Mr Valiant-for-the-truth: Hugh Price: 1929-2009

This obituary was published in Foreign Control Watchdog 124 (August 2010) p.64-66. It is is based on Defender of the Vulnerable: Tributes to Hugh Price 1929-2009 (Steele Roberts, 2010), and complements Murray Horton’s obituary in the May 2010 issue which focused on the CAFCA and SIS dimensions of Hugh’s life.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

If you drive down Glasgow Street in Kelburn, just before you turn left towards the university, you will see a white wall where, often as not, there is a notice promoting some good cause. Modestly but firmly, like the Price family who live in the house above. The house is like them, holding the 20,000 quality children’s books that comprise the Susan Price Collection which Susan donated to the National Library in 1991, with rooms that in their time held meetings of radicals and in which were produced books, a house with cubbyholes built by Hugh Price.

His building skills were learned from his father, a Wairarapa woodwork teacher from Wales, but his mother was even more influential. Hugh was born with club feet. While he recuperated from a long series of operations to straighten them, his mother adopted a massage routine as part of his healing, using the daily sessions to read to him. Thus he entered the realms of gold where he stayed – and extended – all his life.

His schooling experiences were, as Hugh’s wife Beverley Randell, describes them ‘Dickensian with echoes of Dotheboys Hall’; he was regularly caned by a sadistic school master for his refusal to play rugby. Towards the end of his life, he said he never ‘wasted a single moment of my life on sport’. The persecution he suffered there meant he fought for his the oppressed all his life.

Yet, praise be, he had a couple of good teachers in his history and art masters (Doug Bray and Stewart McLennan); history and design were lifetime pursuits. In 1948 he went over the hill to Victoria University College, boarding – oh so fortunately – with the Somersets: Crawford, a specialist in university extension (best known for his book Littledene ) who became an associate professor of education, and Gwen, (from the Alley family of Canterbury) a key player in the development of the New Zealand play centre movement. He joined the family; its two sons, in effect, became his brothers.

Later at Wellington Teachers’ College he came in contact with vice-principal Walter Scott – they were to work together in the Council of Civil Liberties years later – who turned the teacher’s college into one of New Zealand’s great centres of liberal (and Maori) education in the 1950s. At the university he was taught by John Beaglehole (another pioneer in the civil liberties movement). As Hugh recounts:
One afternoon, at the end of an MA seminar with Dr John Beaglehole, I noticed him pull some interesting looking papers ftom a shelf and attend to them closely. I asked him what they were, and found that they were proofs of his Journals of Captain Cook being prepared for publication. In no time I was learning an unfamiliar vocabulary. verso, recto, galleys, type faces, fonts, point sizes, colophons, ampersands. I found new and ringing names such as Perpetua, Clarendon, Baskerville, Caslon Bold, Bembo Italic. Dr Beaglehole talked about the problems of publishing scholarly books. As a young man already seduced by books I came to see that my calling would have to be that of a book designer and editor, preparing books for publication.
Beaglehole later told him that he was the only student who took a close interest in his preparation of the Cook papers for publication, and they met quite a number of times.

While studying for his MA in history, there occurred the frequently recounted incident involving the Security Intelligence Bureau (predecessor of the SIS) over an amateur publication Newsquote, which consisted of extracts penned by reputable journalists and commentators from such illustrious newspapers as The Wall Street Journal, The Times and The New York Times, but which were not available in the local press. Nowadays it would be seen as a news-aggregater, and published electronically rather than by gestetner. Its content was not so much radical, as bringing attention of its readers to the world outside, in itself a radical thing in those days, one supposes. Perhaps the SIB paranoia was really about Hugh’s major involvement in the university Socialist Club, and their desire to stop anything before it happened. (The story finishes near the end of his life, when the director of the SIS admitted that its predecessor ‘misjudged’ the publication; not quite an apology but an embarrassing enough admission. Hugh said he pursued the matter not for himself but to give peace of mind to his mother; he accepted the almost-apology but it came too late for her.)

After some teaching, Hugh took a job in the educational retail bookshop of Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd (now Whitcoulls) in Lambton Quay, and transferred to their London buying office in 1955. He studied print production and typography at the London (Camberwell) School of Arts and Crafts and at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, and worked on small projects for Penguin, Methuen, Hodders, Gollancz and the BBC.

In 1957 he came home to manage Wellington’s progressive co-operative bookshop, ‘Modern Books’ While retaining its ‘Marxist’ stock he extended its coverage by obtaining books from other foreign sources.

His future publishing partner, Jim Milburn, tells a couple of stories which indicate Hugh’s commitment and his – shall we say – guile. One involves a meeting of friends in Modern Books where they agreed that each would put in a founding capital sum of £20 (about $850).
A week passed and Hugh rang me and said ‘Jim has anybody given you anything?’ ‘No’, I said, ‘Has anyone given you anything?’ No.’ And so it was Price Milburn was born, a partnership between Hugh and myself … Hugh … actually put in £25 to my £20 .)

But there was another partnership to be arranged. The Teachers’ College grouped their section (class) alphabetically, thereby including the ‘R’s with the ‘Ps’. Jim Milburn again
‘One day the young Beverley Randell came into Modern Books. Hugh remembered her from having been with him at university and teachers college and he rang her saying that there was to be a reunion of her old section the following Friday and invited her to come. She accepted. Hugh then rang Barbara and me and said, ‘Of course there is no reunion, but I am going to bring her and have dinner with you two – do you mind – at James Smiths.’

(Hugh had a delightful – impish – sense of humour often based on his modesty. Stories abound. He was a slight figure, as was Jim. They called themselves ‘the smallest publishers in Wellington’; their telegraph address was Mice: M(ilburn-pr)ICE.)

The partnerships were the foundations of the rest of Hugh and Beverley’s life, for her contribution to the success of the business was a series of readers for young children (another success for Wellington Teacher’s College). Initially it was a hobby business but in 1968 they received a US order of 1.7 million copies for their little reading books, and it became a full-time operation – and by all accounts an exceptionally happy and exciting business.

Hugh was in Sydney when the order came in. Marriage and the arrival of Susan in 1960 had led him to give up Modern Books and to become an art editor at the School Publications Branch of the Education Department until 1963, when he became the founding general manager of the Sydney University Press.

There were so many, it is difficult to summarise even the highlights of Hugh’s public life. Price Milburn was a success both from its PM Story Book Series – they once exported Welsh translations to Pantgonia. – nd publishing numerous important and scholarly books. In 1982 it was sold but the PM Story Books continues today with Cengage Learning, selling throughout the world.  Hugh continued to publish books of his own under the Gondwanaland Press imprint which founded .

To mention something which it is often considered inappropriate, but is so important to shed light on the Price’s contribution to society and their approach to the world. Continuing royalties from overseas sales of the PM Story Books helped the family became relatively wealthy. Unlike many of today’s rich, they did not show off their wealth but used it to promote the public good with quiet donations to numerous good causes. There is also a Hugh Price Collection of School Textbooks in the Alexander Turnbull and Auckland University Libraries and the Randell Cottage in Thorndon which provides rent-free accommodation for writers (who also receive a small stipend from Creative New Zealand or from the NZ-France Friendship Fund and the French Government ). The cottage was built by Beverley’s great-grandfather in the 1860s, and Hugh funded, planned and helped with much of the restoration.

Hugh was involved in a wide variety of good causes. For many years he served on the Council for Civil Liberties (which, it will be recalled, was established in response to their outrageous suspension during the Waterfront Dispute of 1951). He was strongly committed to the ending of capital punishment; when courting he asked Beverley what she thought – she agreed, they married. From the time of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 he was a member of The Defence and Aid Fund which raised funds for apartheid’s victims hauled before South Africa’s courts (one of its successes was to prevent the execution on Mandela in 1963); he supported ‘No Maoris No Tour’, and he was a trustee of the Africa Information Centre in Wellington. In the politically turbulent 1980s, his house had the ‘boardroom’ of the Kelburn Branch of the Labour Party which valiantly resisted the onslaught of Rogernomics; they lost then but contributed to the party’s policy framework for the Clark administration. In despair he joined NewLabour. Later he joined Grey Power. There is hardly a progressive cause he was not involved in personally, as a financial contributor or as a pamphleteer and often all three.

He wrote a number of books including children’s readers, pamphlets (Know the New Right), scholarly bibliographies (School Books Published in New Zealand to 1960 and Beverley Randell: A Check List of Books Written by Her, Mainly for Children, Between 1955 and 1995) and a couple of regional picture books based on postcards he and his daughter had collected. His most widely known work is The Plot to Subvert Wartime New Zealand, turned into a film, Spies and Lies, soon to be screened. If the story, involving the first head of the Security Intelligence Bureau who made an utter ass of himself, was not such a farce, one might think that Hugh was getting his own back on the way the SIB  treated him.

In a way, the SIB was right. People with progressive ideas like Hugh have to be clobbered when they are young, to discourage them from being strong and committed. They might progress their ideals. The bureau’s oversight was that Hugh had suffered persecution at school; he was fearless against those who went for him in his adult life.

Hugh was such a gentle and modest man that it was hard to see the steel that was in his soul. Vince O’Sullivan says the only significant mistake he made was that he thought of himself as ordinary; he was extraordinary. Civil libertarians would say we are all extraordinary; in which case Hugh was extra-extraordinary.

Beverley captures him even better. Citing Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress she recalls that the much loved song ‘Who would true valour see’ was spoken by Mr Valiant-for-the-Truth who resisted his persecutors. That is why it was sung at his funeral; there was the source of the steel in his gentle soul.

Towards the end of his life, public acknowledgements began to flow, including an honorary doctorate from his alma mater. Thinking about our universities’ statutory duty to be critics and consciences of society – a law more honoured in the breach than any since the 1976 Reserve Bank Act required the pursuit of full employment – I said to one of the university hierarchy ‘its great you are honouring a stirrer.’ He looked shocked; there are hardly any stirrers on the university’s board of honorary doctorates. ‘We are recognising him for his contributions for services to publishing and for his contribution to New Zealand literature.’

Fair enough; we would not expect the Establishment to honour public intellectuals even that if their laws says they should do. What perhaps escaped the eminent person was that publishers are natural stirrers, as argued by Milton’s Areopagitica, which Hugh studied at that university. You only have to look at what Hugh published and wrote, to realise his was a stirring record. (Don’t underestimate children’s readers; Hugh believed that literacy was necessary for civil liberties; he and Beverley believed that quality content in early reading books helped build that literacy.) His other activities doubled those considerable achievements.

The real honour for Mr Valiant-for-the-Truth is the affection and respect of his community. You can capture a glimpse of the outpourings in Defender of the Vulnerable: Tributes to Hugh Price 1929-2010, but perhaps he would take greater delight in knowing that his efforts, and Beverley’s, helped so many young children to learn to read.

Hugh Charles Llewellyn Price, book publisher: born Wellington, July 13, 1929; died Newtown, December 28, 2009, aged 80. He is survived by his wife, Beverley Randell, and their daughter, Susan Price.