BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
THIS IS AN interesting collection of short stories, memoirs and then something in between. The style is straightforward and unpretentious; there are no literary subtleties to detract from the simple narratives.
While the subject matter ranges over many of the things familiar to most expatriates who spent time in Papua New Guinea there are also unusual events to spark the interest.
The kiaps-versus-the-rest cricket match, digging up old wartime bombs, finding skeletons of Japanese soldiers and the antics of grizzled old crocodile hunters are mixed with memories of being the only expatriate patient in the surgical ward of the Port Moresby General Hospital, swimming with sharks and thundering around in a helicopter gunship on Bougainville as Major Jerry Singirok’s unofficial photographer.
The author was a teacher who worked on New Ireland from 1970-74, left to travel overseas with his wife, and then returned in 1980 to teach at Popondetta and later at Panguna on Bougainville until the war forced him to leave in 1990.
I had a bit of trouble sorting fact from fiction here and there; a more judicious ordering of the various pieces might have helped, but this is only a minor point.
Like a number of recent publications about Papua New Guinea, the target audience is not large and you really have to be in the know to be appreciative. I understand Peter’s family arranged for the publication without letting on to him.
These sorts of stories and reminiscences have become a distinct Papua New Guinea literary genre of late, particularly with the opportunities afforded by digital publishing.
I guess Trevor Shearston started it off with his Something in the Blood. Whether they will survive beyond the “family” as enduring historical documents is hard to tell.
The first introductory story in the collection is less than a page long. It is worth repeating for the chord it strikes. It’s called Maus Gras.
“So you were in New Guinea were you? You must be glad to be back in Australia.” There was a pause in the conversation.
“Yeah. I had a mate who went up there for a stint. Couldn’t wait to get back. Hated the place. Oh he said the social life was great and he packed away a bit of cash but wasn’t sad to see the end of the place. He did his two years and got to heck out of it.
“Worth it though he reckoned. He’s got a nice house in Cherrybrook. When were you up there? You may have met him. His name’s Jim Bell. Old Ding Dong we call him. Top bloke. I think he was in Port Moresby.”
“No, I don’t know the name,” came the reply followed by nodding of the head. “When was he up there?”
“Oh a few years ago ... after they became independent ... I’d say about 1984.”
“No, I don’t know the name.”
“How long were you up there ... a couple of years?”
“Oh ... quite a while. I first went up in the mid 1960s. I’ve only been back a couple of years. I was on Bougainville ... when Bougainville was evacuated. My children were all born up there. We loved it.”
Then came silence ... the familiar silence and blank stares that accompany disinterest.
“We really miss it. I suppose we were fortunate that we had always been in out of the way places and outstations. Being a teacher I think made it special as it gave you opportunities to visit villages and get to know the people.”
No response. No one was listening and now several conversations were in progress. It was always the same.
How many of you have had that experience?