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.
His 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.