Values, principles and faith, Mary Varnham

The House of Reed 1907-1983: Great Days in New Zealand Publishing
Edmund Bohan
Canterbury University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 187725732X

Books and Boots: The Story of New Zealand Publisher, Writer and Long Distance Walker Alfred Hamish Reed
Ian Dougherty
Otago University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1877372129

I’ve been keeping company lately with two rather peculiar gentlemen. I use the word “gentlemen” advisedly. These men are businessmen, but they are certainly no modern hotshot flash Harrys, ready to compromise to cut a deal or send staff down the line at the drop of a balance sheet. They have Values (remember them?), Principles (no swearing allowed) and (God bless them!) Religious Faith.

They are also publishers, which is why I, a fledgling, barely-born bookmaker, am reading their story. And what a story it is. Here is New Zealand at the beginning of the 1930s, a raw country, still looking to England to supply a veneer of culture. Maori culture is largely unknown to the European population. Publishing – and bookselling – is dominated by one firm, Whitcombe & Tombs, based in Christchurch and run by the autocratic Bertie Whitcombe. Authors pay for publication of their books, which Whitcombe’s then sells on commission. Poets and novelists, risks to publishers at the best of times, need not apply.

Into this frontier society rides Alfred Reed. Born in Middlesex in 1875, the son of a Baptist brickmaker, young Alfred has been brought up in a one-room cottage near Whangarei. He has attended very little school, but being keen and energetic has taught himself typing and shorthand and got a job with the New Zealand Typewriter Company in Auckland. Assigned to Dunedin, he and his wife Isabel have, on the side, built up a mail-order business selling imported books and Sunday School supplies. And in 1923, at the age of 48, he has become a publisher, producing a collection of sermons glorying in the title The Dynamics of Service.

About this time his nephew Alexander Wyclif Reed joins him as office boy. Clif (as he is always known) is 15 years old and fatherless, his father having died when he was four. Alfred takes him under his wing and by 1932 the erstwhile apprentice, now 24 and earning £4.10 a week, is proposing setting up a branch of the firm in Wellington. The stage is set for him and Uncle Alfred to – astonishingly and without any overriding ambition to do so – create a publishing empire that will, as Edmund Bohan says in his thoroughly engrossing book The House of Reed, “impact on the course of New Zealand writing, and even the manner in which New Zealanders would come to regard themselves.”

The book that sets A H Reed on its way is The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden, based on a unique collection of material assembled at the turn of the century by Thomas Hocken, who later gets a library named after him. Within a year, 860 of the 1000 copies printed have been sold, and Reed is hopeful of making a profit – until printers Coulls Somerville Wilkie, who have put up half the money, set him straight. More money is owed them. “I do not suppose you are addicted to practical joking, but surely it is impossible,” Reed retorts, words that should be set to music and called “The Publisher’s Lament”.

Bohan does a splendid job of making the two Reeds sound interesting, and the book rollicks along in fine fashion, but I couldn’t escape the nagging thought that if I had to spend an evening in the company of either, I would, fairly early on, be reaching for a gin and a joke.

Alfred, who is to gain his greatest fame as a walkaholic, is ascetic, frugal and devoutly religious, a good man increasingly living by a “creed” he has cobbled together from the Bible and various other places. After the early death of his adored wife Isabel in 1939, he hands over responsibility for the publishing company to Clif and sets off on what Bohan understates as “a series of epic walks” through New Zealand. In reality he is in perpetual motion, stomping roads and back roads, climbing mountains (his last at the age of 99), eating little, often sleeping rough and becoming in the process New Zealand’s favourite eccentric, resplendent throughout in a three-piece suit. God knows what psychologists would make of his behaviour, but New Zealanders loved it.

Along the way he churns out a bewildering array of books, ranging from My Book of Prayer and Maoriland Hymns to Te Matenga Taiaroa: Valiant Otago Chief to the phenomenally successful The Story of New Zealand, which goes into 13 editions, as well as British and US editions, and will still be in print in the 1970s. By the end of his life, as Ian Dougherty reports in his solid biography Books and Boots, A H Reed will have been the author of 95 published books, and closely involved in another 20.

Meanwhile Clif, no slouch himself, develops the publishing business, latterly known as A H & A W Reed, into an extraordinary powerhouse of talent and productivity: between 1968 and 1972 alone the company publishes more than 600 new titles. And many of the big names in New Zealand publishing hone their skills at the company, from Ray Richards, who eventually takes over as publisher, to David Elworthy (later to found Shoal Bay Press), Don Sinclair, Arnold Wall, Geoff Walker (today publisher at Penguin), Anne Else, Elizabeth Caffin (publisher at Auckland University Press) and the redoubtable Alister Taylor.

Just as impressive are the authors – Barry Crump (whose huge bestseller A Good Keen Man has been famously turned down by Whitcombe & Tombs: “We regret we are unable to make it a profitable proposition for either you or ourselves”), Frank Sargeson, Mona Anderson, Terry McLean, John Pascoe, Janet Frame, Eileen Duggan, Alan Curnow … . There seems no limit to the authors who can be attracted into Reeds’ stable.

There is, though. While the firm’s wave of younger editors seek out exciting novelists, AH and, to a lesser extent, AW often find their values being severely tested. “Obscene” books should be left to other publishers, AH decrees after a Reed novel contains references to adultery and children born to unmarried parents. He later opposes the title of A K Grant’s The Paua and the Glory, saying if the title is used he will never again be able to say his prayers without thinking of shellfish. Although there are times when Clif goes to bat for a book, insisting to Alfred that times are changing and so must they, there are also times when he frets about whether they should be publishing novels at all, given the permissiveness of the age.

All this seems comical now, but it was the beginning of a rift that – together with the financial problems Reeds faced as new publishing houses set up shop, bringing ever-increasing competition for book sales, authors and professional staff – would eventually send the company down the road. Bohan really picks up speed when he gets into the internal fights that in the 1970s began to tear the firm apart. Malcolm Mason, a Wellington accountant, was brought on board in 1971 as a financial consultant, and soon afterwards became chairman. By his own admission, Mason was abrasive, difficult, demanding and insistent. His reforms presaged the shock waves we would come to know so well in the 1980s – costs ruthlessly cut, staff mercilessly judged, productivity precisely monitored. For many the soul went out of the job. The notion of Reeds as a family was at an end. Or was it?

Of these two books, it is Bohan’s that is the more readable – a great New Zealand story, stylishly told and one which still reverberates. Printing costs are still crippling, bookselling is still dominated by a monopoly player, authors are still (almost always) a joy to work with, profits are still hard to come by. Dougherty has a tougher job. Alfred Reed, for all his ambulatory exploits, was a dry moral conservative, whose life saw little drama and whose message of “simple goodness” seems now pathetic and outdated. The book reflects this. Nevertheless it is a thorough accounting, and one would have thought (and hoped) that all that could be said about the Reeds and their decayed and vanished empire had now been said. But apparently not. A multinational publisher, Reed Elsevier, has entered the New Zealand scene, purchased the Reed backlist, and is to publish a “centennial history” of “Reeds Publishing” in 2007. Things just get more and more peculiar.


Mary Varnham is publishing director of Awa Press, which recently celebrated its second year and 18th book.


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