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

Modern Books, Dunedin

Modern Books, Dunedin

The founders of the Dunedin Co-operative Book Society wrote into the first draft of their constitution the most explicit statement of the socialist ideals of the cooperative book movement. After stating the cooperative principles on which the movement was founded, it identified its task in terms both of the broader purpose of the dissemination of progressive literature:

to foster the reading and writing and production of books, pamphlets, circulars and other publications of a nature that will promote an active and intelligent interest in progressive ideas and activities by the largest possible number of the reading public

and of its particular relationship to the working class movement:

improving the conditions of living and promoting generally the well being of members of the working classes, and . . . enlightening the community on all matters that have an economic, political, historical and ethical bearing upon the working people of the world, and their conditions, status and aspirations.120

Despite this clear statement of political interest, the Dunedin shop followed its Wellington namesake in having a stronger cultural than political orientation. It also had a strong New Zealand emphasis, which may have reflected the impetus given by the newly-formed Progressive Publishing Society to its establishment. This was despite a left-wing representation among the founding members of the society, in the persons particularly of Mark Silverstone, Peter Neilson, and John and Rita Harris.

The Harrises played a prominent role in the left movement in Dunedin in the 30s and 40s, and were the key figures in the Dunedin society in its early years. Rita was the society's first secretary and John its chairman. John Harris had been studying at Oxford when the stock market crashed in 1929, and after graduating escaped some of the worst part of the depression in New Zealand by taking to the Pacific with three young friends and a yacht. They spent over a year sailing around the islands, eventually being shipwrecked; Harris's connection with radical politics apparendy dated from the two years he spent in Auckland on his return. There he lectured for the WEA and radio and led 'a somewhat bohemian existence which brought him into close association with radical extremist groups in the city'.121 His political associations were evidently unknown to the authorities of the University of Otago who appointed him university Librarian in 1934.

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However, his reputation was known to the United States consul in Auckland, who refused him a visa to study librarianship in America with the aid of a Carnegie grant. Instead Harris studied in London, before returning to take up his position at Otago University in late 1935. Both John and Rita Harris joined the Communist Party; John Harris may have been president of the Otago branch at some time in the 1940s. Their home became the venue for political discussion evenings attended by Party members, students and academic fellow travellers, and possibly some trade unionists, and they played a leading role in the Left Book Club. They left New Zealand in 1948 when John Harris was appointed Librarian at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

As a professional bibliophile John Harris's literary interests ranged much wider than just left-wing material, as, it seems, did those of the Dunedin Cooperative Book Society as a whole. Its founding committee contained a greater number of librarians and educationalists than trade unionists and labour politicians. In the absence of minute books and correspondence, and of the society's annual reports for the first five years, it is not possible to investigate the internal dynamics of the society. Nor are any membership records available. But by the end of the 1940s there was, at least, no input into the shop from the Communist Party. The shop's essentially non-political character by this time is suggested by this comment made in the 1949 annual report:

the Board has been keeping a close watch on the matter of ordering, and has been trying to build up a good stock in such lines as New Zealand books, history, music and philosophy, as well as general literature.122

It is also suggested by the media in which the shop advertised at this time: the university student newspaper Critic, National Education and occasional Repertory Society programmes.

As well as being the shortest-lived, the Dunedin society was the smallest of the four, with a membership in March 1949 of 443. It got off to a faltering start, with a loss of £257 in its first year of trading compounded by a £421 debt to the Progressive Publishing Society. But over the latter half of the 1940s it gradually strengthened its position. Its sales increased from £543 in 1943-4 to £3213 in 1948-9, and £5404 in 1953-4. In its 1948 annual report the society congratulated itself on its continued success: 'The shop continues to grow and can now be considered as well established in Dunedin book selling circles.'123

By this time Modern Books undoubtedly bore the influence of Charles Brasch, who headed the book selection committee from 1948 and was chairman of the society from 1949. The direction of Brasch's interest, in literature rather than politics, is underlined by a conflict which was later to erupt between him and the shop's manager, Dick Reynolds. Reynolds, formerly a second-hand bookseller in Dunedin, took over the management of Modern Books in mid page 127 1952. He himself refused to stock much Soviet and Chinese material which 'just didn't sell', and had a special interest in rare books and fine printing. Politics was not a strong motivation. He came into conflict with Brasch over his stocking of the popular American paperback lines Signet and Mentor. With illustrated covers and low retail prices, these were designed for a large, popular readership, like their British equivalent Penguins. Brasch, in Reynolds' account, felt that they were too 'unsober' for Modern Books and accused Reynolds of selling 'too hard'.124 An increase in sales that year of f 1600 would seem to vindicate Reynolds' assessment of the market, and his appreciation of the bookseller's dependence on popular demand. Unfortunately for Modern Books he resigned the following April after Brasch demanded that all orders be vetted by himself personally. The shop closed about 18 months later. Several months before the Dunedin society folded the manager of Co-op Books observed to the secretary of Modern Books in Wellington that 'it [the Dunedin shop] is obviously departing considerably from the principles for which we were all founded.'125

120 Rules of the Dunedin Co-operative Book Society Ltd (draft). Dunedin Modern Books Papers

121 H. O. Roth, 'John Harris: Biography and Bibliography', 1970. Misc. ms 1970. Hocken Library. On Harris see also C. W. Collins, 'John Harris—Valedictory', New Zealand Libraries, Dec. 1948 (v.11, n.11), pp.269-72

122 DCBS annual report, 1949. Dunedin Modern Books Papers

123 DCBS annual report, 1948. Dunedin Modern Books Papers

124 Reynolds interview

125 C. V. Walter to J. W. Winchester, 5 Mar. 1954. WCBS Papers: 29