Owen Marshall, Grahame Sydney and Brian Turner (Photo: Supplied; design work by Tina Tiller)
Owen Marshall, Grahame Sydney and Brian Turner (Photo: Supplied; design work by Tina Tiller)

BooksNovember 3, 2020

The three stooges: Owen Marshall on his mates

Owen Marshall, Grahame Sydney and Brian Turner (Photo: Supplied; design work by Tina Tiller)
Owen Marshall, Grahame Sydney and Brian Turner (Photo: Supplied; design work by Tina Tiller)

Today Owen Marshall, Grahame Sydney and Brian Turner release a big hardback book called Landmarks. A braiding of essays, paintings and poems, it’s a companion title to the trio’s Timeless Land, published in 1995. It’s a tribute to place, but it’s also about low-key, enduring friendship, as Marshall explains. 

In her emails to us, Harriet Allan, our publisher at Penguin Random House, sometimes refers to Brian, Grahame and myself as the three stooges. I like to think it’s a reference to our mutual involvement and tenacity rather than age and present relevance! Our friendship was celebrated in 1995 with the collaborative publication of Timeless Land and now, 25 years later with Landmarks, another tribute to the lower South Island – especially Central Otago. This second book retains the core intentions of the first, but differs in that Grahame provides a prose piece as well as the magnificent paintings, Brian an insightful ecological essay to accompany the lyricism of his poetry, and I have smuggled in a few poems as well as short stories.

The friendship, however, goes back far beyond 1995 and has more personal richness than just joint publications. I first met Brian in 1981 when I held the writing fellowship at Canterbury University. I had sent off a collection of short fiction to several publishers without success, until being welcomed by Brian, at that time editor for John McIndoe Ltd in Dunedin. I still recall his first telephone call: the laconic delivery that disguises the shrewd judgement, sensitivity and personal commitment that I have come to know well. I met Grahame a few years later after he sent me a letter saying that during his training rides to Portobello with the “pedalling poet”, they had talked of my work, and that he was happy with Brian’s suggestion that one of his paintings be used on the cover of my third book. Reaching out in this way is typical of Grahame’s generosity and support for others.

I was the late addition of course. Brian and Grahame had a longer connection, being aware of each other in Dunedin as youngsters and becoming friends after Grahame returned to Dunedin to live in 1983, when they discovered a mutual interest in competitive road cycling, often training together several days each week. 

Our friendship deepened when in 1992 I held the Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. We saw each other often. It was Grahame who arranged for me to stay with artist and illustrator, Jenny Cooper, close to his own home in Logie Street. On Friday evenings I often joined Brian, his brother Glenn, and others to drink Guinness at a Caversham hotel, and I was a regular visitor to Grahame’s cavernous studio in High Street, above an engine reconditioning business, the workers of which referred to Grahame as Chief Big Sky. Obviously they knew his work.

The front cover of Landmarks; the painting is Rural Delivery (2012) by Grahame Sydney (Image: Supplied)

Over the years we have visited each other often, become familiar with each other’s families, beliefs and idiosyncrasies, and acquired many memories in common. Brian would arrive often with a racing bike in the car, prepared for a riding contest; Grahame first drove a Mazda Bongo van, but more recently a Lexus SUV. I recall a reading tour with Brian in Central during which I contracted campylobacter and had to beat a stricken retreat, a visit to Janet Frame’s derelict Willowglen home in Ōamaru with Grahame, a party at which I met Ralph Hotere, meals together at vineyards, trips into the backcountry, walks together in the tussock hills, New Year celebrations. We meet at festivals and launches as well as privately. Grahame and I were both winners at the 2000 Montana Book Awards and a few years later I was able as a fiction finalist to congratulate Brian on receiving the premier award for poetry.

A highlight was the publicity tour we did for Timeless Land accompanied by the 60 Minutes television crew headed by Ross Stevens. There were occasions of conventional success and also moments of Monty Pythonesque absurdity. Grahame recalls an instance of the latter in this way: “One notable event was at the St Bathans Vulcan Hotel. An extensive maildrop made sure all the locals within a wide radius were advised of the lunchtime launch, at which each of us would speak, but when the time came, not one local turned up. There we were, we three, the 60 Minutes crew, the publisher, a few hangers-on and an audience of none. We went ahead and delivered our speeches to the empty room, one after another, and Roy Colbert later told me I had delivered my address with the fly of my jeans wide open.”

Both Brian and Grahame have long associations with Central Otago and both have ended up living there. Grahame built a house and studio in the old gold mining settlement at Cambrian Valley in 1999 and Brian shifted to a home in Ōtūrehua, only 25 kilometres away, at much the same time. I have lived in Tīmaru for 33 years and Ōamaru for 20 before that. The south of the south is my beat. I don’t claim the intimate knowledge my friends have of Central, but I visit often, and in 2013 my wife Jackie and I spent a full year in Alexandra at the lovely Henderson House, which hosts a New Zealand artist each year. While there I went on Thursdays to the Muddy Creek Cafe to meet up with Brian, fellow poet Michael Harlow, and occasional others, and often saw Grahame and his wife, Fiona, in Alex, or Cambrian Valley.

We three don’t live in each others’ pockets, but enjoy companionship when it’s possible and keep in touch by email when it’s not. We can differ without resentment, having so much in common, including a love for our region, a sense of responsibility and privilege concerning it, and an urge to investigate life through our individual crafts.

Timeless Land was a celebration of the south and also an expression of our friendship, shared concerns and attitudes. We hope that Landmarks, 25 years on, will be the same. 

Landmarks, by Owen Marshall, Grahame Sydney and Brian Turner (RHNZ Godwit, $75), is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. 

Keep going!