NOOSA – Hannah and her boyfriend Tom had come up to the Sunshine Coast from Melbourne and, when they arrived last night to share dinner with the rest of the family, they brought a book for me.
Now Noosa is lacking in second-hand bookshops, thus depriving me of one of my favourite pursuits, so this was a welcome gift indeed. Furthermore, it was about Papua New Guinea and a unique writing initiative introduced during the dark years of World War II.
To dig your nose between the mottled brown pages of an old book and to soak in the musty aroma that is testament to its age is a treat. And I could tell from the book's ragged cover and well thumbed pages that the reading would be equally so, it had clearly done the rounds.
Hannah and Tom had come across, ‘Under the Atebrin Moon’, an anthology of short stories and poems by the soldier members of the New Guinea Writers’ Club and published by Angus and Robertson in Sydney and London in 1946.
I won’t reveal any more about this book, which is nearly as old as I am, because the foreword, ‘Unbuckling the haversack’, tells you all you’ll want to know.
And what does the title mean? Well, the foreword tells you that too. But you'll have to read it through to the end. It's a fascinating story.
Foreword: Unbuckling the haversack
By the Editor
It is Thursday night somewhere in New Guinea. Light streams from a thatched hut. Inside voices can be heard, a murmur of debate. The New Guinea Writers’ Club is in session and will be for the next two or three hours.
There are about 40 soldiers present – all ranks, all writers. All who would like to be writers, all interested in writing anyway.
The chairman, an Army education officer, tells visitors they are welcome and may take part in discussions. He also says that qualifications for membership are attendance at one meeting and then submission of a manuscript for reading at another session.
Once the manuscript has been read the author is a member. There are no fees. The only levy required is interest.
There may be seven stories and two poems on the list any typical Thursday night. Every author reads in turn. At the end of each reading the meeting is thrown open for discussion and soldiers speak up with their ever-ready tongues.
Criticism is either oral or written. For the benefit of newcomers written criticisms are handed in to be studied later at leisure. But it is the oral criticism that is the life of the club. No verbal holds are barred, but the chairman keeps a wary ear for personal remarks.
You will find no diffidence among these men in uniform, no shyness in expressing an opinion, however unorthodox that opinion may be. In turn you can hear the dogmatic, the witty, the downright, the reasoned, the sympathetic, the offended, the satiric and the cultured.
You are a visitor, but you too may say what you like. You will be doubly welcome if your remarks are constructive and encouraging. Rank does not matter in the club – all are one in the fraternity of writing. A major and a bombardier may disagree, but the author will smile and learn from both.
Very few members wrote before joining the Army. Few had written before coming to New Guinea. In one group alone more than 200 manuscripts have been read. Another group has had an up-and-down attendance for 40 consecutive meetings.
Membership varies with the movement of soldiers. There may be 60 present, sometimes only 15, but the average is usually 35 or so.
There is a pointer to the post-war world in this club, an idea for those whose work will lie in adult education. Universities and schools have for long had their literary societies to discuss the work of well-known authors and poets.
But a writers’ club as such is something new. These soldiers in New Guinea has proved it can be done, that a club for original work can flourish, that mutual criticism is helpful to authors, that self-expression through the pen can be encouraged, that there is far more interest in talking about and in planning ideas of your own than in dissecting the work of the great.
So much interest is taken by New Guinea soldiers that members in their spare time speak of little else but the forthcoming meeting. Is it too much to expect that this successful experiment, begun and improved in New Guinea, cannot spread after the war to every community?
The Writers’ Club was born from an accidental meeting in a Port Moresby education hut of three men – an Australian civilian attached in a specialist capacity to the U.S. Forces, an American officer and an Australian lance-corporal.
Their talk drifted to authors and writing. They were interested in one another’s ideas. Perhaps others would have interesting ideas too. Why not call a meeting and find out?
An advertisement was printed in Guinea Gold and 27 soldiers attended the first meeting, held in a hut in the grounds of St John’s-on-the-Hill, overlooking the wide waters of the harbour. Old and young, wearing ribbons of the last war and of this, agreed to form a society “to stimulate interest in literature and the craft of writing”.
The movement spread. Another group was formed at Milne Bay, a third at Lae. Army education authorities fostered the idea from the beginning, providing all facilities. As members moved from place to place all soldiers interested in writing heard the news.
Later the Moresby group languished and the Milne Bay group died, both through the departures of troops. But the club at Lae flourished.
One of the enthusiastic Lae members, a corporal in Army Education, was posted again to Moresby. Soon he expanded the faithful few and now the Moresby group is attended by American soldiers and WAACs, and men of the Australian Navy, Army and Air Force.
Who are these soldiers wishing to be writers? They come from every type of unit. In one meeting you can find men from infantry, ordnance, amenities, medical, transport, artillery, headquarters, intelligence, mechanical engineer, workshop, cipher, labour and signal units.
Their civil backgrounds are as varied as their military duties. You will find among them doctors, miners, farmers, civil engineers, ministers, teachers, radio writers, journalists, lecturers, commercial travellers and clerks from law, wool and insurance firms. Service in the forces has thrown them together in a common call of duty. In their spare time they are drawn together by a common interest in writing.
One of the most successful authors did not write a line before joining the Army. He was an executive in an emporium. Already he has had one book accepted by a London publisher and a second awaiting the reader’s verdict. After the war he plans to devote his whole time to writing.
Another soldier-author, a private, wrote a novel in between landing stores at the docks. A third, a sergeant, has had a detective story published in Sydney, New York and London. At one time or another each member has had an article accepted either in Australia or overseas. Most have just fel the pride of seeing one’s work in print for the first time. Others await the agony of first acceptance with impatience. All have found the virtue of writing infectious.
Among the soldiers the short-story is the most popular form. So many of these men have rich tales to tell. Memories of the war on many fronts, chance incidents that have occurred on service, and under the aegis of the club they readily set them down. There are poets too, but they are few. Articles and essays are popular, and today there is a trend in a new direction. The one-act play and the radio story. There are always some members handy to give friendly advice, to assist in typing or to tell where best to place a manuscript.
Under the Atebrin Moon is a collection of the best work that has been read in a period of six months. Each item is original. None has been published before.
Reading the book will reveal a rather unusual fact. It is neither the Army nor New Guinea about which soldiers usually wish to write. True many of these stories have soldier characters, but you will find nothing of battle here, little of jungle.
I asked one writer why he did not write about New Guinea.
“For the same reason I now write about the Middle East – distance. In New Guinea we are too close,” he replied. “If I wrote about New Guinea, I would find my stories overloaded with detail. When I go home again to the mainland and can think in retrospect, discarding the unessential, evaluating the whole, then I think I will be able to write well of New Guinea. But not before.”
This anthology runs the gamut of mood. You will read here the tender, the savage, the mystical, the realistic, the whimsical, the imaginative and the humorous. Whatever your mood may be, you will find something to match it here, something that has sprung from the minds of men in khaki, thinking and writing in New Guinea under the Atebrin moon.
Why ‘atebrin moon’? Well, we like the title, and we do not think it a flight of fancy.
After the war what will soldiers, veterans looking back, remember in thinking of New Guinea? Will it be the rain and the heat, the mud and the mire and the sweat, the fever and the filth? Yes, undoubtedly all will recall these in a general way, as a background to their thoughts. But it will be the little things that will mostly be remembered.
There will be few soldiers from New Guinea who will not place among their outstanding impressions two vivid memories – the moon in every phase of her beauty and the daily ritual of taking the small yellow atebrin pill to spite the malarial mosquito.
In these two recollections there will lie for them the eternal contrast of the tropics – beauty there, and behind beauty always the malevolent.