Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow – Trobriand Islands #1 instalment

Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow – Trobriand Islands #1 instalment

Mick:  A Life of Randolph Stow

Trobriand Islands

PNGAA members will have seen the entry for Randolph Stow’s Trobriand Islands in Una Voce 2016, No2 – June p51. An internet link to the full length review was provided. However, it seemed such an interesting story for our readers, that Author Suzanne Falkiner has provided the full transcript of her review with permission from the Sydney Morning Herald. This review will appear over three issues.

Trip to Kitava. Photo: Suzanne Falkiner


We arrived yesterday afternoon. I’m staying at a sort of hostel outside P. M. It is a lot of huts or donggalas, as they call them, climbing up a steep hill, and I have to climb up a gradient of about 70% to get to the bath-house. I have half a donggala to myself, and servant called Esau to wash and sweep for me, so it looks like being fairly comfortable. The view from here is rather impressive. It looks across a wide bay to a line of green hills, a couple of islands, and miles and miles of Coral Sea, and there are native boats sailing backwards and forwards, so it all makes quite a pretty picture.

— Letter, Randolph Stow to his mother, Mary. Sent from the Department of Native Affairs, Konedobu, Port Moresby, 13 March 1959

In early March 1959, Randolph—‘Mick’—Stow, with two dozen other young cadet patrol officers, took off from Sydney’s Mascot airport after midnight to fly up the Queensland coast to Port Moresby. The trip, delayed by an outbreak of flu among the trainees, was a noisy and uncomfortable fourteen-hour grind in a chartered DC-4 with hour-long stops at Townsville and Cairns. Stow, at 23, was four or five years older than most of his fellow recruits, and already a published poet and novelist: a fact of which they were almost certainly unaware. Five weeks later it would be announced that his third novel, To the Islands, had won the second-ever Miles Franklin Award, after Patrick White’s Voss had taken out the inaugural prize the previous year. A post-university stint as a storeman at the Forrest River Mission (later known as Umbulgurri) in the Kimberley in early 1957 had given him a taste for out-of-the-way places and, after a period studying anthropology at Sydney University, he had been encouraged by Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck, a fellow-West Australian, to apply for a job with the Department of Native Affairs in Papua and New Guinea.

In Port Moresby, during the three-week orientation course that supplemented his five weeks’ training at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, or ASOPA, at Mosman in Sydney, Mick was quickly inducted into the heavy drinking culture that took place, in strictly segregated bars, among the town’s white inhabitants. Within a few weeks, however, the novelty had worn off. ‘I am rapidly developing the most strong antagonism towards Civil Servants’, he wrote in his diary. ‘New Guinea should be cleared of Europeans as much as possible as soon as possible. But I haven’t “been thirty years in the Territory” so I wouldn’t know.’

Embarking on a biography of Randolph Stow, an introspective author widely thought to be a recluse in his later years, had not been easy at the best of times, but writing about his time in New Guinea in 1959 was troubling on several levels: not least because during his last months there he had experienced a mental and physical breakdown that brought him close to death. I was probably not the first researcher, too, to discover that Stow’s Department of Territories personnel file—or the portion of it that dealt with precisely this period—had gone missing from the Australian Government Archives. When I tried to get in touch those ex-Department officers who had been in closest contact him, I was met with silence. The events, occurring not long after the death of Mick’s father Cedric Stow, a country town solicitor, had caused great distress to his surviving family members, and still did. Stow himself would not discuss it with his mother and sister at the time, and their fragmented conjectures had led them to believe that, as a barely-trained CPO, he had somehow been left unsupervised in a distant outpost. This combination of circumstances was inclining me towards the conclusion that a cover-up might subsequently have been put in place to protect the reputations of those further up line.

In the moist air this morning the smell of frangipani was overpowering. Walking to Moresby from here along the dirt road is pretty—the roadside a steep hill on the right, and wild Mexican rose and the sea on the left. In the cloudy morning it looks steely, but [by] lunch time is deep blue & deep sea-green. The sunset is brief and magnificent, picking out the islands in an almost lilac coloured sea, with ragged clouds the colour of Tristesse roses on the horizon, and an old rose glow. There is a fire on Fishermen’s Island tonight, or was; but after tremendous heat it is now raining like Niagara and much more pleasant.

—Randolph Stow, diary entry, 17 March 1959

These days, if you say you are going to Papua New Guinea, people tend to issue anxious warnings. Port Moresby is dangerous, they say, and expensive. One friend was so concerned that he offered to send his eldest son with me as a bodyguard. I must not leave my hotel alone, even in daylight hours, or carry a bag containing any valuables, I was advised. I should not attempt to go anywhere at night, even by car, for fear of marauding gangs, roadblocks and car-jackers. More immediately useful, in the Lamana hotel, where I intended to stay, I should ask for a room that was not above the bar.

In February 2013, on the short taxi ride in from Jackson airport, Port Moresby revealed itself as a sprawling, ramshackle settlement of low buildings scattered over a series of steep hills and bays, with a few high-rise blocks marking its centre. When I retired that night, however, the pertinence of the last piece of advice became apparent: the throbbing beat of dance music in the hotel’s nightclub—a dark dive full of serious drinkers—continued until three in the morning, drowning out the room’s air conditioner, which itself sounded like a windy tropical storm with pattering rain.

At the hotel desk next day (the telephone in my room works only intermittently) I book a taxi to take me around the town, at 150 kina (about AU$75) for three hours. My driver, Mark, is calm and affable. When we have negotiated some necessary purchases—a mosquito net and a sim card—with Mark translating for me, we tour the local landmarks: Parliament House, the ethnographic Museum, the Botanic Gardens, Boroko market, and Paga Hill to see the views of Ela Beach and the harbour. Then, after a detour via the Two Mile and the Four Mile, I try to retrace what might have been Stow’s ambulatory route, through old colonial red-roofed wooden houses resembling Queenslanders on stilts, from where he might have been billeted in 1959.

While we drive, Mark, whose father was a civil servant, tells me a story about a sister of his, university educated, who had died by sorcery at a young age. The subject has come up because, not long ago, in a barbarous act that received publicity worldwide, a young woman at Mount Hagen was burned alive after being accused of witchcraft. After expressing my shock and sympathy, I ask how, in his sister’s case, his family had known it was sorcery. After her death, they had found black marks on her breasts, Mark confides: whoever had done it had somehow got hold of her bra. They had tried without success to find out who was responsible, and his father had retired from his Government position as a result. People were jealous of his family’s success, he thought. Mark himself thought driving a taxi was less stressful now than seeking out some more ambitious job.

For Mick Stow, things had soon begun to look more promising. A few weeks after his arrival he learned that, instead of being posted out on patrol, he was to be attached to Charles Julius, the Department’s anthropologist. In early May he and Julius would go to Kirwina island in the Trobriand group, to investigate the disputed paramount chieftainship of Omarakana. The authority of the Trobriand chiefs appeared to be waning as various factors underpinning their prestige—polygamy, and faith in their power of magic and beneficent sorcery—diminished with the encroachment of European ideas. If the breakdown of order continued, it was believed, lawlessness might result.

On the morning of Saturday 2 May 1959 Mick and Charles Julius left by Canadian Otter seaplane for the tiny island outpost of Samarai in the Milne Bay district, from where they would travel by boat to Kiriwina. At Omarakana, they would study what might happen if Mitakata, the elderly paramount chief of the Trobriands, disinherited his heir, who was thought to have slept with one of his younger wives. The two men would spend some five months together before Julius returned to Moresby to make his report, while Stow reverted to his role as a CPO.

These experiences with Charles Julius in the Trobriand Islands, and later on his tour of duty with his supervising senior Patrol Officer Peter Gall, would eventually result in the novel Visitants. Before that happened, however, in December 1959, after a spell in Taurama hospital in Port Moresby, Mick would resign and be repatriated to Australia. Subsequently Stow was circumspect about these events, publicly as well as privately, and within weeks the larger part of his Public Service file (after being inspected by the ‘the minister’, Paul Hasluck) had been moved to a restricted category. Hints dropped by Mick about his loneliness had led his family to believe his mental crisis had been brought on by malaria. Certainly, in later life, Stow himself also thought so. Neither Peter Gall, who was still living in Port Moresby, nor Gall’s immediate superior, Robert Blaikie, the Assistant District Officer at Losuia on Kiriwina at the time, whom I had traced to Queensland, would respond to my letters or emails. When I tried to ring Peter Gall directly from Australia, the operator in Port Moresby told me his telephone had been disconnected. Finally, from Bob Blaikie, I had received a courteous two-sentence email thanking me for mine, and stating ‘I have nothing to add that would be of any use to you.’ Blaikie, who had correctly guessed that I knew nothing, was evidently prepared to leave it that way, and my research so far amounted to little more than a distillation of gossip, hearsay and speculation.

Lamana Hotel, Port Moresby – Sunday, 17 February 2013: Hugh Davies, a tall, thin man in his late seventies, once a friend of Mick’s at the University of Western Australia and now a Professor of Geology at the University of Papua New Guinea, arrives to pick me up. His American wife Connie manoeuvres a huge truck into the constricted hotel parking space. Hugh himself had arrived in the Territory as a Departmental geologist a year or two before Stow. I had previously confided in Hugh, during a lengthy email correspondence, that I could not make contact with Peter Gall, and now it seemed that he had found him, seemingly effortlessly, and persuaded him to meet me. It was a more a dislike of letter-writing, and his failing memory, Hugh maintained, that had prevented Gall from responding before. I had suspected that it was more the imprimatur of another PNG insider that might have changed his mind.

Now we drive a few hundred yards to the Holiday Inn and adjourn to its coffee shop, near where a band of local children splash about in the hotel pool, to meet Peter. Still recognisable from photographs over half a century old by his wide, disarming smile, Gall is another tall, thin man in the tropical bureaucratic uniform of shorts and lace-up shoes. Over several weeks in late 1959, he confirms, he and Stow had patrolled the islands together, including Kitava and the remote Marshall Bennett group, on the Government workboat Pearl, accompanied by an interpreter, a small band of local police and a medical orderly. En route back to Losuia in mid November they had called in at the small nearby island of Muwo, where an isolated copra plantation was managed by an Australian.

His last patrol with Mick had gone quite normally, Gall insists. Mick was unlike the other cadets who had come under his supervision; he was quiet, observant, intelligent, interested in everything that was going on, and although they had had long talks together Gall had had no idea that anything was amiss. Blaming his failing memory, he seems unable to do more than confirm the truth or otherwise of what I already know of their movements. Gall is adamant that neither he nor Blaikie had observed any of the unmistakable signs of malaria —the sweating and fever—in Stow. Hearing that I am to leave for the Trobriands the following day, he suggests another meeting on my return: I will understand things better, he says, when I have been there.

Another taxi takes me to the Domestic Terminal to catch a smaller plane for the two-hour flight to Losuia on Kiriwina Island.

After two days in Port Moresby, even though everyone I have met is friendly enough, I am feeling very claustrophobic. It is constricting to be unable to walk about and explore the ramshackle town on my own, and booking a taxi for every outing is expensive and inconvenient. To my suggestion that we meet in the evening, Hugh and Connie demur: living behind high walls with security features, they too do not drive at night. Peter Gall has a different approach: his door is always open. Everyone knows he has nothing in his house worth taking and his neighbours know him and look out for him. So now I am becoming increasingly apprehensive about my excursion to the Trobriands: with no language skills, and unable to leave the island until the arrival of the next plane in a week’s time, I will entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. The Trobriands, because of Malinowski, are a well-worn path for foreigners. Nevertheless, I feel incompetent to handle what might lie ahead.


Leave a Reply