The funeral of our great friend and PNG Attitude colleague Murray Bladwell is being held in Brisbane as this tribute is published. I was asked by his family to offer a brief eulogy focusing on his relationship with Simbu….
NOOSA - The death of a friend chips away at us. When we lose a friend, we lose something of ourselves. And I miss this man of kindness, substance, practicality - and really bad puns.
Murray and I met in the Papua New Guinea highlands in early December 1963, a week or so after the assassination of John F Kennedy. Murray was 22; I was 18. Both of us were fresh out of teacher training.
I from the School of Pacific Administration in Sydney; Murray from Rabaul and the so-called ‘E Course’, where mature age men of prior career attainment and rugged disposition received six months training before being dispatched to establish schools in some of the more remote outposts of New Guinea.
The two of us found ourselves in Goroka just as schools were closing for the year and the other expat teachers retreating south to Australia on their long annual leave. But both of us were attached to the district education office to perform clerical work; our accommodation the borrowed flat of a teacher on holidays from the local high school.
In early 1964 when schools resumed, we were assigned to separate schools in Kundiawa – a small frontier town, they were called stations, absorbed in the precipitous mountains and narrow valleys inhabited by the warm, resourceful, emotional and, when they wanted to be, downright terrifying Simbu people.
As we taught, befriended the community, and played and drank together, the bond between us forged strong as did our connection with the people of Simbu. They were relationships that turned out to be enduring.
So in Kundiawa for two years we taught, adventured and published a fortnightly newsletter, the Kundiawa News, now safely archived in Australia’s national library. The newsletter filled our spare time with a mix of reckless reporting, and quarrels with angry readers.
Unlike me, Murray was restrained and patient. Being the older, he was also protective – once interposing himself between the blow of an irate reader and my head, his reward a series of impressive stitches above one eye and the knowledge that his assailant had been hurled bodily from the Kundiawa hotel.
None of the rough brawling types amongst whom we lived in that alpha male society believed it was acceptable to lay a hand on Murray Vaughan Bladwell and, if one were struck, they dispensed the only justice they knew.
We were pretty much inseparable back then, although Murray refused to join my new enthusiasm for caving in those immense limestone mountains. But, when I became lost in a complex cave system for 24 hours, he led the search party that found me.
Murray’s kindness knew no border. Orphans do it tough in PNG, and when one day an orphan boy named Waime wandered into Kundiawa, stunted and malnourished, Murray brought him home for several months until a welfare officer appeared from somewhere.
Easy-going, cooperative, generous and uncomplaining, Murray commanded respect and loyalty. He treated life kindly and it rewarded him with warmth and esteem.
In our third year in the highlands, we were each promoted as headmasters of schools at opposite ends of Simbu. Murray had just married Joan in Sydney, persuading me to be his groomsman by enthusiastically but erroneously telling me I would certainly find a girlfriend among the bridesmaids.
He and Joan settled in the small government outpost of Chuave where Murray built a towering library and they both left a permanent impression on the local community as educators and friends.
In Port Moresby this past May I was buttonholed by PNG’s commerce minister, Wera Mori, the MP for Chuave. He wanted to talk about Murray. He had been taught by Murray, he said, and wondered if he were still alive and if they might meet. After half a century emails were exchanged but the meeting was not to happen.
In 2016 we brought to the Brisbane writers festival the eminent Simbu author Francis Nii, a paraplegic for many years. Francis knew of Murray, of course, but they had never before met. Earlier this week a distraught Francis wrote of that first meeting:
“It was awkward because I was sitting in a wheelchair and Murray was bending down uncomfortably, seeking a suitable position for a hug. The embrace, when it eventually came, was executed with tenderness, like two souls who had known each other for eons. It was deeply profound. It was a hallmark of a bond between two peoples and two nations. A strong bond that had sustained itself down the years.”
The words of Francis Nii, identifying the essential Murray.
This kind, steady, purposeful man managed a relationship with the Chimbu people that functioned for more than half a century of friendship, education, literacy and practical support.
Today, as we mourn and venerate Murray, I honour him as a dear friend, a comrade in life, a sometime protector, an industrious colleague, a kind and practical man who did much good, a long-lasting benefactor of the Simbu people and one of us who has left this material world a far better place.
We do miss him.