Better Than Rich and Famous: My Papua New Guinea Days by Nicholas C Brown, Mereo Books, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, 2020. ISBN: 9781861519641. 318 pages with illustrations. Available from Amazon Australia, Dymocks, Booktopia, Fishpond etc. for between about AU$33 and – AU$43. eBook for AU$4.29.
TUMBY BAY - Anyone who has worked in Papua New Guinea, past or present, will recognise the feeling. It lies somewhere between exasperation, despondency and hopelessness.
You arrive at a new posting and discover that it’s a mess. The airstrip is covered in grass a foot high amongst which half-wild cattle are grazing. The tractor and grass cutter is jacked up without wheels in a tilting shed or rusting out in the rain.
The generator broke down six months ago, the roof of your house leaks, rats and mice are running rampant in the store and the only transport, the station truck, has a shot clutch and no brakes.
The hot and sticky wet season is ready to start and the locals, including the station staff, are sullen and unresponsive and just don’t care anymore.
And it’s your job to fix it all.
Ostensibly meant to captain the mission’s cargo boat, of which he had no prior experience, lacking any cultural preparation and not yet able to speak Tok Pisin it’s a wonder he didn’t immediately pack up and turn tail for home.
It’s all looking pretty dire by about page 100 and one is left to ponder the optimism of the book’s title. Maybe concentrating on becoming rich and famous might have been a better idea after all.
But then there’s a change of fortune and he gets sent back to Port Moresby and lands a job running a handicrafts marketing project. This is much more to his liking. He is based in the city with all its amenities and the opportunity to travel all over Papua New Guinea looms.
The handicrafts job he lands involves one of the more curious government sponsored projects set up in the run up to independence - wool weaving.
This project actually pre-dated Nick’s involvement by several years and it is surprising to see that the administration persevered with it well into the 1970s.
I was looking after a local government council in the highlands in 1968 and I found to my surprise a wool weaving loom set up in the office.
I don’t know what the Papua New Guinean wool clip was in 1968 but I’m sure it was minimal. Why the government was bringing in wool from Australia for Papua New Guineans to weave was quite a puzzle.
One clue might have been the eccentric woman running the endeavour, who Nick carefully avoids naming in his book. That said, I’ve still got a nice poncho and a lovely wool floor rug from the project.
There is no doubt that working in Papua New Guinea changed many people and their view of the world. This is especially true of those who worked closely with Papua New Guineans in their communities, people like kiaps, teachers, didimen and the like.
On the other hand there were people who went to work in Papua New Guinea and were not changed at all. These are the people who went there for the good wages and low taxes and never left Port Moresby and any of the other large towns and only interacted with the locals when necessary.
I get the impression that Nick’s experiences landed somewhere in between these two extremities and that it was actually leaving Britain that created the changes in him that he alludes to in the book.
He could have gone somewhere else in the world and the effect might have been the same as those he experienced in Papua New Guinea.
The reason I think this is because, apart from the bizarre and weird stuff that was going on as independence loomed, a lot of what Nick writes about is, for want of a better term, fairly commonplace – normal things that happened on a daily basis. In the whole narrative there is nothing that appears remotely cathartic.
To be clear, this doesn’t in any way detract from the book. On the contrary, it makes it quite fascinating.
What we tend to forget is that Papua New Guinea was and is a very exotic place and that the commonplace there can be quite different and fascinating for readers unfamiliar with the place or places like it.
Further to that, and quite interestingly, as I discovered, for people who have shared those similar experiences, without any real degree of introspection, reading about them now can have a surprising and curious attraction.
That’s where the value of what he has written lies I think. He successfully describes that strange and erratic world of rapid change and all its peculiarities in the years just before independence in its simple and largely drama lacking nature.
Who would have thought that such mundanity could be so interesting.
What Nick’s book essentially details are the experiences of one of the many people who briefly flittered onto the Papua New Guinean scene in the early 1970s and then just as quickly flittered away.
Or at least I think he flittered away because the book seems to end in mid-stream. He has secured an interesting job in the administration and then goes on leave back to Britain with the intention of returning to Papua New Guinea.
Whether he actually returns and what happens to him is left hanging in the air. Instead of a couple more chapters we get a couple of rambling philosophical pieces whose connection to the main narrative is hard to pick.
There is another book coming we are told and perhaps leaving the reader wondering is part of some sort of soap opera style marketing plan. Who knows?
And, of course, you’ll have to read this book to decide whether you want to read the next one.
I’m still thinking about it.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read this first book. For the reasons outlined above it has much in it of interest and is a nice twist on the more usual memoirs currently being published about life in pre-independent Papua New Guinea.
It’s a well-written and beautifully produced book on quality paper thankfully devoid of typos and with only a couple of questionable grammatical instances. As far as I can tell there are no factual errors of consequence, except perhaps for the claim that Britain took over New Guinea from the Germans.
Good book –recommend it.