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

'A Social and Cultural Life of the Left'

'A Social and Cultural Life of the Left'

The geographical spread of the groups appears to have been matched by the diversity of functions they fulfilled. Some operated simply as discussion groups focused on the Left Book Club publications only; those in rural areas appear to have functioned effectively as mutual support groups for liberals and progressives; a few approached more closely Victor Gollancz's vision of the Left Book Club groups as active left cultural and social centres. One member who shared the latter vision of the club's potential was Charlie Saunders, a member of the Christchurch group and the national executive. Saunders was widely active in the left-wing movement in Christchurch, as a Communist Party member, an activist in the National Unemployed Workers' Movement from its inception, a trade unionist, the Christchurch secretary of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee and later literary secretary of the Society for Closer Relations with Russia. He lost his job as a journalist because of his political beliefs. As a member of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee he advocated the establishment of a national organisation which would coordinate material support for the socialist cause in Spain and China, and for every other Victim of oppression'.24 Similarly, Saunders saw the Left Book Club as only part of a broader left-wing movement, which would have not only a political but also a cultural and social role. In an article in Tomorrow in June 1939 he commented on the failure of the club:

It has not developed the technique for catering for all the social and cultural needs of its members. . . . What has not been fully realised . . . is that the Left has within itself all the potentialities for covering the activities of life in every sphere outside the hours of service to the employer.

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He further defined the object of the club as: '[to] bring together all elements on the Left [with specific reference to the Labour Party, Federation of Labour, trade unions and left bookshops] for study, discussion, and other communion.' The aim of the delegates to the first national conference was, in Saunders' view:

to cover the whole Dominion with a network of groups not only for the study of Left literature and the development of a social and cultural life of the Left, but for coupling sound practice in appropriate spheres with the sound theory developed in group lectures and discussions.25

Such a vision of the wider potential of the Left Book Club is also suggested by the proposed activities outlined in the annual reports of the groups and in remits put to the national conference. Suggested activities included youth groups, esperanto classes, drama groups (one function of which would be 'to produce plays suitable for performance in rural areas'), an effort to 'foster the writing of plays of social significance to the movement', tours of overseas speakers, writers and artists, and importing left films.26 Among the more unusual remits was one put to the 1940 conference by the Paeroa group proposing that 'the furtherance of a knowledge of "Basic English" be adopted and propounded as a universal language to the exclusion of all others'.27

The last remit was lost, but other ambitions were realised. Inquiries were made with the Progressive Film Institute in London about importing films but this was found to be too expensive and complicated by exchange restrictions. However, several groups held film screenings, sometimes in cooperation with the local Spanish Medical Aid Committee, or with Australian communist and trade unionist Tony McGillick who made a lecture tour of New Zealand in 1939. For example, the Wellington group screened two short films entitled Nutrition and Children at Play to an audience of over 200. A screening of Defence ofMadrid was held by the Dunedin group and Spanish Medical Aid Committee. The Hamilton group sponsored screenings of Modern Russiass and Ten Days That Shook the World, and Modern Russia was also screened along with A Day in a Soviet Kindergarten to an audience of 125 by the Left Book Club in Ruawai, in Northland. The Ruawai group, one of the more enterprising despite being one of the smallest, also involved itself in youth activity, holding classes in motor-engineering, art, dancing, boxing and first aid. Several of the larger groups held socials and dances. The Manawatu group, for example, celebrated its first birthday with community singing, supper and a dance, while the Dunedin group also held a 'community sing' on May Day 1939. Fund raising for particular political campaigns also provided opportunities for social events. The club's major fundraising effort was for a nationwide China Appeal launched in 1939, and an Auckland rally for China reportedly attracted an attendance of 700, the club's largest public meeting. In all over £600 was collected by the Left Book page 71 Club and despatched to China in the form of blankets for the New Fourth Army and a donation to an International Peace Hospital.28

Although the Left Book Club does not appear to have produced any local playwrights, several of the groups organised drama productions. The first Wellington annual report records that a drama evening and play readings were held in 1939. These appear to have been performed for members only and were not reported in the local papers. In Palmerston North, however, a performance of Waiting for Lefty in December 1939 attracted an audience of about 300 and provoked considerable local controversy.29 In Christchurch two productions were undertaken, a Soviet comedy entided Squaring the Circle and Odets' antifascist play Till the Day I Die, and the Women's Group gave readings of Press Cuttings and Village Wooing (George Bernard Shaw).30 ° The Dunedin group supported the most active drama section. In 1938-9 it staged two major productions, The Insect Play by the Capek brothers in 1938, and the following year Professor Mambcky an anti-fascist play, and gave readings of The Ascent of F6 by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, Masses and Man by Toller, RUR by Karel Capek, R.A.K. Mason's verse play Squire Speaks, and a one-act anti-fascist play entitled 'Blood of the Martyrs' which was performed at the Hillside workshops. Its major productions were on the whole favourably received by the city's two newspapers. This is somewhat surprising, although the Evening Stars reviewer of The Insect Play wondered whether some of the audience might have not appreciated the play's satire on modern warfare, having passed a recruiting demonstration on their way to the theatre. The incongruity of a Left Book Club group performing in the RSA hall (the following year) attracted no comment.31

Saunders' Christchurch group was one which succeeded to some extent in providing a unifying focus for the labour movement and fostering the 'social and cultural life of the Left' he envisaged. The Christchurch group was formed following a public meeting held in July 1937 on the initiative of, among others, Winston Rhodes and Bruce Souter, and chaired by H. G. Kilpatrick, secretary of the Canterbury Freezing Workers' Union. The intention, recalls Rhodes, was not just to read and discuss left books but to provide a 'central place', not only for Left Book Club members but for 'the whole labour movement'.32 Clubrooms obtained in Gloucester Street in the central city consisted of a speaking room, a social room, and a library and reading room which held not only Left Book Club publications but general left-wing literature—'420 volumes including 75 Left novels, the rest being mainly political' and a collection of socialist periodicals which 'demonstrate the international outlook of the Club as nearly all the major countries of the world, with the exception of Fascist Germany, Italy and Japan, are represented.'33 Discussion ranged beyond the Gollancz books themselves, with the usual monthly discussion group procedure replaced by special fortnightly study groups on Foreign Affairs, New Zealand Affairs and Marxism.

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A youth section was also formed. The club's drama group was fortunate in the talents of George Worthington, who was in charge of WEA drama for the Canterbury district, and Owen Simmance, an actor working in radio drama.

In Rhodes' recollection the Christchurch clubrooms did function as a social and intellectual meeting place: 'We got in touch with all sorts of people. So we had school teachers, workers, we had everything. . . .—We had a library, a reading room where people could read periodicals. We wanted to organise luncheons'.34 The idea recalled an earlier venue of left social and intellectual intercourse in the early 1930s:

a cafe in Regent Street. George Lawn and I were the only academics who attended. The others were trade unionists mostly. A group of about 15 or so would meet for lunch once a week and have a paper read or a discussion. That was the kind of thing we wanted to do with the Left Book Club.35

The availability of clubrooms obviously facilitated the wider social function and higher profile the groups might maintain. The Palmerston North and Dunedin groups also established their own rooms. In Dunedin premises were rented in Carroll Street for use as a library, for group and public meetings and for social activities (a piano was also purchased). The Dunedin Left Book Club rooms were patronised by Communist Party members and some trade unionists and labour activists, such as Sam Ikin, secretary of the carpenters' union and a Party member, and Bill Richards, a tramwayman and secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, along with 'university types', includingJ.N. Findlay, Professor of Philosophy at Otago University and president of the group; Otago University Librarian John Harris; Hunter Boyes, a student who was president of the club's drama group; and Ron O'Reilly, later Canterbury Public Librarian. The Dunedin Public Librarian, Archie Dunningham, was also a member. Art students Rodney Kennedy and Colin McCahon designed and constructed the stage sets for the drama group productions of The Insect Play and Professor Mambck. 36

Libraries appear to have provided an important focal point: 'the real centre of the Club', wrote a Dunedin member in the Left News.37 They also represented, in theory at least, an extension of the populist ideal of the Left Book Club as a further means of making literature available to 'even the humblest worker'. The Gisborne and Dargaville groups maintained libraries in the local Labour Party rooms, the 18 members of the Ruawai club had by 1939 'all chipped in a few shillings each and formed the nucleus of a library', while Blackball boasted a 'library of over 150 books freely patronised'.38 The renting of clubrooms, purchase of books for libraries, and other social and cultural activities were financed by a membership subscription charged by most of the groups, which ranged from a rather high 15/- in Christchurch and Wellington, to 5/- in Palmerston North and Rangiora and 1/- in Blackball.

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Programme for the Dunedin Left Book Club's Professor Mamlock, July 1939 (Phyllis and Walter Powell)

Programme for the Dunedin Left Book Club's Professor Mamlock, July 1939 (Phyllis and Walter Powell)

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Professor Mamlock, with (from left): Hamilton Parker, Ruby Hannan, Phyllis Jones, Alan Rackley, Eric Powell (Phyllis and Walter Powell)

Professor Mamlock, with (from left): Hamilton Parker, Ruby Hannan, Phyllis Jones, Alan Rackley, Eric Powell (Phyllis and Walter Powell)

In the smaller towns and rural areas the groups operated on a more informal basis than in the larger centres. In some cases, group meetings were held in the rooms of other political organisations, such as the Labour Party, or, in Oamaru, the Douglas Social Credit Society. Often they were held in private homes, as in Coalgate in Canterbury. The organisational difficulties and the informal character which the Coalgate convenor described in a letter to the Left News were probably typical of the experience of Left Book Club groups in rural districts:

Our chief difficulty is the distance people have to come to our meetings; in consequence we make the meetings as attractive as possible. They are held in my house, where we have a good sized sitting room. Easy chairs, a good fire and tea and cakes help considerably to make the meetings go well. . . . We usually have 12 to 15 at our meetings, and we meet once a fortnight except in the harvesting season.39

A comment from a member of the Ruawai group suggests that in such areas the club to some extent provided a focus for social as well as political intercourse between otherwise disparate elements of the rural community; here the group included 'a good mixture, farmers, tradesmen, schoolteachers, ministers of religion & labourers, workers all.'40

Rent increases forced the Christchurch group to abandon their clubrooms in August 1939 (enabling them to reduce their membership fee from 15/- to 2/6), and page 75 study group meetings were thereafter held in private homes. The change of venue may have been accompanied by a change in the active membership, and the character, of the club. In one recollection at least, the meetings in 1939-40 'were held in prosperous sorts of houses in Christchurch, houses owned by academics' such as Winston Rhodes, or economist Wolfgang Rosenberg.41 Between 20 and 40 people would attend. Some had trade union connections, such as Charlie Saunders, Stan Roscoe of the Railway Officers' Institute, and the secretary of the Canterbury Trades Council, A.B. Grant. But probably the greater proportion were of professional or white-collar background, as had been most of the group's provisional committee. Artist Louise Henderson, and her husband Hubert Henderson, a teacher; lawyers J. K. Maloney,A.C Brassington and Ken Goff; scientist Otto Frankl; art teacher Len Booth and Ian Milner were regular attenders.

House meetings of the kind described here appear, by contrast, to have been the predominant form of Left Book Club activity in the capital. In Wellington the Left Book Club was unable to procure permanent rooms. The group was organised into 10 suburban-based discussion circles, having a total membership of 106 in February 1940. A monthly bulletin produced by the central committee outlined the topics for discussion. The group's secretary, A. R. Perry, a Victoria College graduate and public servant, was a member of the central Wellington circle, which was made up of public servants, students and academics. Others involved included: Labour MP Martyn Finlay (secretary of the Wellington group's executive committee in 1940); W. B. Sutch; F.L.W. Wood, Professor of History at Victoria College; businessman Fred Turnovsky; W. T. Doig of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research; Ian Milner (who was now working at the Department of Education in Wellington and active in the Peace and Anti-Conscription Council); Peter Jacoby, also of the Education Department; and student radicals such as A.H. Scotney, J. W. Winchester and Jack Aimers. The composition of the executive committee of the Wellington group reinforces the impression given by members of the club's predominantly professional-academic character in Wellington. Although the group's first annual general meeting was held in the Trades Hall the committee elected for 1939-40 consisted of a teacher, a Member of Parliament, four civil servants, a university graduate, one trade union member and a 'mechanician'. Clearly the club bore the influence of Wellington's large professional and civil servant population. By contrast, a member of the Lower Hutt group recalls a significant number of 'self-educated working class' members there, in an area which was largely industrial.42

The kind of political discussion evening described by Left Book Club members in Wellington and Christchurch, combining politics and social intercourse, was a regular feature of social and intellectual life among such left-wing page 76 circles in the 1930s. It was a form of social activity which, if not peculiar to this time, was in part a reflection of the limited media of cultural and intellectual stimulus and also of the intense political climate of these years.

24 S.M.Skudder, "'Bringing It Home". New Zealand Responses to the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939'. DPhil thesis, Waikato University, 1986, p.381. Information about Saunders is also derived from Saunders Papers. Locke Deposit: 10; New Zealand Society for Closer Relations with the USSR. Christchurch Branch. Executive minutes and other papers. H. W. Rhodes. Private collection; Rhodes. Interview with author, 4 June 1985

25 Saunders, The Left Book Club', p.529

26 'The Left Book Club. Conference Decisions', p.412; remits for first LBC national conference, April 1939. Roth collection

27 Report of National Committee . . . 1939-40: Remits, p.[4]

28 Workers' Weekly, 25 Nov. 1938, p.8; Left News, Oct. 1938, p.1019; Report of National Committee . . . 1939-40; People's Voice, 18 Aug. 1939, p.8; The Left Book Club. Conference Decisions'; People's Voice, 8 Dec. 1939, p.8

29 See below, pp. 83-4

30 Tomorrow, 21 Dec. 1938 (v.5, n.4), p.115; Workers' Weekly, 5 Nov. 1937, p.3; Left News, Dec. 1938, p.1100; programme, Till the Day I Die, Dec. 1937. Locke Deposit: 10; Left Book Club (Christchurch group). Notice of annual general meeting, 8 Dec. 193?. Ibid.

31 EveningStar, 3 Sept. 1938, p.13; Otago Daily Times, 3 Sept. 1938, p.19,17 July 1939, p.11. The Dunedin group's dramatic productions were also reported in Tomorrow, 1 Feb. 1939 (v.5, n.7), p.210; People's Voice, 18 Aug. 1939, p.8; Left News, Oct. 1938, p.1018

32 Rhodes interview. The inaugural meeting of the Christchurch group was reported in Workers' Weekly, 30 July 1937, p.4

33 Left News, Dec. 1938, p.uoo; Workers' Weekly, 5 Nov. 1937, p.3

34 Rhodes interview

35 Ibid.

36 Left News, Oct. 1938, p.1018; G. H. Brown, Colin McCahotr. Artist. Wellington: A.H. and A. W. Reed, 1984, p.13; E. Olssen, A History ofOtago. Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1984, p.192; R. Kennedy. Interview with author, 26 Jan. 1987; P. and W. Powell. Interview with author, 22 Oct. 1989

37 Left News, Oct. 1938, p.1019

38 Ibid., Feb. 1939, p.1171; Report of National Committee . . . 1939-40: Summary of Group Reports, p.4

39 Left News, Sept. 1938, p.980

40 AJ. Redfern to C. F. Saunders, 25 May 1939. Locke Deposit: 10

41 J. Locke. Interview with author, 6 June 1985

42 LBC (Wellington group), second annual report; LBC (Wellington group). Bulletin No.1, 31 May 1939. Locke Deposit: 10; A. R. Perry. Interview with author, 15 Oct. 1985; A,M. Finlay. Interview with author, 5 Sept. 1985; E. Locke. Interview with author, 6 June 1985