Sivarai, by Chips Mackellar, Pukpuk Publishing, 2013, 302 pp, illus, ISBN-10: 0987132180; ISBN-13: 978-0987132185. $25 + postage. Order from Bill McGrath’s Pacific Book House here or from Kindle for $3.02 as an e-book here
IT TURNS OUT – and, when the truth dawned some years ago, this caught me by surprise – that the great storytellers about Papua New Guinea in colonial times have been the kiaps.
Of course, as patrol officers, they had much fecund material to work with, but I always reckoned the schoolteachers, being formally educated in how to instruct others in the English language and its grammar and vocabulary, as well as having plenty of time to themselves in those remote bush schools, might have gravitated to the role of tribal chroniclers.
Well, with some notable exceptions such as Trevor Shearston (Something in the Blood) Eric Johns and his most useful histories, and a small number of others, it didn’t happen that way.
Instead we got the rich, evocative and so readable offerings of authors like Jack Hides (writing in the 1930s), Ian Downs, James Sinclair, Phil Fitzpatrick, Bob Cleland, John Fowke, Michael O’Connor, Laurie Meintjes and many more. We also got kiaps’ wives (Pamela Martin, Libby Bowen et al) recording the inspiration of being immersed in a new and exotic culture as well as the travails of the outstation.
And now, thanks to Phil Fitzpatrick’s assiduous cultivation of the writing of and about Papua New Guinea, indigenous and expatriate, we have a wonderful collection of 27 of Dr Mackellar's short stories, a couple of which, by way of appetiser, have been published in PNG Attitude – Cabbage and Honour Among Thieves.
The book, Sivarai (which in Motu simply means ‘story’), is adorned with a cover photograph of a pair of buxom young Trobriand Islands women – which tells us a little about the author without a single word being consumed.
Appropriately, although it seems unfair to single out one of these beautifully crafted stories for special mention, the one that strikes me as demonstrating both fine writing and authorial honesty is The Mile High Club.
Without giving too much away, Mackellar discloses how – in the course of a short plane flight - he simultaneously breached the Native Women’s Protection Ordinance, the kiaps’ no fraternisation rule and the police chain of command all in the one blissful act.
Malcolm (Chips) Mackellar went to Papua New Guinea as a cadet patrol officer in 1953, serving in five districts and rising to the rank of Assistant District Commissioner before transferring to the bench as a magistrate in Wabag and Port Moresby. He left PNG in 1981 after nearly 30 years’ service during which he saw the former colony transition into and beyond Independence.
Sivarai sparkles with anecdote and finely-drawn reminiscence. Mackellar is a great observer of incident, humanity and nuance.
The characters – and PNG was replete with them – come bouncing off the page and the stories are related with a freshness that makes you feel you are in the story not just reading it.
If you served in colonial PNG, Sivarai will help you recall why you loved it so much; and if you didn’t, it’ll make you wish you’d been there.
Mackellar writes in an Epilogue –
It is a long time since we patrolled the jungles and the islands of Papua New Guinea but we will take our memories, like those recorded in this book, with us when we prepare for our last patrol, which will take us on that long, long journey to that big Patrol Post in the Sky.
And, if Mackellar is representative, those kiaps will go with a chuckle and a sense of a job that was both done well and with a streak of larrikinism.
Chips Mackellar has done PNG’s past a great favour by compiling this collection and Phil Fitzpatrick has done a wonderful job in publishing such a well-designed and thoughtfully-edited book.