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


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At Piha, 1937/38? From left: P. Williams, Horace Belshaw, A.R.D. Fairburn, W. B. Sutch, Morva Sutch, Jack Basham, R.A.K. Mason, Ormond Wilson, R.P. Anschutz, Doris Basham, N. M. Richmond, A.H. O'Keefe (H. O. Roth)

At Piha, 1937/38? From left: P. Williams, Horace Belshaw, A.R.D. Fairburn, W. B. Sutch, Morva Sutch, Jack Basham, R.A.K. Mason, Ormond Wilson, R.P. Anschutz, Doris Basham, N. M. Richmond, A.H. O'Keefe (H. O. Roth)

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Tomorrow was the principal forum in New Zealand for the discussion of issues and international developments of left-wing culture in the 1930s. Founded in 1934 and closed down by the government in May 1940 under wartime emergency regulations, it was published, at first weekly and later fortnightly, from the tiny office of its founder, Kennaway Henderson, in Hereford Street, Christchurch, an office it shared with a baby grand piano on the top of which 'many a proof was read'.1 A 1939 editorial claimed:

Quoted in Parliament, reduced to rags in public libraries in spite of its strong format, lent and re-lent, and discussed everywhere, this paper has a coverage out of all proportion to its printer's bill.2

This was undoubtedly an exaggeration, but Tomorrow was justified in describing itself as being, throughout the 1930s, 'the only paper in New Zealand in which vital issues may be freely discussed'.3 Kennaway Henderson was the guiding influence behind Tomorrow but its production was a cooperative effort. The three principal players involved in its establishment were: Henderson; Frederick Sinclaire, Professor of English at Canterbury University College; and H. Winston Rhodes, a lecturer in English.

Winston Rhodes has a central part in this story; in his regular column in Tomorrow he gave the most systematic exposition in New Zealand of left-wing cultural thought in the Popular Front period, and in his active involvement in a range of left-wing cultural activities he sought to put his ideas into practice. Tomorrowis itself a major character; the intellectual focus of the Popular Front in New Zealand, it was also, in a broader sense, a cultural statement and an indicator of the intellectual and cultural climate of New Zealand in the 1930s, which was the immediate background of the activities with which this book deals.

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Rhodes taught in the Department of English Language and Literature at Canterbury College from 1933 until his retirement in 1970. He was an active member of the FSU, the Workers' Defence League, the SCR (and its later manifestation, the NZ-USSR Society), the Left Book Club and the cooperative book movement, conducted lecture courses for the Workers' Educational Association and held regular discussion evenings at his home for the college's more radically-minded students. He also produced an article for almost every issue of Tomorrow before mid 1938 (with the exception only of a three month break in 1937), and thereafter for every second issue, along with book reviews and occasional pieces of satirical verse. He wrote in Tomorrow on a wide range of subjects, from the state of the cultural environment in New Zealand to series on Victorian and modern novelists, the latest developments in literature in the Soviet Union, China and Australia, Milton, the International Brigade and modern cinema. But he brought to his diverse subject matter a consistent political analysis—a political and cultural philosophy which can best be described as humanist Marxism.

Australian by birth, he had come to New Zealand in his 30s, at the height of the depression. Like many others he had been introduced to socialist politics as a student. He was secretary of the university Labor Club in Melbourne, and in the early 1930s was active in the Melbourne Workers' Art Club and the FSU. After graduating he also lectured at Melbourne's Labour College, before accepting an appointment as assistant lecturer in English at Canterbury College, under his personal friend and the newly-appointed Professor, Frederick Sinclaire. On his arrival in Christchurch early in 1933 Rhodes found that his reputation had preceded him. He arrived just after the tramways strike of 1932; the country was still in the firm grip of the depression and, although Christchurch had been spared the unemployed 'riots' which occurred in Auckland and Wellington the previous year, the political atmosphere was just as tense. He was quickly drawn into political activity in the city, joining the FSU and the Workers' Defence League (an organisation which provided financial and legal support for workers arrested during strikes), speaking at public meetings, and establishing lasting contacts within the Christchurch labour movement. He was also drawn into informal discussions with Henderson and Sinclaire, which led to the establishment of Tomorrow.

The paper was Henderson's brainchild. For the duration of its short but notable life he was its 'sole editor, business manager, correspondence secretary, canvasser and cartoonist'. As Winston Rhodes has written:

His was the voice, his was the energy and his was the vision that moulded the journal which had been his brain-child into the significant instrument of expression for the radicals, the left-wing socialists of the thirties.4

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An artist by profession, Henderson had worked as an illustrator for the Weekly Press and the New Zealand Illustrated'annual in Christchurch between 1903 and 1918, supplementing his income with commission work and occasionally exhibiting at the Canterbury Society of Arts. The next two years he spent in prison as a conscientious objector. In 1925 he moved to Sydney where he worked as a freelance illustrator, before returning to Christchurch in 1931 with a plan to start his own paper, inspired by the example of the liberal English journal The New Age under the editorship of A. E. Orage. The New Age was distinguished for the quality of its political comment and its editorial independence. Henderson's founding vision of Tomorrow reflected both his admiration for Orage and the essential elements of his own character. In Winston Rhodes' assessment, 'he might be described vaguely as a humanitarian with a radical bias;... If he was influenced by socialist ideas, it was rather as an armchair socialist'.5 A radical but not a political activist, he combined in his character and his life a 'love and appreciation of beauty in all its forms'6 with a deeply-held commitment to social justice. The strength of his political—and moral—beliefs and his 'quizzical sense of humour'7 were reflected in the sardonic and sometimes macabre cartoons which illustrated Tomorrow.

Frederick Sinclaire, like Henderson, was a New Zealander who had spent several years in Australia. In contrast with Henderson, Sinclaire brought to Tomorrow a long history of political involvement, although his socialist convictions had considerably mellowed by the time he arrived back in New Zealand in 1932. Educated at Oxford, he joined the Unitarian ministry there and in 1908 was appointed minister to the Eastern Hill Unitarian Church in Melbourne, where he served for three years before his outspoken political views finally exhausted the tolerance of his congregation. This was his last ministry. In 1908 he had joined the newly-formed Victorian Socialist Party and was editor of its journal The Socialist from 1911 to 1913, He belonged to the Fabian Society, and in 1911 became a founding member of the Melbourne Free Religious Fellowship, a non-denominational organisation which had as strong an interest in the arts as it did in religion. Sinclaire edited Fellowship from 1914 to 1922 and gave public lectures on literary, religious and social topics. He mixed in Melbourne's progressive literary circles, counting among his friends the playwright Louis Esson, whom he helped to found the Pioneer Players, and Vance Palmer, Bernard O'Dowd, Furnley Maurice and other members of Melbourne's literary avant-garde, which was centred on the Literary Club and the Y Club of which Sinclaire was a member.8

These three, Henderson, Sinclaire and Rhodes, along with Bruce Souter, an official with the Public Trust Office who acted as the paper's business manager, and the young poet and printer Denis Glover, who was at the same time busy establishing the Caxton Press, formed the editorial group responsible for the page 30 production of Tomorrow. It was a group characterised more by its diversity of temperaments than by a commonality of political views, as Winston Rhodes recalls: with Glover 'punctuating the periods of silence with preposterous suggestions, guffaws of laughter and outrageous witticisms', and Souter 'dourly trying to steer any desultory conversation into serious political discussion, but unable to make headway against Sinclaire's deliberate deafness and Glover's persistent hilarity.'9 The paper was launched in January 1934 with a specimen issue intended to attract subscribers and contributors. From its first regular issue of n July it appeared weekly until March 1936, when financial difficulties forced the change to fortnighdy publication with an expanded format of 32 pages (up from 20). Founded with a capital of 'nearer to £300 than to £500',10 most of which was raised through advance subscriptions, and with a philosophical aversion on the part of its editors to carrying advertising (or 'Large dirty patches in newspapers to prevent the news getting too candid', in Denis Glover's inimitable words11 ), Tomorrow was produced on a very tight budget. Henderson himself had no regular employment at this time and no independent source of income. These economic constraints were compounded by the logistical difficulties of distribution created by the country's geography. Nor was the fledgling paper helped by a £140 libel suit brought by the Seamen's Union in 1935 over a misquotation, and from March to July 1935 it was forced to cease publication temporarily. That it survived in the long term, despite having been launched 'with such woefully insufficient capital, without a solid organisational base or even a sub-committee to ensure distribution and obtain subscribers, with no well-defined policy that might appeal to substantial sections of the community', was apparendy due to a Masthead of Tomorrow page 31 loyal and steadily growing body of subscribers, along with the inclusion of 'certain well chosen advertisements' after July 1935.12 According to Winston Rhodes it was only in the last few months of its life, from the end of 1939, that the paper was 'beginning to get on [its] feet and make a profit'.13

Tomorrow was sold principally by subscription, at £1/1 per year or 6/6 per quarter, rather than through casual sales. Unfortunately, Henderson destroyed all of the paper's records shordy after it was closed down (to protect the identity both of contributors, many of whom wrote under pseudonyms, and of subscribers) so that one can only guess at the size or nature of its readership. Rhodes estimated that Tomorrow had about 300 subscribers when the first regular issue appeared in July 1934, and perhaps 1000 at the end of its life. Undoubtedly its actual readership, taking into account library copies and those which were 'lent and re-lent', was considerably larger. The paper's circulation was not inconsiderable, especially as it received little active promotion. Henderson was painfully shy and it was only infrequendy and reluctantly that he took to the streets or the platform to canvass for subscriptions.

The cover price of sixpence was, readers were reminded, only 'the price of one beer'.14 If this was a bid to attract a working class readership it was probably not hugely successful. If one were to assume that Tomorrows readership was of much the same background as its contributors, then it would have been made up largely of public servants, professionals, educationalists and academics—of a relatively small, progressive intelligentsia, in other words. The list of contributors to the specimen issue conveyed a distincdy academic character, an impression which was to be reinforced by Sinclaire's erudite 'Notes By The Way' column which opened this and subsequent issues, and by an emphasis on the subject of academic freedom in the early numbers. The list included five professors: T. A. Hunter and G. von Zedlitz of Victoria University College, A.G.B. Fisher of Otago, and Sinclaire and James Shelley from Canterbury, and three Canterbury University College lecturers: Rhodes, George Lawn and Ralph Souter. Few of these people were to write regularly for the paper, however, and overall Tomorrow was to have less of an academic character than its first number suggested. But it was by no means a popular publication in terms of either the size of its audience or the background of its writers, or by intent. Tone and subject matter clearly indicate that it was written for an informed, educated audience. Sport was a significant absence from the large number of subjects it covered.

Among the regular contributors to Tomorrow, in addition to the editorial group, were: W. B. Sutch, economic advisor to the Minister of Finance; Harold Innes, personal secretary to the Minister of Customs and advisor to the government on marketing; J. S. Reid, a lawyer and assistant parliamentary draughtsman, later New Zealand's ambassador to Japan; W. N. Pharazyn, a page 32 retired army major, official of the Clerical Workers' Union and communist (his contributions ceased after 1937 when he parted company with the Party and Tomorrow over the Moscow trials); Wellington lawyer Alan Free; Labour MP Martyn Finlay; Ian Milner, then a student, later an official at the United Nations and more recendy university lecturer in Prague; and poet and Douglas Social Credit advocate A.R.D. Fairburn. The extent of Tomorrows influence in its own time is difficult to assess not only because of the absence of records, but also because its subsequent reputation has been enhanced by the calibre of its contributors, and in many cases their later, very prominent careers. But certainly for the politically-minded professional, academic or public servant in the 1930s, Tomorrow was required reading.

Needless to say, not everyone felt the need to be informed by a paper of Tomorrows political character. At the end of its first year of publication the paper printed a number of readers' opinions which included, from Dunedin: The only amusement I derive from it is its utter fatuity, and I consider it is easily the emptiest and most imbecile periodical I have ever had to read'; and from Auckland:

I deplore the fact that anyone that should be self-respecting and an idealist should lower himself to the publication of such vile biased literature with its continual innuendos and calumnious statements. May the truth and honest purpose prevail over you soon and terminate your existence.15

1 D. Glover, Hot Water Sailor 1912-1962; & Landlubber Ho! 1963-1980. Auckland: Collins, 1981, p.103. For a comprehensive study of Tomorrow magazine see A. Cutler, 'Intellectual Sprouts. Tomorrow magazine 1934-1940: a cultural, intellectual and political history'. MA thesis, University of Canterbury, 1989

2 Tomorrow, 2 Aug. 1939 (v.5, n.20), p.611

3 Ibid., 18 Mar. 1936 (v.2, n.18), p.1

4 H. W. Rhodes, 'The Beginning of Tomorrow' (2), New Zealand Monthly Review, Sept. 1979 (v.21, n.214), p.18; Rhodes, Kennaway Henderson. Artist, Editor and Radical. University of Canterbury Publications, 39. Christchurch: University of Canterbury Publications Committee, 1988, p.64

5 Ibid., pp.15-16

6 Rhodes, 'Kennaway Henderson: artist and radical', Comment, Feb. 1978 (v.1,n.2),p.21

7 Rhodes, Kennaway Henderson, p.17

8 Rhodes, Frederick Sinclaire. A Memoir. University of Canterbury Publications, 33. Christchurch: University of Canterbury Publications Committee, 1984; D. Walker, Dream and Disillusion. Canberra: ANU Press, 1976, ch.5

9 Rhodes, 'The Beginning of Tomorrow' (2), p.18

10 Ibid., p.16

11 P.K., 'The Disbeliever's Dictionary', Tomorrow, 19 Feb. 1936 (v.2, n.15), p.10

12 Rhodes, Kennaway Henderson, p.43; Tomorrow, 24 July 1935 (v.1, n.39), p.7

13 Rhodes. Interview with author, 4 june 1985

14 Tomorrow, 22 Jan. 1936 (v.2, n.11), p.22

15 Quoted in Rhodes, Kennaway Henderson, P.47