Somebodies and Nobodies
Few autobiographies return us to scrutinising our own lives. I’ve just had – suffered – that experience reading Brian Turner’s Somebodies and Nobodies. It covers his first 25 years, from birth in 1944, his father fighting in Italy, to 1969 when he left Dunedin for Wellington.
Much of the book is about sport in which Turner and his brothers, Glenn and Greg, have excelled. It’s also richly brocaded with individual and family reminiscence, social criticism, and the beginnings of Turner’s writing. He leaps early to the attack: “Those preoccupied solely with the arts tend not to acknowledge the aesthetic qualities inherent in sports, qualities that lift them into the realms of art. To us, sport was art, too, and always has been.”
I had a mate whose axemanship was beautiful, whose seeming–unhurried movements had the quality of dance. Another friend walked up a Urewera stream, line unrolling ahead and behind, and placing a fly so precisely that trout, rod, and man are still a frieze in my mind. Hemingway saw art in bullfighting. Much art derives from agonising moments in sickness, death, and war. Should we be surprised that sport, too, sometimes rises to art?
Turner seems driven to both admire and despise the artists. In his foreword, he writes: “In some quarters – and especially, though not exclusively, among those who saw themselves as artistic, hence creative – sport and sportspeople were subject to derision, seen as having more brawn than brains.” I would never use that mongrelised vogue-word “creative” of myself, but I despise the world-wide obsession with sport. A miasma hangs over much competitive team sport, especially rugby whose administrators and players lent themselves willingly to racism – and, I think, would do so again.
Perhaps certain sports are too obviously territorial, war games like the Buz Kashi of Afghanistan that Bronowski describes in The Ascent of Man. Except that, in rugby, instead of a headless calf (or headless man) the object of contention is a ball (man’s head) which is carried – or kicked – to score.
At secondary school, my brother refused to play footy and was sent with the other boys who couldn’t to play softball next to the girls playing basketball. His derision upset the teachers, and he left school too early. It takes little to disturb the jittery arrogance of powerful bigots, as George Bush and Saddam Hussein teach us. I learned my lesson, acquired the stench of the mob, and have admired my brother ever since for questioning authority.
Do I exaggerate about innocent recreation? I enjoyed footy; at least it helped with getting a girlfriend, becoming a prefect, getting accredited. At university, I rowed – team sport of all team sports – and still enjoy watching cricket – when played by grownups, not perpetual-adolescent celebrities. But when I became a man, I left childish things behind me, and much of sport is childish: both in its participants and onlookers.
Games are another thing. Turner prompted my memory of a game of cricket some deer-cullers played in 1954 on a clearing in the bush. With the butt of his .303, Bonehead clipped Mercer’s outswinger made of a condensed milk tin, Stew Coupar fumbled the catch, and Dunc fell backwards into the Whakatane River. I’m happy to admit that sport, especially cricket, can sometimes rise to the quality of a game, of art. But there are certain sports, including cycling (despite Turner’s lyricising it), race-walking, and weightlifting which, by the vulgarity of their postures and uniforms, are ludicrous grotesqueries. Art? I can’t take them seriously.
Turner’s book excites response! I’m a wishy-washy fellow who loathes competition. We are more than sea anemones; possessing not just instinct, but culture, we have choice, however limited. Turner writes from the point of view of winning. Losers aren’t famous for writing enthusiastically about their hidings. But, in fairness, Somebodies and Nobodies could also be called Winners and Losers, for it’s about an individual and a family who’ve had plenty of ups and downs.
Many have wondered what it was that produced three New Zealand reps from three boys of one working-class Dunedin family. I’m more interested in why all three have spoken out against authority. What gives someone the idea that they have the right to criticise? New Zealanders aren’t famous for public disagreement, unpopular causes.
Turner’s father took a full part in his children’s upbringing, the sort of father, we’re often told by authoritarian feminists, that men never make. Some will say Alf’s part was only in teaching the boys their love of sport. In fact, one of the loveliest themes of the book is the closeness of the family, their outings, picnics, and holidays, fishing together, the singing in the car on the way home.
In his laconic way, Alf Turner gave his sons a pattern of principles by which to shape their lives. (Read “Monte Cassino”.) He taught them they had some choice. More significant than their excelling at sport is the growth of the Turners’ philosophy: “In cricket, especially, [Glenn] felt it essential to show respect for your opposition … without opponents, he said, there’s no game.” And, “A sense of fair play is essential in sport, and those who scoff at it, say it blunts the ‘competitive edge’ and therefore erodes the ‘will to win’, are wrong and a blot on sport itself.” Again, “Prior to the 1990s, cricketers – and most sportsmen and women, too – had more dignity and civility than their recent counterparts. There was less personal abuse of opponents, less stupid aggression.”
The relationship between son and father is well-known to anyone who reads Turner’s poetry. Alf is there in the mountains his son climbed, in the rivers he fished. It’s partly the father the son kicked against, when he rubbed the hockey administrators up the wrong way; it’s the father in the son who sees the stupidity of his own ways, yet keeps on with them. Audrey, the mother is present, but a subdued figure. Subdued by all that sporting competitiveness? There’s the shadow of something missing in Turner’s remarks about his mother. Did his awkwardness with girls derive from an insufficient relationship with her? One can only surmise.
In his last days at Otago Boys High School, Turner writes, “I argued the toss, became an inveterate sceptic. I was questioning this, questioning that. … not the way to endear yourself to others, but it does make you feel less inadequate, less anonymous.” Alf’s part in encouraging this willingness to clash with authority is obvious, but there’s also the formative influence of the splendidly outspoken grandmother, Lil; the dreaming grandfather Lou, with his talent for understatement; the violent Uncle Jack.
Oh, that we had more Lils, Lous, Alfs, and Jacks! For, despite our would-be coffee-drinking sophistication, we haven’t changed much from the narrow society the late Bill Pearson described in Fretful Sleepers. Somebodies and Nobodies kept returning me in memory to Pearson’s essay, to something Fairburn called We New Zealanders, to poems by Curnow, Baxter, Glover. To things older people told me.
There’s a monotonous harping against the north, from Lil’s contemptuous, defensive remarks: “There’s nothing wrong with Dunedin” to Brian Turner’s “Aucklanders tend to think that they have a natural pre–eminence. It’s ingrained.” When I came to Wellington in 1969, I found myself suspect because I was an Aucklander. I refused to take part in such vapidity. Auckland envies Sydney, Sydney Melbourne, Melbourne Singapore, Singapore Hong Kong. Stupidity upon stupidity.
On the other hand, Turner’s sense of belonging, of place, is admirable. Much of his best poetry arises from localism. We suffer from a literary fashion in which writing is insignificant if it does not contain references to at least one foreign city. I remember, in the 1970s, some of our literary magazines describing themselves as “international”. Turner cuts through that blather. His poems reverberate with regionalism.
In a book that’s rich in quotations, his own and others’, I was moved by “For an Octogenarian”. One of the reasons the words work hard is that we see the old man against his life’s neighbours, snow-flecked Mount Cargill, and the dinning of the just out-of-sight sea. I first knew that prickling feeling of identity, of a known geography, when Fairburn read “To a Friend in the Wilderness” on 1YA in the 1940s.
Turner’s comments on reading Barry Crump’s first book are interesting and unfashionable. (I had to glance through my notes to find them; infuriatingly, there’s neither index nor contents page.) And I enjoyed: “By now I was convinced that sport and books weren’t mutually exclusive, and I was sure that anything that encouraged thinking was going to be a help, whatever one did.” I remember being warned early to keep my love of literature to myself when in unsympathetic company. Perhaps Uncle Jack, the rabbit board foreman, with whom Turner lived and worked at a critical stage of development, might have exploded had Turner spoken of his literary interests. Jack is a terrible presence, bloody-handed, urgent, dangerously sentimental. Oversimplifying his life. But I found such men susceptible to literature. In fact, many carried large amounts of narrative verse in their heads.
There are shadows in Turner’s implacability about sport, in his humour, in his relationships with women. Compelled by honesty, he will make some readers uncomfortable by what he says, by self-exposure. And yet something remains hidden in this volume; but then why should we expect autobiography to explain the writer? Putting everything into words is an old trick of the hunted, a device of concealment. And the same words may both reveal and hide our meaning.
There is in Turner something of the same darkness Owen Marshall writes about. It’s partly what Fairburn was talking of in “Dominion” when he wrote, “and the night sky, closing over, covers like a hand/the barbaric yawn of a young and wrinkled land.” And it’s in Mansfield’s, “There is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque – it frightens – as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw.”
Turner is at his most exuberant when writing about rivers and mountains: “the Taieri River wobbles and wags”; “clouds – big white scumbly-tumblies”; “the road goes swish and swoosh”; “jumbles of schist outcrops”; “tanned slopes”; “doubloon-coloured stones”; “bobbly ripples and runs”; “the river fiddled and diddled and wriggled”; “a rumble-tumble of other mountains”. And, “The Waiau was a colossus. It flowed in big loops over brown and green stones; it swirled and coughed and thrashed; it smoked and glided with a sinister force.” I enjoy the physicality of his writing, and anyone with a feeling for place will enjoy the chapter “Lovely Trout in the Leith”. It contains both the growth of a young fisherman and his rage at the disfiguring of that beautiful stream.
Turner questions the boring claim of Maori superiority in their “spiritual” relationship to the land: “Few things rile me more than to have someone tell me that Maori have a stronger spiritual relationship with the outdoors than do people like me, and that my relationship is merely aesthetic or intellectual.” Hooray for honesty, for a blow against racist cant cloaked in humbuggable political correctness!
I want Turner’s next volume. More on trout fishing, on mountains, on rivers, on water. I want more light upon the combination of question, verbal celebration, and darkness that is Turner at his best. I remember the limpid title of his third book of poems, Listening to the River, and the last two lines of his most recent poem: “It calls for both meditation and mediation,/for that’s the way of water.”
I began by saying that too few autobiographies turn us back to scrutinising our own lives. The strength of Somebodies and Nobodies lies in the fact that its sceptical, hectoring, original voice is a sustained self-criticism of and by its own author. In that lies something of its dark conundrum.
Kalik, the concluding volume of Jack Lasenby’s Travellers quartet was reviewed in our August 2002 issue. His Aunt Effie is reviewed on p5.