I read my friend Kevin Ireland’s memoir of Frank Sargeson (How Far Is Friendship, November) with great interest. Frank has had some odd things said about him in recent years, so I was glad to see Kevin putting the record straight on the matter of his attitude sexually to the young males who visited him at Esmonde Road. He was not – as I, too, can testify – predatory.
It must have been towards the end of the 60s that my wife Cushla and I ran into Frank in town, just before seven one Thursday evening. He was on his way to the Peking cafe to have his weekly meal with an old mate called Jack. Why didn’t we join them? Frank asked.
Jack, who looked like a version of Holbein’s drawing of John Fisher, was a pensioner who had a room in town and was in the habit of ringing Frank every evening at seven to report on his day – a litany of misadventure, ill-health and bad luck, but enlivened for Frank with the occasional comment of startling originality or unexpected insight.
Having been present when Frank received one of these calls, I will never forget the solicitude and lack of condescension with which he responded, and also his unselfconsciousness in front of me. When the tales of woe finally ran out, Frank said, “Ah, well, Jack, thank you for calling and all my love to you.”
At the meal table, Jack didn’t have much to say for himself. He was shy, a solitary, and when he did speak he was difficult to hear. Frank, however, seemed to have no difficulty in understanding him and occasionally cackled with laughter at something Jack said.
Meanwhile, conversation, as it tended to do in Frank’s company, ducked and dived all over the place, until inevitably sex reared its ugly head; something to do with an official insensitivity (which we all deplored) towards those whose orientation deviated from True North.
Cushla, who had she been a boy would have had to have been called Frank, suddenly said, “Frank! Are you queer?”
My heart sank, but a look of pure glee spread over his face. Up came his index finger. It rubbed the side of his nose. He leaned across the table and his little white goatee pointed horizontally. “I’m a gerontophile,” he said.
“What does that mean?” said Cushla.
“It means that I only fall for people older than myself. Which is all right, except that when you get to my age the supply starts diminishing fast.”
That seemed to put the situation plainly, but nothing with Frank was ever quite that simple. On another later occasion, he and I were talking about Janet Frame, whom I had first met in the 50s, when she was living in Frank’s army hut at the back of his section.
“I loved that girl,” he said. “They’ll never know the half of it.”
Anthony StonesOxford, England