TUMBY BAY - My father came from Waterford in the warm southeast of Ireland. He had three brothers and two sisters. His eldest brother John carried on the family tradition of being politically active.
It was from an insistent Uncle John that I learned very early on about the colonisation of Ireland by the British.
That experience left me with a repressed but abiding suspicion about the whole enterprise of empire.
That suspicion came to the fore a few weeks after I’d begun training as a kiap at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in Sydney in the 1960s.
Our lecturers were an odd mix of academics and field officers. While some of the field officers were pretty blunt about what Australia was doing in Papua New Guinea the academics tended to be largely living in the past.
Radical lefties they definitely were not. Among other things they seemed blithely unaware that there were Papua New Guineans - like Malcolm Somare and John Guise - who didn’t want us to go up there to PNG anyway.
All this began to make me feel uneasy about what I had let myself in for. The youthful adventurism was still there but it was now tinged with a reality that didn’t sound so great.
On one afternoon after a lecture that included advice about how it wasn’t wise to hit people in the middle because of the possibility of rupturing their spleens enlarged by malaria, I went looking for Fred Kaad to discuss my misgivings.
Fred, a former district commissioner, had been badly injured in a plane crash in PNG and confined to a wheelchair. Sometimes he had waves of pain that had to abate before he could continue lecturing.
He listened to my problem and to my surprise agreed with a lot of what I said.
Many Australians in PNG were arrogant colonials, he cheerfully admitted, but a lot of others were dedicated public servants with the best interests of the people at heart.
Fred let me take this in and smiled before saying something like, “You realise that it’s going to be all over very soon, don’t you? You wouldn’t want to miss that would you?”
Miss what I thought.
He chuckled as he read my mind. “The end of empire. PNG will be one of the last colonies in the world to become independent.
“It will be a sight to behold. You’ll never have the chance to be part of something like that ever again.”
Fred was probably thinking that there would be more time than the eight or so years I had before PNG became independent, but he was unequivocal about what the process would represent.
Fred, who is now 99, has assumed the de facto mantle of Papa bilong ol Kiap and I’m glad I listened to his advice and went to PNG after all.
Those few short years as a kiap turned out to be extremely memorable, not least because I was able to see first-hand history in the making, with all its drama and dynamic twists and turns.
Moreover, as a kiap, I was also able to share some of the angst, misgivings, trepidation, excitement, elation and sheer terror of those halcyon days with the people directly affected. The Papua New Guineans themselves.
And, of course, I formed that lifelong and irresistible attachment to those people and the country that leaves traces of itself in the blood of most people who spend time there.
I often think that it would have been good to share those experiences with my Uncle John but he has long departed to wherever good Irishmen go.