El Niño cuts its ugly swathe & PNG bears the brunt
Pastor Movo, leader for peace after civil war, dies in Bougainville

Australian man of letters & PNG soldier Peter Ryan MM dies at 92

Peter Ryan at his home in Balwyn, Melbourne (News Ltd)GINA RUSHTON & EAN HIGGINS | The Australian

MELBOURNE columnist, author and World War II veteran Peter Ryan died on Sunday aged 92 after a long battle with illness.

He was most famous for the controversy created by his scathing attack on Manning Clarke’s History of Australia, when in the September 1993 edition of conservative magazine Quadrant, for which he was a columnist, he called Clarke’s work “an imposition on Australian credulity — more plainly, a fraud”.

Subsequently, he came under relentless fire from academics.

“I’ve never made a bigger ­mistake,” he said in 2010, detailing the anonymous threats he received following the critique.

Keith Windschuttle, the long-serving former editor of Quadrant, described Ryan as “one of Australia’s great men of letters” and a highly successful publisher at Melbourne University Press.

He said Ryan’s book about his exploits in New Guinea during the war, Fear Drive My Feet, had been widely hailed as the best book on the campaign; it was written when he was 21 and is still in print today.

For 26 years, Ryan ran MUP after he inherited the position in 1962 in what he called “the luckiest break” of his working life.

At 18, he joined the army and was on special intelligence work in Papua New Guinea, for which he won the Military Medal in 1943, before returning to Melbourne, where he graduated from the University of Melbourne with honours in history in 1948.

Rhodes scholar and professor of Australian literature Peter Pierce wrote that Fear Drive My Feet, published in 1959, was Australia’s “finest war memoir”.

Ryan admired Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, whose writings he turned to when under aerial bombardment in New Guinea.

Ryan’s books include Redmond Barry (1972), William Macmahon Ball: A Memoir (1990), Black Bonanza: A Landslide of Gold (1991), Chance Encounters: AD Hope (1992), Lines of Fire: Manning Clark and Other Writings (1997) and Brief Lives (2004).

Other avenues Ryan explored included running unsuccessfully for the Victorian parliament and writing freelance articles for publications.

At other times of his life, he was a public relations manager of Imperial Chemical Industries and an officer of the Victorian Supreme Court. He is survived by his wife, Davey, and children Sally and Andrew.


Ryan-Final-ProofAn editorial in the magazine Quadrant has observed:

AUSTRALIA, journalism and the world of letters are all poorer for the passing of Quadrant's beloved columnist, Peter Ryan.

A man incapable of writing an ugly sentence, his was a great life and an enduring legacy

Peter Ryan, who Quadrant readers have known as their favourite acerbic essayist since March 1994, died in Melbourne on Sunday morning. He was one of the last of the post-war generation of Melbourne intelligentsia.

Peter Allen Ryan was born in Melbourne on 4 September 1923. One grandfather was an Irish Catholic suburban tailor and the other a Methodist lay preacher. His father, a public servant, World War I veteran and one-time Victorian Football League footballer, died when Peter was 13; the death left a lasting pain.

The World War II plucked him at 18 from the ranks of junior clerks in the Victorian public service into an intelligence role behind the lines of Japanese-occupied Papua New Guinea, which became the subject of his first (and recently republished) book Fear Drives My Feet.

The extremely arduous work led to him later in the war to teaching elementary Papua New Guinea language to young servicemen in Canberra and a place in Alf Conlon’s Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs.

Still only 21 when the war ended, he joined the many talented ex-servicemen studying at Melbourne University. He was active in the Labor Club, where his battles against communist takeover attempts confirmed him in anti-communist views, which gradually became more conservative.

As many have found before and since, arts degrees do not automatically produce an income and Peter spent the next few years in advertising, mini-scale publishing and in public relations for ICI Australia and New Zealand.

Lady luck struck in 1962 when Melbourne University Press, looking for an innovator, appointed him as publisher. He published many important and successful books before he retired in 1989. He wrote about these years in his book Final Proof (2010). He later worked for the Board of Examiners for the Victorian Supreme Court until the early 2000s.

The controversy of which he was proudest was his attack in Quadrant in 1993 on the quality of Manning Clark’s much publicised six-volume History of Australia, one of MUP’s best-sellers. Clark already had commitment from MUP for the series when Peter took over and he confessed that he did not feel especially proud of the later volumes.

Peter’s gift for friendship led him to journalist and author Clive Turnbull, one of many friends older than himself, who introduced Peter to the chummy ranks of the intelligentsia and sometimes bohemia of Melbourne.

Turnbull was one of Keith Murdoch’s 1930s “bright young men” in the Melbourne Herald group and a post-war “man about Melbourne”.

Peter’s lunching and drinking mates in this circle included the Asianist commentator Peter Russo and Sydney Daily Mirror editor Frank McGuinness, father of the late Quadrant editor Paddy McGuinness; and authors Michael Cannon (The Land Boomers), ex-Melburnian Cyril Pearl (Wild Men of Sydney) and Supreme Court judge Jack Barry.

Bruce Davidson (The Northern Myth), agronomist and witty scourge of the rural expansionist and Whitlam minister Al Grassby, was his brother-in-law.

Friendship with wartime diplomat and later Professor W Macmahon Ball helped him land the MUP job. Sir Paul Hasluck, Governor-General from 1969 to 1974, was another friend, dating back to wartime Canberra.

Bob Santamaria was yet another of his eclectic band; they often lunched at the old Café Latin. The historian Geoffrey Blainey was another. In his book Brief Lives (2004) Peter celebrated the lives of 15 of his friends—14 Australians and one New Guinean, from a prime minister and a Nobel laureate to a wood-cutter and a doorman—and his friendships with them.

Peter’s early columns included the mischievously witty “Melbourne Spy” in the fortnightly Nation, published by Sydney Morning Herald finance editor Tom Fitzgerald, yet another Ryan mate. The Australian and the Age were other publishers over the years of Peter’s witty, incisive and erudite columns and articles.

His Quadrant column was the pride and joy of his last years. In the weeks before he died he was sharpening his pen for use in Quadrant on Peter FitzSimons. Peter did not think much of FitzSimons’s military history or his republicanism.

Peter had the good fortune of a long and happy marriage lasting nearly seven decades. He married Gladys (Davey) Davidson in 1947. They had a son and a daughter.

In accordance with Peter’s wishes, there will be a private cremation.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Jacob Kumai

Hi, I am from PNG, in a province called Morobe where is my little village, Olin, in Nawaeb district.

I was told by my great-grand father some years ago about a World War II soldier who was assisted by natives to escape from the Japanese.

He was hidden in a cave at a place called Bawan for some days before being rescued by his comrades.

The place is now kept as a monument by the natives and they visit it occasionally.

There is little information in the PNG government concerning this. Even with his authorship of 'Fear Drive My Feet', little attention has been given hence we tribes from this area are trying to get this recognised and tapped into tourism

If by chance any family of the late war veteran, Peter Ryan, would want to see and feel the scene where he hid during that time may email us on [email protected]

The place is located in the mountains of Sarewagat 1,000 metres above sea level in an area densely forested and with a steep valley and a fast flowing river.

The place is called Bawan in native language meaning tree that gives off rare odor.

William Dunlop

Richard - Myself and colleagues were also in attendance to support our Australian democratic government of the day. We were generally senior management entirely from the private sector, and entirely supportive of the Whitlam dismissal.That great man and windbag Gough's final goof.

Jacob Kumai

I'm from Olin village in the Nawaeb District of Morobe Province.

In 1943, Peter Ryan was saved from Japanese soldiers during the war in Niugini. He hid in a place called Bawan.

Richard Jones

I'd say a fair number of us went into the files - or more likely - had our existing files expanded upon in late 1975.

This was after the great man Gough had been illegally dismissed against the best intentions of our Constitution by the weasel Kerr.

This aided and abetted by Big Mal Fraser who was lurking by the back door at Yarralumla while machinations were proceeding inside.

And why would we have 'gone into the book' to use a phrase used by umpires officiating in AFL ranks?
Because we'd protested for 48 hours outside the Aussie High Commission where 'Tiny' Tom Critchley and his minions were holed up.

I only did a 24-hour shift. The stalwarts lasted the full 48. Mind you, keeping the thing going through the balmy Moresby nights wasn't a huge ask. The needle probably didn't drop below 20-22 degrees.

So, Phil, what we did back then, as you've discovered, has been assiduously written down and correlated by a range of PNG ASIO hacks. And has probably been filed away or keyed onto disks or computer files by their 21st century affiliates.

Like those outed by KJ in the outer reaches of PNG.

It could be confusing. There were three groups of spooks - ASIO, Police Special Branch and the Kiap outfit. All competing for secrets. The only 'secrets' I knowingly provided had been broadcast on the previous night's Radio Bougainville news. Required by my head office in Konedobu to cooperate with the Special Branch functionary, I provided last night's news. I think he thought it was confidential to him. I didn't care then and I care less now. His Tok Pisin wasn't the best so, by the time the news that had been broadcast throughout Bougainville reached Moresby, a good couple of days had elapsed. I felt I had honoured my obligations all round. Especially to keeping faith with my confidantes - KJ

Phil Fitzpatrick

It's remarkable what they put on file Chris.

I was involved in an anti-Vietnam War march while on leave in 1969 and got hauled off to the city watch house in Adelaide where we all milled around and finally wandered away.

I'd also refused to register for National Service just prior to the general amnesty for kiaps.

All pretty innocent stuff I thought.

Then in the late 1990s when my son applied for officer training at Duntroon the bloke interviewing him dropped a file on the desk and asked him what he thought.

It was a record of my nefarious anti-war activities.

My son had the good sense to say it was a different time and different place.

He retired from the army as a captain with service in Timor and Iraq a couple of years ago.

Chris Overland

I seem to recall that all liklik kiaps had to get an ASIO clearance so that we could complete the so-called intelligence reports that each outstation had to submit each month.

I assume therefore that, somewhere, I have an ASIO file. I'd be amazed if it contained anything even faintly exciting although I once donated $20.00 to the ALP as a contribution to Bob Hawke's election in 1983. Does that make me a crazed commie?

My hazy recollection is that the Baimuru reports used to focus on the doings of the Jehovah's Witness missionaries and any foreigners who landed in the place.

We once had two German dentists doing research in the area, but they didn't seem very sinister at all. We had a few beers with them and they seemed rather pleasant, so we didn't bother to report their presence.

Peter Harrison, as the OIC, was always scratching around for something even vaguely sinister to report but, alas, there were no nefarious doings around Baimuru, at least of the intelligence variety.

In the bigger stations, there was plenty of covert horizontal folk dancing to report. Would that have counted as intelligence?

I would think that if the late Peter Ryan was indeed a spook in PNG, he must have found the task rather tedious and, perhaps, sordid at times. Agents of that era probably deserve more sympathy than condemnation.

Personally, if the accusation is true I don't and wouldn't hold it against him: it was another time, when political paranoia was rampant and anyone who expressed an even vaguely communistic idea could be deemed a security risk.

As it turned out, most Australian communists were well intentioned but naïve idealists, but some still had the capacity to do something dumb that might just compromise national security. Hence the need for spooks I guess.

Now, of course, ASIO and ASIS really do have something to be concerned about, as recent events have graphically demonstrated, so perhaps spooking has become a more honoured and honourable profession.

Paul Oates

It seems that this epitaph has gone off the rails somewhat. It surely behooves us all to resist talking ill of the dead. They do have family and friends after all.

Richard, to make the claims you have made without the person being alive and able to defend themselves is reprehensible at best. It is definitely in poor taste irrespective of whether you have any proof. Implicating a person based on the hearsay of information about another must surely be merely grasping at a vacuous credibility.

I think the discussion consequent to the obituary is a fair one to have and within the bounds of PNG Attitude's editorial policy - KJ

Richard Jones

Oh, and did we mention, Phil and Chris -- Ryan was also a spook. Behind Japanese lines so living dangerously, granted, but still a spook.

I've had some spirited exchanges in recent years with folks who were servants of the PNG arm of ASIO.

KJ and I know full well of one such individual who filed unsupervised and unsubstantiated reports on many of us, right back to our ASOPA days of the early sixties.

One fellow even had the hide to write back to me and say: "Well, someone had to do it."

Maybe. But you always could have turned down the offer.

The pay wasn't great --- non existent to some, as one regaled me with his details in the seventies. Spying on your compadres ... writing reports on 'mates' hours after having drinks together in the Boroko RSL, the Kone or Aviat clubs or similar.

But still they battled on, going on to report on West Irian (Papua) insurgents crossing the borders in PNG's extreme south-west and extreme north-west.

There's plenty in the ex-kiap ranks, of course. KJ even ran into one such fellow in BP supermarket in Bougainville. The fellow begged Keith not to 'out' him.

If Ryan was an extreme right-winger, let's not beat about the bush. We journos (even semi-retired ones such as I) owe it to our constituents to reveal the truth.

The spook picking up his smallgoods in Burns Philp implored me not to greet him with a familiar roar of 'monin tru 007' - KJ

Chris Overland

Like Phil, I agree that ex-kiaps tend to be conservative by nature and, in some instances, down right reactionary.

Perhaps paradoxically, in their youth, many of them also manifested a rather lively anti-authoritarian streak. Slavishly following the rules was not necessarily a good quality in a successful kiap.

With regard to Peter Ryan, not being an habitual Quadrant reader, I do not recall reading his work.

As a budding historian in the 1970's I certainly did read Manning Clark's magisterial but not flawless history of Australia, which reflected his tendency to cast an austere and somewhat bleak eye over events.

At the time, I judged it to be an important contribution to the study of Australian history, but not by any means the definitive work of scholarship in the area.

Keith Windschuttle and those of like mind have, in my judgement at least, been a useful antidote to the sometimes excessive deference to Clark.

History is a tricky subject sometimes, because events are capable of being interpreted differently according to both the conscious and unconscious perspectives and prejudices of the person trying to understand what those events mean.

It is therefore important that people like Peter Ryan, Bob Santamaria (and even lesser figures like Tony Abbott) are around to put forward their views, even if they are not well received by others.

The clash of ideas is an important and necessary part of a vibrant democracy and the resolution of such clashes often is a necessary prerequisite to human progress.

So, I say vale Peter Ryan.

Phil Fitzpatrick

We have all been careful not to mention Peter Ryan's fascist tendencies Richard, especially on his passing.

I also acknowledge that by and large the ex-kiaps are rednecks. I dispute that they are not politically astute, just in a right wing way.

But not all of them are that way.

I also agree that 'Quadrant' is a nasty piece of work. But we probably need it for balance. It's also a good place to check up on what the Tories are thinking.

Can't wait for Tony Abbott to start writing for them. Howard sung their praises so why not Tones.

Daniel Ipan Kumbon

I tried to read Peter Ryan's 'Fear Drives My Feet' as a student but struggled to understand details because comprehending English was a problem in those days.

Wish I could read it today. Nobody in this country is dealing with PNG books written by Papua New Guineans or those books about PNG written by ex kiaps, war veterans, anthropologists etc..

May his soul rest in eternal peace.

Richard Jones

Of course he didn't like Clarke. Ryan was an arch-Tory. Consider his 'friendship' with Hasluck.

The two of them were so far out on the Right they would have made Genghis Khan look like a revolutionary.

Look at that picture of him halfway down the article. A prime conservative, no doubt a bastion of the Melbourne Club.

The 'Bohemia' of Melbourne, you say good ol' Quadrant.
I'd say the Tory bastions of Melbourne, fortunately being overrun by more free-thinking denizens of the 2000s.

He was always thus was Ryan! And clearly the ex-kiap clique of PNG, not noted for any advanced thinking of a political nature, would have clasped Ryan to their collective bosom.

Andrew Wilkins

Peter Ryan also wrote 'Black Bonanza: A landslide of Gold' about the Mount Kare gold rush - the world's first 'helicopter gold rush'. It was one of the first books I worked on as a young book publicist.

Paul Oates

There were some articles written by Peter Ryan in 'Spectator' too I think?

Phil Fitzpatrick

Good grief! You weren't submitting stuff to 'Quadrant' were you Paul?

Paul Oates

I first read 'Fear drive my feet' as a young Kiap posted near where the exploits in the book are described.

Unfailingly helpful, only a couple of years ago, Peter Ryan kindly perused some small written offerings of mine and made helpful suggestions on how and where to get them published.

When I last spoke to him by phone he said he was 'wrestling' with his latest article.

His articles are literary masterpieces in exactitude and dry, humorous wit. He will be sadly missed by all who knew him.

Phil Fitzpatrick

One of Peter's most enduring legacies was the 'Encyclopaedia of Papua New Guinea' published by Melbourne University Press in 1972, for which he was general editor. Two hefty volumes and a separate index and gazette.

There has been nothing like it since.

It is dated but I still dip into it quite regularly.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)