Obituaries — Hugh Price, Bub Bridger and Louise St John White

Hugh Price 1929–2009

Being born with club feet was good luck, Hugh Price said – during remedial massage his mother read to him, getting him hooked on books. He came to champion access to literature as a fundamental human right.

His political inclinations were shaped in reaction to bullying teachers, and his vocation was assured when he was a history student at Victoria University. After a seminar he saw his professor, John Beaglehole, examining proofs, and his curiosity elicited a description of the editing and design of the Captain Cook journals. The arcana of fonts and galleys beckoned: professor and student once walked down Lambton Quay identifying typefaces in signwriting.

Teachers’ college and a year at Mt Cook School gave Hugh insights about teaching reading, and a job at Whitcombe & Tombs taught him retailing. Later in London, as well as teaching, Hugh trained in graphic design and worked for famous publishing houses.

In 1956 he managed the co-operative Modern Books in Wellington. Russian and Chinese titles fuelled suspicion it was a “Communist bookshop”, even though it imported titles from many publishers, including the UK Conservative Party. At university Hugh had already brushed with our McCarthyist security services: combating their influence and promoting civil liberties became lifelong passions.

In 1957 Hugh fulfilled his dream of becoming a publisher. At first neither he nor his partner, Jim Milburn, were full-time: Jim taught, and in 1959 Hugh took a job with the Department of Education as a researcher, later moving to School Publications. Hugh worked for his “hobby press” in the evenings, coaxing manuscripts into print. Books for beginners by Hugh’s wife Beverley became their goldmine, but Price Milburn produced titles on a range of political and social issues, as well as poetry, plays and novels.

Hugh became foundation manager of Sydney University Press in 1963, until a giant export order called him home to manage the firm in 1968. Long after the sale of Price Milburn in the 1980s, the PM Story Books live on, selling worldwide in their millions.

By 1969 an imprint had been added to the firm – New Zealand University Press. In time this became Victoria University Press (VUP), and took over Price Milburn titles by James K Baxter and Bruce Mason. Hugh continued to serve on VUP’s committee, but in semi-retirement established a new hobby press, Gondwanaland. This published family histories, Hugh’s and Beverley’s books about the teaching of reading, Books for Life by their daughter Susan Price about her love of children’s books, spirited defences of the printed word, of libraries and of university autonomy, Hugh’s challenges to “New Right” politics, and other provocative pamphlets. In 2006 VUP published Hugh’s The Plot to Subvert Wartime New Zealand, now a film, Spies and Lies.

Last year was a crowning one for Hugh: the film; publication of Wellington at Work in the 1890s; being made a Member of the New Zealand Order of
Merit; an honorary D Litt from Victoria University, and the satisfaction of a quasi-apology from the SIS.

Recurrent themes at Hugh’s commemoration were his kindness, humour and capacity to enjoy life; his munificence towards libraries, writers and independent publishing; and his political courage. Jim Traue, former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library, has observed: “Publishing, because of its critical role in the creation and distribution of public knowledge, was for Hugh much more than a business, it had moral dimensions. Books, as tangible things, have a life, but the ideas that good books contain have lives, and offspring, well beyond the printed page.”

 

Roger Steele

 

 

Bub Bridger (1924-2009)

Bub Bridger was a poet, short-story writer and comedian of Maori and Irish ancestry who did not start writing until her late 40s. She had always been an avid reader, and hoped to be a writer, but as a solo mother of four children, it took her a long time to save enough money to attend a creative writing course. In 1974 she achieved it, and Michael King was her tutor. When he read her first short story, “The Stallion”, he told her she was going to be a writer, and Bub never looked back.

“The Stallion” was published in the New Zealand Listener in 1975, and Bub wrote nine more short stories. She was invited overseas on the strength of them, and went to Ireland, her father’s birthplace. It had an enormous influence on her, and, at 60, she started writing poetry. She said of her visit there, “It was the most incredible experience. I started to think poetry. I came home to New Zealand and I couldn’t get it down fast enough.”

Mallinson Rendel published her first collection, Up Here on the Hill, in 1989. It was a slim volume, but displayed her talent for getting to the heart of the matter in few words. We launched it at the Band Rotunda in Oriental Bay, expecting 50 people for a 5pm launch. We had about 150 people, and though the food was inadequate, they stayed until 11pm, when we had to vacate the rooms.

I learnt that evening how very wide was Bub’s circle of friends, and how greatly she was loved and admired by them. When we launched Wild Daisies: The Best of Bub Bridger (2005), we took the main auditorium at Circa Theatre, and filled it.

In the early 1990s Bub joined the Hen’s Teeth Collective, and her talent for comic verse came to the fore. She wrote new work for these productions, and toured the country with the group. Her performance pieces were enormously popular, but she never confused them with her poetry. She was a shrewd judge of her own work, and Andrew Mason and I had quite a job persuading her to include some of them in Wild Daisies.

Rachel McAlpine summed up Bub’s place on the literary scene when speaking at the celebration of Bub’s life at Circa in December last year. “In the 1970s there were many women poets whose work was published, and who thought they were being daring and different. In fact, we were all pretty indistinguishable. Bub Bridger was the one that stood out.”

Bub wrote no more poetry after the death of her granddaughter, which was a tremendous blow to her, but her work is sought after both here and overseas, and will live on.

 

Ann Mallinson

 

 

Louise St John White (née Lawrence) 1949-2009

While Louise was completing her MA in creative writing at Victoria University in 1999, she and I edited the anthology Big Weather – Poems of Wellington, which appeared in 2000 to mark the 25th anniversary of Mallinson Rendel Publishers. The book was never, dare I say it, intended to be a commercial hit. Strangely, it took off. The staff at Unity Books toasted the book a few years back on the occasion of selling the 2000th copy from their Willis St store.

Sure, the book is imbued with the very agreeable character and energy of the city it evokes, but it was also shaped by the lively, curious spirit which attended its composition. I remember editorial meetings with Louise sitting in the garden of our Hataitai house with archetypal Wellington clouds scudding above – and the loose sheets of manuscript attempting to follow them skywards. Louise was a generous and attentive person to work with – a keen reader and a talented writer. Her poetry of the late 1990s reflected the influence of Dinah Hawken and Phyllis Webb (two poets she loved), while being imbued with her own particular connectedness to family, certain places and ordinary objects. Witness “Letter from Awaroa”:

Under the pleats and pockets of these
hills, when the tide is full and the sun

lies in its lap, I journey to distant cities
to what might have been, until small

circles of everyday sound edge
across the water, and I am thankful

for this safe landing.

 

In January 2000, I judged the Aoraki Festival of the Arts poetry prize. Of the 300 entries, all submitted anonymously, Louise’s “Letter from Waikanae” won. I knew upon reading the poem that Louise had written it, and I recall feeling a little awkward about giving her the prize – but to have done otherwise would have been dishonest.

Maybe Louise put her poetry on hold to make space for her work as an anthologist. In 2003 she edited The Penguin Book of New Zealand Letters, which brought together 167 letters that, she thought, “said something about the physical and emotional landscape of this country”. This composite portrait of the nation was much admired, by Michael King among many others. She was an anthologist, in the truest sense of the word: a gatherer of disparate things, a flower-arranger creating a bouquet.

In the last few years of her life, with her second husband Richard St John (she was formerly married to Douglas White), she spent part of each year just outside Martinborough, tending a field of peonies. There she oversaw the building of a remarkable dwelling, all but invisible from the road, nestled beneath the curve of a field. She had been researching and  writing a biography of the Australian poet/journalist Elizabeth Riddell, which was left in an unfinished but well-advanced state.

Louise and I produced a revised, much enlarged edition of Big Weather, which appeared in July 2009. Unfortunately, she was unable to attend the launching at Circa Theatre – the cancer which had stricken her earlier in the decade had reappeared. Sparkier, livelier and more youthful in flavour than the first edition, the new Big Weather reflected Louise’s ever-increasing relish in being alive.

At her funeral at St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Martinborough, Jenny Bornholdt read out one of Louise’s favourite poems, Donald Hall’s “Weeds and Peonies” – a poem that, as many people remarked at the time, might have been written for or about Louise. It struck an appropriate note of thanksgiving as well as lament: “Your peonies lean their vast heads westward/as if they might topple. Some topple.”

 

Gregory O’Brien

 

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