Mis­ad­ven­tures of a pioneer of gay fic­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

Dare Me! The Life and Work of Ger­ald Glaskin By John Bur­bidge Monash Univer­sity Press, 329pp, $34.95 JOHN Bur­bidge’s ar­rest­ing ti­tle, Dare Me!, refers both to the book’s sub­ject, ‘‘The Life and Works of Ger­ald Glaskin’’, and to the risk the au­thor has taken in re­search­ing and writ­ing a full-scale bi­og­ra­phy of an Aus­tralian writer who is scantly known.

Robert Dessaix’s pref­ace rails against this ne­glect: ‘‘It is as if Ger­ald Glaskin lived out his tu­mul­tuous and pro­lific life as a writer on the far side of the moon.’’ (As Bur­bidge con­tends, Glaskin’s birth in Western Aus­tralia and even­tual re­set­tling there amounted to the kind of cul­tural ex­ile that Dessaix’s metaphor sug­gests.)

For Dessaix, Glaskin was ‘‘the mas­ter of both charm and vit­riol’’. He re­gards No End to the Way (pub­lished in 1965 un­der the pseu­do­nym Neville Jack­son) as one of the ear­li­est and most im­por­tant of Aus­tralian gay nov­els. Dessaix sets the bar high for Bur­bidge when he says of Dare Me! that ‘‘the bi­og­ra­phy of a very sin­gu­lar man, it is also the por­trait of a na­tion’’.

The book be­gins and ends at Glaskin’s beloved Cottes­loe Beach, fre­quented with plea­sure through­out his life, but also the site of

June 21-22, 2014 an ar­rest (scan­dalous in Perth) for nude bathing and of a 1967 surf­ing ac­ci­dent that left him in a neck brace for the fi­nal 33 years of his life.

Glaskin seems to have courted mis­ad­ven­ture, whether in his ho­mo­sex­ual en­gage­ments, phys­i­cal mishaps that in­cluded (in a some­what ex­ag­ger­ated ver­sion) nearly los­ing an arm in an ac­ci­dent while serv­ing in the navy dur­ing World War II and in his ran­corous and ul­ti­mately prof­it­less feuds with lit­er­ary agents, the Aus­tralia Coun­cil, the Aus­tralian So­ci­ety of Au­thors, let alone in many per­sonal en­mi­ties.

Glaskin raged against ‘‘the cult of the mo­ron’’ in his na­tive Aus­tralia, but af­ter long so­journs in Sin­ga­pore as a stock­bro­ker (when he wrote his best fic­tion) and in Hol­land with var­i­ous lovers (among them his long-term part­ner, Leo van de Pas), he even­tu­ally proved that — with what mis­giv­ings and tri­als — you can go home again.

Hav­ing com­mit­ted to writ­ing Glaskin’s life, Bur­bidge was both pleased and dis­mayed that there was ‘‘a paper trail that would make even the most earnest re­searcher gasp for air’’. Al­though he never met Glaskin, Bur­bidge in­ter­viewed nu­mer­ous ac­quain­tances. Van de Pas was par­tic­u­larly help­ful. Bur­bidge poses the ques­tion of whether the game was worth the can­dle. Was Glaskin ‘‘just a third-rate writer who had an early flash-in-the-pan suc­cess he could not sus­tain?’’

In fact, the ca­reer was sus­tained and var­ied. Glaskin wrote ‘‘fic­tion and non­fic­tion, for adults and chil­dren, nov­els, short sto­ries, novel­las, mem­oirs, plays for stage and tele­vi­sion, even a mu­si­cal’’. Add to this a tril­ogy of books on para­psy­chol­ogy, many un­pub­lished manuscripts. Even though he re­garded Patrick White as ‘‘an old lady sit­ting with her knit­ting’’, he asked to write a screen­play of The Twyborn Af­fair. White po­litely de­clined: ‘‘The ac­tor is the chief dif­fi­culty and if there is such a per­son, he will come to light in time — I am bid­ing mine.’’

The el­dest of seven chil­dren, Glaskin would cast him­self as ‘‘the man­ag­ing older brother’’. Bur­bidge en­gag­ingly re­lates the story of the first among sib­lings. One pre­dictable el­e­ment was Glaskin’s sense of his fam­ily’s in­grat­i­tude for fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance, an­other the dis­dain with which a cou­ple of broth­ers re­acted to his com­ing out.

Glaskin’s fi­nan­cial pro­bity, if not his sex­ual ad­ven­tur­ing, may have been in re­ac­tion to his fa­ther, Gil­bert, who was sacked for em­bez­zle­ment and had chil­dren by one of his sis­ters-in­law. Dead­pan, Bur­bidge tells us of Glaskin’s sex­ual awak­en­ing: ‘‘Boy Scout camps are no­to­ri­ously fer­tile grounds for sex­ual en­light­en­ment.’’

Then came the navy. Sin­ga­pore de­manded more dis­cre­tion; Hol­land gave more lee­way. Al­though he would treat van de Pas poorly at times, the re­la­tion­ship en­dured, partly be­cause of Glaskin’s abid­ing fear of lone­li­ness.

While Bur­bidge tells us a good deal about Glaskin’s sales (850,000 copies for Flight to Land­fall, 1963) and his pub­lish­ers (es­pe­cially James Bar­rie, great-nephew and god­son of the in­ven­tor of a char­ac­ter with whom the hand­some Glaskin may have felt affin­ity, Peter Pan), more about the books would have been wel­come. Glaskin’s first novel, A World of Our Own (1955) was ac­cepted on the rec­om­men­da­tion of CP Snow, who wrote ‘‘I fancy he might be­come an im­por­tant nov­el­ist, and cer­tainly the best spokesman of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian so­ci­ety’’.

If nei­ther pre­dic­tion was fully re­alised, Glaskin not only pi­o­neered gay fic­tion, but was also the first post­war Aus­tralian nov­el­ist to turn to Asia as a set­ting. That ori­en­ta­tion is usu­ally dated from Christo­pher Koch’s Across the Sea Wall (1965), but Glaskin pre­ceded him with works of imag­i­na­tive and po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thy: A Lion in the Sun (1960) and The Beach of Pas­sion­ate Love (1961).

Vividly pre­sented in the many cir­cum­stances of a war­ring but pro­duc­tive life, Glaskin has well mer­ited Bur­bidge’s en­ter­tain­ing and scrupu­lous at­ten­tion.

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