If you had to fit your most valued possessions into a shoebox, what would you include? Photos and jewellery? Legal documents and passport? Perhaps a letter or birthday card with sentimental value?
In his final years, Glynn began a diary so that he could tell his story in his own words. He knew he had probably waited too long to get this project underway, and he confessed to being horrified by the impact that meningitis was having on his writing, but he pressed on regardless: “I’ve held onto this NEED [sic] to tell my story for far too long,” his first diary entry records.
I received an extraordinary gift while researching Michael Glynn’s story. It’s a dark blue shoebox, no more than 34cm long and 13cm deep. Glynn’s final diary is inside this shoebox, together with a collection of letters from significant friends and family, photos, postcards, chapters from an unfinished novel, Glynn’s last will and testament, and most endearingly, a farewell note to Philip Ritchie, his ‘blood brother’.
“Goodbye. God bless. I love you,” Glynn wrote to Ritchie. “P.S. Dance on my grave!”
The gift of Glynn’s shoebox draws attention to core questions about the construction of life stories. It reminds us of how the sources of biographical information materially shape the telling of a life story; how serendipity and coincidence play their part; and how multiple points of view make it impossible to assign a single and reliable meaning to shared memories and events.
And if we can consider the shoebox as a kind of curated text, we might also consider what’s not included.
Glynn spoke rarely about his biological family. And when he did, it was less than truthful. For example, Glynn gave Richard Turner to believe that his father was in the army, and this might have served as a convenient explanation for the silence between father and son.
What to make, then, of the black and white photo in Glynn’s shoebox of someone called Shawn Masters, billed as the “World’s Most Fantastic Hypnotist”? The photo, and the extraordinary claim to fame, was printed on a small, cream-coloured brochure that advertised the Shawn Masters Show, Sunday thru Thursday, $1.50, at the Villa Marina Restaurant overlooking Beautiful Balboa Bay.
I put that question aside for a moment and lingered instead over Glynn’s American passport, issued in May 1970. It confirmed Glynn’s age (22 years old), height (6 feet 2 inches), hair colour (brown) and eyes (hazel). The passport photo showed a handsome young man with long side-burns and a puppy-fat face. Weirdly, though, the construction of Glynn’s face and the look in his eye seemed remarkably similar to the man in the Shawn Masters brochure. But no, that can’t be ...
Then I started reading a letter from Glynn to his half brother, and it became apparent that the pseudonymous Shawn Masters was none other than Glynn’s father, no more a military man than Glynn was. He was a showman. What’s more, father and son travelled together to Australia in 1971 to perform the Shawn Masters Show in a long-gone nightclub in Coogee. Theirs was a brief reunion that promised so much but ended badly, for reasons Glynn refused to discuss.
Soon after he left the Star, Glynn tried his hand at writing a novel. It’s not especially good, and only one unfinished chapter survives him, but it nevertheless confirms the fact that Glynn viewed his life as a story worth telling.
“I began the beguine, the dance of life, on a cold windswept morning in April 1948,” he wrote in this unfinished novel. “Getting born is easy. Staying alive is the trick. Somehow my mother and I made it to New York City the year after I was born. Why New York and not California, I’ll never know. I often wonder whether I would be as deranged as I am, or more so, if I had grown-up in sun-drenched California. The narrow canyons of metropolis never did suit me, and years later, when I became of age to test my own wings, I flew north to a very proper Boston which became jumping off place for the long journey to the land Down Under. But I’m getting ahead of myself.”
Most of the people I interviewed during my research for Preaching to the Perverted described Glynn as an angry man. But they were unable to pinpoint the source of this anger, or understand why Glynn was so volatile. Glynn was short-tempered and often self-righteous. His editorials in the Star feel as they were written by a preacher and delivered as sermons from the mount. So it was unsurprising to discover that Glynn’s father, the hypnotist showman Shawn Masters, had become a self-styled minister of religion in his later years.
Unquestionably, Glynn’s adult life was shaped by his commitment to the Star, his love for Steven Cribb and later, for Philip Ritchie, his passion for leather, and his search for a gay brotherhood. As I sifted through the shoebox and became aware of the intimate details of Glynn’s life, I imagined I now understood some of the anger that coursed through this man. As one of Glynn’s peers theorised, Glynn’s life was an “oedipal explosion” triggered by his father’s abandonment and his mother’s rejection. That may well be so. The shoebox is a collection of fragments that invite interpretation and suggest possible meanings.
Warner’s theory of counterpublics helps articulate the significance of Glynn’s life and work. So does Sylvia Lawson’s conceptualisation of the Bulletin as a work of intimate entanglement between its editor and readers.
Warner’s view of the kind of public display of sex and sexuality that Glynn embraced so avidly through the Star, and in his personal life, points us towards the idea of transformation.
“It is often thought,” Warner writes, “especially by outsiders, that the public display of private matters is a debased narcissism, a collapse of decorum, expressivity gone amok, the erosion of any distinction between public and private.
“But in a counterpublic setting, such display often has the aim of transformation” (Warner, 2002, p. 62).
In The Archibald Paradox, Lawson also points us towards the idea of transformation by using a circus analogy to describe the Bulletin’s editorial style. “The Bulletin,” she writes, “was a parade of expressive tricks and marvels, a whole print circus” … and its editor was “a circus master” (1987, p. xviii).
I think of Glynn as a circus master. He gathered together a colourful parade of narratives about gay life and sex, death and spirituality, community and rights, political power and street violence, love, family, morality and privacy. He published and circulated these narratives, articulating the swirl and colour, the noise and magic and smell of the Sydney gay scene.
Glynn’s newspaper was like a circus big top that covered a world in creation. It was transformative. Individuals became community members; homosexual outsiders became sexual citizens with civil rights and responsibilities, political goals and spiritual dimensions. As ringleader, preacher and Master of Ceremonies, Michael Glynn stood at the centre of this world-making project.