First in an occasional series in which PNG Attitude's most prolific contributors profile themselves and their backgrounds....
MY FATHER CAME FROM Waterford in the southeast of Ireland. He was a bootmaker and cobbler in the family tradition. My mother was a country girl from Suffolk in England. They met and married in England at the end of World War II.
I was born in Oxford in 1948 where my father was working at the Morris Motor Factory. We then moved to Suffolk, where my maternal grandparents were farming.
We migrated to Australia in 1956, partly because of my poor health and after a brief stint in a migrant hostel settled in Elizabeth, a new ‘satellite’ town just north of Adelaide in South Australia. Elizabeth was full of ‘ten-pound poms’ who were encouraged to live there to provide workers for the new factories like General Motors Holden.
I grew up in Elizabeth. It was a reasonably pleasant place in those days with a strong community spirit. My best mate and I spent our time wandering in the nearby Mount Lofty Ranges collecting snakes and lizards, which we kept at the bottom of the garden. We had a great collection of sleepy lizards, bearded dragons, brown snakes and red-bellied black snakes.
Today Elizabeth is pock-marked with ghettos of low income and unemployed families and is unofficially classified as ‘Indian Territory’ which you enter at your own risk - so much for the idealistic dreams of town planners in the 1950s.
I went to the Elizabeth Boys Technical High School, not so much because I was dumb but because I thought it had better art classes, a subject in which I was then interested. They had a small matriculation class and I attended that in 1965, winning the school prize for literature, which wasn’t too hard at all.
I also learnt technical drawing, woodwork and metalwork, all of which served me well in later life. Sometimes I think it would be a good idea to bring back the old technical schools.
My first job was with the National Bank, which I joined in 1966, the year Australia changed to decimal currency. I wasn’t very good at banking and instead of being promoted at the end of the year from junior clerk to ledger clerk I was put on the relieving staff.
That enabled me to see a lot of rural South Australia but after a few months I was pretty sick of it. I did come away with a good collection of pre-decimal coins however.
My best mate and I were outdoors types and we both applied to come to Papua New Guinea as Cadet Patrol Officers in 1967. We arrived in late November after three months at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) in Sydney.
After a month out at Kwikila doing practical training we were both posted to the Western Highlands, just in time for Christmas. After two years in Mount Hagen, Tambul and Mul Local Government Council I transferred to the Western District, serving at Kiunga, Olsobip, Nomad River and Balimo and managing to get involved in arresting cannibals and exploring new country along the way.
I began a degree through the External Studies Department of the University of Queensland in 1972 doing a double major in English. It took me nine years to complete the degree studying part time.
Working and bringing up kids makes study hard. I more or less took subjects that interested me so I ended up with a very ordinary and patchy degree. I later did a post-graduate major in Government
I left the Department of District Administration in late 1972 to work for Sinaka Goava’s Commission of Enquiry into Land Matters. I returned to Australia the following year after my six-year contract had expired.
In Australia I got a job as an Aboriginal Site Recorder with the South Australian Museum (they were short of anthropologists in those days). I went to work in the North West Aboriginal Reserve, which is now the Pitjantjatjara Lands, with people who were still living a largely traditional lifestyle.
All the old traditional men that I knew then are now dead but when I meet their children and grandchildren they call me wati tjilpi, which means something like ‘knowledgeable elder’ because I know where many of their dreaming places are and can tell them the stories. My totem is waiuta, the possum.
I eventually worked my way up to be the Manager of the South Australian Aboriginal Heritage Branch before getting heartily sick of the politics and repeatedly failing to save important places from rapacious developers. I set myself up as a private consultant in 1994, mainly doing research and surveys for Native Title claims or for mining companies wishing to avoid damaging sites.
In 1997 I returned to Papua New Guinea to work intermittently for Oilmin Field Services where my best mate and now brother-in-law was employed. I still do social mapping in Papua New Guinea through a company called Firewall Logistics set up by an old kiap friend.
I mix that with Aboriginal heritage work in Australia. This year my son and I will be running a large site recording survey on Fraser Island (K’Gari) working with young indigenous Butchulla rangers.
I married in 1976 and my wife Sue and I ended up on a small farm in the Adelaide Hills near the Barossa Valley, where our two children, Luke and Jessica, were born. My son went to Duntroon and spent ten years in the Australian army, serving in Europe, East Timor and Iraq.
He left the army a few years ago and we now work together on various projects, including some in Papua New Guinea. My daughter manages a hotel in Tumby Bay in South Australia. Jessica has got a daughter and Luke has got two sons.
My wife and I moved to Hervey Bay in Queensland a few years ago and we now live in a small wooden Queenslander built in 1948 which is a few hundred metres from the beach and coffee shops and restaurants, all of which we visit a lot.
I published my first story in the Pacific Islands Monthly in 1970 and I’ve been writing ever since. I published my first book in 2005 and am now working on numbers five and six. I’ve never managed to make anything more than pocket money out of writing. Either I’m not good enough or I write the wrong stuff.
I find occasionally writing for PNG Attitude very satisfying. Getting involved in the Crocodile Prize in 2011 and mentoring Papua New Guinean writers has been a real honour. It gives me a feeling of giving something back to a country that had such a huge influence on my life.