market.
There was a significant overall growth in the literary market over this period. In 1949 books and periodicals to the value of £1,375,000 were imported into New Zealand compared with £568,000 in 1938.151 And there was a qualitative as well as a quantitative change. Writing in Co-op Books in 1944 Blackwood Paul observed:
I ought to know book buying people. For ten years I have tried to sell them books. In those early years I thought nobody ever bought books except to give them away. . . . The pattern in recent years has changed a little. More people buy books for themselves. . . . More choose intelligently for themselves. There are also signs of a new class of book buyers, people who could not afford to buy books before at all but who now buy expensive books.152
While there were more people buying books (although not necessarily, in Paul's opinion, 'good' books), there were also fewer people by the post-war years buying political pamphlets, which had formed the bulk of the International and Labour bookshops' sales. The depression had been 'the great period for pamphleteering'.153 The CCBS remarked in 1944 on the demise of the large pamphlet sales of the 1930s, which accompanied the general expansion of the market for books. By 1937-8 there were already fewer cheap pamphlets in the Progressive Bookshop advertisements in the Workers' Weekly than there had been a year earlier, or in the International Bookshops' advertisements in the early 1930s.
International political events of the late 1930s and the war itself may have stimulated a greater interest in longer, more in-depth studies of political, social and economic questions than the political pamphlet allowed. But this change in literary consumption may also be related to a more fundamental social development—the apparent demise of a 'self-educated working class' tradition. The image of the cloth-capped autodidact which is represented by people such as Walter Nash and Jack Basham, whose interest in bookselling derived from a love of literature as well as an interest in politics, and by the Auckland watersider 'who would . . . walk out with twenty books under his arm', is an image of the 1920s or 1930s, not of the 1950s. The extent, origin and development of a self-educated working class culture in this country is a question which cannot be fully addressed here, but only noted in so far as it receives some expression in the page 134 history of the co-op bookshops and their predecessors. One can point to improvements in the standard and accessibility of education, including more diverse media of education, as likely contributors to this apparent change. The development of the WEA over the 1930s and 1940s, as its proportion of working class members fell and it began to develop more as an adults' than a workers' educational association, a much-debated issue within the organisation in the 1930s, has also been accounted for in these terms.154
A parallel development was the significant expansion of the university population in this period. There was a large increase in student numbers in the late and post-war years: the roll of the University of New Zealand rose from 5979 in 1939 to 11,964 in 1948,155 partly as a result of the influx of returning servicemen into the colleges immediately after the war. The larger student and graduate population in the second half of the 1940s created a larger potential market for more expensive literature and may be seen to be reflected in the membership of the cooperative book societies.
The debate within the cooperative book movement over 'political' versus 'literary' interests was also framed in terms of cheap working class literature as opposed to more expensive books. The commitment to low prices was always borne in mind, but the relative shift from cheap pamphlets to higher priced books may in turn have further distanced the cooperative bookshops from their working class origins and popular cultural ideal. In the Wellington Modern Books catalogues of the later 1940s many books were priced upwards of 10/- and some over 20/-. By comparison, Penguin paperbacks, which first appeared in 1935, cost 1/- in New Zealand in the 1930s and 1/8-1/9 in 1946. These figures must of course be seen in the context of rising living standards. But it is also worth noting in this context a comment made by one book society member, that even on an academic salary 'it was not easy to spend a pound [the price of a book society share] for an idea'.156
So the cooperative bookshops never became the 'genuine People's Bookshop[s]' Rhodes envisaged,157 either in attracting a mass 'popular' membership or in stimulating the popular or working class cultural movement envisaged by some members. While they continued to function relatively successfully as cooperative organisations they did not maintain a mass membership. Moreover, as the committee of Wellington's Modern Books on several occasions lamented, their active membership was relatively small. It is also likely that a number of those who joined the societies, and undoubtedly a greater number of those who patronised the shops, were not motivated by the same political convictions and cultural ideals as the movement's founders. The availability of certain lines of stock and the 10 per cent member's discount alone probably attracted many (indeed the Christchurch society observed a greatly increased turnover and page 135 demand for membership when it introduced the member's discount in 1942). Inspired by a populist ideal, the cooperative book societies were nevertheless initiated and sustained by a relatively small number of politically-aware and culturally-minded people, largely 'liberal-left and academic people'. And arguably they catered for the most part to the same clientele.
Their progress from working class based and strongly political bookshops associated with the Communist Party or Friends of the Soviet Union, to the more general, progressive bookshops of the 1940s, was paralleled by their shift in geographical location. Auckland's Progressive Bookshop moved from Pitt Street off Karangahape Road to the lower Queen Street area. Wellington's International Bookshop was located opposite and later next door to Trades Hall in Vivian Street; Modern Books in Woodward and Manners Streets. In Christ-church the transformation of the International Bookshop into Co-op Books accompanied a shift from Manchester Street, a relatively industrial area, to New Regent Street nearer the commercial centre of the city.
Throughout this period these shops remained the principal outlets for left-wing and other progressive literature and thus to a greater or lesser extent the 'spiritual centres' of the left. They satisfied a demand for 'good and progressive literature'158 of all kinds which was not being catered for by the existing book trade. They were not, as William Robertson feared, 'a small and self-confined group with no particularly significant impact upon the forces which are shaping history', but nor were they the People's Bookshops he hoped for, which would fulfil a socialist cultural vision.
126 WCBS annual report, 1948. WCBS Papers: 24
127 'Meeting Books on New Terms'
128 Quoted in'25 Years Old. Progressive Book Society Ltd/
130 R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors. The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art. Ringwood, Victoria: Allen Lane, 1985, pp.16, 25; J. Sendy, Melbourne's Radical Bookshops. History, People, Appreciation. Melbourne: International Bookshop Pty Ltd, 1983, ch.8
131 'Report on Library and Second Hand Departments (Feb-April)', . WCBS Papers: 3
132 Coyne interview
133 Hyde, 'Jack Basham's Bookshop'
134 P. Christoffel, Censored. A Short History of Censorship in New Zealand. Monograph Series, 12. Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1989, pp.20-1; R. Openshaw and R. Shuker, 'Silent Movies and Comics', in M. McKinnon (ed.), The American Connection. Wellington: Allen and Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, 1988, pp.58-60; A. C. Burns, 'Some Aspects of Censorship: a survey of censorship law and practice in New Zealand from 1841-1963, mainly concerning the control of indecent publications'. MA thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 1968
135 Hyde, 'Jack Basham's Bookshop'
136 List of prohibited literature, appended to 'Question of the prohibition of the importation of certain literature into NZ\ Memorandum from Comptroller of Customs to Minister of Customs, 27 Jan. 1936. C1 36/959: box 152. NA
137 W. Nash, Minister of Customs to Minister in charge of Police Department, 25 May 1936. Ibid.
138 Coyne, 'And Baby Makes Three'
139 Ewen correspondence
140 CCBS chairman's report, Oct. 1941; CB, Feb. 1944 (v.1, n.4), p.
142 D. Basham to J. Ferguson, 21 Aug. 1941. WCBS Papers: 3
144 Quoted in Union Record, 15 Jan. 1941 (v.1, n.19), p.3
145 Secretary, WCBS to Minister of Customs, 18 Feb. 1941. WCBS Papers: 3
146 ABNZ minutes, 25 Jan. 1939
147 Ibid., 30 Oct. 1939, 6 Mar. 1940, 27 Jan. 1943
148 'Aspects of Censorship', Tomorrow, 1 Feb. 1939 (v.5, n.7), p.213
150 'The Importation of Books', New Zealand Listener, 1 July 1949 (v.21, n.523), p.7
152 Paul, 'The Book-Buying Public'
153 Rhodes interview
155 AJHR, 1940, E7, p.2, 1950, E7, p.3
156 Parsons interview
157 CCBS chairman's report, Oct. 1942
158 Co-op Books, Nov. 1943 (v.1, n.1), p.1