Brian Turner. Portrait by Jim Tannock

Brian Turner and the open space

Ardent disciple of mountain, valley, river and sky, Brian Turner is one of New Zealand’s most celebrated poets. Michelle Langstone travelled to his central Otago home to meet and hear the man who commands the language of the landscape.

The landscape starts speaking to you from the turnoff on to the Ida Valley-Omakau Road. It’s just over 33 kilometres of bitumen that stretches out in the Autumn sun, a dark stripe running through the golden morning, the Central Otago fields burnished, light hitting the backs of sheep in the fields, making them glow. The hills have gone to pale gold and the sky is vast across the dry valley – no clouds, no rain to speak of, barely a hint of blue.

Driving to Oturehua, home of Brian Turner, poet laureate, prolific author, sportsman and conservationist, I feel the mechanism of his poems turn inside me, feel the clunk as they sink deeper into my body. In this landscape, which he has devoted the last 20 years of his life to describing, I understand the words, and the way he presents them – unsentimental, wry, deeply felt – in a new way. He is talking to me, and the landscape is talking to me, before we even meet.

The smell,
the taste of air from the mountains,
off flats where the river runs from somewhere north to somewhere south
and the sky’s forever

From ‘Van Morrison in Central Otago’, Elemental, 2012

Turner’s directions to his home are sent via a publicist for the Auckland Writers Festival, where he will appear as the honoured writer next month. “Oturehua’s a small town. Thirty to 40 people only,” the directions begin. The town in the heart of the Ida Valley has grown a bit since some new residents moved in, but it’s still that one main stretch of road running through with houses dotted along its sides, Gilchrist’s general store on your left, the old hotel and pub on your right, some sports fields, and the Maniototo Plain beckoning in the distance. “You cannot get lost in Oture,” are Turner’s last words.

His house is a red sort of yellow, squat amongst the trees and shrubs, curtained and quiet. The Idaburn river that runs behind the property is silent. The hinge on the gate squeals as I push it open. Through the window I see the shadow of someone moving through the rooms, and when I knock I feel as if I’m disturbing the entire town. Turner opens the door, his expression implacable, his wild white hair just managing to remain orderly, his jersey a hand knit of oatmeal and brown. He ushers me in, and moves quietly behind me, looking for something. The first and lasting impression of the writer’s home is the way the profusion of books seems to create the bones of the house itself. There are hundreds and hundreds of them on shelves around the sitting room, stacked neatly with their spines out, or laid in careful piles on sideboards, onward and upward. It’s like a miniature library, with soft armchairs among the words, and a table in the corner, where yet more books, and notebooks, decorate the surface.

“Have a look, show yourself around,” Turner says with polite caution, gesturing into the doorways leading off the main room. I poke my head around the door to his bedroom, which he declares the place “where everything happens” and there are more books, a bed heaped with blankets, and newspaper clippings stuck on the walls. The kitchen is tidy – potatoes sitting neat in a frypan for a breakfast I may have interrupted. The spare rooms hold yet more books, the back of a door displays a huge Hone Tuwhare poster; everything is crowded with life, but ordered. We complete the circuit of his compact home, Turner offering explanations as we go, before settling into chairs at the corner table, where sunlight noses through the pale curtains, making a glass jam jar filled with pens gleam.

For a minute I can’t think where to start. His house is talking to me. His books are speaking, the land around us feels like it’s listening in, and everything feels so alive it catches me unawares. I have come to interview a 77-year-old veteran of language and observation, and I have lost the ability to speak. Turner smooths his hair, and I turn the pages of my notebook and they crackle. He’s been our poet laureate, won as many awards as you can name, he’s represented New Zealand in hockey, been a rabbiter, a cyclist, an editor, a caddy and a mountaineer, and now he’s being honoured at the writers festival, in an event that feels a little bit like the literary version of This Is Your Life. It’s a huge life, a life steeped in the elements he explores and pores over, this unapologetic Southlander with a droll wit and devotion to his part of the world. He’s known for being self-effacing but I ask him anyway: “What’s it like, being an honoured writer?” “I’ll tell you afterwards!” he says, and laughs gruffly. “Yes – how does one conduct oneself? I never imagined that such an event would take place. In our family we would often turn things down rather than having to front. We lived in a ‘self praise is no recommendation’ situation.”

Turner’s upbringing in Dunedin has been widely examined in his work, perhaps most memorably in his 2002 memoir Somebodies and Nobodies, which explores growing up in an unusual family with an eccentric and rather brilliant father, a witty mother, and brothers Glenn and Greg, famous in their respective cricket and golfing careers. Ask him if he liked his upbringing and his common response is “Oh hell yeah” before he elaborates. His affection for his family is all through him. Just mentioning them puts Turner in a retrospective mood; acknowledging the way he was raised seems to send him back in time, recounting his childhood and drifting on those memories: “We had an upbringing the like of which I can’t imagine many other people had the good fortune to have had. They [his parents] both brought us up in ways that I have deep gratitude to them. When Dad got his two week holidays they carted us all over the South Island. We went to the Milford Sound, the Eglinton Valley, and I got keen on trout fishing in the Leith and all around it. So in the weekends, on the Sunday, we would go through inland Otago and so on, and I just loved Central Otago and the tussock grasslands.”

Turner is still in love with those tussock grasslands, and with the Otago landscape in all its diversity. It’s clear that love for the great wide open was seeded in him at a young age, in the same way that sport was. It was probably inevitable he’d end up playing several codes, with a dad who was a first class cricket umpire and cycling coach, and a brother playing professional cricket for England by the time he was 20. Turner represented New Zealand in hockey, and he’s not bad at cricket and cycling either, but it’s less clear how that wiry, fit youngster turned into a poet. I ask him about the link between the two, and his grave expression takes on a kind of twinkle. “I don’t know. It’s a condition, and there’s not much you can do about it!” He then tells me he loved reading poetry at school, and I wonder aloud if there are crossovers in the discipline of physicality and the discipline of language, and he nods vigorously. “It’s partly an art – you’ve got to have good technique, you’ve got to persist, you’ve got to train hard. If you’re going to write anything, there’s only one way to do it – you do it.” It helped that he had a father a bit in love with words, too. Lacking an education, but thirsty for knowledge “My father would deliberately try to choose words he didn’t know, or hadn’t learned within a context before.”

He reaches across the table and picks up several of the 3B1 notebooks scattered around. “I started scribbling in notebooks … I was probably about 20. And I got a job early with the New Zealand branch of Oxford University Press, then I started to write quite seriously. I just had notebooks with me all the time.” He opens one of the books, turning the pages with his big hands, examining the handwriting carefully. “I call them my commonplace books. They’re full of quotes from other people’s work. And whenever I had an idea or a thought, or something I wanted to recall I would just write in these. There are lots of these notebooks.” He’s never stopped carrying them with him, and even now at 77, they accompany him everywhere. He chuckles when he tells me he likes to eavesdrop on conversations in cafes, because you always hear something interesting you might want to use later. He’s always been curious about nature – both in people, and in the landscapes he inhabits.

Photograph: Gilbert van Reenen

Turner moved to Oturehua in 1999, and since then he’s devoted much of his work to revealing the environment and its many guises. His work is specific and elemental, his poems are odes to simplicity – to fish, to rivers, to mountains, to seasons and clouds. He’s also very funny, and frank about the kind of lifestyle he leads:

Oturehua
is no place to gawp. Celebrities don’t stop here to shop
hence there’s no paparazzi, and tinsel’s short-lived
though jazzy in a nor’wester.

The glamour’s in the land
and skies and what they nourish
within. The real troubadours
are wind and water and sunshine
and the brilliance of the starlight.

You’ll not find beggars or buskers here, and if
you’re wanting botoxing you’ll be shit out of luck
unless a bit of filler from the garage
would do…

From ‘Oturehua’, Boundaries, 2015

I ask him if his relationship to the environment has changed as he has aged, and he’s definitive: “No. Landscapes, skyscapes, cloud formations and so on, have always entranced me. I love the wide open spaces. Always have done, since the time we started going on Sundays in the old Chrysler, up to Lake Mahinerangi. The outside, and tussock grasslands and high country areas – I just think there could be no finer place in the world, and that has always stuck with me.” I ask him if there is something in this landscape in the Ida Valley that he recognises in himself, the shape of his own life in the land around him, and he raises his bushy eyebrows in surprise, humming to himself, suddenly lively. “I think so. It’s kinship. It stimulates what’s at my core, I think. Every day I spend a lot of time just looking at the sky and what’s floating over. Is it a cumulo nimbus? Are the nimbus clouds away in the west? And so on and so on. I like the shapes of things.” An admittedly slightly anxious spirit, Turner says he finds steadiness in the land: “It gives me room, space. A sense of freedom. I can do what stimulates and pleases me greatly. It reminds me of what a wonderful place we have and live in.”

It’s in the big panoramas he writes about so often that Turner finds release from his worries. I ask where his anxiety comes from: “I have been anxious all my life. I was anxious because I could take nothing for granted insofar as how much time I had, and in what was coming next.” Uneasy in groups as a teen, he was surprised to find himself the captain of sports teams. “Someone must have seen something in me.” Anxiety often lends itself to high achievers, I say. “Yeah, yeah. It hasn’t bothered me too much, but a voice always says, ‘Now hang on – watch it. Take care here.’ I used to sail with a bunch of guys. We raced a keel boat. In a big sea, if you’ve gotta go forward to the front and change the sail and the rest of it, you’ve got to clip yourself on. You don’t want to broach and have the main come across and kill you. Always be alert. That may be a bit to do with anxiety.”

Turner’s writing, while unsentimental and often laconic, resonates with a deep heart. He says one of the reasons he writes is to put it out there, the nature he notices: “I want to think that other people might get something from it that they didn’t get before. We might find ourselves in a position where there are others who think like us.” His writing is also closely woven into his activism. He’s been advocating for the environment his whole life. He names the 1972 study The Limits to Growth as one of his “bibles”. The book examines the impact of population growth on finite resources. “That switched me and a lot of others on, and gave us an understanding of what we were being forewarned about. I’ve been involved in it and really witnessed the accuracy of what was being said.” We are dawdling, globally, in our response to environmental degradation, we agree. The writing has been on the wall for decades. Turner and his friends formed the Central Otago Environment Society in 2006, “a bunch of troublemakers”, he tells me, fighting on behalf of the land, rivers and lakes of the region.

ONCE

Upon a time
the earth
was happy enough without us.
Such a time
may come again, and little
but insects
and grass
will rock
to the rueful sounds of the wind.

‘Once’, Landmarks, 2020

We talk about influences on Turner’s work for a while, and that’s when he really lights up. Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things is on the table beside him, and he throws it down in front of me. Berry, just nine years older than Turner, is also a poet, essayist and environmental activist. “He’s one of the heroes! And Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac was also a bible for me. I thought he was a marvellous writer.” Both Berry and Leopold owe a debt to the American poets and writers in love with nature who came before them. I mention Henry David Thoreau, and Turner’s eyes dance – I’ve read before that he likes Thoreau, but it’s not until I’m sitting here with him that I realise how closely connected the two poets are, albeit across centuries and hemispheres.

Thoreau, one of the New England Transcendentalists, was occupied by observations on nature, the essence of life, and how people should live. A philosopher as well as a poet, he belonged to a movement that was against materialism, one that connected the natural world and the human soul as being part of the same thing. There is similarity not only in the themes both writers explore, but in the simple constructions that yield a largess of ideas and spirit. I put it to Turner that he is speaking back across time to a kindred spirit, and I can see he is moved by that, though he tries to cover it with gruffness. “Well … that’s very generous of you … It’s stimulation of a grand style, and it’s not going away. I have the same feelings every day, one way or another, for what attracts me most. Whenever one opens the door and goes outside …” He mimes looking around, and finally looking up, raising his eyebrows dramatically. “Oh yeah!” he exclaims at an imaginary sky, acting surprised to see these imaginary wonders. I ask if making those connections and showing them to readers is something he considers his purpose as a writer: “If that happens I’m pleased about it. There is nothing I can do to stop it, and I delight in that – the compulsion to write.”

That compulsion isn’t letting up at 77, despite some big operations and bodily aches and pains, which he canvasses for me with great humour. “I’ve got terrible feet! I’ve had a lot of varicose veins. I’ve had my tonsils out as an adult. I have no hearing in this ear because I was getting earaches quite a lot and it didn’t get picked up soon enough and it rotted the bone in there. I’ve had a lot of operations. In a bike race I had a big crash, and I broke the neck of the femur, cracked it … I could just go on and on.” In spite of this, it’s a youthful spirit speaking from an increasingly vulnerable body. “Well, I’ve always seen myself as younger than my age, in that I can do things physically, and in other ways. And it’s in part because of all the exercise that I’ve had – I don’t see myself as an old man.” Turner is always busy this time of year getting the wood in for the relentless cold of winter in the Ida Valley. “I still chainsaw and split my wood. There’s a meditation in that. You’ve got to work out where the grain is so you hit it in a place it will split easy, rather than have the bloody axe jump off and shoot you!” He still goes out into the valley every day, too, whether it’s for a walk up the hill, or a bike ride. He grins and tells me how he was out for an hour and ten minutes yesterday, pushing on his bike as hard as he could, and how he might train up for another race, one of these days.

In the meantime, he’s busy with the autumn coming in, and with his impending trip to the Writers Festival. Considering his love for wild spaces, and the rarity of visits to any town bigger than Omakau, it seems churlish to ask him if he’s looking forward to the trip, but I ask him anyway, just to witness his eyebrows dance across the stern and amused expression on his face. “I don’t much like Auckland. I don’t like all that traffic noise. You can’t get away from it!” He admits he’s curious about what being an honoured writer will mean, and what sorts of questions he’ll be asked, and then he waves me away with a bashful hand, suggesting we go down the road for a coffee, something he usually does each day at this time.

In the garden he shows me the metal barrels full of stacked split wood, and a kind of miniature container sitting round the back of the cottage. Sliding open the door reveals a folding chair in the middle of a space crammed with yet more books. There must be thousands in there – the only part of the container you can see is the ceiling. “I sit out here sometimes,” he says, looking pleased when I gasp over the books. In the car, Turner tells me about the residents of the town. He knows the name of everyone who lives in Oturehua. He even knows the names of the newbies, whose arrivals have caused a bit of resentment among the locals, some of whom won’t go down to the pub on a Friday any more. He jokes the influx in the population might be partly his own doing: “Many of the people who moved here have said they know about this place because of what I’ve written about it. Some of the local cockies say, ‘It’s your bloody fault, you arsehole!’” I ask how he feels about that, and he laughs a laugh that’s halfway between a chuckle and a wheeze “How does a man cope with that? You get a grip, mate! You just get on with it!” Advice for life, I say. “Isn’t it!” he exclaims, considering the sky for a long moment, before turning and smiling at me. “Isn’t it.”

Brian Turner appears in conversation with John Campbell as the honoured writer at the 2021 Auckland Writers Festival – and it’s free! You can purchase his books at Unity Books Auckland or Wellington.




The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.