SINGSINGS, SUTURES & SORCERY, a compelling fusion of memoir and compendium, relates a bush doctor’s struggles against disease, superstition and bureaucracy with the backdrop being the vast, colourful canvass of colonial Papua New Guinea, or ‘the Territory’ as we called it in those now distant days.
Many works of recollection have been written by Australians who lived and worked in the Territory before it attained independence in 1975, but Dr Anthony Radford brings to raging life the colourful characters, bizarre experiences, hard drinking and what the late Professor Hank Nelson called “the casual racism” of that extraordinary period in Australian (and Papua New Guinean) history.
As a senior medical student, Radford first worked in TPNG, to which it was customarily abbreviated, for a couple of months between November 1959 and January 1960 after being recruited as a “Cadet Medical Officer”.
From that brief but intense experience, he made sure his studies at the University of Adelaide were directed to acquiring the range of skills – from surgery to dentistry - he would require in pursuing a career as a bush doctor before being despatched to his outpost in TPNG in 1963.
As chance had it, although I have never met Radford, he and I – then an 18-year old newly-qualified teacher - arrived in the New Guinea highlands at around the same time and shared both the identical cast of larger than life characters and the same culture shock delivered as much by them as by the indigenous people themselves who, unbeknownst to all of us, were even then moving rapidly towards nationhood.
While Singsings, Sutures & Sorcery offers useful (and well written) chapters on subjects such as the history of medicine in PNG, an epidemiological profile of the country and even an elementary primer on Tok Pisin, the best part of this book is Radford’s sparkling and gossipy romp through the social, medical and bureaucratic challenges he faced in the Territory.
Like me, upon arrival he was confronted by that “casual racism” – unstructured, unremarked and unconscious - which led a visiting Gough Whitlam to observe in 1969 that it must have been a different breed of Australian who chose to live in TPNG because their attitudes were unrecognisable from those of the people “down South”.
Australians consider themselves to be a fair and easy-going people but, when confronted with the exigencies of TPNG, such vanities were severely put to the test.
“How I detested those two words ‘Native’ and ‘Boy’,” Radford recalls. “This was my first experience of cross-cultural living in a country where the predominant group had little power and the whole structure in the Territory seemed to be based on master-servant or mistress-servant relationships, and the colour code was obvious… I was witnessing apartheid Australian-style….”
It was the colonists’ dirty little secret; one which few other Australian expatriate authors recording this period have deigned to address, an exception being Phil Fitzpatrick in his elegant Bamahuta: Leaving Papua.
The last vestiges of such misbegotten attitudes still hang around Port Moresby’s Papua Yacht Club and, in Australia, amongst some elements in the Papua New Guinea Association, but a modernising and newly energised PNG is seeing them discarded. By the end of this decade they will be gone.
Back then, however, those of us new to the Territory had to determine how to deal with such behaviour. Radford did it by throwing himself into his work, sport, church and growing family. No one thought any the less of him. (Although, upon arriving unexpectedly in Kainantu and explaining he was the new doctor, assistant district officer Ken Connolly replied brusquely: “What’s wrong with the one we have already?”)
There wasn’t an unchallenging development job in rural TPNG in the sixties, and the doctor’s role was especially demanding: constantly offering physical and professional challenges.
“I had no option but to do a hysterectomy,” Radford writes. “I had never done that operation before. ‘Get me the big book with the grey cover from my office,’ I requested. I would have to do this one by the book.” Literally.
In New Guinea, however, there were medical conditions for which the book had not yet been written and where, in addition to their primary role, the young bush doctors were in the forefront of medical discovery and research.
Radford’s colleague (also a friend of mine), the late Prof
Tim Murrell, as a young bush doctor in Kundiawa identified the disease enteritis necroticans (pikbel in Pidgin; or what we laymen
called ‘gangrene of the gut’) that would break out after big singsings when rotting pork was eaten.
Radford himself says that one of his two greatest achievements as a bush doctor was in urging the UN to make a serious effort to address neonatal tetanus which triggered a response resulting in a major global preventative effort to eliminate this insidious disease.
The other achievement came despite formidable opposition from a conservative and sometimes sceptical profession: Radford’s ultimately successful efforts to establish rural medical practice training as a subject of study in its own right. Ninety per cent of Papua New Guineans live in rural
It is conceivable, though, that Radford’s paramount accomplishment may have been more subtle than even these considerable successes.
By being a tough, competent doctor who could offer a balanced relationship between the colonists and the colonised, he was one of many Australian professionals in TPNG who left behind a legacy amongst Papua New Guineans that was not of hatred or even dislike but of familiarity and filial respect.
It is a legacy that has been maintained in present-day PNG and one which, in truth, we Australians should be doing more to reciprocate.
Singsings, Sutures & Sorcery is an evocative work by a conscientious, humorous and endearing man.
After his major 10-year stint in TPNG, Radford was to spend another 40 years in close contact with the country as a consultant and friend.
His book ends on an uncharacteristic note of foreboding, ‘where are you headed, my place?’ he asks.
Radford needn’t be too worried. The people he served so well for all those years are alive to their problems and are increasingly seen to be addressing them.
That they have the capacity to do so was instilled in useful measure by people from Australia like Dr Anthony Radford.