FORMER Papua New Guinea kiap Bob Cleland is 83, although you’d never guess it. Like his contemporary Bill Brown, who I also know and like, he’s the sort of bloke you’d want alongside you in a fight. Still.
Bob’s a member of the Crocodile Prize Organising Group, COG, and he and his two daughters (both PNG-born) are sponsors of the important Heritage Writing Award in the Prize.
Bob says of the Award: “I am an active writer and an avid reader. I am passionate about the great value to every person, individually, of knowing the histories of their own culture and ancestry.”
The Heritage Award has been blessed with some wickedly good entries this year – and Bob will choose the winner.
Bob was born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1931, and joined the Administration of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea as a Cadet Patrol Officer in April 1953.
It was the same year his father, Brigadier (later Sir) Donald Cleland, became Administrator of TPNG in a term that would extend until 1967.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography records this of Sir Donald (who was knighted in 1961):
Cleland was pragmatic, balancing commercial, mission and government interests against what he thought was primary: the orderly development of the indigenous people. Publicly, he measured success in terms of building roads, bridges and airstrips, the increase in government revenue and the expansion of the public service. He chaired the Legislative Council, his 'pride and joy', until 1964 and directed the introduction of the first House of Assembly elected by full adult franchise; he restructured the public service so that it would be dominated by Papua New Guineans, paid at a rate the country could afford; and he continued the elimination of discriminatory legislation, most obviously ending the liquor ban in 1962.
Bob’s mother, Rachel, who died in 2002 at the grand age of 96, is described by Obituaries Australia in in these fine words:
Ever indomitable, Dame Rachel once said you could call her anything, a do-gooder, even a bastard, but you could not call her uncaring. She cared about everything she undertook and went at it full tilt. For 27 years after World War ll she was intimately associated with Papua New Guinea where her husband, Sir Donald, went in 1951 as Assistant Administrator and within two years became Administrator. Though she returned in 1978 to live in Perth, where she was born, PNG lived on in her heart and was still ‘home’.
Bob served successively in the then districts of Eastern Highlands (Goroka, Kassam, Daulo, Watabung), Western (Daru, Balimo), Morobe (Lae), East New Britain (Kokopo), Chimbu (Chuave), Eastern Highlands again (Goroka).
He returned to Australia in August 1976 after 23 years’ service in PNG, and was employed by Queensland-based Theiss Brothers as Administrative Manager of its Mining Division.
In recent years Bob has published an autobiographical work, Big Road, which tells of his first four years in the Eastern Highlands including the story of building the Daulo Pass.
He has also written many short autobiographical stories of his life in PNG which he plans to publish as an anthology.
Bob says of the Heritage Writing Award: “As a kiap on patrol, I recognised the extensive memory of the village elders and how valuable this was to every group, clan and tribe.
“I reflected then, as I still do, that, as these elders were lost, their accumulated knowledge is lost with them.
“I see the Crocodile Prize as a vital element in encouraging and supporting PNG writers and encouraging new writers.
“I see the creation and publication of more reading matter of quality for the general public. Readers will aspire to widen their choice of writers from other countries.”
And Bob adds: “I feel sure that the wider effect of the Crocodile Prize will be to add in a very positive way to the overall culture of PNG.”
Because of the commitment of Bob and others, the seven Awards handed out in September collectively underpin the strength of indigenous Papua New Guinean creative writing.
Also in September, 2,000 copies of the Crocodile Prize Anthology will begin to be distributed to Papua New Guinean readers.
Where would the world be without people like Bob Cleland?