5. Stiffly starched white coats, and other differences

Paul Quinlivan’s Snapshots

The coats on all the men in the photo on the middle pages of the last Una Voce remind me of an essential difference between the early 50s and, say, the 60s. As did the sight, on TV recently, of an English judge asking for a red bonnet to wear because, he said, judicial robes were inappropriate for the trial he was conducting into Nazi War Crimes but he wanted people to know who he was. For my first six months in TPNG I did not realise just how entrenched the ‘white coats’ mentality was because, apart from the first week (when people kindly lent me a coat to wear to Government House, etc.), I was constantly on circuit with Monte Phillips who always travelled in shorts and long sox because of his gammy knee. Since we always stayed in people’s homes, there was no ‘dressing up’ and, if luggage went astray, Monte would borrow a piece of red material and drape it over his shoulders to show that, whereas Kiaps were ‘judge’ when on the Bench, he was ‘the judge who wore the red cloth’.

It was not until June 1952 when Monte gave a luncheon party at his home for all the lawyers of the Territory, to discuss the formation of a Local Law Society, that I realised that slavery to white coats was total. By then, of course, I had had one made by a Rabaul tailor but Joe Lynch, who arrived the same day as I did, had to borrow one for the luncheon and he, together with lawyers who had flown in from Rabaul and Lae, were seated at a drop-side table. It was the finest meal I ever had in the Territory but it failed to overcome local jealousies because, during the very first course, Joe knocked the leg of the table and his side collapsed, covering him and Harold James (their white coats, to be precise) in vichyssoise soup. Since neither Joe nor Harold (from Rabaul) could get a replacement coat, Monte gave the order ‘Remove Coats’ and the ironclad rule was broken. So was the spell which Monte had woven, at great personal expense, because although everyone paid due attention to his speech about ‘dangers ahead’, they went away with something else to talk about.

The rule about coats was, of course, not a great burden to carry but, some months later, I was asked to do the first Price Control prosecutions and I discovered that each Magistrates’ court had a rack of discarded coats which Europeans who were suddenly called to give evidence had to put on to be ‘properly dressed’. Filthy and stiff with mildew, they added nothing to The Law and it was one of my earliest victories to have the compulsory straight-jacketing of witnesses abolished. On the credit side there were many attractions. The Territory was the safest place on earth for a white person (we shall see several illustrations of this), largely because we had protected land rights, interfered only where existing systems prevented people moving freely, and we never imposed corvée, the compulsory (semi-slave) labour traditional in other ‘colonial’ countries. This non-interference meant that the cost, to Australia, of running the country had been minimal but it imposed special burdens on those working in the field, burdens which quickly sorted out the competent from the loud-mouth who owed his job to ‘friends back home’. It was not uncommon to find that the quiet unassuming man standing next to you was a hero who had done great deeds behind Japanese lines if you could only get him to talk. To illustrate this I would mention Ivan Champion who, on 9 April 1942, sailed Laurabada to Palmalmal, New Britain, and rescued 150 Australian troops from under the noses of the Japanese, bringing them safely back to Moresby. He told me, “Everyone with the right spirit can find this a very satisfying place.”

To turn to the less attractive side: Monte’s abortive luncheon was excellent, as I have said, but that was because he had flown in all the ingredients. The meat, fruit and vegetables normally available in the shops were very sub-standard. The soup which splattered over Joe’s and Harold’s coats is made from potatoes, a basic staple. But supplies came only from Australia and were so often rotten when they arrived that most people kept tinned potatoes in stock as a standby. This nearly led to a riot when – or so the story goes – an enterprising entrepreneur called “B the BB” bought up all the tins he could with the idea of making a killing when the next consignment of potatoes turned out to be rotten. Unfortunately, he was an Admin. Officer and, since commercial firms were in the habit of putting pressure on the Admin. (until the Anton Rucker Case put an end to it), he had to disgorge. Coming from a State where the policy was to send only the very best produce to Singapore, so that WA could capture the market, this palming off of rubbish was very hard to forgive.

The situation regarding beer was worse. We could never get Australian beer so we had to rely on imports from Germany, the Philippines and God-knows where. You could never get used to one taste unless you drank Becks, and the New Guinea Club had a showcase displaying varieties we had to contend with: Revolver, Pistol, Power, Big Gun, Big Girl, Blue Girl, St Pauli Girl, Three Girls, Three Elephants, Three Castles, Three Clouds and so on. And on. They stopped at 57 in homage to Mr Heinz but there were hundreds. Why? This was not an academic question because, apart from a hole, called The Bombhole, in the dead reef which covered all of Ela Beach, where one could swim, and tennis courts at Ela Beach and 4 Mile, there was nowhere one could go, in Port Moresby, for leisure time activities except the Snake Pit at the Bottom Pub or a club, and the same applied everywhere else. Before the war there had been a swimming baths inside the harbour and a golf course at Konedobu (Judge Gore was now rebuilding one on Scratchley Road) but, since everybody kept telling me how important it was to get an ‘outside activity’, this was a worrying situation. Luckily, Joe Lynch, Andy O’Driscoll and I at the Legal Officers’ Quarters (a tarred-paper donga in Hunter Street where ANG House now is) had to cater for ourselves so, when I asked our major domo, Aitau, why he always served freezer steak when fresh fish should be available, he took me 100 yards, through the Fire Station, and out onto a little jetty opposite. He then pulled on the rope there and the barge which took water to the Gemo Island Leper Hospital loomed out of the darkness. When we were on the barge he shoved against the jetty and we gently floated out into the harbour and he said, “You want fish? You catch fish! This is best place.” So, for years, I often spent the evening there, opposite the Fire Station, and my catches were very welcome both at LOQ and when I was invited out.


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