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At last a book by a chalkie, and it’s a good one too

Land of the UnexpectedPHIL FITZPATRICK

Land of the Unexpected: short stories, anecdotes and memoirs of Papua New Guinea, Peter Comerford, APM Publishing Services, 2016, ISBN: 978-0994447425, 360 pages, $25 plus postage from Peter. Email him here

WHEN Peter Comerford’s book arrived in the mail a few weeks ago I looked at the title and cover and thought, ‘Oh dear, not another one’, and put the book at the bottom of my stack of unread books.

When I eventually worked my way down to it I discovered a note inside from Peter that explained his own trepidation about the title,

“My original idea for a title was ‘Tingting Bek …’ but in the end I went with the highly ‘original’ title of ‘Land of the Unexpected’”.

I’ve never been very good with book titles and headlines either. That’s more in the line of an expert journalist like Keith Jackson and I can sympathise with Peter.

As it turned out the title belied the pleasant surprise to be found inside. This is a highly enjoyable read.

On top of that it was a nice change from the usual stuff written by Australians who had worked in Papua New Guinea, to date mostly old kiaps like me.

It turns out we weren’t the only ones to have spent an interesting time there. The teachers, or chalkies as they were known, had some intriguing experiences too.

This is ably demonstrated by Peter and his wife Marian’s experience in Bougainville, especially when they were evacuated out when the whole place fell apart.

Prior to that there was an epic walk across New Ireland, diving with sharks on old wartime shipwrecks and a multitude of other interesting and often hair-raising experiences, all faithfully recounted in the book with a self-effacing and wry humour.

The book is, in fact, two books in one. The first part is a collection of anecdotes and memoirs and the second a collection of short stories.

The anecdotes threw me a bit because I was expecting the usual set of chronological accounts. Then I got to the second memoir and thought, wait a minute, this is out of sequence.

When I got a bit further into the book I realised what Peter was doing.

Each separate piece is a self-contained vignette rather than an episode in a set timeline. Once I got used to the structure, the section was easy to read and in many ways represented a superior way of offering memoirs.

Peter Comerford in the wreckage of PangunaThat said, the section is rounded off with an account of a return journey Peter and Marian made to Bougainville in 2015. Some of you may remember it from an article in PNG Attitude.

The second section, the short story collection, shows Peter’s talent as a writer to full effect. He is obviously a great fan of Somerset Maugham and his stories have a similar feel about them.

Many of the stories have been previously published; most of them in the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia’s 2010 collection, Tales and Memoirs of Papua New Guinea.

I read that book when it came out and so re-reading the stories was an interesting experience. It’s amazing what gets stored away in the backrooms of your brain. My re-reading threw up characters that I remembered from six years ago. Not that it diminished the pleasure of meeting them again.

At the end of the book I had a new appreciation of the role of teachers in Papua New Guinea, both before and after independence.

For an old kiap it put into perspective the fact that our often exalted role was really only part of a much bigger scenario that included teachers, agricultural officers, surveyors, tradesmen, bankers, engineers, clerks, doctors and nurses and a host of other professions.

Peter comes from Sydney and went through the Australian School of Pacific Administration in 1968-70. His first posting was to New Ireland.

After four years he left Papua New Guinea but came back in 1980 and worked in both Popondetta in Oro Province and at Panguna on Bougainville before being forced to leave by the civil war in 1990.

We need more books like this one to balance the record. It’s quite remiss of those multiple professions not to have put pen to paper.

So, despite the unfortunate title, I cannot recommend Peter’s book more highly.

If you want to read about a dedicated teacher and his wife working as a nurse this is a book you shouldn’t miss.


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Peter Comerford

Thank you Phil. I really appreciate your positive comments and am enjoying the dialogue. If for some reason people cannot reach me via the email link my email addresses are: and Many thanks once again.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I can see a long and convoluted war beginning here Ed - perhaps we'd better drop it while we're ahead.

PS I never much wore any of the khaki crap either, sandals and Hawaiian shirts in the office and Tee-shirts in the bush.

Ed Brumby

I think you may be right, Bob: we tended to be less itinerant than kiaps, although transfers to other postings still seemed to occur at what seemed to be the whim of the local DEO.

I never did aspire to the khaki rig, Phil, preferring those terrific white cotton trade store Chinese two-pocketed shirts with black or khaki shorts, although I also wore an ex-Army hat bequeathed to me by an ex-nasho school mate. My only kiap-type affectation was to use a sock as a receptacle for my pipe (another youthful affectation) - for which I was once bawled out by a kiap who seemed to think that such a practice was reserved for you chaps.

Bob Cleland

Sounds like I'd better order this book!

I have a theory, Ed, that the sometimes prickly kiap/chalky relationship, came more from the kiap side and was based on a degree of envy.

Chalkies usually stayed at one school for an extended period allowing them to get to know the parents and nearby villagers in greater depth.

Kiaps, thanks to a somewhat questionable policy, were re-posted after two or four years. Too often to allow any serious social knowledge and relationships with village leaders to develop.

The better we knew the people, the better could be our effectiveness as administrators, developers, etc, etc. Whence comes envy.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The appreciation might have come later Ed but I think we all knew it was the case right from the start.

In some ways the teacher's contribution outstripped the kiaps. While a lot of what we did has fallen to bits the teacher's legacy lives on in the schools.

You guys just didn't get to wear the groovy khaki gear, big boots and big hats that attracted the ladies.

Ed Brumby

I was somewhat surprised, Phil, that your appreciation of what we chalkies did in PNG came so late. My own experience was that kiaps and teachers worked well together and enjoyed a particular kind of camaraderie and friendship - even if we were regarded by some kiaps as being somewhat lower in the pecking order.

I'd go so far as to say, also, that our influence on the colonial development of PNG matched that of kiaps, even if most of that was confined to classrooms.

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