‘There are many sorts of interest which a poem may have
but without an essential grain of delight in language and
in the possibilities of utterance, I believe that it is all in vain.’
Gael Turnbull was born in Edinburgh on 7 April 1928. His father was Ralph Gale Turnbull, who had gone to America to study to be a minister, where he met Turnbull’s mother, Anne Lundin, a teacher whose parents were Swedish. They lived in Edinburgh, where his father was finishing his studies. After he qualified as a Baptist minister, the family moved around according to where he was sent: places such as Jarrow and Blackpool. In 1939 they made a bigger move -– to Minnesota, where the Lundin family lived; then to Winnipeg in Canada where his father became pastor of an Elim Chapel.
Turnbull was sent back to England to attend Perse School in Cambridge and in 1945 he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, to study Natural Science. He returned to America and joined his family, who were now in Philadelphia. He finally graduated with an American M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 and began an internship in Pittsburgh. He married a girl from California in 1952 and fled the Draft Board (the Korean War was on) to Canada, where he worked as a GP in a small town in northern Ontario.
He returned, with his new family, to England in 1955 and found work at a hospital in Worcester. There seemed no long-term prospects for work, so back to America they went and settled near Santa Barbara, California, Turnbull working at a county hospital. However, he couldn’t settle and in 1963 it was back to England for them, settling in Malvern: he combined working as a GP with sessions as a hospital anaesthetist. He was awarded the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize in 1968.
In 1981 Turnbull and his wife separated (on friendly terms) and he remarried in 1983. He had resigned from his Worcester practice in 1982 and the following year the new couple both found work in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, living in nearby Ulverston. He was finally able to give up doctoring (which he never really liked but it paid the bills) in June 1989; the next month Gael and Jill Turnbull moved to Edinburgh, where they lived happily until his sudden death on 2 July 2004. He is buried in Currie churchyard.
Turnbull wrote once that ‘We are all many selves and lead many lives’ (Contemporary Authors). Some of his selves included: actor (in 1960s California); sailor (he loved dinghy sailing although it terrified him); Francophile (walking the Loire valley and translating French poetry); Morris dancer (taken up as exercise after a bout of polio). But he was primarily a poet – that was what all his selves fed into. Poetry was crucially interwoven with his nomadic lifestyle: reading it, writing it, publishing it.
As far as his own poetry is concerned, he said that a bibliography probably says all that needs to be said: ‘and more concisely. In the end, poems must speak for themselves, shift for themselves, survive or shrivel away from the living person who made them.’ But perhaps he might allow a few words on behalf of his poems. Turnbull was a poet of great inventiveness and variety in the modernist tradition: he wrote love poems, historical poems, collage poems, pattern poems, found poems, list poems and latterly, fascinating 3-dimensional kinetic poems, word machines he loved tinkering with and whose delight for others he delighted in. Yet as John Lucas noted in Zed 2 O, he was ‘all of a piece’ and his voice was distinctive throughout, both humorous and humane. Edwin Morgan remarked on his ‘kindly clarities’, his ‘clean-cut lightness of touch’ and the ‘glancing insights and humanities of his work’.
Turnbull was also a great encourager of others and an enabler. If he was enthusiastic about someone’s work he would write to tell them and was often keen to pass it on to someone else. In this spirit he founded the magazine Migrant and Migrant Press (a suitable name given his peripatetic life), which provided a link between American and British poets in particular. He published poets he knew in the USA and poets he got to know in Britain – his circle was wide: Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, Cid Corman, Charles Tomlinson, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan among many others. In America he had even managed to meet and interview the greatest of the doctor-poets, William Carlos Williams, whose work he admired and whose influence he acknowledged.
In his later years Turnbull continued publishing, with what he called ‘minimal missives’, photocopier-produced pamphlets of poets whose work had caught his eye. The pamphlet was his preferred form for his own work; he loved the cheapness, the random distribution, the democracy, the ephemerality of pamphlets – he just loved the fugitive. All of which has meant he has never been in the mainstream of British, or even Scottish, poetry. ‘No fash’, he would have said. He delighted in words and the persistence of things. And his poems will persist.
As a doctor and poet he was wary of the alleged therapeutic value of poetry. One year the slogan of National Poetry Day was ‘Transform your life with poetry’. Gael Turnbull would rather it had been ‘Transform your poetry with life’.
Read the poems
The Estate of Gael Turnbull; please contact the Scottish Poetry Library
Manuscripts and Papers
National Library of Scotland; Mitchell Library, Glasgow
This is an image the duplicator used by Gael Turnbull to print Migrant – it was nick-named ‘The Monster’. It is held in the collection at the Scottish Poetry Library.
Here is an image of the information panel that accompanied it in an exhibition at The British Library: