A life of Bill Pearson

No Fretful Sleepers (subtitled A life of Bill Pearson, by Paul Millar, AUP, 2010) was a surprise and much appreciated gift by a reader of 'Letters from Wetville' called Christopher who was the fortunate owner of two copies. This feature, combined with being on bed rest for a nasty chest infection, meant that I read the book entirely to the end, when I am prone to skipping bits of literary biographies. I am glad I did. There is something satisfying about this book which I would have missed had I foundered on the sections filled with who Pearson had tea with in London and who else wrote him a letter about the price of milk (oops, the price of publishing Coal Flat).

I knew nothing of Paul Millar before I began this book. In the photograph on the back dust jacket, he has his arms folded and his face, neither smiling nor frowning, seems deliberately closed to the reader. I didn't warm to his image, suspecting a writer given towards postmodern theory. If you are still reading this and the term 'postmodern' means nothing to you, dare I suggest that it is a movement which began by challenging notions of singular truths and quickly moved into competitions to make the longest and most obfuscating sentences of theoretical wankery and nonsense in the history of the English language.

Thankfully, No Fretful Sleeper: a life of Bill Pearson is in no way an exercise in conceptual posturing.

The book begins and ends with the scattering of Pearson's ashes. Some of them are buried with his parents, surely in the Presbyterian section of the cemetery very close to us, some are scattered in the highlands of Scotland and some are scattered, by Pearson's specific request, under some trees by the entrance to Greymouth High School. Although this was not widely (if at all) known before the publication of Millar's biography of Pearson, moves are now afoot to make a lasting visible commemoration of Pearson's connection with the school.

Pearson was born in 1922, to parents who valued education and had experience of economic disasters preventing the pursuit of academic learning. Pearson was forever grateful to the Labour Government which enabled him to go to university.

How much is this book the life of a West Coaster? There is a modesty, a determined ordinariness to this man who went on to travel the world, write scholarly articles, short stories and a novel and earnt the merit of a handsome published biography. His story could be the story of a boy made good from any small or smallish town in New Zealand but for his experiences in Blackball and his re-rendering them in his novel Coal Flat. Blackball was a unique place, then especially as well as now and in Coal Flat he lays the politics alongside the grinding pettiness of small-minded squabbling.

Reading this biography, I'm not entirely sure that the endless rifts, squabbles and differences in the academic and literary worlds Pearson later inhabited were notably superior to the nastiness of small town judgementalism which drove him crazy as a very young man.

The book gave me a powerful insight into the strictures of finding oneself homosexual even in the quite recent past. Millar paints a portrait of a man touchingly sincere. This quote, relating to Pearson and Hone Tuwhare, struck me particularly:
Hone's apparent offhandednessabout his marriage was particularly galling.
As a homosexual denied such an opportunity, Pearson tended to idealise the
marriages of heterosexual friends, and was saddened when some failed. (p.251)

In my eagerness to place exactly which house Pearson lived in in our small wet town as a child, I picked up an error in that 51 High Street is changed to both 135 and 138 in the biography.

This book is carefully and thoroughly indexed, a wonderful thing to me after a frustrating lack of, or glibness of, indexing in non-fiction I've read lately. I guess it comes down to money. The photographs are wonderful too.

The posturing of postmodern language games which I bemoaned at the beginning of this review is something which I don't miss at all. It didn't dominate my experiences as a postgraduate student, but where it was prominent, it sometimes demonstrated what I thought was a nasty piece of pyramid-shaped linguistic gymnastics. Only the most theoretically adept and fulsome of vocabulary could work out what was actually being said.

The larger project of postmodernism (as I saw it) was a destabilising of the canon of big men of literature (or history or science or whatever) and the recognition of many voices. Bill Pearson was not the classical big man of New Zealand life or literature. His secret of homosexuality clung to his back like an invisible hump weighing his walking into a stoop. It saddens me (when it isn't making me angry) to know of the homophobia which still exists in New Zealand and most dangerously those who claim that their God so needs us in nuclear boxes procreating that we must strike out all diversity which does not lead to conventional heterosexual marriage.

Pearson comes across as a man who loved his friends, who demonstrated valuable insights into New Zealand life and literature. He also comes across as flawed, anxious and often unable to see the bigger picture in a challenging situation. He is an interesting person, though a less skilled biographer may have struggled to bring that out.

It's a good book, and I'm glad that my current obsessions with West Coast life prompted me to read it. Next stop: Eric Beardsley's novel 1908, based around the 1908 miners' strike. Also the name Jeffrey Paparoa Holman recurs throughout my reading so it is time to find out more about him.


Paul Millar said…
Hi Sandra,

"Google Alerts" alerted me to your blog. So a note to say thanks for the generous and thoughtful comments about my biography of Bill Pearson.

I was very interested in your comment that Greymouth High School might be considering a visible commemoration of Bill. There are a lot of people who would be interested in such a memorial, so I will keep an eye on your blog in case more information comes to hand.

I completely missed the street number typo. I'll add it to the four others I've learned about since publication (I left Frank Sargeson alive a year longer than was seemly). I'm pretty sure the house should be 135 High Street--there's now a doctors' rooms there.

All the best
Paul Millar

PS I don't warm to my image either, so you're not alone. The closed face has nothing to do with postmodern theory, just a reluctance around cameras.
Thank you for your comments Paul. I'll keep information on the Pearson-GHS project updated here.

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