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Norris Davey, a.k.a. "Frank Sargeson"


Norris Davey was born in London St, Hamilton, on March 23, 1903, of conservative, puritanical, Methodist parents. After leaving school he took a job in a law office and began studying law extramurally.

His first great love, handsome Frank Gadd, four years older, was heterosexual. (Davey's "type" was working men, several years older than himself.) They went on a holiday together to the Bay of Islands in 1924, during which Norris struggled to express his feelings, but nothing happened. (Gadd later married Norris's sister Phyllis.) Not long after, he briefly met and admired a horse-trainer, Harry Doyle, ten years older.

After a row with his mother (she had learnt that he had made a sexual joke in a letter), he went to Auckland and then to London in 1927 where he found the opportunities he had failed to find in New Zealand. A handsome guardsman directed him to a public toilet and there revealed "the most monstrously large (and to me, as it turned out, attractive) 'thing' I had ever seen" and offered to let him do anything he liked with it for two pounds. He couldn't afford to, but he now knew what was available.

His first loving, sexual relationship was with a married 38 year old decorator, Fred Bush, whose father-in-law (!) took him out cruising. During a Continental walking tour, there was also an Italian, Carlo, with whom he stayed for several days.

On his return in 1928 (now calling himself Frank), he got a job with the Public Trust in Wellington. There he fell for another straight man, a night watchman, Don Doran (15 years older). It was about this time that he started writing in earnest.

He seems to have frequented Breaker Bay, even then a beat. In his short story "That Summer" he writes:

 "I'd go on a tram as far as it went, and then I'd walk on to a quiet bit of beach that I knew about.

...the first morning on the tram I met a bloke named Ted who was doing the same as myself. I'd meet him every day, and ... it was certainly nice to have his company.... To kick off with we'd fool about in the water, and if there was nobody around we wouldn't worry about any togs. Then we'd fool about on the beach and lie in the sand...."

These passages from "Sunset Village" (1976) seems to be based on his experience of Wellington's Mt Alfred beat:

"...Brixton ... was off this high summer evening along the road that led to the Town Belt -- that was to say a back to nature acre or so with a name that derived from many decades previously, when the city fathers as they used to be called had wisely decided that not every square foot of the territory they administered should be privately owned, either to be lived on or for commercial purposes. ...

"... this wasteland marked the point of change from a very old part of the city to the brash new suburb ... the Belt offered a quiet and pleasant means of access with its traversing pedestrian pathway ...

"... late one night a young constable had dragged him in. ... Brixton had been spotted while engaged upon a private occasion in the makeshift privacy of the Town Belt's ill-lit leafy centre. ... the arrested man's partner in pleasure had been a little bit too quick, managing to elude capture or by escaping through the Belt's dense greenery."

(The other central character in the story is lesbian.)

At night, he enjoyed "street adventures" in the bogs and beats of Wellington. In his autobiographical "Third Class Country" he writes:

"It was for example very embarrassing to meet a high officer of the Department in which I worked in a place to which he had been led by his hidden desires, but it was at the same time amusing...."

Even Lambton Quay in those dimly lit nights served as a beat. Unfortunately one of his tricks, Leonard Hollobon of Christchurch (son of the well-known landscape painter Jesse, himself a painter on breadboards, egg-cups and shells), was known to the police, who had set up a base in the next room of his boarding house. They burst in to find the two masturbating each other - "committing indecent assault".

Frank was persuaded to give evidence and allow himself to be presented as an "innocent" party. In return he received a suspended sentence; Hollobon got five years at hard labour (escaping a possible flogging) in New Plymouth prison. (He formed a long-term relationship and lived in Picton for a long time, and died in Orewa.) The two never saw each other again, and Hollobon probably never identified his disastrous trick with the increasingly famous writer.

Possibly as a condition of his sentence, Frank went to stay with his much-loved uncle Oakley Sargeson at Okahukura near Taumarunui. (Oakley may also have been homosexual, but was probably celibate, even ignorant about what two men could do.)

Two years later, forced off his uncle's farm by the Depression, he emerged as Frank Sargeson, writer. (He had lost his job with the Public Trust and could no longer practise as a solicitor.) He successfully concealed his conviction for the rest of his life, but was always fearful and suspicious of the police. (On a night train to Wellington in 1965 to accept the Katherine Mansfield Memorial award from Ngaio Marsh, finding he had to share a sleeper with a detective, he was so scared of entrapment that he slept in his overcoat.) Biographer Michael King thinks the experience - especially guilt at sacrificing Hollobon - scarred Sargeson for life.

In May 1931 he moved to the family bach at 14 Esmonde Rd, Takapuna (rebuilt in 1948), where he spent the rest of his life. He had several other short but emotional affairs, and on the Auckland waterfront in 1935 ran into Harry Doyle, now barred from the track. They remained friends and weekend lovers for the rest of Harry's life. When his health declined, Harry stayed in the bach (in a room added for him) from 1967 till a month before he died in 1971.

Another lover was Jimmy Shaw, another manual worker, but for the first time, younger than Sargeson. After Harry's death, his main man was a Kaukapakapa subsistence farmer whom Michael King identifies only as M - but Sargeson wrote about as "the McGilly man", so we can take a wild guess at his surname. M later married a much younger woman and moved away from Sargeson emotionally - but still accepted large chunks of Sargeson's diminishing capital.

As well as being New Zealand's foremost non-expatriate writer (what other country needs such a category?), Sargeson's role in our literary history is enormous as a promoter and encourager of other talents, such as Dan Davin, James K, Baxter, Charles Brasch*, Maurice Shadbolt, C. K. Stead, E. H. McCormick*, Bill Pearson*, Kevin Ireland, Maurice Duggan, "A. P. Gaskell" (Alec Pickard), and especially Jane Frame.

*also gay.

Conspicuously absent from that list is A. R. D. Fairburn, who grew increasingly homophobic and paranoid about Sargeson's success compared to his own, blaming a conspiracy by the "Green International" - green being then associated by folklore with homosexuality (pink was the colour of left-wing liberalism, and environmentalism had not yet been born).

Sargeson referred obliquely to his sexuality in his first volume of autobiography, and movingly tells the story of Carlo in his third volume, but to Alec Pickard he "'admitted' that his only source of sex was with 'servant girls and prostitutes.'"

Later he was a public supporter of homosexual law reform - but he never liked the word "gay" (offering "yag" instead - forshadowing Robert Triptow's comix parody of 1986).

He died on March 1, 1982, and his ashes are sprinkled under a loquat tree on the Esmonde Rd property, which is maintained as a literary museum.

Adapted from "Frank Sargeson - A Life" by Michael King (Viking, 1995), a lecture by and interview with Michael King, and a personal communiction from Alec Pickard.

Written by Hugh Young.

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