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True confessions: the ugly side of Australia in PNG


To the HighlandsTo the Highlands’ by Jon Doust, Freemantle Press, 2012

WHEN I LEFT SCHOOL, I got a job with the National Bank.  As I recall, I loathed every stultifying minute of the 18 months I was there.

When I told the branch manager I’d accepted a job as a cadet patrol officer in Papua New Guinea he frowned and said, “Are you sure you want to do that?  With the bank you could be a branch manager in 20 years.”  I’ve always considered that as the moment I escaped.

I suppose if I hadn’t got the job as a kiap, I might have wound up in Papua New Guinea as a bank johnny.  This book makes me very glad that I didn’t.

Remember the bank johnnies?  If this book is to be believed they came to PNG for two reasons, sex and booze.

Their stints were only short, usually two years, and then they were back home again.  For the young blokes, and some girls too, it was a chance for an unfettered and exotic fling sowing wild oats before settling back into the oblivion of suburbia, marriage, mortgage, kids and all that sort of thing.

This is not a pleasant book - with its graphic grubbiness and language - but it is realistic.  Although it is fiction, it also has an autobiographical feel about it and follows from an earlier book about misspent school days.

I suppose that if one is to expose a dissolute youth, fiction might be an attractive option.  Then again, maybe it’s all made up.

It’s puzzling, however, why the author uses a fictitious setting called “the islands” when it is obviously Port Moresby and Goroka that he describes. 

In fact, I could be tempted to make a stab at the real name of his “Colonial Bank of Australia”.  Even a thinly disguised Meg Taylor has a part.

The Michael Somare character is totally unbelievable.  Maybe the publisher’s lawyers advised caution.

The book is written in the style of a 1970s men’s magazine but without the interspersed coy nude “studies”.  You know - lurid detail and smart arse repartee. There’s also a touch of Wake in Fright in there too.

The author freely admits to having been a bank johnny and says the book was hard to write.  In this sense I guess he deserves some credit.

The casual and venal attitude of many Australian men to local girls and women during colonial times was appalling.  I’m not sure it needs to be exposed now, but here it is.  It certainly knocks the wind out of those who believe Australia did a good job in PNG.

For many men who were in PNG, the book will strike a raw nerve, and rightly so.  For others it will simply induce a shrug and a smirk. 

The author suggests that somehow those who didn’t engage in gin jockeying were racists, which is an interesting take on morality.

Of course many Australian women found Papua New Guinean men attractive too, but that has always been couched in terms of self-righteousness and anti-racism. 

Drusilla Modjeska’s recent book, The Mountain, explores this theme.  And, of course, many Papua New Guinean men still treat their women and girls in the same way.

The title of the book is a play on Randolph Stow’s considerably superior novel of 1958 To the Islands.  What the connotation is, I’m not sure.

As I’ve hinted, I didn’t especially enjoy the book but it is definitely worth reading.


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Elizabeth Mou

I actuall haven't read that book yet, but i would like to say that the author did a very good job by revealing the ugly side of Australia.
As stated by the author "the casual and venal attitude of many Australian men to local girls and womemn during colonial times was appaling"...
Studying history, Australia's bad dids where never stated in books.. PNG gaining independence on a golden plate doesn't mean that Australia needs all the good praises....
Therefore I once again thank the author for the exposure of the Australians actions in the colonial period and also racism was at its best too..

Harry Topham

I think the topic maybe too close to the bone and rekindle old memories, which for many may expose previous youthful peccadillos perhaps best forgotten.

Ross Wilkinson

Like Phil I escaped from a banking career but not straight to that of a CPO. That took another couple of years.

However, the bank johnnies in Lae were legendary with a reputation for the high life in both camps. To get to a PNG bank, employees at all levels applied to go on the "Relieving Staff" roster with the option of serving overseas.

To be fair though, my boxing trainer was a bank johnnie and was very fit.

I recall walking into the Bulolo Branch of my bank to cash a cheque and said to the European teller, "Hello John", to which he replied "I don't know you."

I mentioned a private school in Melbourne and the year to remind him that ten years previously we had been classmates.

I met Jon Doust in Melbourne a few years ago for the launch of his book "Bird on a Wire" which was a novel about his days in a private boarding school.

I was a "day boy" at my private school which also had a boarding house so I could understand the nuances of this story.

Whilst talking to him afterwards, it transpired that one of his friends was a kiap colleague of mine in Madang.

It will be interesting to know what his inspiration for this story was and his sources of information. I look forward to reading it to see if it strikes a chord with my experiences.

Richard Jones

Like Phil, I remember the bank johnnies. Especially when in the mid-60s we'd charter a DC3 and head out of Moresby to Rabaul for a long weekend.

There they were unsteady on the pins and full of soup at the Saturday night dances. There was a club run by the (Nationalist) Chinese and their Saturday night dances were all the rage. I think it was called the KuoMinTang Club but hey, it's 47-48 years ago!

I say Nationalist Chinese because one evening while holding forth on the magnificence of Chairman Mao I saw one of the owners hoist his shirt and display what looked like a longish dagger, down his shorts!

The eulogy ended mid-sentence.

One of my lasting memories from this club was a performance from the legendary Ray "Skull" Lonsdale. He hoisted his then girlfriend onto his shoulder and carried her out the main door.

I hasten to add, Phil, that this wasn't another instance of the "venal" attitudes of Aussie men. Skull was just emphasising his girlfriend was his, and no last dances with her for any other punter --- bank johnny or whoever --- was on the cards.

Diana Donigi

I'm not the least bit tempted to read this book! Working at the Comm Bank in POM in 1970 was a shock to an innocent young girl, my goodness!

The bank johnnies and (what were the girls called? sheilas?) seemed to go right off the rails as they landed in 'The Territory'.

There were three Papua New Guineans working there then, Norman the tea 'man' a lovely old guy from Oro with dangling ear lobes, Henry Fabila who later became MD and another lovely fellow whose name I'm afraid I can't recall.

Tony Flynn

I remember, as a Comworks employee in 1969 or 1970, going to a dance at Malaytown in Rabaul.

The bank johnnies mentioned were at the dance, unable to dance with the very attractive girls, eyes popping out and getting drunk and frustrated. Someone may inform on them to the manager!

I believe that a doctor's daughter was associating with a Chinese boy and was thought badly of. It really was a racist society and back doors were much in use at the odd hours of the night.

It was similar to the situation of gays in the army; known to happen, ignored if at all possible.

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