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



When the Gollancz enterprise folded in 1948 there were still some 130-140 readers registered with the Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton distributors, and in the wake of the demise of the Left Book Club scheme an attempt was made to reconstitute the remaining New Zealand membership into a new 'New Zealand Left Book Club'. The scheme was the initiative of Arthur Jackson-Thomas, who had been president of the Auckland group and managed the city's Progressive Bookshop. The new club would retain the same basic system as the original, with the addition of a £2 annual subscription. Negotiations had been initiated with Current Book Distributors in Sydney for material to be imported and distributed by the Progressive Bookshop. But in the opinion that a 'considerable factor' in the 'waning of local interest in the Left Book Club' in recent years was the fact that the books 'were chosen in England with English readers in mind', it was also intended to have as far as possible books and pamphlets published in New Zealand. It would retain its left-wing character of course:

The object of the Club will be to supply books which every socialist and forward-thinking person should read. The selections will cover current affairs, the theory and practice of socialism, an occasional novel, books of central interest and, by no means least important, books and pamphlets on New Zealand affairs.80

page 87

The first selection was 'dictated by what is immediately available': Equality by Edward Bellamy, M. Sayers and A. Kahn's The Great Conspiracy and Engels' The Origin of the Family as the January, February and March choices.81 Fool's Carnival, cartoons by Kennaway Henderson (published by the Christchurch Cooperative Book Society) and Katharine Susannah Prichard's novel Black Opal were being considered for future choices and negotiations were underway for a Left Book Club edition of the forthcoming memorial volume of writings by Gordon Watson (published by the New Zealand Communist Party in 1949).

Reaction to the proposal from the other distributors was not enthusiastic. Blackwood Paul expressed no interest at all. He was now expanding into publishing, and probably felt that this was risk enough without expending additional resources on founding a book club. No doubt he also appreciated that in the late 1940s a left book club scheme on the original model was something of an anachronism, as did the Wellington Co-operative Book Society. They also replied frankly to Jackson-Thomas that 'the prospect doesn't appear to be too bright'. In their opinion 'it is . . . doubtful whether there would be much interest in books of the type of looking backwards, equality and origin of the family etc. when you recall that the L.B.C. grew on topical publications', and that most potential members were likely already to have or at least have read these tides.82 The Christchurch Co-operative Book Society supported the idea but expressed the same reservations. And so the revived New Zealand Left Book Club died a natural death, the last reference to it appearing in the minutes of the Christchurch Co-operative Book Society in February 1952.

The failure of Gollancz's Left Book Club to survive in the 1940s has been accounted for partly by changes in the British publishing industry in the post-war years. Production costs rose dramatically, making it no longer feasible to publish books on a large scale for sale at hugely discounted prices. The burgeoning paperback market, which began with the introduction of Penguins in 1935, brought significant competition at this end of the market, as did the expansion of public libraries. But the primary reason the Left Book Club failed to regain its former glory after the war, in New Zealand as in England, was the radical shift in the political climate. The club was uniquely a phenomenon of the 1930s, its success based on the urgency of political events in the Popular Front years, the topicality of its material, and its exploitation of the gap in the literary market for reasonably-priced, informative, left-wing literature.

80 'Announcing the New Left Book Club', 1949. Roth collection

81 A. Jackson-Thomas to secretary, Wellington Co-operative Book Society, 19 Jan. 1949. Wellington Co-operative Book Society Ltd. Papers, 1938-1970. Ms Papers 1122: folder 25. Alexander Turnbull Library

82 WCBS secretary to A. Jackson-Thomas, 14 Jan. 1949. WCBS Papers: 25