By BRUCE DENNILL
Kate Turkington has already written a couple of books with major autobiographical elements – There’s More To Life Than Surface, about the connectedness of different cultures; and Doing It With Doris, a collection of travel stories shot through with spiritual insight – but her latest, Yes Really! is a more traditional memoir, giving readers insight into the author, travel writer, journalist, TV producer and presenter and broadcaster’s (among other things) complex and fascinating past and present.
It’s interesting to note how often in the book Turkington seems to be in the right place at the right time to experience a life-changing moment or to meet a person who’s existence would be come intertwined with hers. If she’d said “no” to any of those opportunities, her life would have been significantly different – was her proclivity for saying “yes” down to instinct, her personality or, one she started working, her training as a journalist?
“Instinct, definitely,” she says, without hesitation. “I was trained like that, in a way. My mother Doris would take us into the garden in our garden in England, with Hitler’s armies massing on the beaches in Europe, and say: ‘There’s the moon – if you want to go, you can go there.’ I never thought about the outcomes of those decisions. I suppose that sounds naïve now…
“When I went to Ireland to live with the man who would become my second husband, I took two small kids to a place I’d never been, to a man I hardly knew! Over the years, I’ve had many youngsters coming to me as a mentor, but I’ve always ricocheted from one thing to another. I’ve had opportunities come to me, but I’ve also gone out and made them.”
Was there anything Turkington actually said no to?
“I can’t thing of much.”
A long pause.
“No. Nothing comes to mind. Now that I’m older, I don’t care if people like me, so I will say no to things I don’t want to go to, like dinners where I’m expected to smile at everyone.”
“I’m quite judgemental now, but I’ve earned that, I think. And I am a people person, so I’ll always get together with others if I can.”
How is this gung-ho approach affected by trust – or a lack of it – in the people Turkington is dealing with?
“I just do trust,” she shrugs. “As I said, there’s a certain amount of naivety involved, but I have very rarely had that trust misplaced. As you get older, you can sense whether a person is any good or not. I don’t know that there are many truly evil people around. Even dreadful people like Donald Trump – he’s a politician and a demagogue, and he has that sort of power you can’t quite believe until you meet him in person. I interviewed [AWB leader] Eugene Terreblanche a couple of times and he had something similar.”
Turkington also acknowledges that there’s something more to her penchant for exploration.
“The desire to learn is so important,” she states. “I love to learn, and to pass on that learning. I play a game with my grandchildren now where we make a list of letters and than work our way through different categories – coming up with a girl’s name starting with a particular letter, or a country’s name starting with another. I interviewed the Dalai Lama once, and he said that there is an inter-connectednss between all things. I think it’s fun to try and figure out what that is.”
When choosing what to include in an autobiography, what is the decision-making process as regards happy versus sad stories? Everything in the book is in Turkington’s past, but her children and grandchildren may have valid concerns about some of the more revealing moments?
“We don’t have family secrets,” says Turkington. “Whenever something terrible happens, we have a family conference, and talk things out. I don’t have things – my value is in our relationships.”
And yet, it’s a certainty that not every endeavour undertaken in Turkington’s full life was included in Yes, Really! – it’s simply too slim a volume for that.
“I’m not sure why I left out what I did leave out,” she muses. “I loved the things I’ve mentioned – working at Wits; being involved in TV; and the various milestones along the way, like signing contracts with government ministers at the side of dusty back-roads, or teaching lawyers and engineers about Dickens when they stull had to do first-year English as part of their degrees. And I brought up a family – that was a huge part of everything.”
Two of the major threads in Turkington’s life – and her book – are teaching and travelling. Are they opposite sides of the same coin? One is largely about gathering experience and knowledge; the other about disseminating those facets?
“I love teaching,” she says. “I still do a lot of media training. Seeing really smart young people who have put the past behind them gives me home for the future. With travelling, I don’t like to read about where I’m going beforehand. I like the adventure part of it.
“They are perhaps obverse sides of the same thing. Experiences in one area trigger memories of knowledge in the other – I love the synchronicity of life!”
There are some enduring lessons that have stuck with Turkington.
“Every time I travel, I come back to South Africa realising that there’s no country in the world I’d rather live in,” she smiles.
“Some of that is about finding out that things are vastly different and yet pretty much the same. That doesn’t sound particularly profound, but in my experience, it is.”
Turkington has been quoted as saying that travel writers never make money, but they do get to travel the world on someone else’s buck. That’s not the most poetic way of stating things, but the sentiment does speak to coming to understand the real value of what she does, rather than simply considering possible material rewards.
“Writing about or sharing what you’ve been through changes people’s lives,” she nods, “if only to show people that they don’t have to be oppressed – in any way. I’ve had messages from readers about this book saying, ‘It’s liberating for me to read a woman who talks about sex and enjoying sex,’ and I think that’s important.
“I learned my lessons, and I want to pass those on. I was brought up on the Isle of Dogs in London, where my grandfather was the head of the port authority. As a result, with all the comings and goings, it was not a normal house – it just wouldn’t occur to me that I couldn’t do something. And I tell my grandkids everything; I don’t try to shield them from anything.”
“I don’t need to be the responsible one anymore – that’s their parents’ problem!”
Towards the end of the book, there’s a chapter on the greatest interview subjects Turkington spoke to during her decades as a broadcaster. She favours people of extraordinary insight and conviction rather than the more conventional aspects of talent or humour.
“That goes back to inter-connectedness; being on the same wavelength” she says. “I can meet someone and not connect with them and they’ll just go out of my head. I’m very honest with people. I can be economical with the truth in order to not hurt someone, but why mince words otherwise? Omitting something can sometimes be all the comment needed. If you’re not happy with yourself, you’ll never get anywhere.”
Given what she values in others, what does Turkington hope she’ll be remembered for?
For once, she is lost for words.
“I hadn’t thought about that until now,” she muses.
“I do know that I’m surrounded by love – and that’s wonderful. What a lovely state of affairs. Again, it’s not profound. But I’ll take it.”
Kate Turkington’s autobiography Yes, Really!: A Life (Tafelberg) is available now.