Remembering J. Neville Turner

 

[The first part of this post is from the text of the e-newsletter today – May 6. The extract about J. Neville’s tennis serve is below in italics.]

 

On Thursday I went to the funeral of an old friend – J. Neville Turner. He was a great character – an eccentric genius. He had many passions which he pursued with enormous energy and enthusiasm – an academic (he lectured in law), a cricket lover (perhaps the world’s greatest appreciator of the game), a writer, a language scholar, a brilliant pianist and so on. He also loved soccer and tennis. He was an Englishman – a very English Englishman. He was from Bury in Lancashire. He’d come to Australia to follow Mike Smith’s touring team in the mid-60s and stayed – initially lecturing at Adelaide Uni after which he wound up teaching at Monash.

 

I first met Neville at an academic conference in the mid-1990s and ended up sitting with him at a dinner. We stayed in contact and whenever he headed north for the Gabba Test we would catch up –  often at the cricket itself, and sometimes he would come to our place in Bardon for dinner, usually a barbecue with many reds on the back deck. He would always be in jacket and tie. That was a fun house – a post-uni share house where everyone is working and playing and doing all manner of things and coming and going. I could write a book about it. My brother had a piano which he played pretty much daily – and when Jill Bartsch (now Stoll) came up from Opera Australia in Sydney to live with us while she worked at Opera Queensland she brought her grand piano. So there was wonderful music in our house. Neville greeted Jill by taking her hand and kissing it – stock standard for him. Eventually on these nights we would be around the piano. Neville was a brilliant improvisor – and had such an intuitive understanding of music that he could play anything, as if he could enter the mind of the world’s composers and songwriters. He was also a composer himself. He loved all music. He was also a fine conversationalist – and I remember many balmy Queensland evenings with guests like the Adairs and the Joblings as well as the regular line-up of old uni mates who would congregate around our table. One was Bronny Neil who also lived at that house for a few years. She was completing a PhD in Patristics so was a scholar of Latin and Greek. Neville loved that.

 

The house eventually drifted into history – as its parade of residents settled down and got married and did grown-up stuff. To my great susprise that also happened to me.

 

When The Handicapper and I moved to Melbourne, Neville was living in Warburton. I’d catch up with him at cricket-related events (especially Test matches, but often interstate)  and we once went to the Alpine in Warburton where he had a regular Sunday afternoon gig – with a singer.

 

His eccentricities were many and varied. And just when I thought he was at the upper limit of eccentricity I was privileged to see him serve a tennis ball in a match against historian and writer Bernard Whimpress (a contributor these days to the Almanac). That was during the Adelaide Test of the 1998-99 series. Bernard gave one of the eulogies – a warm tribute to his great friend. Vale Neville.

 

I tried to describe Neville’s serve in Confessions of a Thirteenth Man which follows  if you are intrigued by the prospect:

 

J. Neville Turner has spent the Test under the Moreton Bay fig trees. He is very disappointed. But he does tell me that he is to play Bernard Whimpress [At that time Bernard was a freelance writer and curator of the Adelaide Oval Museum, among other things – JTH] at tennis over at Memorial Drive right next to the Adelaide Oval after stumps. I go and watch.

 

The two combatants have a rivalry built up over many years. The tennis challenge is part of their Test Match ritual and I suspect the ledger is about even. Bernard is some years the junior of the sixty-two-year-old J. Neville but age and guile match up well against relative youth, relative innocence, and a genuinely bad haircut. I arrive with the museum curator one set up. The match is being played in the finest tradition of sport: fiercely competitive; played fairly; played in a spirit of fun; played to win; and played by two sportsmen who, in their many years of exertion, have watched as the distance between them and the tennis textbook has increased in the interest of expediency and good health. This has resulted in deliciously idiosyncratic styles. J. Neville covers the court dexterously, relying on cagey anticipation, a wicked skidding chip-slice backhand, and the tendency of opponents to underestimate his English doggedness.

 

His serve is magnificently idiosyncratic. It begins with a meander back to the baseline where he slowly places his feet in the conventional position. He pauses. Looks. Pauses again. Suddenly J. Neville jolts into action. As the toss is initiated each muscle, joint and organ appears obliged to move. Each is connected like an economic theory, but like economics, the overall purpose is difficult to ascertain. I struggle to decide at which limb to look. The knees attract the eye for no other reason than the sheer difference between their allotted responsibilities. As the toss travels upward and the body spasms, J. Neville’s eyes never leave the ball. He initially acknowledges it with the fraternal smirk of the diplomat. If you aren’t too distracted by the symphony of movement played out below, you notice that this look then changes to that of a child who has just heard the ‘Greensleeves’ tune in the neighbourhood. The final look coincides with the momentary cessation of all body movement. At this point of suspended animation the only way to describe J. Neville is as a human swastika: arm extended behind with racquet cocked; other arm out in front; one knee cocked in front as in goose-stepping; the other slightly bent but offering connection, by way of foot, to the ground. At this instant he has the facial expression of the Tasmanian Devil in the Merrie Melodies cartoons. The backswing is complete. It is here that natural talent and years of experience cut in. The racquet comes through on the right plane, there is sound timing, and the flat serve travels accurately and at some pace.

 

Neville fights back and takes the second set. But Bernard, enjoying the advantage of his home court, takes the match. Bernard Whimpress (Adelaide) d J. Neville Turner (Bury, Lancashire and, lately, Melbourne) 7-5 4-6 6-2.

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au He has written many columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted j.t.h@footyalmanac.com.au He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo10, Anna8, Evie7. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.

Comments

  1. JTH the description of J Neville’s serve is a piece of brilliance. Sheer, descriptive genius. I can see it, in all its eccentric beauty. It reads as if he was trying to leave the ground, like a dilapidated helicopter.

  2. Peter_B says:

    Fine tribute. There are days when my golf swing fits the “human swastika” description. The golf pros call it “sequencing”, but some days its more of a seance.

  3. bernard whimpress says:

    Great piece, John and glad to reference the ‘swastika’ on Thursday. While I’m thinking of it can you send me your Wool Board contact re Joe Darling.

  4. Smokie says:

    A wonderful tribute JTH.

    With John Birmingham having already started the Brisbane share-house book thing, maybe you could add your take to the genre?

  5. E.regnans says:

    Memories brilliantly captured and described, JTH.
    The human swastika(!)

    Vale J. Neville Turner.

  6. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Much love for the loss of Neville.

    I secretly hope there is a kind of visceral afterlife and that Neville is there, sparking up a tennis match with the great French actor Jacques Tati. Have you ever seen ‘Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot’ – ‘Mr Hulot’s Holidays’? If not …track it down, watch it with the kids, wait til you see Tati’s serve!

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