Unpleasant truths, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins

Theo Schoon: A Biography
Damian Skinner
Massey University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9780995100176

Hudson and Halls: The Food of Love
Joanne Drayton
Otago University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781988531267

There has long been an uneasiness on the part of local biographers when it comes to homosexual subjects. In literary terms, this can be traced to Michael King’s Frank Sargeson: A Life (1995), the first major biography of this type. King, then not yet a literary biographer, but a consummate researcher of Māori subject matter, demonstrated the standard Kiwi male’s distaste for homosexuality. The result was a tepid and unsatisfying work that has done Sargeson’s cultural longevity no favours. Without any active influential queer voice to argue the contrary, Sargeson entered the canon of modern biography, and King was lauded as the nation’s literary biographer.

New Zealanders struggle with the notion of pleasure and even more so with the idea of sexual pleasure. Biographers prefer to leave sex and sexuality out. It is as if the sexual being and the intellectual being are two different and wholly separable entities, one nice, one nasty, and if you can’t write nice – well, don’t write at all. Divorcing gay men from sexual expression denies the essence of what it is to be homosexual, but also serves the interests of those who choose to depict gay men as lonely, sad and somehow incomplete. Regardless of sexual preference, the more famous the figure, the further the biographer stands from the bedroom door. Composer Douglas Lilburn, or non-queer figures with strong sexual appetites, including Rita Angus and Peter McLeavey, subjects of recent biographies written in established modes, are, as a result, less than fully rendered.

In defence of local biographers, gay men and, in particular, 20th-century ones, seldom make co-operative subjects. Survival meant covering your tracks. Those who had the courage to leave honest accounts of their lives have too often suffered at the hands of homophobic executors. Pages mysteriously torn from the diaries of homosexual poet Charles Brasch, or the destruction of the homoerotic negatives of photographer Gerald Jones being cases in point. You are left, as in the case of Brasch, not only with a dry, unpalatable husk, but with miswritten history. 

Four new biographies, of artists Theo Schoon and Douglas MacDairmid, television personalities Peter Hudson and David Halls, and drag starlet Mika, range from the scholarly to the vainglorious. The most interesting of these, Theo Schoon: A Biography by Damian Skinner and Hudson and Halls: The Food of Love by Joanne Drayton, come from writers less inclined to see homosexuality as something essentially distasteful.

Schoon, although not a great artist, was an important thinker, as central to the development of 20th-century New Zealand art and design as a dedicated and resolute outsider could possibly be. Schoon crops up everywhere as an innovator in dance, painting, printmaking, photography, pottery, jewellery and gourd carving, but is perhaps most widely known for his promotion of Māori rock art and his influence on the painting of Gordon Walters. Skinner brings an impressive level of research and order to Schoon’s many achievements but, early on, when he describes him as a man with “few romantic or sexual partners”, one is immediately wary.

Arriving in Christchurch from Java in 1939, Schoon, striking, foreign, and obviously queer (think Quentin Crisp), stood out like a peacock in the henhouse or, as he preferred, the pigsty. Schoon’s initial impact was as a demonstrator of Javanese dance, performing bare-chested wearing a turban with “rich fabrics gathered around his waist”. In 1940, he appeared at a patriotic fundraiser organised by the Canterbury Students’ Association. Well-meaning, the programme was entirely wrong for an audience of university hearties. Schoon “had them guessing for a while, until they decided that he must be funny … and became a vast congregation of puling infants.” Seeking a reaction, Schoon singled out “three fat ladies” in the front row – “they grunt, they snort, they are peegs.” Although we might now side with Schoon, the talented gay artist set against a philistine crowd, that description, published in the Christchurch Press, did nothing to endear him to the locals. The broader relationship never improved. In time, Schoon came to loathe New Zealand and all it stood for, eventually choosing self-imposed exile in Australia. 

One of the problems facing Skinner is that Schoon, crucially important though he might be, was a deeply unpleasant human being. He was arrogant, thoughtless, ungrateful, dismissive, compulsive and, to cap it off, he had little interest in personal hygiene. Schoon was particularly tactless, falling out most dramatically with those inclined to help him. His critique of potter Helen Mason as someone who “hasn’t got a clue” may have the ring of truth about it, but it was a cruel thing to write while her long-term guest, refusing to eat the food Mason cooked and making almost no other contribution, other than giving her work a critical thrashing. 

Despite his unpleasantness, Schoon formed a late life relationship with a young man, Brent Hesselyn. It was the sort of relationship on which an inexperienced biographer can easily come to grief. Skinner uses potter Yvonne Rust, “suspicious of Schoon’s motives, whenever a young and attractive boy was involved”, to set up the situation, but uses his own words – “their relationship eventually found a suitable equilibrium” – to map out the sexual territory, before going on to write with real intelligence about the close relationship between the two men. Even here, one wonders if Skinner is being overly circumspect, or whether Schoon was, in fact, simply unlovable, until, late in the book, the author quotes a letter to potter Len Castle: “I never had any romantic notions, hopes or delusions about you. The men who really turned me on were the football type, the athlete, in short, types I could not possibly live with.” This heart-breaking confession brings the reader back onside with this supremely difficult man, just in time to be deeply moved when, soon after, his powerful critical intellect gone, Schoon dies alone in a Sydney hospital. 

In a competition to find a more unpleasant human being than Schoon, Peter Hudson and David Halls are definite contenders. They were vain, shallow, egotistical, self-centred, snobbish nincompoops, entirely obsessed with money. They were completely culturally and politically unaware and, as a result, left behind little of importance. Even claims as to their culinary innovation seem tenuous. Despite this, Hudson and Halls have recently undergone a revival via Hudson & Halls Live by Kip Chapman, a theatrical event which wrong-headedly, but effectively, marketed the couple as icons of gay liberation. Hudson and Halls: The Food of Love is a finely researched biography, yet the difficulty faced by both author and playwright is that the subjects themselves remain now, as in life, wilfully uncooperative. 

Joanne Drayton, a high-profile lesbian, is an accomplished but circumspect biographer of women artists Edith Collier and Rhona Haszard, and writers Ngaio Marsh and Anne Perry. In Hudson and Halls, it’s not that Drayton pulls her punches, but that the duo simply don’t justify the attention of a biographer of her ability. Reanimating Schoon helps us understand the dynamics of mid-century art better, but even after reading Hudson and Halls it remains unclear how these two mid-20th-century television celebrities work in our times.

Because gays and lesbians are increasingly seen collectively as the LGBTQI community, there is often an assumption of interchangeability of experience. However, 20th-century gay and lesbian lives were significantly different. Beyond certain shared political ambitions on a human rights platform, there is little common ground. Lesbian authors choosing to write a gay story need to immerse themselves as if in a foreign culture. Sadly, there’s a distinct disconnect in this biography. Oscar Wilde’s trial is misdated and too many other subsequent assertions made regarding the duo simply don’t ring true. For example, Hudson, the Australian, and Halls, the blonde English one, first met at a party in Auckland in 1962 and remained together, faithful, until their death. In gay terms, this is extremely statistically unlikely, but perhaps the bigger issue is that the notion of “love” used as the central premise in this work is borrowed from a mainstream heterosexual culture which conflates it with monogamy and fidelity. At the same time, Hudson and Halls, wealthy and famous, surrounded by adoring attractive young men, were prone to cataclysmic rows, but the reader is left to wonder what they fought about. 

The 1970s was a difficult decade, in part because it remains so removed from our own times. Hudson and Halls were products of the Robert Muldoon era, which was isolated, inward-looking and dismissive: understand this and you understand them. At the height of their fame in the second half of the 1970s, Hudson and Halls followed in the same timeslot as A Week of it, the satirical David McPhail and Jon Gadsby sketch comedy. The essential difference here was that while the nation laughed with McPhail and Gadsby at the Muldoon government – audiences laughed at Hudson and Halls. By 1982, their one-joke, silly-fag act was wearing thin. Drayton seems personally affronted when she writes, “the show’s ratings had dwindled to a shocking 10-16 percent.” From here on in, the author, increasingly bewildered, sticks with her subjects like a sister in arms, loyal till the very end. 

Despite assertions, these two were far from being the only homosexuals on screen: late 1970s television positively pulsated with them. Peter Sinclair and David Hartnell come to mind, as do a raft of others still alive, still closeted, and still inclined to sue. Being on screen and gay wasn’t unusual: what mattered was what was done with the power that position delivered. In 1981, the Springboks tour, with gay activists including the lesbian-identified Topp Twins on the front line, had altered New Zealand for good. Hudson and Halls were now on the wrong side of the cultural divide. As Drayton puts it, “New Zealanders loved Hudson and Halls because they weren’t out”, but AIDS activism was focusing attention on closeted gay men who profited from celebrity but failed to engage in the political struggle. By the middle of the 1980s, the gay community, fighting for legalisation, had grown tired of the trope of homosexual as laughing stock. 

Law reform came in 1986, the same year Hudson and Halls was finally cancelled. Times may have changed for the LGBTQI community since but, as this biography makes abundantly clear, Hudson and Halls did nothing tangible to bring about that change. Rather, the duo lived out a clichéd trajectory – closetry, public ridicule, alcoholism and eventual suicide – which complied with widely held heterosexual expectations of gay men. In 1987, John Inman, closeted star of British television show Are You Being Served?, was heckled at the GOFTA awards, but by then Hudson and Halls were an embarrassing cultural memory. Their last years were spent on the BBC, where their programme received the sort of critical drubbing that it should have received locally – “if the ghastly dishes they concoct don’t turn your stomach, then leave it to the jokes.”

Hudson and Halls never came out of the closet. It would have been difficult (Drayton argues impossible), but that was the price of their relevance. Failing to ever speak excludes them as potential gay icons. They were, instead, self-hating, closeted celebrities heavily implicated in the repression of their fellow gay men and thus on the wrong side of history. Hudson and Halls, impressively researched and highly revealing, is an absorbingly good read, but it is rather like watching an old silent movie clip of a train being driven at speed into a solid wall by two nincompoops. Even Drayton can’t elevate this beyond celebrity biography/nostalgia – in part, because her subjects were simply never sufficiently present in their own lives.

Schoon was never a guest on Hudson’s and Halls’s chat show. They inhabited vastly different worlds, but were strangely united in both their sexuality and their failings as human beings. It is true, that from the contemporary viewpoint, gay men of the pre-liberation period often seem difficult, raising questions as to the real impact that a repressive culture had on those who lived it – Sargeson and Brasch included. Drayton and Skinner are to be applauded for refusing to tidy up their subjects for mainstream consumption but, in the end, it is Schoon, an uncompromisingly flamboyant homosexual of considerable intellect who flagellated himself against the mediocre mindset of a repressive New Zealand culture without compromise who should be the gay icon: sadly, no one is writing plays about him. Theo Schoon: A Biography may yet change that.

 

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins is a writer based in Auckland.

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