Biography  A H Reed – a New Zealand walking legend

The biography of inspirational Kiwi publisher, writer and long-distance walker A H Reed is worth wallking for

 

Books and Boots -The Story of New Zealand Publisher, Writer and Long Distance Walker Alfred Hamish Reed by Ian Dougherty, Otago University Press, 2005. Hardcover, 252 pages. Order through www.otago.ac.nz/ press/orders/orderform. html for $49.95 + $5.

‘The leader of a one-man tramping club’ was how Alf Reed, better known as A H Reed, once described himself. Early in the twentieth century, Reed established what became the publishing powerhouse known as AH & AW Reed in Dunedin, and by the 1950s, the company, headed by Reed’s capable nephew Wyclif (known as Clif), was the most important book publisher in the country. Reed helped New Zealanders appreciate their history and country, and was a prolific author himself.

Born in England, Reed came to New Zealand in 1887, aged 11, when his family immigrated during the hard depression of that decade. They found things little easier here, with gum digging occupying their lives for several years. But young Alf planned a better life, firstly by teaching himself short-hand, then by joining an Auckland typewriter firm. After he took the franchise to Dunedin, and began printing religious texts, the company A H Reed was established.

In this masterful biography, Dunedin writer, tramper and historian Ian Dougherty (author of an excellent biography of Arawata Bill) brings Alf Reed to life. Despite a childhood illness which resulted in his femur being scraped to the thinness of his humerus, Reed was ‘a natural born walker’. He bounded everywhere, taking steps two at a time, and clean living ensured that he kept fit for most of his 99-year life.

Reed’s strong Christian faith did not extend to pacifism, and when World War One broke out, the emerging publisher promptly sold his business and joined the army in Featherston. Despite being declared fit for service, the 40-year-old was blocked from joining his regiment on active service overseas by an officer who appreciated his administration skills.

During leave, Reed made several long walks, including a weekend jaunt into the Tararua Range, a 100-kilometre stroll around Lake Wairarapa, and a 200-kilometre journey around the central North Island. These trips resulted in a delightful, illustrated journal which Reed kept for his wife, Belle, to read (a wonderful pocket edition of this appeared in 2007).

After the war, Reed returned to Dunedin, bought back his business, and resumed life with Belle. Sadly, she died in 1939, leaving Reed a widower for the rest of his long life. But it did open a new chapter for the restless wanderer. ‘Without Belle to return home to in Dunedin, he kept on walking, for weeks and then months at a time. Along the way, he created a much-admired if somewhat eccentric folk hero.’

Reed walked from Cape Reinga to Bluff, from East Cape to Cape Egmont, and from Sydney to Melbourne. While he was not the first to walk the length of New Zealand, at 85 he was certainly the oldest. The lanky, mustachioed figure with the friendly wave became familiar to even more New Zeaalnders through a series of travel books he penned, which combined history, personal anecdotes, and descriptions of the countryside in equal measure.

Although Reed largely walked on roads, he should be considered a tramper too, for he enjoyed tracks, the one to the summit of Flagstaff being his favourite. He set records for being the oldest person to summit Egmont, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, although the latter mountain took him two attempts. He also walked the Milford, Heaphy and Abel Tasman tracks, and aged 74 undertook perhaps his most arduous trip, a trek to Dusky Sound over what was then untracked terrain. This adventure, accomplished with nephew Clif, attracted criticism from the Otago Tramping Club, who thought the expedition foolhardy.

Sometimes Reed went on a walk or wrote a book simply spurred by an off-hand comment, like why don’t you write a general history of New Zealand? Many academics were sniffy about Reed’s books on New Zealand history, although most grudgingly admired The Story of the Kauri. But the public loved them, reflected in sales figures reaching into the tens of thousands, numbers that would be remarkable even with today’s greater population.

This thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing biography deserves wider readership. As someone who enjoyed tramping and promoted the value of walking, Alf Reed should be counted as one of us.

Wilderlife