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Living the Pacific life, and singing its song

Most times I came back to Sydney on leave from PNG in the sixties I’d meet and talk with an old family friend, schoolteacher Frank Topham, who with his wife, Berta, had migrated to Australia with my family on the ramshackle SS Georgic in late 1949. Meeting Frank was as regular an event as strolling into the New Guinea Bar at Ushers to get a quick shot of reality from whatever wantoks were clustered there on the day.

Frank was a dedicated Pacificophile. Every time we met he’d pump me for information and description of life in PNG. He yearned for the islands – and it was always his intention to visit, if not to work, there. But he died too soon, only in his forties, without realising his dream. It strikes me only now that I should have taken him to the New Guinea Bar; but that might have destroyed it all.

Nonetheless, Frank lived the islands life vicariously through the pages of the Pacific Island Monthly and whatever he could lay his eyes on in the daily press. And, from time to time, he put his thoughts in writing. I just ran across an extract from his droll poem, ‘Give Me Back My Daydreams’, when I was rummaging through an old PIM for June 1967.

Lithe-hipped doe-eyed maidens
With flowers in their hair;
Sun-kissed palm-fringed beaches
Magnolia-scented air;
Endless days of languid pleasure
Love and laughter without measure,
All I’ve longed for since my birth!

But now I read of education,
Labour strife and arbitration,
Airstrips, cartels, market prices,
Social service, rise in vices
Mining beaches, exploitation,
Independence, legislation!

By the way Frank’s son, also Frank, sort of shares a profession with me. He’s the long-time government affairs and strategic communications manager with Caltex Australia. And he was delighted that I was able to pass on to him his father's thoughts and feelings from 40 years ago.

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