David Blackwood Paul, always called Blackwood, was born at Auckland on 12 October 1908. His father, William Henry Paul, had opened a bookshop, Paul’s Book Arcade, in Hamilton in 1901, and married Isabella Josephine Entrican in January 1905. Blackwood, ‘a very precious and delicate little boy’, was their only surviving child. His early life was imbued with the deep Presbyterianism of his mother and affected by his apparently heavy-handed, arrogant and domineering father. He was educated at Southwell School and, from February 1924, Hamilton High School.
In 1927 Blackwood Paul enrolled at Auckland University College in arts and law. He became involved in student affairs: as a member of the Literary Club he was one of the editorial committee that produced the influential magazine Phoenix , and as a member of the publications committee of the students’ association he jointly edited Kiwi with his friend Hector Monro in 1932. The two were also responsible for Wreccum , a college news sheet, and The golden goose , ‘a nonsense miscellany’. From 1930 to 1932 Paul worked part time as a clerk with an Auckland barrister, Bruce Scott. He graduated MA in English in 1933 and gained his LLB in 1935.
In 1933 Paul took over the management of the family bookshop, reportedly as the result of a disagreement with his father, by then a powerful Hamilton figure whose community services were his consuming interest. In December 1935 he travelled to Britain and Europe to fulfil a long cherished ambition to ‘record the impact of Britain on a colonial mind’. This he wrote up in ‘Traveller from New Zealand’, which remained an unpublished manuscript. He used the trip to meet British publishers and secure New Zealand distribution rights for the educational lists of both William Collins and Longmans, Green and Company, as well as Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club publications. Paul returned to New Zealand in 1936.
During the Second World War Paul served with the Army Education and Welfare Service in Wellington but continued to run the Hamilton shop like an ‘outpost’. While in Wellington he also served on the management committee of the Progressive Publishing Society. Through his association with the PPS, Blackwood met Janet Elaine Wilkinson. On 9 March 1945 they married at Wellington and later that year returned to Hamilton. There they ‘formed their own centre of human enlightenment amid all the superphosphate’.
Paul was now able to dedicate himself to bookselling, publishing and advocacy on behalf of the book trade. The shop that Paul had taken over from his father was a ‘modest emporium [of] unremarkable stock’ with the atmosphere of a general store. Paul transformed the business to the extent that in 1949 the visiting English publisher Sir Stanley Unwin numbered Paul’s bookshop among the 14 best in the world. In 1948 the shop was redesigned by the Wellington architect Ernst Plischke, whose name evoked ‘the sort of design sophistication we were all in need of’. In 1955 a second shop was opened in Auckland.
By 1945 Blackwood Paul had determined to publish New Zealand writers. He was convinced that New Zealanders would ‘read and buy books written and published in our own country if they are good enough’. The imprint the Pauls established – Paul’s Book Arcade, and, from 1964, Blackwood and Janet Paul – appeared on nearly 200 books. The publishing list showed ‘good judgement, acumen and a sense of public responsibility’, Charles Brasch said later. Their first publication was Gordon Mirams’s Speaking candidly , and over the next 20 years they published books by, among others, F. L. W. Wood, John Mulgan, Maurice Duggan, Bill Pearson, Amelia Batistich, Frank Sargeson and Hone Tuwhare. In both fiction and non-fiction, the Pauls were ground-breaking and highly influential publishers of New Zealand titles, and Janet Paul set high standards in book design.
The Pauls commissioned many works; for example, Antony Alpers’s Maori myths and tribal legends and Erik Schwimmer’s The Maori people in the nineteen-sixties. As well, they commissioned artists for illustrations and dust covers, including James Boswell, Patrick Hanly, Colin McCahon and Eric Lee-Johnson. To extend his educational list, Paul opened a publishing office in his Auckland bookshop in 1960 and appointed Phoebe Meikle as editor. Despite Paul’s quip that the ‘whole process of bookmaking is … quite fantastically irresponsible’, he gained immense satisfaction from his publishing list. His notion of ‘good writing as against saleability’ was balanced against the business sense that he was in trade and devoted to making a profit. He realised the necessity of a bestselling author on the list, whose income afforded security and enabled the publication of less profitable but worthy titles, such as the many volumes of poetry; in Paul’s case this author was Mary Scott. He made many successful submissions to the New Zealand Literary Fund to assist with publishing subsidies. In his search for economical printers of quality he looked to Australia and Britain. To keep down costs and to increase markets he undertook co-publishing ventures with British and American firms.
Blackwood Paul was an effective advocate on behalf of the book trade. He joined the Associated Booksellers of New Zealand in 1937. He was a council member throughout most of the 1940s and 1950s, was vice president (1943–50), and was active on their behalf right up to his death. He helped draft submissions against provisions of the Indecent Publications Amendment Act 1954. He was involved in myriad other issues: the introduction of the book token scheme, competition by chain stores, the methods of door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen, direct supply by publishers, the incursion of the paperback (‘a parasite in the field of fiction’), and even the discounts offered to clergymen by Whitcombe and Tombs. He assisted with the booksellers’ appeal against the finding in 1961 by the Trade Practices and Prices Commission that they engaged in price-fixing.
In public, Paul promoted the benefits of a healthy book trade to the community. His contributions appeared in Co-op Books , New Zealand Libraries , the New Zealand Listener , and An encyclopaedia of New Zealand , for which he wrote on ‘Publishing and bookselling’. To him, the effect of the bookseller’s providing ‘good fiction and general literature’ – by which he meant non-fiction – would be ‘a general raising of the public taste and in the encouragement of learning’. While he was well aware of his dependence upon the mass market, this ‘must be made to finance the publisher of learned books and the bookseller who sells the world’s classics’. He opposed the import restrictions on books which were introduced in 1938, fearing they would ‘drive out good books at the expense of mediocre ones’ as booksellers struggled to maintain turnover. He believed in the interdependence of bookshops and public libraries, an opinion which some library professionals thought naïve.
Paul was active in amateur dramatics with the Hamilton People’s Theatre, was a member of the Hamilton committee of CORSO (1949–61) and served as chairman of the Hamilton adult education committee (1953–64). His wide interests – including local history, socialism and literature – found expression in print, including occasional reviews for Landfall .
In 1964 the family travelled to Europe for a holiday. While in London, Paul was diagnosed with incurable cancer. They returned to New Zealand in December, and Paul died in Hamilton on 16 February 1965. He was survived by Janet and their four daughters. The publishing firm was sold to Longman in 1967, and published as Longman Paul until 1972.
Blackwood Paul was ‘always a socialist but one with a deep distrust of rhetoric’, and held strong views on social issues. He would not support the banning of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita when it was declared indecent in 1960. Equally, though, he would not appear as a witness to challenge the ruling, as he believed the novel had ‘pornographic intent’. He was an intense person with uncompromising standards which made him appear exacting, even harsh, according to some employees. But he is also remembered by his colleagues as shy and retiring, a loyal friend with an incisive intelligence.