IN 1950, when I was five years old, my family escaped the bleak prospects of post-war England and emigrated to Australia, setting up home in the distinctively parochial and conservative city of Townsville in north Queensland.
My father, a gifted pianist who had left school at 14, took a sales job with a chain of music retailers where he parlayed a highly successful career selling pianos, organs, sheet music and records.
Until my brother came along in 1953, my mother worked as a cook at the local migrant hostel to help make ends meet.
While both of my parents had left school at 14, they were avid readers and interested in the world of ideas so our dinnertime conversations and debates ranged across politics, current affairs and music and the arts. (Unlike me, my father was no fan of contemporary or country and western music, or sport.)
This instilled within me an abiding interest in these matters, a spirit of inquiry and non-conformity, and respect for alternative lifestyles and beliefs.
Thanks to their example and encouragement, my voracious appetite for reading, and learning began before I started school.
During my primary and high school years I read two or more books a week, mostly about history: the ancient civilisations, the British empire and America, early Australian explorers, World War II and, especially, the war in the Pacific – which was how my interest in Papua New Guinea and a desire to explore the world at large was first piqued.
Playing basketball was my major preoccupation during my high school years, along with a sustained interest in the science of the weather – from which I decided to become a meteorologist and, hopefully, spend time as a researcher in Antarctica.
Regrettably (at the time) but fortuitously (in the longer term), despite a grade average of A throughout high school, I failed the matriculation physics exam.
My meteorological dream dashed, I remained determined to leave the parochial atmosphere of Townsville and accepted the offer of an education cadetship at the Australian School of Pacific Administration.
Fortunately I had applied for the teacher training course as a fallback position prior to the matriculation exams.
Two marvellous years later, in that heady idealistic era of change in the mid-1960s, I arrived - a naïve, skinny 20 year old - at my first posting, Angoram.
Despite two years of specialist training, I was still affronted by the realities of small settlement life in 1960s PNG.
The segregation (black from white, white public servants from white private enterprise operators); the overt racism (no Papua New Guineans were allowed membership of the Angoram Club (schoolboys were allowed to cut, but not play on, the grass of the club’s tennis court – until I banned that practice), and the all-pervading pressure to conform to the colonial norms.
And did I mention the mosquitoes?
A further shock came when the newly-appointed head teacher resigned rather than accept a transfer to Angoram – such was the reputation of the place. So I was left, with five Papua New Guinean teachers, to manage a school of 300 children in seven grades, with four of us teachers fresh out of college.
For the first two months we muddled on, with me teaching more than 50 children in Standard 6 in the mornings and another 50 or more Standard 5 children in the afternoon.
At the same time, I was learning the ropes of school administration without mentoring or support – and losing a stone in weight as a consequence
Relief came when the Sepik River flooded Moim school, up river at from us, and the teachers and many of the children relocated to Angoram, providing the school with a full complement of staff and me with an experienced mentor and lifelong friend, Michael Hatch.
Following an incident involving the head teacher’s wife at Maprik in mid-1966, I was posted, in a three-way transfer, to idyllic Passam where I had the best of both worlds: the working week in the quiet of the bush and weekends in the social, sporting and surfing whirl of Wewak – where, at last, I had the opportunity to socialise with and get to know Papua New Guineans.
At the end of 1968, having honed my teaching and administrative skills and completed one-third of a University of Queensland education degree in the light of a Tilley lamp and on a battered portable Olivetti typewriter, I was transferred to the Publications and Broadcasts Branch at Konedobu to take over Keith Jackson’s role as editor of school publications and custodian of Yokomo.
With two other writer-editors and four graphic artists we produced each year for the next five years, ten editions of two 16-page supplementary reading magazines (Garamut and Kundu) and a social studies magazine (Our World) which were distributed to over 150,000 primary school children every month.
These were the halcyon years.
I immersed myself in Port Moresby basketball: playing, refereeing, administering and writing twice-weekly reports for the Post Courier and the ABC.
At the same time, I built a coterie of friendships with Papua New Guineans – and fell in love with a fellow educator from Hula.
I also completed a BA in English and Linguistics at UPNG, inspired by the likes of Ulli Beier, Elton Brash, John Lynch and Nigel Krauth, and rubbed shoulders with future Papua New Guinean leaders and intellectuals - John Waiko, John Kasapwailova, Renagi Renagi Lohia among them.
After a year of graduate school at Edinburgh – the subject of a previous PNG Attitude article, I returned to Moresby in late 1973 where, as part of Ken McKinnon’s innovative policies, I was assigned a very smart young Tubuseranian as my associate and understudy.
He soon took over my role, more or less completely, and I was left with little of consequence to do and with no indication from the bosses that they wanted to exploit the fruits of my Edinburgh studies and other experience.
I realised it was time to seek other opportunities.
With great (and continuing) regret I left PNG in mid-1974 and began a second career in higher education: lecturing in linguistics, editing distance learning materials and producing educational films and videos for an Aboriginal education program at a Perth College of Advanced Education.
Later there were 23 years at Deakin University where I ended up as Director of Learning Resources Services – and added a master’s degree in education technology and communications to my repertoire.
In between, there was a two year secondment as an education technologist at a Hong Kong university, several research/teaching assignments at Shiga University, Japan, and an extended research fellowship the Japanese National Institute of Multimedia Education.
After Deakin, I worked for 12 years with the ANZ Institute of Insurance and Finance where I designed, developed and sold accredited and specialist risk and insurance education programs to companies in China, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia – accruing nearly two million frequent flyer points in the process.
As Trevor Shearston has written, PNG leaves something in the blood and I’m delighted that, in retirement, I’m back there in spirit through the great privilege of collaborating with people like Baka Bina, Marlene Potoura and Busa Wenogo in their contributions to PNG literature.
As Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) said: “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”