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John Fowke, rough-hewn sage, dies at 81

John Fowke - astute critic and interpreter of the Papua New Guinean condition


NOOSA – John Fowke, an erstwhile contributor to PNG Attitude and forceful critic of what he (sometimes unfairly) perceived as humbug and banality, has died in Brisbane aged 81.

Fowke went to Papua New Guinea as a Cadet Patrol Officer aged 21 in April 1958.

In 1962 he changed career direction when he was appointed a Cooperatives Officer, working in the Goroka region.

As coffee production began to boom in the PNG highlands, he resigned his government position to become a plantation manager in 1964.

His occasional lapses into deep depression (“I’m still suffering on the dark side, but what can be done,” he once wrote to a friend) impaired an otherwise brilliant mind – as well as many friendships.

But for his life taking sometimes erratic twists and turns, he could have made an impressive career as an academic (he would have been appalled at the thought) or journalist. 

However he had to make do with being a practical man and perceptive writer who had a deep understanding of PNG and its people.

DanHis one published book, ‘Kundi Dan: Dan Leahy's life among the Highlanders of Papua New Guinea’, (University of Queensland Press, 1995) remains an outstanding work and his regular columns for the magazine Quadrant and PNG Attitude were authoritative (if caustic) and showed a deep respect for the Melanesian people.

In more recent years Fowke grew increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with the corruption and incompetence of many, if not most, PNG politicians.

He was also scathing of the unwillingness of PNG intellectuals to translate into action their knowledge of what needed to be done to put their country on the right track.

Fowke wrote another unfinished book, ‘Land of the Unexpected’, as a newcomers’ guide to PNG, which – probably hoping he might sell it to foreign organisations operating in PNG, all of which badly needed it - he made me swear I would read but not reproduce.

John died in hospital in a Brisbane hospital surrounded by his family. His wife, Penny, predeceased him in 2001.


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Lindsay F Bond

Dear Anna - Yours is not the only family choosing such a veto.

If Daniel had not put his request I would not have commented and this is not to cause clamour.

Such clear enunciation of etiquette appropriate to circumstances such as this in PNG is still rare.

Daniel Kumbon

Oh Anna, the extract was a nice piece. I read it first thing this morning. Please allow it to be republished. Such good words from a wise man should not stay hidden.

Anna Fowke

Keith - I am disappointed that you saw fit to publish this without any contact with Dad's family. His wish that his manuscript remained unpublished still stands. My brother Philip and I would have appreciated it if you had contacted us before doing this.

Hi Anna and Philip - First, let me say how sad I am that John has died. The world, and PNG in particular, needed more men like him. When I write obituaries of people I have known and liked, which, as we age, these days I do too often, I try to be straightforward and truthful. And of course the views expressed are my own. This means that they may not always align with the views of the family. In accordance with his and your wishes I have removed the extract I published from his manuscript - KJ

Stephen Schmidt

My old man planted one or two coffee trees about the same period in the Goroka area and may have met up with him.

Harry Topham

Several years, when John used to be a regular contributor to the blog, I enjoyed exchanging with him well intentioned if somewhat mischievous banter on topics raised.

It was quite obvious I was dealing with a man of formidable intellect which, like most of this type, could not tolerate fools lightly but nevertheless enjoyed a good argument.

After he disappeared from this blog, I missed his words of wisdom and have always wondered how he later fared.

From one old foot slogger to the next, travel lightly John and keep your powder dry.

Philip Fitzpatrick

John wrote a novel called 'Time of Rain' under the pen name John Stafford, which was published by Rigby in 1984. It's a good book and was dedicated to "Papua New Guinea and her people, may they prosper". He was also working on two other novels that remain incomplete.

John and I talked quite a bit via email about not being able to get any traction for his guide to Papua New Guinea. He really tried to conjure up interest, including with DFAT, but it was the same old story.

I incorporated some of his ideas into my own guide, 'Two Sides to Every Story: A Short Guide to Cross Cultural Awareness in Papua New Guinea'.

Lindsay F Bond

TP&NG Gazette says that middle name was Philip (not Pheisty).


Peter Salmon

Keith, I agree. I can't fault that extract.

I think John's idea of selling the book to foreign organisations was good. This extract alone should be plasticised and placed with the emergency card in the back of all inbound seats to PNG.

What is going to happen to the unfinished book, ‘Land of the Unexpected’? Will it see the light of day even if it is still unfinished?

On a minor note, what was John's middle name, P.....?

My observation is that many, if not most, organisations deploying staff or contractors to PNG are negligent when it comes to thorough orientation. Perhaps that attitude lay behind John's failure to take his book further. As for the mysterious 'P', I don't know but doubt that it was Percy - KJ

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