I read Bill Pearson’s novel ‘Coal Flat’ when it was first published in the 1960s. I found it a strange book - brilliant observation and perception, with ideas galore but they did not intertwine always well with the character or scene. Somehow it all seemed rather pointless. I sensed unease but couldn’t put my finger on it.
I knew that Blackball area where the novel is set on the West Coast relatively well. My first wife’s married sister lived in Greymouth. We’d explored the coal and gold mining hinterland pretty thoroughly, even attending the opening of Shantytown the local tourist attraction. So I felt Pearson’s descriptions of place were accurate.
It must be recalled it was an era in which we were waiting for the great New Zealand novel. A foolish thought now. But at the time a pressing issue. Hilliard’s ‘Maori Girl’ was good but it wasn’t gold medal class. Neither was ‘Coal Flat’.
On a weekend visit to Auckland shortly after I’d read the novel I found myself at a party with a group of Auckland academics. I learnt that Pearson was a homosexual and had greatly altered the novel to remove traces of that sexual orientation. The debate about the merits of the novel raged and ranged over me as I sat thinking about this missing piece of the jig-saw, re-assessing the evidence. I was a rather naïve young man.
In today’s more tolerant society it’s hard to recall the intolerance and homophobia of those far-away days. I’m reading at present Paul Millar’s ‘No Fretful Sleeper’ a life of Pearson. I’ve just read a chilling piece. Pearson saw a psychiatrist in London who told him to accept his homosexuality and get on with his life. The reply, he was on the verge of returning to a very puritan society. I’ve learnt of the great pains Pearson took not to reveal his sexual orientation. What a hell of a strain that must have been.
I’m only half-way through. It is one of those biographical reads that leaves me ambivalent. The plough has been put in very deeply. The facts need winnowing. For example, at the beginning I felt I did not need to know all the detail about the numerous uncles and aunts – family traits and origins yes, but this bewildering array caused confusion. The opening chapter was definitely not a prologue to grab my attention.
Why would I want to read about Pearson? The conflict between the individual and the society in which he found himself is in itself an enthralling narrative. I felt Millar could have spent less time on the detail – there is huge amount of it – of the life and present a wider perspective.
For a younger reader the nature of that puritan society needs spelling out. Even to me it seems an alien society and I took part in the six-o-clock swill. It was an era of double standards. [The historian in me asks was there ever an era which didn’t have them]. Culturally it might have been dour but I recollect we laughed a lot. But then I saw the fear beneath the veneer with the Parker/Hulme murder case. I can understand Pearson’s paranoia.
Having had my gripe about the book I enjoyed reading about Pearson’s boyhood and education in Greymouth. It’s a vanished era. The Protestant/Catholic rivalry on the time was a huge force to be reckoned with. Then his army experiences, J force after the Pacific and the Middle East with its strange soldier camaraderie. I’m left with the feeling Millar finds this hard to understand. I suspect it’s an experience that’s hard to grasp unless you are actually been there.
Millar's descriptions of the Canterbury University English department in the late 1940s - a decade before I studied there – ring true; as does his account of the same department in Auckland a decade later. He captures well the feeling of that bunch of academic prima donnas. It was a time when academics prided themselves on being idiosyncratic.
I sense happiness of a sort ahead – I’m just up to Pearson joining the Maori club where I understand his acceptance gave him a community. But up till now the loneliness of the man is the thing that strikes this reader. I think that needs more teasing out but I accept I could be wrong.
Most people seem to like this life. I still wait to be persuaded of Pearson’s importance. But maybe I’m committing the criticism I've complained about in the past – of reviewing the book that I wanted, not the book that is. And I go back to an old argument, which I use to justify my periodic biographical binges. Any life has its own interest.
The 2018 Book Council Lecture
2 days ago