Breakfast in Otago, southern New Zealand, with the country’s former poet laureate. Brian Turner is an essayist, poet, fisherman, climber, hunter and conservationist. Sixty-nine years old, trim, wiry and enviably fit, Turner’s craggy looks and white beard perfectly reflect his career. A surgeon friend once told Turner that he was “built out of Meccano”. That captures something of his resilience; it is a body that has been pushed and more than occasionally deprived.
We sit overlooking the cricket ground in Dunedin, drinking black coffee, talking about writing and landscape, sport and families. The ground is a natural amphitheatre, carved into lushly grassed hills that are today lightly covered by mist. By Turner’s standards, they scarcely qualify as real hills, mere undulations that lead to serious peaks, the real challenges beyond.
We were introduced by Brian’s brother, Glenn, one of New Zealand’s greatest batsman. While Glenn was scoring 103 first-class hundreds – for Otago, New Zealand and Worcestershire – Brian was hiking in New Zealand’s “back country”, the wilderness of the South Island. The two journeys had much in common. Both Turners explored the limits of their self-reliance and resourcefulness, both tried to figure things out for themselves, both prized experience and reflection over conventional wisdom.
Dressed in dark jeans and a black outdoor jacket, Turner is smart enough to fit into most places. But the conservative clothes barely conceal a strong sense of restlessness, as though he would be much happier turning away from society – like Walt Whitman who, in “Song of the Open Road”, “afoot and light-hearted” took “to the open road . . . The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” “At the end of the open road,” Turner has written, “we come to ourselves.”
Turner brings up the subject of luck, a theme that runs quietly through his own work. “I’ve taken great pleasure in taunting people who congratulate themselves on having ‘made their own luck’, as though they deserve all the credit, and people who say ‘anything’s possible if you want it enough’. I’ve always thought some people have simply been shit out of luck, others dead lucky.”
Out on the field, where England face New Zealand, some of the players saunter through the back-slapping rituals of conspicuous bonhomie and positive “teamwork”. Turner is not impressed, adding impishly, “If someone had rushed over and tapped Glenn on the back after he’d done something utterly unremarkable, he probably would have wanted to tell them to fuck off.”
Alongside his warmth, Turner is unmistakably iconoclastic. The title of his memoir is Somebodies and Nobodies. “Because most people you meet who are ‘somebodies’ are in fact nobodies,” Turner explains, “and many ‘nobodies’ are in fact somebodies.” Only once does Turner glance at me suspiciously. While describing his admiration for the poet Edward Thomas, Turner focuses momentarily on my formal blue jacket (I’m in New Zealand commentating on the cricket for the BBC). His eyes go from jacket to my face, then back to the jacket again, as though he can’t quite censor the thought: “How odd to be talking about lyric poems and the open road with a man wearing what is suspiciously close to a blazer . . .”
My first column in these pages was called “In praise of idleness”. Turner was there long before me. In two sparkling essays, “Wasting Time” and “Why go fishing?”, Turner discusses what Henry David Thoreau called the great art of sauntering: “He [Thoreau] knew that sitting, lolling was not a waste of time, it was making good use of time. Perhaps it was actually stilling time, apprehending moments, opening windows on illumination . . . Part of that is a need to feel the warmth of the sun, the flitter of the wind, hear the murmur of insects, the rustle of leaves as the breeze shuffles them, a breeze that acts as nature’s generous croupier.” So-called “idleness” is recast as a central part of the creative process, a way of opening up to serendipity.
Turner feels that the open spaces of South Island have been too easily encroached upon by “economic necessities” forced on them by the North. What some call progress, he calls despoliation. He cherishes places where the human footprint is lightest. “A lot of people were and are put off by Fiordland, but not enough,” he says of an especially inaccessible region where he has wandered and hiked.
Talking to Turner reinforces my sense of frustration at opportunities missed. After eight days in New Zealand, I’ve been unable to venture beyond the sleepy town of Dunedin. I’ve managed just one solitary trip to the ocean and failed to climb a single mountain. South Island is defined by wonderful landscape and unremarkable towns. I’ve experienced only the latter.
England cling on for a draw in the Test match. The following day, I’m lucky enough to get a window seat on the flight up to Wellington. The territory we fly over is the subject of Turner’s work and I switch between looking out of the window and reading his collected essays, Into the Wider World: a Back Country Miscellany, two impressions of the same landscape – one from above, the other from within.
It is a beautiful book to hold as well as to read. One paragraph makes me sit up and reach for my notebook. “[It] is about remaining relaxed yet alert. It’s not about patience, it’s about learning to pay attention; about scheming, plotting, gulling. About confidence, concentration, caution. About care and caring; couthness and consideration; tolerance and humility; acceptance and good grace and judiciousness and stealth.”
Turner’s subject is fishing. But to me, on first reading, it superbly captures the art of batsmanship. Reading it again, it seems just as relevant to writing. There are many destinations, even if we are travelling on the same open road.