Book Reviews: June 2008

Fred Archer: Man of the Islands by Mary Archer Roberts
Balus Tin Biskit, Pathfinders in New Guinea 1932-1936 by Clarrie James
Payback by John Bell

Fred Archer: Man of the Islands by Mary Archer Roberts
ISBN9780977592517. 482 pages, illustrations, hard cover. Available from the publisher, David M.Roberts, PO Box 776 Mudgeeraba, Qld 4213 $87 plus $10 postage within Australia, $15 elsewhere.

There wouldn’t be a surviving Before, or a sizeable hunk of post-war expats, who haven’t heard of Fred Archer, the subject of this book by his niece, Mary Roberts – although Fred died in 1977 at 86 (and Mary died last November, just weeks before the book appeared). She was inspired to write his story after the discovery of copies of his letters stored away in an old, green tin trunk in her box room. It records how Fred went to New Guinea from Queensland in 1922 after World War I service, became a plantation overseer and manager of expropriated German plantations for the Expro Board, before buying a plantation, Jame, in Bougainville and investing in other properties. After serving in various capacities during the war, he “retired” to Rabaul in 1960, a well-known identity and raconteur, active in business ventures and, as always, an incurable writer of letters to companies, local authorities, governments, newspapers, friends – expressing his views or wants.

Fred Archer: Man of the Islands is self-published in a run of only 50 copies, some already taken by friends and family, so clearly it’s a labour of love, not necessarily expected to return its production costs but rather a family tribute to Fred’s life. This has resulted in the book’s tone, one almost of idolatry for a “wise…gallant and courageous man”. Despite that, and some faults including misspelled names and a useless index, this account of Fred’s active life in various parts of New Guinea is certainly better than none at all. It confirms Fred was tough, disciplined and determined to make good in the islands, like many other men who returned from World War I. He pulled his weight and contributed his share to New Guinea’s development. And although personal frugality was a way of life for Fred (many a humorous tale of this idiosyncrasy is told to this day), when later he was able to afford it he provided huge sums for charities and other altruistic purposes, without fanfare.

It’s to be regretted that Mary’s account unfairly attacks the reputation of the late Jack Read, ADO on Bougainville when Japan struck, as being “a naval man, overbearing, self-assured … impatient of civilians, more especially those who could have left the islands earlier when the boats were available, but had refused to go…a ‘Little Admiral’ who turned a blind eye to reality.” Read, later PNG’s Senior Native Lands Commissioner, was not “a naval man”, but a kiap for 12 years before his Buka Passage posting, who unexpectedly found himself establishing and directing Coastwatching activities on Bougainville for the next 18 months after the DO and his staff had departed Kieta in a very great hurry, well before the Japs invaded. He was given a posting in the RAN Reserve as some sort of “protection” in enemy territory, and the continued presence on Bougainville of Fred, the Campbells and other expat families added to his problems. When Fred and the families eventually did recognise reality and sought escape, it was Read who organised it. He finished the war as an Army Major.
Stuart Inder

Balus Tin Biskit, Pathfinders in New Guinea 1932-1936 by Clarrie James
ISBN 978-0-646-48710-6 Written and published by the author 2008, 32pp booklet, 20 b/w photographs, many maps Cost: $15 incl postage within Australia. Available after 12 July 2008. Please contact Clarrie James, 1/21 Moreton Street, Russell Vale, NSW, 2517. Phone: 02-4284 1900,

A special tribute and photographic record of Junkers aircraft in PNG. Aviation was evolving at the time the Junkers were creating history. A section is included with small excerpts from the author’s book ‘ANGAU One Man Law’ illustrating the hazards of terrain and weather facing these aircraft, their occupants and their revolutionary use in moving supplies and equipment.

Payback by John Bell
ISBN 978 0 9802884 7 6 published by Info Publishing Pty Ltd 2008, 430pp plus embedded photographs. $29.95 plus P&P. Contact John Bell at PO Box 40, Airlie Beach 4802, Qld, Ph: 07 49466558 or 0427 524045, or go to website www.johnbellbooks.com

Payback is a true story disguised as a novel. Based very closely on John Bell’s own family history, it is set in New Guinea. But whereas the Bells didn’t arrive in the Mandated Territory until 1926, the Williams family in the book took up residence in 1909. The temptation for the reader in this book is to try and work out what is true and what is fiction, but this is a fruitless exercise. Much better just to lie back and enjoy the ride, and what a ride it is. Because most of the stories incorporated into the book are based on actual happenings, they have the ring of truth, no matter how outlandish they seem and it is this which keeps you glued to the page.

It begins with the start of a blood feud, a feud which will track through the entire book. The Williams family are living on a farm in the island known as New Ireland – a seemingly idyllic existence. But in the midst of the idyll, reality intrudes in the shape of the rape of a little Chinese girl by Karl Frederiksen and his cousin. When revenge is taken and Frederiksen is banished, he vows to pay back the Williams, who he blames for his downfall. He takes work on a Malay trepanger, inadvertently indenturing himself as a slave to harsh masters which only strengthens his resolve to get his own back. Back on the Williams farm tragedy strikes when Ethel, the only girl child, is taken by a crocodile while playing in the river. Despite this tragedy, the Williams family prospers and their four boys grow into fine young men, the threats made by Karl Frederiksen long forgotten. But the clouds are gathering and WWII is on the horizon. When war is declared in Europe, life in PNG is relatively unaffected. But the Japanese are on the move and when Singapore falls, PNG is next. The Williams already have extensive holdings in North Queensland and the women and children of the family are evacuated there. The harrowing tales of the Williams men who remain behind to protect their family fortunes are as disparate as they are engrossing. And who should emerge to do his worst and exact his payback but Karl Frederksen.Bell has produced a great read – tragic, funny, engaging and throwing a new light on our nearest neighbour, PNG. In a word: Engrossing.

EXTRACT from book review by Mary Vernon, Townsville Bulletin, Weekend Extra, 1 March 2008

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