By JOHN BURBIDGE
This is a slightly edited version of the Preface to John Burbidge’s recently published biography of Gerald Glaskin, Dare Me!, The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin (MUP, 2014) followed by his brief resume of Glaskin’s published work.
Some years ago, reading an anthology of Australian gay and lesbian writing edited by Robert Dessaix, I was stopped short by his reference to the novel No End to the Way by Neville Jackson. What caught my attention was Dessaix’s assertion that the book was ‘in a real sense…the first Australian gay novel’, coupled with qualifiers like ‘astounding’ and ‘remarkable’. But what really hooked me was the fact that the book was set in 1960s Perth, and the implication that its author presumably hailed from that city around that time as well.
I had grown up in 1960s Perth and was acquainted with the work of a number of local writers, but I had never heard of Neville Jackson or this ostensibly groundbreaking novel of his. Furthermore, as a gay man surely I would have caught a whiff of this Jackson and his writing. But this was not the case. I was intrigued and perplexed. Who was this man who dared to write about such a verboten topic and set his story in the very time and place in which I grew up? What drove him to do this? What kind of person was he? What else had he written?
When I eventually obtained a copy of the book, I found it did not have the ring of great literature, but exuded an openness and honesty about the world of male-to-male relationships that I found refreshing and compelling. The fact that the story took place in Perth during the period when I was struggling to define myself sexually was terribly important to me. Novels by other Western Australian writers like Randolph Stow and Kenneth [Seaforth] McKenzie had gone part way down this road, but this one went much farther. I later learnt that I was not alone in being deeply affected by this book. Its liberating message had left its imprint on many other young men in Australia and abroad, and continued to do so long after its publication.
Having read No End to the Way, I was even more tantalized to discover who this Jackson was and what made him tick. Repeated attempts to track him down proved futile until I discovered that Neville Jackson was a pseudonym for Gerald Marcus Glaskin. I checked all the Glaskins in the Perth telephone directory and found one G. M. Since I was living about as far from Perth as one can, I decided to wait until my next visit to arrange a meeting, but I never made contact until more than a year later. When I finally dialled Glaskin’s number and explained the purpose of my call, I was subjected to a series of questions as though I was being screened by a most determined private secretary. The polite but emphatic voice on the other end of the line identified himself as Leo van de Pas, Glaskin’s long-time partner. He regretted to inform me that Glaskin had died six months before.
If only I had not procrastinated, I might have met Glaskin. Then again, I would have been faced with a seriously ill, 76-year-old man confined to hospital for the last months of his life. I’m not sure it would have been pleasant or fruitful for either of us to have met then. I would have encountered Glaskin probably at the lowest point in his colourful and turbulent life, although undoubtedly I would have grasped something of his unbounded spirit and aggressive response to any challenge. Van de Pas invited me over for a chat about Glaskin and when I left his flat six hours later my head was spinning. Clearly, there was more to this man than I had bargained for.
My first inclination was to write an article or two about the man and his work, but this didn’t seem adequate. I’d always felt drawn to biography, so perhaps this was my chance to try my hand at one. But as soon as I resolved to do so, I was besieged by questions, many of a practical nature. As challenging as these were, they were overshadowed by one that drove me to take up the task in the first place and to pursue it against substantial odds: Why, in spite of having 20 books published in a variety of genres and subjects — some quite successfully — was Glaskin so ignored in his home country, state and city? What made Europeans buy his books, while his fellow Australians, by and large, passed them up?
As I began scouring records and contacting those who knew Glaskin, I expected answers would reveal themselves, or at least clues. Such clues often came in form of further questions. Was his lack of recognition in Australia due to his audacious, and at times, overbearing personality? Was it due to his unapologetic embracing of his homosexuality? Was he a victim of Australia’s legendary ‘tall poppy syndrome’? Was it the fact that he was from distant Western Australia and not the power centres of Australia’s eastern seaboard? Or was he just a third-rate writer who had an early flash-in-the-pan success?
In seeking answers to these questions I discovered two things. First, I encountered a writer who was as bold in his choice of subject matter as he was experimental in writing style. He enjoyed playing with structure, voice and point of view, and blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction. He worked in many genres and a variety of forms, and rarely followed up one book with a similar one, much to the chagrin of his agents and publishers. Driven to push the boundaries of acceptability, as well as to test his own writing skills, Glaskin produced a substantial body of work, albeit one of variable literary quality. But however one assesses his writing, there is little doubt that Glaskin deserves recognition as an important, groundbreaking writer for his time and place.
I also discovered a person much grander than I ever imagined — more utterly charming and stunningly beautiful, more highly articulate and creatively gifted, more hilariously funny and naturally dramatic, more deeply sensitive and personally caring, and more bitterly angry and stoically tenacious. In the process, I learned about some of the values, attitudes and prejudices of the Australian literary and cultural establishment of his day and the wider society of which he was a part, which both nurtured him and, he felt, oppressed him, so that he fought against them at times as if his very life depended on it.
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Of Glaskin’s twenty published books, twelve were fiction, seven nonfiction, and one was a mix of the two. His fiction included novels, novellas, plays and short stories, while his non-fiction ranged from memoirs to a travel book and a trilogy on lucid dreaming. Because his writing was so varied, Glaskin is a difficult author to categorise and evaluate. But the quality of his fiction is markedly superior to that of his non-fiction. As his long-time British agent, David Bolt, repeatedly told him, he was basically a first-rate storyteller, able to evoke a sense of place, create believable characters, and move a story along to keep the reader engaged.
I suspect however that Glaskin will be remembered not so much for how he wrote but what he wrote about. He liked to provoke, both as a person and an author. His choice of subject matter in many of his novels suggests this — it includes incest, homosexuality, sex with a minor, dysfunctional families, racism, youth suicide and more. It was as though he was trying to confront middle-class Australians of his day with issues most would rather not have to deal with. Through his writing, he reached out to marginalised groups in Australian society — Aboriginals, Asians, gays, young people and others — and brought them in from the periphery to the centre, often elevating them as heroes in his stories.
Indigenous Australians feature prominently in several of his novels, most notably A Waltz through the Hills (1961), his one book made into a film, after six were optioned. This story of two orphaned children who run away from their country town in an effort to reach Fremantle and stow away on a ship to England captured audiences around the world, both in print and on the screen. The hero of the story is their Aboriginal ‘guide’, Frank Smith, who stumbles across the children and leads them safely to their destination, after they survive bushfires and elude search parties. The final scene, as the children depart for England, is perhaps the most poignant. Smith tells them to ‘go and be with your own people’, to which the boy, then his sister, respond by kissing their Aboriginal friend on the cheek. A rare, if not radical, gesture.
Asians are also important as characters in several of Glaskin’s novels, as they were as people in his life. During the decade he spent in Singapore as a stockbroker, Glaskin cultivated many friendships, including his lifelong association with the Chinese writer, Han Suyin, and his frequent trips to Malaysia and Indonesia led Glaskin to develop a deep appreciation of the culture and people of this region. His two Southeast Asian-based novels, A Lion in the Sun (1960) and The Beach of Passionate Love (1961) reflect this. In Lion, set in the last days of a fading colonial power, his European, especially British, characters are portrayed in a negative light, while the Asian characters appear much more enlightened, intelligent and caring. In one highly dramatic dinner party scene, a leading British stockbroker, in a fit of drunken rage, complains to his young Chinese waiter — whom he refers to as ‘boy’ — that his steak is underdone and throws it at the young man. This appalling behaviour barely raises an eyebrow. As Glaskin notes of the stockbroker’s wife, ‘Evidently she was accustomed to such behaviour.’
Much of Glaskin’s writing is highly autobiographical, none more so that his landmark gay novel, No End to the Way, written under the pseudonym of Neville Jackson. Published in 1965 in Britain then banned in Australia for over a year for its frank portrayal of a homosexual relationship, it draws heavily on Glaskin’s own life and the gay community in 1950s–60s Perth. Several of his friends and acquaintances appear as characters in the story, not all of whom were pleased to discover this. The novel is important for a number of reasons. It drew attention to the injustices suffered by gay men, who lives were governed by fear and who were forced to live in secret. Unlike other gay novels of its era, it did not have the ‘obligatory’ tragic ending (homosexuality was a crime, hence any novel that appeared to condone it was breaking the law). Most of all, it affirmed the experience and integrity of many gay men, as judged by the enormous amount of fan mail the book generated from around the world.
While Glaskin’s writing tends to defy classification, it clearly leans towards social realism rather than internalised fiction. It is highly experiential in tone, rather than reflective and evocative, although at times Glaskin blurs these distinctions. By and large, literary critics, especially in Australia, gave him a hard time, although reviewers in the mainstream media were more generous. He never claimed to be a ‘literary writer’, but neither did he see himself as a ‘purely commercial’ one either. He was driven by themes he felt passionately about and drew from his own life and those around him to mould his stories. He left a legacy worthy of attention, one that will perhaps be judged more favourably with the passing of time than it was during his own lifetime.
Perth-born John Burbidge has lived and worked in Belgium, Canada, India and the United States. He has written and edited works on civil society, rural development and memoirs. Dare Me! Is his first biography. The photographic portrait of Glaskin is by George Britnell. You can find more information at http://www.geraldglaskin.com/ and the book is available at Monash University Publishing.