Nearly three years ago, I went to the funeral of Hugh Llewellyn Price who died after many months of living with cancer. And “living with” is the operative phrase here, as even during his last years, he was still having books published. One was with his daughter Susan Price: Old Wellington in Colour: From Hundred-year-old Picture Postcards (Steele Roberts, 2006), and one with his wife Beverley Randell: Wellington at Work in the 1890s (Steele Roberts, 2009). The other title, which was subsequently made into a film for TV One and retitled Spies and Lies, was The Plot to Subvert Wartime New Zealand (Victoria University Press, 2006).
A deep involvement in politics as a lifelong champion of civil liberties, plus education, publishing and the whole world of books were his focus. As a writer, publisher and former bookseller, Hugh must have been one of the most complete book men around. On that hot January day, the congregation followed his plain pine coffin (Hugh was an ardent conservationist) out of Old St Paul’s in Mulgrave Street, Wellington, and the church organ, in honour of Hugh’s Welsh background, played, at full force, Land of My Fathers. It was a truly triumphant finale to a full life.
In 2012, Steele Roberts put out a handsome, two-volume boxed set, about and in memory of Hugh. Hugh Price, Publisher, edited by Beverley Randell and Roger Steele (Steele Roberts, 2012), must be the ultimate in tribute books. Here is gathered the full text of all the speeches made at his funeral, excerpts from articles and obituaries that appeared at the time, plus a generous collection of words of homage and accolades from his many friends. Unlike most books of tribute, a photo accompanies the writer’s words, wherever it has been possible. There is a fascinating chronology of Hugh’s life and achievements, as well as the full text of his response on being awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Victoria University of Wellington shortly before his death.
From the time she was about 23, Susan, who felt that as well as being her father, Hugh was her friend and the person who made the sun shine for her whenever he came into a room, knew that one day he must die. She writes (in A Mind of His Own: The Childhood of Hugh Price, Steele Roberts, 2012) that she wished so much she could bottle part of him so that occasionally she could pull out the cork and just catch a taste of him once more. She did realise there was something she could do and that was to write down the details of the many anecdotes he told her over the years. Hugh became used to having a scribe following him around. By the time he died 25 years after she had begun this task, Susan had many memories and stories on which to build her text.
We see a small fair-haired boy (and the book is full of family photos) growing up in Masterton where, because of constant operations and treatments to correct his clubfeet, he could not join in the sort of life other boys in the neighbourhood enjoyed. Reading became tremendously important to him and so began a lifetime of devotion to books. From this chronicling of Hugh’s early life we find that another of his outstanding attributes – his generosity of spirit and sympathy for and championing of the underdog – was shaped by experiences in his childhood.
He was sent to a small private school in Masterton where the philosophy and teaching methods could not have been more at odds with his real beliefs. The stress of being constantly expected to speak up in public meant a painful stammer that had been hovering for some years became almost intolerable for him. Answering to “Calling the Roll”, that inescapable beginning of the day’s activity in most schools and colleges in the 1930s, was particularly hard, and to mouth the simple word “present” took real physical effort. It usually ended in humiliation.
Susan’s book is full of small but telling anecdotes, some funny and some harrowing, all of which build together to give us an even greater understanding of the gentle, wise and knowledgeable man so many of us were privileged to call our friend.