If Grant Fox plans to publish his memoirs, it is unlikely that the Hazard Press of Christchurch would be his saviour. If, however, he writes a series of black, All Black poetic meditations on the art of penalty kicking and delivers them with the same metrical aplomb as those on the football field, that would be another matter. The distinction is an important one, and reflects the philosophy of Quentin Wilson, who runs this small but beautiful publishing house (and house it literally is, set in suburban Riccarton).
Quentin Wilson is Riccarton’s Renaissance man. At the University of Canterbury he studied philosophy and politics, eventually tutoring in the latter. He has sung and acted professionally, and has long-standing interests in poetry and contemporary art. Publishing was never his burning ambition, however. On the contrary, he encountered it by hazard on a national Gilbert and Sullivan tour in the spring of 1986. His path crossed with that of a fellow performer, Andrew Fagan of the Mockers, who was getting nowhere slowly with his plans to publish a book of poetry. After further quirks of fortune, Wilson himself stepped in. Salt Rhythms sold well and the rest is history.
The Hazard Press today occupies an enviable niche in New Zealand publishing. It issues between fifteen and sixteen titles annually and Quentin Wilson has no great desire to expand on this. By operating on modest overheads, Hazard can take on print runs of a thousand or more which other, larger publishers would rarely contemplate. Reprints are relatively straightforward to arrange; one such number which literally rolled off the press is, Roger Watkin’s history of the Wellington popular music scene from 1958 to 1970, When Rock Got Rolling.
A deliberate eclecticism characterises Hazard’s titles, from male sexuality in Allan Marriott’s The Prance of Men to meticulous political sobriety (appropriately with a preface by Sir Geoffrey Palmer) in J B Ringer’s An Introduction to New Zealand Government. While some titles are commissioned, many are unsolicited, and it is often a reflection of Quentin Wilson’s romanticism that he still confesses to getting a thrill each time he opens parcels of potential literary delight or torture. As befits a child of the 1970s, Wilson considers himself an anarchist and has an infectious enthusiasm for anti-establishment figures. He believes fervently in the Salon des Refusés seeing the light of day, be they deviant artists (Barry Cleavin, Heather Busch and Alan Pearson), or poets (Sam Hunt, refusé by snooty academe).
While Quentin Wilson could be described as the benevolent dictator of the Hazard Press, he recognises that he owes much of its success to a small, dedicated team, which includes Jill Hammond, the business manager and shareholder, Adrienne Rewi and Max Hailstone, the designers, John Small, an editor, and Rob Jackaman, the poetry series editor. A recent innovation is the short fiction series, edited by David Ling of Auckland and Patrick Evans of Christchurch. A further series on New Zealand artists is also planned; I would hope it might include figures who, like Pearson, have been under-rated by the establishment – Peter McIntyre, Garth Tapper or Dean Buchanan.
What characterises the look and feel of Hazard Press productions? In part it is their design quality and pleasure in handling. While I was highly critical in my New Zealand Books review of the text of Denys Trussell’s Alan Pearson: His Life and Art, I nevertheless appreciated the excellent reproductions, typesetting and accurate proofreading. Let’s face it, most of us art historians like our subject because we can’t resist beautifully illustrated books and, on this criterion, Hazard is hard to fault. This comes at a surprisingly modest price, thanks to an investment four years ago in advanced typesetting software (which Wilson operates himself), thereby shaving considerable margins off production costs. Competitive pricing, often at the expense of high profit margins, is an article of faith and one entirely compatible with Quentin Wilson’s belief in reconciling quality with popularity. ‘Be realistic – demand the impossible! ‘ is one of his favourite anarchist maxims; what impresses is the extent to which the Hazard Press achieves it.
Mark Stocker is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of Canterbury.