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Review: No Fretful Sleeper

Posted in: Books
By Jay Bennie - 19th May 2010

No Fretful Sleeper - a life of Bill Pearson
Author: Paul Millar
Publisher: Auckland University Press

God, King and country were the mainstays of Bill Pearson's early life, as it was for anyone passing through childhood to early adulthood in the New Zealand of the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

It was a different time, a different place, and glimpses into the lives led by our glbt forebears who came of age in this era are sadly few and far between.

A promisingly academic pupil in Greymouth, Pearson's home life was troubled and circumscribed. But the influences of some of his early teachers were to stand him in good stead as he blossomed into a remarkable writer, researcher and academic.

Bill Pearson
Yet young Bill Pearson was different from everyone else... he loved other young men. As he wrestled with his guilty secret he learned to deflect suspicion, dull his own self-questioning and pass for straight.

His landmark 1952 essay, a powerful social commentary titled Fretful Sleepers, is to this day considered one of the best ever pieces of New Zealand writing. It contains the remarkably bleak central observation: "There is no place in normal New Zealand society for the man who is different."

The layers of barriers Bill Pearson created around his inner self stayed with him more or less to his dying day in 2002, despite accepting his homosexuality, enjoying a long-term on again, off again relationship and infusing his writing (the early drafts at least) with references to homosexual themes. In fact it emerges that those protective layers were so impenetrable they stunted his literary creativity. The man who wanted all his life to be a novelist wrote just one major work of fiction, the truly great 1963 novel Coal Flat - a no-holds-barred dissection of the life and mores of a small New Zealand town. It's a wonderful and searing read, a tantalising glimpse of what Pearson's true potential was.

As he rose to high levels of academic research at the University of Auckland and overseas, Bill Pearson held his own amongst the bitch-slapping egos of NZ's literary greats and was even an agent of social and racial change for the better. Yet, as painted by biographer Millar, he never quite managed to break out of his own fortifications.

Millar brings Pearson, small town New Zealand, literary academia and the agonies of being different to vivid life in this beautifully written and deeply researched book. If you ever wondered what it was like to be gay in grey, pre-gay lib New Zealand, what it was like to be homosexual amidst the macho turmoil of world war, perhaps what life was like for that quietly unmarried uncle or aunt most extended families harbour, No Fretful Sleeper will give you much insight and some cause for optimism.

Those of us who came of age in the 1970s and rode the wave of social change and law reform, and more so those who came along after, can hardly imagine a time when the censorious weight of whole world bore down on those who were different.

We can learn a lot from Bill Pearson, as depicted by Millar. His literary output may have slackened and his self doubts never quite disappeared, yet this deep-thinking pixie-ish man got on with a remarkable life and along the way made a real difference to the lives of people around him and many more who never knew him.

No Fretful Sleeper is essential, compelling reading for every glbt person, regardless of age or life experience, in New Zealand.

- Jay Bennie

Jay Bennie - 19th May 2010

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