Land of the Unexpected: short stories, anecdotes and memoirs of Papua New Guinea, Peter Comerford, APM Publishing Services, 2016, ISBN: 978-0994447425, 360 pages, $25 plus postage from Peter. Email him here
WHEN Peter Comerford’s book arrived in the mail a few weeks ago I looked at the title and cover and thought, ‘Oh dear, not another one’, and put the book at the bottom of my stack of unread books.
When I eventually worked my way down to it I discovered a note inside from Peter that explained his own trepidation about the title,
“My original idea for a title was ‘Tingting Bek …’ but in the end I went with the highly ‘original’ title of ‘Land of the Unexpected’”.
I’ve never been very good with book titles and headlines either. That’s more in the line of an expert journalist like Keith Jackson and I can sympathise with Peter.
As it turned out the title belied the pleasant surprise to be found inside. This is a highly enjoyable read.
On top of that it was a nice change from the usual stuff written by Australians who had worked in Papua New Guinea, to date mostly old kiaps like me.
It turns out we weren’t the only ones to have spent an interesting time there. The teachers, or chalkies as they were known, had some intriguing experiences too.
This is ably demonstrated by Peter and his wife Marian’s experience in Bougainville, especially when they were evacuated out when the whole place fell apart.
Prior to that there was an epic walk across New Ireland, diving with sharks on old wartime shipwrecks and a multitude of other interesting and often hair-raising experiences, all faithfully recounted in the book with a self-effacing and wry humour.
The book is, in fact, two books in one. The first part is a collection of anecdotes and memoirs and the second a collection of short stories.
The anecdotes threw me a bit because I was expecting the usual set of chronological accounts. Then I got to the second memoir and thought, wait a minute, this is out of sequence.
When I got a bit further into the book I realised what Peter was doing.
Each separate piece is a self-contained vignette rather than an episode in a set timeline. Once I got used to the structure, the section was easy to read and in many ways represented a superior way of offering memoirs.
That said, the section is rounded off with an account of a return journey Peter and Marian made to Bougainville in 2015. Some of you may remember it from an article in PNG Attitude.
The second section, the short story collection, shows Peter’s talent as a writer to full effect. He is obviously a great fan of Somerset Maugham and his stories have a similar feel about them.
Many of the stories have been previously published; most of them in the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia’s 2010 collection, Tales and Memoirs of Papua New Guinea.
I read that book when it came out and so re-reading the stories was an interesting experience. It’s amazing what gets stored away in the backrooms of your brain. My re-reading threw up characters that I remembered from six years ago. Not that it diminished the pleasure of meeting them again.
At the end of the book I had a new appreciation of the role of teachers in Papua New Guinea, both before and after independence.
For an old kiap it put into perspective the fact that our often exalted role was really only part of a much bigger scenario that included teachers, agricultural officers, surveyors, tradesmen, bankers, engineers, clerks, doctors and nurses and a host of other professions.
Peter comes from Sydney and went through the Australian School of Pacific Administration in 1968-70. His first posting was to New Ireland.
After four years he left Papua New Guinea but came back in 1980 and worked in both Popondetta in Oro Province and at Panguna on Bougainville before being forced to leave by the civil war in 1990.
We need more books like this one to balance the record. It’s quite remiss of those multiple professions not to have put pen to paper.
So, despite the unfortunate title, I cannot recommend Peter’s book more highly.
If you want to read about a dedicated teacher and his wife working as a nurse this is a book you shouldn’t miss.