JOHN NEVILLE TURNER (1936-2018)
Jazz pianist, linguist, sports historian, cricket and football lover, Supreme Court barrister, professor of law, expert on family law and advocate for the legal rights of children.
Sometimes – though, sadly, all too infrequently - one meets someone who, regardless of the brevity of that meeting, leaves an everlasting and very special impression. One such person in my life was John Neville Turner, unquestionably one of the finest characters I am ever likely to encounter. J. Neville passed away on Thursday morning, close to his 82nd birthday, having suffered from vascular dementia for the past 3½ years. He was often referred to by friends as a “Modern Renaissance Man”, a salute to his wide range of interests and expertise, from jazz pianist to sports historian, prolific author, professor of law at Monash University for almost 30 years, expert on family law and an advocate for the legal rights of children. Neville was a solicitor in the Supreme Court of Judicature in England before coming to Australia in the late 1960s. Here he became a barrister in the Supreme Court of Victoria, a lecturer in law at the University of Adelaide for five years, and taught law at universities in Michigan and Nebraska. He spoke five languages, as well as being versed in classical Latin and Greek.
Unsurprisingly, given he was born in Bury in Lancashire, and gained his law degree with honours at Manchester University, his greatest sporting passions were cricket and football. The former is a game of which he was a connoisseur in the absolute literal sense of the word. Anyone who not just tolerates but continues to embrace cricket for as long - and with such intense and unabiding affection - as Neville did, surely needs to be a true connoisseur. Neville was moreover a purist and a traditionalist who found “noise pollution” at cricket matches to be “heinous”. Cricket, Neville felt, should be “a refuge from the vulgarity of the traffic and commerce of early 21st Century freneticism.” Many modern, revamped cricket stadiums were “anti-historical, superfluous, grandiose, grandiloquent, [a] folly which only a modern-day Nero would build” (how he would have hated the loss of the WACA Ground in Perth). In 1993, Neville described one-day cricket, the version shaped to appeal largely to the hoi polloi, the great unwashed, as “a facile perversion of a great art-form” which attracted hooligans, drunks and misfits. “On the other hand, the first-class, extended match offers an authority and beauty that no other game in the world can match.” These were comments which would quickly separate the men from the boys when it comes to genuine cricket love. Neville, indeed, could view cricket as an extension of both art and war. He once presented a paper describing players from the great rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire in terms of characters from Shakespeare's War of the Roses plays. Neville attended cricket Tests at 44 grounds around the world and all football World Cups from 1986 to 2010.
In July 1989, Neville presented a paper to an Australian Society of Sports Historians conference asking “Is Sport an Art Form?”, a proposition which was dismissed by one pretentious columnist as tantamount to suggesting “opera for the proletariat”. But the thought was more warmly received by Tony Stephens in The Sydney Morning Herald, who quoted Neville as saying, “Sport is one of the graces of life, a source of infinite joy and productive of the finest cultural values”. Neville had accepted “Tolstoy’s concept of art as the sincere sharing of an emotion that moves the person who expresses it”, and he believed the Australia Council’s mandate should be extended to cover sport as well as music, literature and ballet.
Thereafter Neville’s name was not seen so much on the news pages; in hindsight it seems as if he’d felt stung by the chilly reception and patently pseudo intellectualism of the conceited columnist (“Paspalum Place”). On the other hand, Neville’s ongoing dislike of modern technology – no computers, no email and no Word Doc for him – quite possibly curtailed his wider influence as the study of sport and sports history tightened into an exclusive academic enclave, a zealously protected school for like minds, their work reading increasingly like what "Paspalum Place" described as onanism. Neville preferred books and primary sources to the insidious, unreliable Internet. He wrote his notes and letters in longhand. As for revolutionary ideas, like sport as art, they came to be frowned upon – after all, it attracted negative publicity.
Ironically, Neville’s passing was announced to a broader audience on the very stage Neville shunned, social media. It came on Facebook, from his great friend and fellow sports historian Bernard Whimpress. This elicited an outpouring of sorrow from the select group of Bernard’s online friends, one of whom referred as Neville as “Nevillepaedia”. Others recalled a gentleman and a true character, a special and an exceptional man, a great “encourager” and contributor, and an entertaining and extremely knowledgeable companion. For all that, Neville was a man people felt they knew, yet knew little about.
Neville’s true fame did not extend much beyond that small circle of those close friends who, through getting to know Neville well, had gained some inkling of his life of achievements. The Neville I knew was quiet, unassuming, humble and modest, though also exceedingly erudite. He was a voice of reason and he was generous and kind, including with his praise (you knew you’d earned it), a impish soul with an irresistible sense of fun. I’m reliably told he was also a marvellous teacher.
It was only through a chance chat in a bar in 2007 that I learned Neville was such an adept at a keyboard. It was talking with a lifewire Ukrainian, Dr Jorge Dorfman Knijnik, a lecturer in physical education and sport at University of São Paulo in Brazil, when Jorge offered to sing one of my favourite tunes, The Girl from Ipanema, at a dinner I was MC-ing in the Great Hall at the Australian National University, and Neville was suggested as an accompanist. I was only too happy to agree to this arrangement, and stopped the pre-recorded soundtrack between Frank Sinatra’s There Used To Be a Ballpark Right Around Here and Roy Harper’s When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease for the Jorge-Neville recital. To say Neville astonished the large gathering with his piano playing would be a gross understatement. We were simply flabbergasted that, in the enforced absence of Sinatra and Harper, such a rich talent was in our midst.
Neville went on to play Vangelis’s memorable instrumental Chariots of Fire, the theme music for the movie of the same name, ending his performance with a lavish back-fingered sweep of the wires and proceeding to explain to a room full of sports historians and their partners that the title had nothing whatsoever to do with sport, nor indeed the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. We philistines, we innocently profane many, learned that the words “Chariots of Fire” came from the poem “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time" by William Blake, probably written in 1804, a preface to his epic Milton: A Poem in Two Books, one of a collection of writings known as the Prophetic Books. And that Blake’s words became the hymn Jerusalem, with music written by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916. The poem was inspired by the apocryphal story that a young Jesus, accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant, travelled to what is now England and visited Glastonbury. The theme is linked to the Book of Revelation, describing a Second Coming, wherein Jesus establishes a New Jerusalem. Blake implies that a visit by Jesus would briefly create heaven in England, in contrast to the "Dark Satanic Mills" of the Industrial Revolution.
In a way it sounds a bit like postmodernist theory, and I doubt that did much for Neville. Either way, I gather that, because of our night on the town with Bernard Whimpress, which included a bossa nova around a large pile of coats (the first dance in 30 years of sports history conferences), the pair missed the following morning’s presentation on postmodernist theory in the study of sport history. Bernard, by the way, gained some notoriety by adding a typewriter museum to a nunnery as being among places in which he’d slept.
Happily, the one session I’m forever grateful I attended during that 2007 sports history conference was the last one, the one in which J. Neville Turner presented his talk titled “The Half Eaten Pear”. My recollection is that this wasn’t even a scheduled presentation, and that some unfortunate historians, eager to catch flights out of Canberra, missed it. But “The Half Eaten Pear” has, in the past 11 years, developed such a reputation it has almost attained legendary status, at least among sports historians. There are those of us who were there and heard it and those who so earnestly wished they had been there that they have come to believe they were. The talk was a satirical look at the maze of rules of golf as laid down by the Royal and Ancient of St Andrews, so comprehensive and involved that they leave one wondering, “What possible eventuality could they have overlooked?” Well, Neville provided the answers to that question with a paper that readily recalled Evelyn Waugh in his Scoop mood, such was its plausible ridiculousness. In my humble opinion, “The Half Eaten Pear” ranks, among sports talks, right up there with Humphrey Tilling’s famous “Six Ages of Cricket”, given to the Forty Club in London in 1963 (indeed, Neville was probably suitably inspired by the Tilling talk). Neville’s costume manager on the day was Bernard Whimpress, who, since Neville was not golfer himself (though an able tennis player), supplied a broken half-wedge and plus fours.
Back then, Jorge Dorfman Knijnik reminded me of a quote from the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamuurti, “So when you are listening to somebody completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.” Bernard Whimpress has come to describe Neville’s talk as a “riot”. Yet, as much as everyone there was reduced to tears of laughter, nobody dared miss a single word. And during Neville’s talk, one grasped fully the feeling, and came to gain a precious insight into the character that was John Neville Turner.