Turner takes a wider view

Brian Turner. Photo by Shane Gilchrist.
Brian Turner. Photo by Shane Gilchrist.
Poet, writer, angler, conservationist . . . Brian Turner's new book, Into the Wider World: A Back Country Miscellany, gets to the heart of matters, writes Shane Gilchrist.

Brian Turner likes to fish.

There are a variety of reasons why.

These include friendship, fun and its potential flipside, folly.

Further down the order, and certainly less so now than when he first picked up a rod, there is the prospect of food.

Yet, though the ability to land a fish lends the activity credibility, it is not really why he goes.

For Turner, fishing has as much to do with Henry Thoreau as it does trout; the former's thoughts on the "art of sauntering" and the latter's elusive beauty coalesce as justification for hours or days spent in the bush, tussock lands and backblocks of Southern New Zealand.

Simply put, it's a way to get away.

Like trout, the truth often escapes the angler.

Turner enjoys the bluster and the "bullshit" of a sport in which some hold dear to the concept of a tally, of one-upmanship; he has done it himself from time to time.

"There's plenty of fiction in there," he says, pointing to a copy of his new book, Into the Wider World: A Back Country Miscellany, which is published on Friday.

At nearly 500 pages, Into the Wider World is an extensive anthology of essays, columns, articles and poetry, bound together by Turner's love of wild places and spaces.

Fishing is just one of the topics.

The benefits of walking, of taking one's time, are celebrated, alongside the arcane art of duck calling; elsewhere, motorcycling is touched upon, materialism derided as a product of wider social dysfunction and friends held dear (those deemed to be fools less so).

"I did want to write a lot about where I've gone and why I've gone and what fishing does for you and to you.

"But I needed a vehicle, really, to write about environmentalism, New Zealand's environmental record, what we do in and to nature.

"I also wanted to write about socio-economic changes in New Zealand in my time. I tried to thread all that in there."

Turner (64) also writes of his distaste for those who dress impression as fact.

Thus the observational details of a recent two-hour visit to his Oturehua cottage to discuss his book, lifestyle and thoughts will be kept brief.

It is late morning and the day is cold, grey, wet.

The Idaburn, which flows behind a stand of recently topped pine trees at the back of the property, is a muddy mustard, swollen but not threatening.

Inside the house, Sibelius is playing, but the music is turned off so as not to intrude on conversation or tape recorder.

Apart from Turner's open and generous responses, the only other sounds are the occasional question to change tack, the crunch of teeth on cracker and the rare rumble of a vehicle along the main drag of the Ida Valley town.

Turner accompanies his words with a direct gaze that invites, rather than challenges, conversation.

Asked to sum up his writing style, he pauses briefly before choosing "candour".

Reflection and rumination follow close behind.

"[Irish poet Seamus] Heaney said his writing was a mix of his roots and his reading - that's very true of me . . . One is also looking for clarity, illumination, trying to illuminate things for others.

"I also try to write entertainingly about stuff that is important to me."

Into the Wider World has been two years in the making, though some of the accounts go back further.

Turner, having decided it was about time he did something with his various backcountry musings, rewrote and expanded them.

Some started out at 800 or 900 words.

Now they are twice as long and "contain all sorts of stuff that wasn't there in the first place".

Turner didn't want to take his readers in a straight line.

"Digression is often so much of what is of interest," he explains.

Which takes us back to the "art of sauntering", as defined by Thoreau, the 19th-century American writer and philosopher.

The antithesis of the concept of productivity, it values outer and inner exploration, pastimes others might consider a waste of time.

That is also part of the book's point.

"It goes against the grain in a way," Turner says.

"It seems to me we are becoming increasingly driven by the wrong things and that as a people there is so much unease and disease and social dysfunction that you need to ask yourself a few questions: are our goals - or the buzzword of the day, aspirations - and ambitions all screwed up? "I've always been interested in the need to simplify things.

I've actually tried to put forward my ideas as to what's going on in us, in me, that is good and not so good . . .

That last essay in there is on the pleasures of walking; the first one is about some of things I get out of wandering around and looking at things in this region, in the Maniototo."

You have to be here, you
have to feel the deep
slow surge of the hills,
the cloak of before, the wrench
of beyond.

(from Turner's poem Van Morrison in Central Otago)

It irritates Turner when the terms "regional" or "landscape" are used to encapsulate his poetry.

Those that describe it as such overlook the 2003-2005 Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate's political works, his poems about relationships "of one kind or another", and his love poems.

Turner, who plans to publish a new book of poems later this year, points out he has written far more prose than poetry, as much out of financial necessity as desire.

There have been sports biographies on Glenn, his cricketing brother, on rugby legend Colin Meads, and on more recent All Blacks, and on Josh Kronfeld and Anton Oliver.

These were projects he tackled because he thought the people "more interesting than many".

"I've written thousands of unpublished poems. Poetry is the most important thing to me, but I do like prose that has poetry in it.

"There is certainly a crossover. I read the best prose with the greatest of pleasure and admiration. Whatever you do, you aspire to write well."

Turner's protestations over being put in one box notwithstanding, Into the Wider World does reveal he gains no small inspiration from the outdoors.

And despite the humility evident in many of his reflections, there is pride, too.

He hopes he has penned an "enduring" work.

Parts of the book are also timely: more than one chapter is devoted to Project Hayes, the wind farm Meridian proposes to build on the Lammermoor Range.

Turner, a member of the Upland Landscape Protection Society and the Maniototo Environmental Society, has played an active role in opposition to the plan, twice presenting views during the hearing process.

"One I did on my own behalf; I was also called in as an expert witness by ULPS," he says, adding his involvement in environmental issues dates back to the 1960s and the subsequent Save Manapouri campaign.

He has, as Australians would say, "form" in this regard.

"I always say when I'm away from New Zealand, 'I'm a Southerner not a Northerner'. We live in the one country but the New Zealand identity seems very tenuous to me.

"I feel a string sense of belonging to Southern New Zealand, but I don't feel so much of a strong connection to New Zealand anymore.

"So when someone puts the argument to me that something is going to be done in the national interest, I just think, 'Here we go again; you're going to rape and loot this place'.

"I think we should do our bit, but we don't have to do six or seven times our bit, thank you very much."

Turner argues that emotion and reason are not antonyms; combine the two and "you get the true voice of feeling".

"Anyone who tells you they are unbiased or that they are taking an objective position, well, they are just outright liars. They are deluded if they think so. It tells me they don't much care about the issue being discussed or considered.

"It is easy to be objective about something if you don't give a damn."

Blue's the word for the feeling
we want
when blue's the feeling we need.
Longing is the blue of
Beauty unassuaged and
serenity's blue
is a hollow, airy place
where the spirit seems to levitate,
and a voice that could be the
talking, says, 'That's paradise,
that's where
you can rest in the present'.

(from Turner's poem Drain)

Turner enjoys watching birds, hawks in particular.

He likens his own disposition to a hawk being buffeted by the wind.

It is a metaphor for his life.

Hawks have no malice; they operate out of pure instinct and need.

You can rely on them, he says.

"You can't rely on people in the way you can rely on the behaviour of animals.

"Thoreau says you take instruction from what goes on in the world around you. We all need connections of one kind or another and I think you need to be connected to more than just a few other people."

Ah, Thoreau, again.

Was it not he who pointed out the difference between aloneness and loneliness? It's a concept that resonates with Turner, who moved to Oturehua in 1999 following the end of a relationship ("Yeah, I don't want to talk about that . . .").

Friendships mean a great deal.

In fact, apart from poetry, Turner can't think of anything more important.

"I've been very lucky with a wide range of friends, many of whom I've still got. Bonds are formed from years of excursions in out-of-the-way places, where there are opportunities for reflection . . .

"Some of the best discussions I've had have been in back-country huts or huts in the mountains."

Those huts, and humans, also provide a platform for much of the humour Turner sprinkles through Into the Wider World.

In one chapter, he delights in recalling the time good friend Dave Witherow, having forgotten a mattress, can only watch as his fishing companion unpacks a brand-new "Sunshine Leisure Deluxe Velour Air Bed" and stretches out, smug and comfortable, under the stars.

"There is a marvellous sense of the larrikin in a lot of Southerners," Turner says, striking a tone that borders on celebratory.

"The laconic, the droll, the practical jokes, the taking the piss out of one another - it is often derided but it's something I rather like, as is having a sense of humour and an ability to laugh at oneself.

If you're going to take other people seriously and be critical to some degree, you've also got to turn the light on yourself.

"I mean, I have all sorts of failings that people point out - I'd rather they didn't - but if you know someone quite well the observations you make about them will have a lot of truth to them.

"I'm well aware of my own weaknesses, thanks. I don't need to be reminded of them; some of them are hard to live with."

Turner says he has a "wild rogue gene".

Just as things seem to be working out, he'll do something to stuff it up.

Still, he says, derailment also can have quite productive results.

"I was always - and still am - very insecure, bullied by all sorts of emotional visitations. Turbulence became my default position, emotionally and physically. Temperamentally, I was always up and down.

"And that sense of insecurity, of not taking things for granted, has made me what I am and made me write what I have, in a sense.

"Writing and delving into one's own psyche and thinking what one thinks and what others think about stuff is quite a risky business.

"You find out a lot about yourself and others; you open doors into yourself . . . You look into some dark spaces."

Described by a friend as having a body like a clapped-out Cortina, but which he drove like a Ferrari, Turner recalls his son Andre also expressing concern over his various adventures in the wild.

"We did things that others would regard as foolhardy," he concedes.

"We'd really push ourselves. There is a frisson in that. But when you fall, you fall hard, too . . .

"I enjoy the physicality of being outdoors, the variety of sports. I used to sail a lot, run in harriers, played hockey, cricket, climbed mountains; I just loved doing all that. I really like doing all sorts of different things.

"My brother Glenn focused on cricket mostly; he knows more about cricket and talks more lucidly about it than anyone I know. My brother Greg focused on golf and got bloody good at it.

"I've sort of gone off in all sorts of directions. People say, 'You've spread yourself too thinly'. They're correct in a way.

"But what they are really saying is, `If you want to complain about something I don't want to hear because it's your own fault'. But there is also a bit of envy with some people."

I put it to Turner that some people are not blessed with the ability to write poetry or prose, play hockey for New Zealand, cycle competitively, caddy for international golfers or even fish competently.

"Yeah, but some people are lazier than others; some people are quite complacent; some people have different antennae; their sensibilities are different."

Later, after the voice recorder has been turned off and another cup of coffee declined, Turner continues to chat.

He points out his racing bikes in a shed, then laments the state of his back yard.

His driveway has been churned up, made muddy by the machinery required to trim those pines.

Man meets nature yet again.

Brian Turner (64) has published numerous collections of poetry, his most recent being Footfall, short-listed for the 2006 Montana Book Awards.

The Te Mata Poet Laureate from 2003-2005, Turner won the 1978 Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the 1993 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.

He was Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 1984 and Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury in 1997.

Turner has published sports biographies and the autobiographical Somebodies and Nobodies: Growing up in an extraordinary sporting family and Timeless Land (with Grahame Sydney and Owen Marshall).

He has represented New Zealand at hockey and played cricket at provincial age-group and senior club level.

Turner has worked part-time as a golf caddy since the late 1980s.

Other jobs have included customs officer, publisher's rep, construction site worker, rabbiter and journalist.

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