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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950

The Books

The Books

The PPS divided its resources roughly equally between the two objectives defined by Ian Mackay in the first issue of Co-op Books, 'the encouragement of New Zealand writers and the desire to keep people informed on New Zealand problems and International Affairs together with their relationship and effect on New Zealand.'18 About half of its publications were of the kind envisaged by Sutch: works of social, political, economic and cultural criticism, on international as well as New Zealand topics. Its publications of this kind included four titles by Sutch himself and two by Sid Scott, secretary of the Communist Party of New Zealand; the series of 'Reconstruction' pamphlets published with the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs; a small number of reprints of topical overseas publications, such as Britain Marches with Russia and Health Protection in the USSR, Ernest Beaglehole's popular account of ethnological studies in the Cook Islands, Islands of Danger, which was its most substantial publication; Maori Problems Today by Ron Meek; Medical Advice from a Backblocks Hospital (second and third editions) by Dr CM. Smith; A.R.D. Fairburn's reflections on freedom of speech, imperialism and other subjects in the essays We New Zealanders and Hands off the Tom Tom; Venereal Disease. The Shadow page 146
A.R.D. Fairburn, We New Zealanders, Progressive Publishing Society, 1944

A.R.D. Fairburn, We New Zealanders, Progressive Publishing Society, 1944

page 147 over New Zealand; and collected essays by Frederick Sinclaire. Publications planned or commissioned at the time of the society's collapse included studies on town and country planning, the New Zealand film industry, state housing, 'the life of a freezing worker' and a biography of Harry Holland.

The society's cultural publications were equally wide-ranging, both in quality and in kind—from light satirical verse to pacifist poems, earnestly socialist poetry to Wordsworthian lyrics, seventeenth-century French poetry in translation to children's books. Several of the major New Zealand writers from this period are represented, including Allen Curnow with Sailing or Drowning and Whim Wham, 1943 (a collection of satirical verse reprinted from the Christ-church Press and New Zealand Listener); Frank Sargeson with A Man and His Wife, and M.H. Holcroft with The Waiting Hills, the second of his trilogy of critical essays on New Zealand culture; and The Timeless Land. There were also publications of more dubious, or at least less durable, literary quality. Some Poems for New Zealand by Merrill Moore, an American psychiatrist who had been stationed with American troops in New Zealand for two years, and become a friend of A.R.D. Fairburn and other members of Auckland's literary-intellectual circle, recorded the author's impressions of this country in poems with such inspiring titles as 'Beer is a Badge of Courage (till six o'clock)' and 'Enormous Rainbow over One Tree Hill'. Also notable in this sense was a volume of Poems by Clyde Carr, Reverend and Labour Member of Parliament for Timaru, which were inspired by faith, nature and the Romantic poets 'in the J.R. Hervey tradition of tremulous clerical lyricism'.19 This publication attracted the disapproval of some of the society's more staunchly political critics, and most likely on aesthetic as much as ideological grounds. A series of seasonal poems about Christchurch contains such lines as:

Once more 'twas spring.
The first green of the oak
Was such a vivid thing
Of such translucent loveliness as to choke
The sight with tears

Moving north, one finds Auckland:

Another Aphrodite she, with softly-rounded limbs,
Cradled between the breasts of Mother Ocean.20

This, clearly, was not quite the stuff of which revolutions are made. Leaving aside Allen Curnow's satirical verse and Anton Vogt's pacifist statement, Poems for a War, only two of the society's cultural publications can be described as explicidy political: Three Essays on Czech Poets by Frederick Ost, a Czech refugee in New Zealand, and The Vltava Still Sings, a collection of Czechoslovak nationalist and socialist poetry translated by Ost and Ron Meek and 'dedicated to page 148 our Czech brother-poets imprisoned in German concentration camps or fighting underground somewhere in Czechoslovakia'.21 The society published one play, The Willing Horse by Isobel Andrews, which one critic (unkindly) described as 'everyday nineteenth century stuff—a girl crossed in love, grown middle-aged and a "willing horse" to be relied on to get supper ready for dances, etc.—set in a local New Zealand country town setting';22 and a novel, R.M. Burdon's Outlaw's Progress, a story of economic hardship and murder set in the 1920s, loosely based on the Stanley Graham murders on the West Coast which occurred in 1941 (it bears an interesting comparison with John Mulgan's Man Alone as a study of the social and personal aftermath of the first world war). One quarter of its cultural publications were children's books. Also produced under the imprint of the PPS was a set of greeting cards with texts by Milton, Blake, Morris and Whitman. Among the titles planned for 1945 but not published were 'New Zealand Verse 1923-45' edited by Allen Curnow (subsequendy published as A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 by the Caxton Press, 1945), and That Summer by Frank Sargeson (published in England the following year by John Lehmann). A planned short story collection to be edited by Sargeson was probably the basis for the Caxton Press publication Speaking for Ourselves (1945). It is unfortunate that a full list of the manuscripts received by the society has not survived. Among them were stories by John A. Lee, a novel by educational innovator H.C.D. Somerset and a play by Frederick Ost.

18 LA. Mackay, 'Membership Campaign Committee Report', CB, Nov. 1943 (v.1, n.1), p.5

19 P. Evans, The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature. Auckland: Penguin, 1990, p.91

20 C. Carr, Poems by Clyde Carr. Wellington: Progressive Publishing Society, I944> pp.7, 16

21 F. Ost and R. Meek (ed. and trans.), The Vltava Still Sings. Modern Czech Verse. Wellington: Progressive Publishing Society, 1945, inside title page

22 Art in New Zealand, 61, Sept. 1943 (v.16, n.1), p.17