The man who wished to be other, C K Stead

No Fretful Sleeper – A Life of Bill Pearson

Paul Millar
Auckland University Press, $59.99,
ISBN 97818690404192 

It must have been 40 years ago that Bill Pearson told me an anecdote about his first days at school. When he reached the school on foot in the mornings, he had still to walk the length of what seemed to the five-year-old a long fence to a gate, and then back the same distance to the primers’ classroom. One day, as he completed this walk, a teacher picked him up and popped him back over the fence so he had to do it again. I’m sure I remember this decades later because at the time it struck me as representing Bill, and even (why else did he remember and repeat it?) his image of himself – facing the usual obstacles, but twice over, and unfairly.

From so many years of working with Bill on a daily basis in the English Department of Auckland University, and also on the Committee of the University Press, I retain (though without our ever having been really close) an indelible impression of him, something that seems when I reflect on it a quite profound knowledge of his character; so although there is a great deal in this very good biography I didn’t know (for example, that late in his life Bill seriously damaged relations with his long-term partner Donald Stenhouse by falling in love with inveterate hetero Andrew Sharp) there is nothing in it that really surprises me, and little that conflicts with my sense of the man I knew. Bill grinned rather than smiled, chuckled rather than laughed. He was a dour West Coaster with a dark secret; but the grin and the chuckle were infectious, and he could be jolly company.

Physically Pearson was a slightly comic figure, walking always with his arms out from his body, outriggers on either side, and swaying, especially after a few beers. He was serious, scrupulous, an exact scholar, precise in his choice of words, but not fluent on his feet, and in lectures incapable of meeting the collective eye of his class which he avoided by a sweep from the lower left corner of the floor all the way to the upper right of the ceiling. One of his most notable characteristics in the English Department was truculence, especially in his working relationship with the equally truculent Elizabeth Sheppard. There were periods of harmony; but each became the other’s bête noire; and Millar mentions a letter in which Bill, after opening his eyes in hospital in London (where he was on leave) to find “Betty” in the chair by his bed, wrote to a friend that he thought for a moment he had died and woken in hell.

But the big sad story this biography tells is of Bill’s unhappy discovery of his homosexuality, his wish to be other, his attempts and failures to be “normal”, and the consequences for his writing, particularly of Coal Flat, where the hero Paul Rogers, an ur-Bill Pearson, had to be one or the other, “straight” or “gay”, an alternative which seemed to represent either inauthenticity or exposure. For a time Bill contemplated what would have been in artistic terms a disaster – that Paul’s homosexuality would be revealed, and then “cured”. Since Bill himself had tried more than once to achieve heterosexuality, this is only mildly surprising. But there was and is no “cure” for something that occurs, like blue eyes or baldness, in the genes. Bill had to live with his own sexuality, and chose for many years to conceal it, so it had to be concealed also in his fictional hero.

Before I ever met Bill Pearson I knew him from the pages of Landfall. His essay “Fretful Sleepers” made a strong impression when I was a student. My friends and I read it, talked about it, cited it. It was a rare example (Fairburn’s “We New Zealanders” was another) of an essay which generalised New Zealand society, intellectualised it, analysing and criticising. Popular attitudes and moral reflexes were exposed; but then the intellectual and literary community, who might have been expecting praise, or at least absolution, were blasted equally, leaving Bill dancing (as I’ve said elsewhere) not on the head of a pin but on its point. It was Bill’s J’accuse, much of it springing, not frankly but none the less directly, from his distress at finding himself a sensitive and romantic young man inclined to fall in love with other young men, in a society that deplored and mocked such tendencies, and criminalised their physical expression. Homosexuality, then, was the raison d’être for “Fretful Sleepers”; but it was hardly mentioned; so it could be said that those of us who were excited by the essay also missed its point.

Millar records (deriving the fact from Pearson’s own unpublished account) that Bill cried a lot as a child. It was, he said, his resort, and continued far beyond the point where such behaviour is normally given up in favour of manly stoicism. It occurs to me that Bill would have heard himself described as a “fretful” child – so he turned the tables on us all with his title. We were “fretful sleepers”, crying in our sleep and not knowing why, not conscious of the threats that might cause us to wake one day and find ourselves under the control of a dictator. (The Smith’s Dream scenario clearly owes a lot to Pearson.)

But “fretful” is what Bill was and continued to be throughout his life. I have seldom known a man so beset by imaginary threats, or so prone to interpret neutral behaviour negatively. Every slight, real or imagined, was remembered. And it is in this that I take slight issue with his biographer. Millar is scholarly, scrupulous, thorough, while always (and appropriately) taking his subject’s side, defending and protecting him. Everything is put down to Bill’s homosexuality, his distress at this discovery about himself, the dangers it exposed him to, and his consequent fears and sensitivity to slight and insult.

I don’t for a moment minimise the difficulties such men as Bill faced, or the pain they suffered. But not every gay man of those times made the heavy weather of it Bill did. He began life (we learn) as a religious prig, trying to “save” beautiful boys whose language and behaviour were an offence to God, while remaining indifferent to the ugly and dirty ones for whom hell was probably the right place. Self-discovery, then, was bound to be painful. Bill was mature before he accepted his sexuality and stopped looking for that “cure’; and he was an old man before making any move to “come out”. He was all the good and sad and deserving things Millar says he was; but he was also one of those temperaments suspicious even when the sun shines, because why is it creating all these shadows?

He was 10 years my senior but we were both products of a traditional university Eng Lit education of the time. There was a professional (almost a moral) obligation to “evaluate” works of literature, and to explain your r/evaluation by what I A Richards called “practical criticism”. In addition, as New Zealanders we were literary nationalists, both somewhat equivocal (sometimes just sad) about what had been left behind in England where our post-graduate work had been done. When my first substantial piece of fiction, “A Race Apart”, whose narrator is a middle-class Englishwoman, was published, Bill told me he “couldn’t see its point”. I was disappointed, but also faintly guilty. What was its point? Did it have one? It was a work of art, wasn’t it? – but I knew that was an insufficient answer. On the other hand, when I wrote to him explaining why I thought two of his stories, from which he hoped I might select one to put into the second Oxford New Zealand stories I was editing, didn’t work, he wrote back thanking me. “It is the first tangible criticism I have had of them.” Later I found and admired his story “At the Leicesters’ ” and included it in the collection.

Bill reviewed the first novel of our colleague Mike Joseph (whom, Millar explains, he considered to be a homophobe) unfavourably, and was paid back (or believed he was) by being mocked in Joseph’s second as an “unpublished novelist” who danced absurdly at pretentious parties. He took Maurice Shadbolt’s first book, The New Zealanders, to task and subsequently believed (on good evidence, Millar suggests) that Shadbolt had a considerable hand in publishers’ rejections of Coal Flat.

No doubt it was naive (a naiveté I shared) to think critical candour would go unpunished in such a small literary community. This was a time when our colleague Allen Curnow was in fierce conflict with Wellington poets (Baxter, Johnson, Campbell, Bland) who succeeded in delaying, and very nearly scuppered, his Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. The Penguin finally emerged in 1960, and Coal Flat in 1963; but the fractious early 1960s were not productive years for either man. In the longer term, Curnow simply out-lived and/or out-wrote and out-classed his adversaries of that time; but Pearson seemed to get bogged down in it, increasingly paranoid, writing memos and corrections “for the record” rather than new work.

Millar’s chapter on Pearson’s relationship with Frank Sargeson focuses first on a review I wrote of Michael King’s Sargeson biography in which I suggested King had been too ready to accept an account Bill had put on record in the Turnbull Library of Sargeson falling in love with him. Certain relevant letters and their carbons had been destroyed at Bill’s request, “to save embarrassment”. Later, Bill had had second thoughts and created his own record, including the opinion that Frank had been “indulging himself, combing his hair before the mirror, as it were, admiring himself in love.” It needs to be understood that this correspondence, only some of which survives, was taking place between Frank in Auckland and Bill on leave in London. My suggestion that under these strange circumstances (first having the record destroyed, then recreating it, in effect putting words into Frank’s mouth) Pearson’s account “should have been treated with some scepticism” caused Bill such distress he felt compelled to put yet another document on the record.

Millar makes his way as best he can through this thicket, agrees that “Pearson’s account … should be treated sceptically”; but concludes that “Sargeson was certainly in love, and his feelings were deep and genuine.” This would not be worth pursuing except that I believe Pearson did not understand what Sargeson was about, and neither does his biographer.

Central to all this is the fact that Bill had had an extraordinary period of productivity in London during which he wrote not only his PhD thesis but also his most notable essay, “Fretful Sleepers”, his only novel, Coal Flat, and a handful of short stories. Without that burst of creativity there would hardly be a subject for this biography – yet it came and went. We were all looking for what would follow. Nothing followed; or nothing of such quality. By his early forties Bill was a writer with a past, and with almost another 40 years to live.

When Sargeson waxed eloquent about Bill’s “suffering”, his “agony”, as he did from time to time in conversation, I used to think he was overdoing it; but I now believe that, although he didn’t know Bill well, he understood him (I suppose by analogy with his own history) better than anyone did. What he wanted was that Bill should “unwrap” himself, free himself into new work. This was not quite the same as coming out. Gay liberation came too late for Frank. But he wanted the writer in Bill freed into new work; and he thought what Bill needed was to be loved. I don’t mean that Frank was pretending. I’m sure he did love Bill, even if it was largely a Bill created in his head and at a distance. But there was an element of therapy in it. Frank believed beyond everything in literature. He wanted to give Bill a longer literary life.

Bill was at once flattered and terrified. He thought (to put it vulgarly) that Frank was “coming on to him” – and this is accepted by Millar, who then explains to us that a relationship between these two was not possible because Bill only ever fell in love with men younger than himself. He forgets, or ignores, the well-established fact that Frank could only fall for men older than himself (he used to call himself a “gerontophile”). Bill was not being propositioned by Frank; but he thought he was.

In a letter to Frank, which Millar quotes, Bill wrote, “It is flattering to have your love”; but he went on, “It is a pity your energy and your thoughts and your feelings are wasted this way on someone who doesn’t reciprocate.” Not surprisingly Frank gave up. To Janet Frame he wrote, “I realize [Bill] has gone on wrapping himself in protective layers (within which the ego has thinned out) until there’s no one left at all. There’s nobody home.”

Bill Pearson will remain notable as the author of what must be our one major regional/realist novel. As an academic, he had a very large hand in establishing New Zealand literature as a serious part of university courses. He also created a role for himself, helping to make a more secure place for Maori in the university. For a time the Auckland University Maori Club became his haven, a place of warmth, welcome and acceptance. In the English department, especially in examiners’ meetings, Maori and Polynesian students always had a special advocate in Bill. It is interesting to learn that among his protégés (before Maori activism began to make him feel, as a Pakeha, less welcome in the Maori Club) was the young Pita Sharples, whose education for a short time he funded out of his own pocket.

In Millar, Pearson found a biographer he felt he could trust. The trust was not misplaced.


C K Stead’s South-west of Eden: A Memoir 1932-1956 has recently appeared.


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