In November 2004 Bill Pearson’s trenchant essay ‘Fretful Sleepers’ was posted on Public Address as part of Russell’s Great New Zealand Argument series. As I was then researching Pearson’s life for my biography No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson, I wrote a brief preface to the essay. But looking back I find my comments significantly lacking in detail and insight because in late 2004 I wasn’t fully aware how intensely private and complex was the life Bill Pearson had been forced to lead as a closeted homosexual. Only as I wrote the biography did I come to a full understanding of the extent to which the forced concealment of something as fundamental as Pearson’s sexuality impinged on every aspect of his life, particularly his writing.
The following extract from chapter sixteen of No Fretful Sleeper is therefore much closer to what I would write now for the Great New Zealand Argument series. The time is the early 1950s and the setting is London, where Pearson is completing his doctoral dissertation and beginning his novel Coal Flat. Never before or since would he enjoy such freedom to express himself as an intellectual, a writer, a political activist and a homosexual. But even as he revelled in London life his happiness and sense of well-being was tinged with regret because he had already decided it couldn’t last.
from No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson, Chapter 16 (with minor changes from the published version)
It had always been Pearson’s intention to return to New Zealand — ‘I just knew that I belonged to New Zealand and wouldn’t settle in England’.i So he gave himself a definite time frame, the completion of Coal Flat: ‘[W]hen I finish the novel I must return,’ he told Charles Brasch.ii ‘One knows one’s own people, subtleties of facial expression, tone of voice, gesture: who do I know here? I have been embarrassed in the company of half-a-dozen East Londoners, say, not catching the underlying motives of their talk — their patterns of gentle ridicule, friendly scorn of what really attracts them — feeling whatever I said would be out of key.’ As time wore on, he worried that he was already ‘out of touch with the NZ idiom’ and that this seemed to be silencing him: ‘One loses the desire to say anything here.’iii For all his fear of New Zealand’s ‘deadness after London’, it seemed vital to return for the sake of his writing: ‘The danger here is of drying up . . . the best solution for the New Zealand writer is to busy himself in the country, or involve himself in some activity, where he can get strength and depth in his writing.’iv
But by 1951 Pearson could see that London had ambushed him; he hadn’t expected to be so happy in the heart of the British Empire. The belief he had arrived with, that there was no problem of the New Zealand creative artist, was shaken by his enjoyment of the English summer, and by the pleasure he took in London life with its ‘sense of greater variety, and less fear and more freedom in talk than at home’.v He began to treasure those qualities enjoyed to date: largeness, diversity, anonymity, a manageable type of sexual freedom, an endless procession of art, theatre and dance, access to the cultures of Europe. It was this developing enjoyment of London that had prompted him to write to Charles Brasch in December 1950 (the first letter since his grumpy notice of departure over a year earlier) asking whether he would be interested in an idea he had had in his head ‘for some time of writing an essay or article criticising, arraigning and evaluating the “NZ Character” such as one may abstract from the behaviour and acts of New Zealanders. I don’t know if I could do it without carrying myself away into a kind of rhetoric.’vi He went on to ask whether Brasch thought his desire to remain in London was an attempt to ‘shirk a responsibility? Is it fear of “freeing” myself from ties of custom, social mores? I don’t know if you can really decide me, but I’d like your advice.’vii
Brasch, with long years of experience living covertly as a homosexual, understood that Pearson was asking him how he had managed to survive in New Zealand’s puritan bell jar. ‘I still feel the pressure to conform very strongly,’ he answered. ‘As you can guess, I am quite outside the pale — I’ve never had any illusions about that; it means isolation.’viii Brasch’s honesty was due in part to Pearson’s confession of his real fear that if he were to be true to himself, and live as his sexuality dictated, he would become the butt of the same sorts of jokes that Margaret Bennett had told him of, directed at Frank Sargeson:ix
. . . the neighbours, I daresay, don’t speak, but find him good material for keeping visitors amused, pointing him out thru the curtains. On the other hand the intellectuals — tho they are prepared, as students to use him, call round with half a dozen bottles, and brag afterwards of what F. & I said — treat him as someone to be avoided, the object of shaded jokes, remarks, askance at parties.
Such courageous difference risks humiliation, but what was the price of conformity? Pearson knew it would be ‘difficult to avoid some conforming in N.Z. if only out of self-protection: if you refuse to compromise you find yourself fighting and preoccupied with a battle no one takes seriously, you become a joke or boycotted’.x Brasch’s reply was soothing and pragmatic: ‘[I]t’s no use just fighting things in N.Z.; one must get on with one’s work as quietly and normally as possible, accepting other people’s view of one and looking for the best in them while rejecting whatever’s false in their outlook. Damned difficult; but life is long, and one’s business is to survive, as man and artist.’xi
Pearson never really arrived at the calm acceptance of other people’s negative views of him achieved by Brasch, and although he survived as a man when he returned to New Zealand, he perished as an artist. Only in the final dozen years of his life did he reach the point where hiding his sexuality seem ridiculous and he began, in a quiet but determined fashion, to come out as a gay man. One of the most creative pieces of writing in many years — his 1990 autobiographical essay ‘Beginnings and Endings’ for Fergus Barrowman’s literary journal Sport, with its coded allusions to his homosexuality — was a product of this period of increasing disclosure.xii. For most of his life he remained fiercely proud and instinctively defensive — it always galled him that although he considered himself as good as the next person, in homophobic New Zealand a single misstep was all it took to become an object of derision. The fact he even cared what others thought was equally galling, and he detested his own thin skin and habits of defensiveness, the more so as he frequently acted according to their dictates. Too often when relationships became threateningly intimate he placed self-deprivation and personal pain before the risk of humiliation, acting against his own interests to pre-empt situations developing that might leave him exposed and vulnerable to ridicule or rejection. More than once an important relationship foundered because he backed away from it at the point of commitment.
Pearson’s April 1951 letter to Brasch thus supplies the crucial context for appreciating ‘Fretful Sleepers’ — namely that it originated as his cri de coeur against the mainstream whose values sentenced him to the solitary confinement of the closet. However his fellow New Zealanders might receive the essay, Pearson wrote it with one reality at the forefront of his mind, that discrimination against homosexuals occurred at every level of New Zealand society, and in seeking to express his sexuality there ‘[he] wouldn’t have anything like the opportunities that [he] had in London’.xiii The thought repulsed him that on returning home he might feel compelled to repeat in some form ‘all the routines I went through in my adolescence, especially when I started at training college . . . that craving for protection, wanting to get myself a reputation that would protect me, like I did all the proper things that young men did’. His experience of alienation provided ‘the basis of [his] criticism of the New Zealand mores and ethos’. While conceding that a lot of the essay ‘of course was self-criticism, in that I thought of myself as a New Zealander’, there was the deeper reality that ‘[my] thinking and feeling as a New Zealander was imposed on me, and was foreign to my sexuality . . . the pressures towards conformity force you into certain falsities of thinking and feeling’.
Because many New Zealand intellectuals were no less condemnatory of homosexuals than the men drinking at the bar in Coal Flat amusing themselves at the expense of Pansy Henderson, Pearson was no less critical of intellectual pretensions than of small-town attitudes. When he expressed to Brasch his resentment at the deception New Zealand life required of him (‘What I hate is the drive to conformity, the fear of being different’),xiv Brasch perceived immediately that this plaint was also a rehearsal of an argument — ‘a sketch for an essay on N.Z. mores’ — and wrote encouragingly: ‘I would indeed like to see that when it’s written.’xv But when Pearson’s first, handwritten, draft of ‘Fretful Sleepers’ reached Brasch, he was taken aback by its length — ‘it’s not 8–9000 words, but nearer 15000’ — and read it ‘in waves of rising and falling interest’.xvi He concluded that it should be printed, although in its early draft it ‘does seem a bit long-winded and repetitive’. ‘I’d much rather wait until your return,’ he told Pearson, ‘only you can tighten up this version.’
Pearson didn’t want to wait until he was back in New Zealand to see his essay published, and he felt little inclination to rework the piece — ‘I’ve worked off my obsessions and don’t feel like any radical revision’.xvii He still felt keenly Brasch’s rejection three years earlier of his Holcroft article. But rework it he did, albeit grudgingly, and airmailed it on the 2nd of January 1952, expressing concern that ‘at the rate legislation is moving in NZ, it may soon be illegal — some of the tilts at Mr Holland you may even now have to cut’.xviii Brasch sent the sheaf of pages off to his own typist, and was delighted with the outcome:xix
I got your ms typed and have just finished reading it through, and I must say I am considerably impressed — more so I think than at the first reading . . . it now reads as a continuously developing argument . . . An excellent piece of work . . . I was struck several times by your admirable clarity and forcefulness and some very good longish yet simple sentences . . . The essay will take up very nearly half of LF . . . the only priority to you is Sargeson’s short novel, which will occupy most of one number . . . I’m afraid you will have to wait for September.
Pearson was pleased to have earned Brasch’s approval and only mildly frustrated by the delay: ‘I hope . . . Frank finds some urgent revisions to his novel before June,’ he joked in reply.xx In April he remarked to Brasch that he had thought of some minor ‘crystallisations’ to his argument, but none were that important and he was content to ‘leave the sleepers to nod until they are doused coldly in September’.xxi When the essay appeared, he wrote at once to tell Brasch how pleased he was ‘with the setting out’ and to express a hope that ‘it will stimulate some thought’.xxii ‘I don’t doubt that there will be a great deal of argument, and that I will be criticised,’ he concluded happily. It was therefore a matter of some small regret that although ‘Fretful Sleepers’ caused a stir amongst readers of Landfall, few of these seemed personally affronted by anything Pearson argued. Indeed, most readers appeared to welcome it as if it referred to anyone but them.
The main effect of the essay was to kick open a number of doors Pearson had been knocking upon, and admit him to the inner circle of New Zealand’s left-wing commentators. From being simply a promising writer of fiction, he had become with a single essay a leading voice of social criticism.
Paul Millar's No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson is published by Auckland University Press.
Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas About Ourselves, is published by Activity Press, and can be purchased from the Public Address Store.
With the kind permission of Donald Stenhouse 'Fretful Sleepers' is available to read here as part of the Great New Zealand Argument series