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Gael Turnbull, 1928–2004

Laurie Duggan: Recollections of the Lakes
and the Lake Poets

Gael Lundin Turnbull, doctor and poet, b. 1928, died on 2 July 2004 on a visit to Herefordshire, of a sudden brain haemorrhage. He is survived by Jill and his three daughters from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.

This piece is 2,200 words or about five printed pages long.


Around 1970 I came across the writing of Gael Turnbull in two beautiful volumes (A Trampoline and Scantlings) published by Cape Goliard (this was back in the days when you could still buy small-press work from overseas in otherwise mainstream Australian bookshops). With the exception of items in Penguin Books’ confused and uneven anthology Children of Albion and some further pieces in Cid Corman’s anthology of writing from Origin magazine, I saw no further examples of his work until the early 1980s when some new work appeared in the journal Scripsi. I made contact with Gael through the editors and we began to correspond.
      Born in Edinburgh, Gael had lived for some years in Canada and had studied medicine in the USA. In 1957 he founded Migrant Press, probably the most important British-based small publisher. He was an important figure in the widely dispersed world of post-Poundian, post-objectivist poetry though loath to label his own work. Touching, as they do, both ancient and modern sources, his poems were too various and inventive to attract mainstream attention. Indeed until recent years none of the work (his own or that of the poets he supported) received even a mention in organs like the TLS or the London Review of Books (until Oxford published Basil Bunting and Roy Fisher most of this poetry was confined to very small presses like Migrant and to fugitive journals). After retiring from medical practice Gael returned once more to his native Edinburgh where he continued to write poems of all shapes and sizes, work of great distinction that only too few people are aware of. These poems are ‘occasional’ in the best sense of the word. He addresses the local, the vernacular, without condescension or insularity. He has worked with visual artists on installations, has made poems that reconstruct themselves with a shuffling of cards, and has written works that owe their origins to long established custom. His work is at once playful and deeply serious, artful and available.
      I telephoned Gael on my arrival in London. He was then living at Ulverston, a coastal town in the Lakes district, and working as a doctor in nearby Barrow-in-Furness. The following is a short account of my visit.



With bladdered wit
and rude advance,
with courtly grace
and magnificence,
with sometimes skill
(and sometimes chance)
through swirl and swagger,
they come to dance.
                  (Gael Turnbull)

8th May 1987. London. Breakfast opposite Victoria station. The Stones and some good dancing music on the radio. The black girl behind the counter bops as she serves up the bacon. Middle-aged American men come in and ask for their cholesterol hits. For the third day in a row the weather is fine and warm.
      The bus hits a traffic snare in St John’s Wood and takes about half an hour to reach Swiss Cottage. I have a seat at the front upstairs and view the M1 through an impasto of dead insects. The route veers around Coventry and through the outskirts of Birmingham (on the M6), bypasses the potteries and touches on the outskirts of Liverpool at St Helens. Change buses at Preston — which seems largely red brick, and get off at Lancaster — which is grey stone. I catch a train from here to Ulverston, which crosses two flat estuaries (the tide out). Between them a bizarre resort village (Grange-over-Sands).
      At Ulverston Gael Turnbull waits almost opposite the door of my carriage. We drive back to Church Walk. Tomorrow we’re going into the hills, but this evening, Jill says, Gael is going to drag me off if I wish to an unexpected event. Gael had in fact mentioned something on the phone about going dancing which I’d interpreted as ballroom or some similar variety. It turns out he’s a Morris-man. He explains that he is tone deaf and it’s a way of enjoying the experience of music without having the technique.
      We drive to a village called Bouth in the hills and buy pints in the pub — then the other dancers arrive (from an earlier assignation) and gather on the green to begin their performance. I couldn’t really have blundered on anything quite as good as this. After several dances we all move on to another village, Lowick Bridge, where we assemble at the Red Lion. The country around here is striking in the late twilight. North is the solid round shape of the Old Man of Coniston. The Morris-men occupy the street outside the pub, local traffic having to wait until the end of each performance. They take it in turns to be in the groups — usually six or eight at a time, and there are four or so able musical accompanists — not more than two playing at once. Each member of the troupe has some local feature or symbol on the back of his red jacket — ranging from a ‘green man’ to something modern like a crane over the Barrow harbour.
      When the dancing finishes everyone adjourns to the pub. A meeting is held re. proposed activities (next weekend they’re going to a festival in Essex). Then to close proceedings, each person in the troupe plays a tune, sings a song, or recites a story or poem. Gael recites an original ballad about the local bitter ale, which requires everyone to join in on the chorus.

In wise, proverbial days they used to say
That everybody born
Under the shadow of Black Combe
Will come back there to die.

                  (Norman Nicholson)[1]

9th May. 9 a.m. in Church Walk: a man with a motorcycle helmet, riding a horse. Ulverston is the birthplace of Stan Laurel.
      We drive around Lake Windemere and into the hills past Stavely to High House, which looks back down on the town and backs onto an old slate quarry and the high roads up towards Kentmere Pike and the mountains from which you can see (on a clear day) Scotland.
      We take a cut lunch up to the nearest high point and look around 360°. The wind is icy, but easy enough to escape from. The Hoad, a Victorian lighthouse-folly built above Ulverston, is visible to the southwest.
      Back at the house Gael gets the stoves going. He phones the Whitehaven hospital where local poet Norman Nicholson (lifetime resident of Millom) is in a critical condition. Nicholson had contracted TB while still a boy and had recovered, but with weakened lungs. Now in his early seventies, he had come down with a virus in Liverpool en route to a reading. Apparently Nicholson had learned to write through being a reader — as a child he had performed poems by other writers and was noted for his recitals. Through the years he’d become a well-known local figure. A young lad introduced to ‘the poet’ had called him ‘Mr Wordsworth’.
      Outside the visibility gradually improves through the late afternoon. When Jill arrives we drive over through Kendal to Sedburgh and Brigflatts (the local signs and the map have only one ‘g’). There is Basil Bunting’s stone in the small Quaker graveyard and beyond it the farmhouse where B.B. stayed as a youth — the house of Peggy Mullett — and the Rawthey, nearing its junction with the Lune. The meeting-house is open so we go in for a few minutes of silence (a modern wall clock ticks loudly — the only sound in the room). The windows behind the table frame a large bare limestone hill (Holme Knott). We step up into the gallery. I start to read a proclamation — a kind of marriage document, and Gael explains the Quaker wedding ceremony — that there is no one to marry you — that each partner marries the other, God the only necessary witness. The meeting-house was originally erected c.1675 but in its present state dates more or less from 1712.
      We drive on into Dentdale, the country gradually changing all the way. Gael and Jill point out the ‘shepherds hut’ that Jonathan Williams and Tom Meyer live in (it must be the only shepherd’s cottage in the world, says Gael, with a sauna).[2] Ahead of us, two men drive cattle down the road.
      Dent itself is, like many other places, becoming trendy. The interiors of several cottages are ripped out; the doors and windows replaced by mass-produced items that look more ‘authentic’ than the real thing.
      The colours of sky and landscape change gradually as we head back on another route — a road paralleling a brook and a big bald ridge, the grey rock showing through. Across the valley in the late sun a brown glow of dead bracken. We circle through Barbon, and past the Swan Hotel (Middleton, Lune Valley), where Gael and Jill last saw Bunting, then back to the High House. It’s still twilight at 9.15. Eat a solid rustic meal and wash the dishes, then to bed ready for a longer walk tomorrow.

Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawthey’s madrigal,
each pebble its part
for the fells’ late spring.

                  (Basil Bunting)

10th May. Around 11.00 we drive via Stavely to Moor Howe, and walk up a track — Dubbs Road & Garburn Road — around Applethwaite Common. Down below is the long village of Troutbeck and back down its valley, Windemere with its boats and islands. Just after a steep track from the village joins there is a large disused slate quarry. Stone fences on either side of the road — the ones on the high side have high stones on their sides at intervals, drilled and connected with wire. At Garburn Nook we take a break and eat cheese, paté and chive sandwiches and look out towards the Brent Knott. As we climb higher a view opens up of the whole of Windemere, the Hoad, the factory at Ulverston, the Irish Sea, the power station at Heysham, a folly on the hill above Lancaster, and on the horizon even the tower of Blackpool. We climb further up the Yoke — Jill takes a break at Sheepfold — and reach the Star Crag overlooking Kentmere reservoir, before turning back. Over to the west we can see Langdale Pike and north the higher shapes of Skiddaw and Helvellyn, and over towards Barrow and Millom, the Black Combe. The weather remains beautiful with moving cloud, the colour patches of dead bracken and burnt heather against the bright green of the hills.
      Note — British ‘magpie’ and Australian ‘magpie’ are different birds. The British one has patches of olive and blue and a long tail and no similarity of call.
      Varieties of sheep in this district include the Rough Fell, the Swaledale and the grey Herdwick.
      Also ravens, larks (the call!).
      And the Larch — its spikes soft and feathery to the touch.
      In the evening I help Gael to fix a bit of the driveway surface — filling up patches with gravel. We eat and head back to Ulverston, talking all the way about Turner and painting — the long fiasco of Turner’s will and the fate of the Turner collection, now finally assembled. Back at Church Walk, Jill shows me photographs of Périgueux and the Dordogne, and of High House and the surrounding country in the snow, while Gael looks at the book of Provençal songs I found in Toulouse. Afterwards he takes me up to his study and gives me copies of his own recent small-press work and also several Migrant Press books (Gael started the press in the early 1950s — I hadn’t known he was still publishing). I also see copies of the Black Mountain Review — a wonderful looking magazine.
      11th May. Jill brings me a cup of tea in bed. Outside it’s raining and has been during the night. Rain slants over the tiles. Ulverston, grey on grey stone. Raincoated figures scurry into the school opposite.
      This part of Cumbria probably has the most radioactive coastline in the U.K. At Barrow-in-Furness there’s the shipyard which builds Trident, and across the sands, at Heysham, the nuclear power plant which can be seen for miles. Bird varieties along the shore have mysteriously thinned out, but nobody can ‘prove’ any connection. And the nuclear industry has large sums at its disposal for ‘public relations.’

That there are those who want to imagine it
     
is unimaginable.

                  (Gael Turnbull)

On the train back to Lancaster it’s high tide. What were endless flats of sand and mud are now expanses of water, right up to the moss.
      At Lancaster I have a counter meal of steak pie, peas and chips and a half-pint of lager in a pub on the main street. Lancaster bus station is icy — colder than the Star Crag — and the bus is late. When I finally get on board I’m seated next to a ‘Londoner’ with a northern accent who tells me about the blondes in Newcastle who come across after a few drinks. When we reach the interchange at Preston I’m gladly separated from this by no means totally unpleasant gent though tranquillity is shortlived: the bus video comes on with a deafening sound level — so all the old biddies can hear it I suppose. It’s a dreadful film about ballet dancers defecting from the Soviet Union, full of crass stereotypes: evil Russian secret-service operatives and helpless women.



Notes
[1] This was not to be granted to Nicholson. He died shortly after in the Whitehaven hospital.
[2] Rosemary Hunter and I were to stay there courtesy of Jonathan and Tom five years later in 1992.

Photo of Laurie Duggan

Laurie (Laurence) Duggan’s most recent book of poems is Mangroves (UQP, 2003). He has also published a work of cultural history, Ghost Nation: Imagined space and Australian visual culture 1901–1939. A selected poems is to appear with Shearsman (UK) in 2005.

Photo: Laurie Duggan, 2004.


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