mi Meri Tolai by Lawrence Cremin
For those people who are not ex-PNG the Tolai people live in the Rabaul area of New Britain. Meri is the Pidgin word for female. Muriel Larner referred to herself as ‘mi Meri Tolai’. Only a few who have lived in PNG can claim the empathy that she had for the country and its people, born and raised in Rabaul she was truly Meri Tolai.
Muriel (Mu, Mim) Larner, née MacGowan, was born on 6 September 1929. A couple of volcanic eruptions later, in 1937 and 1939, and following the commencement of World War II, we find Muriel in 1941 on Macdhui being evacuated from Rabaul together with Diana Coote and Doreen Crawley, who would become lifelong friends and Doreen, her sister-in-law. Having survived the volcanos she was now endeavouring to survive the war. Macdhui was sunk in Port Moresby Harbour the following year.
About this time, and now in Australia, Muriel’s hearing deteriorated, and she had to go to ballet and art school rather than continue with a more formal education—there has been a number of times over the years that she looked at me quizzically as though I’d said something stupid, I can only hope it was because she didn’t hear what I said. This, together with swimming, at which she modestly claims she excelled, seems to have taken up most of the war years.
She returned to Port Moresby in 1946 for what her parents thought was the school holidays, Muriel in the other hand, had no intention of leaving. She got a job with the Australian Petroleum Company as a draftswoman—in the typical Mu fashion of underselling herself (apart from her swimming claim), she doesn’t say where she acquired her drafting skills, so I assume art school was a little more formal than she previously stated. Her mother was a draftswoman so that may have helped.
It was at APC that she met her husband to-be, Wally Larner. According to Muriel he found her to be young and fickle—sometime during this period she was being courted by an American liberator pilot who used to buzz the house when he took off or returned, so Wally was probably justified. Apparently, it was enough for him to go off to fight in Korea for fifteen months. When he returned, it seems she had overcome ‘young and fickle’, and they married.
In the early fifties they went to the pictures and saw Elephant Walk, starring Peter Finch and Elizabeth Taylor. This, of course, logically led them to believe they should become planters. They applied for and were granted a block in the Eastern Highlands.
I passed through what was to become Arau Plantation in 1956, a year shortly before Wally started developing it. This was the start of my own adventure and long association with PNG. At that stage the road (a term I use loosely) terminated at Omaura Mission—from there on you walked. Supplies came in by air to a short dirt strip on Karanka, the adjoining plantation about three miles away owned originally by RM Williams and then by Lawrie Crowley, who operated a small air charter company.
In the ten years that followed, Muriel and Wally established Arau, often with very little money and very limited facilities. Somehow, during this period they found time to participate in the construction of the Kainantu Country Club, which included a nine-hole golf course. In the following years many of us benefited and spent many happy evenings there—mainly talking when the film broke.
I didn’t meet Muriel until twelve years after they had commenced developing Arau, that was in 1968, when I returned to the Highlands to manage Karanka, which had now become my uncle’s plantation. The homesteads were about three miles apart.
Wally had died the year before and Muriel was managing Arau and caring for two young daughters; she was only thirty-nine. At twenty-nine I was bulletproof and I don’t think I appreciated what she had to contend with. Kainantu was twenty miles away and our only communications were by radio. I always thought that nothing was beyond Muriel, and I think I was even a bit scared of her. It was only when I read her story about having to send the girls off to boarding school, and that she was having difficulty coping, that I understood the pressures she had been under. She may have been small in stature but she punched well above her weight.
In 1969 Mu was digging toilet pits and drains when she found first-class clay and, in her words, started playing around with it—this led her to teaching the local village children, pottery and screen printing which, in turn, led to the establishment of the Cultural Centre in Kainantu in the late seventies and early eighties. It also meant Muriel moving into Kainantu and leaving a manager on the plantation.
In 1972 I married a Sydney girl, Marianne, who had come to PNG looking for adventure and found me instead. I asked Muriel to make us a pottery dinner service. Forty-eight years later we are still waiting and over the years it became a standing joke, ‘Where’s our dinner service, Mu?’
Although we don’t have a dinner service we do have a number of Mu’s pieces including a fragile one that sits on our dining room table. I console myself that we don’t have the dinner service because Muriel was helping other people. One was a lady who ordered a set of avocado bowls and, when she complained that they were too big, Mu presented her with an Arau avocado, which was a perfect fit.
I only remember one other contentious issue between us. I have volumes one, two and three of The Thousand and One Nights, Muriel possessed volume four. Whenever I suggested she should return it (which was quite often) she would counter with ‘How about you return my three volumes?’
In 1982, with the pottery going well, Muriel commenced training disabled people, some of whom became permanent employees. The pottery grew and went from success to success, and in 1983 Mu was awarded a well-deserved MBE. Following her retirement she moved into Durack Retirement Village, where she started a pottery group and also travelled a lot visiting the Antarctic and other remote places, including Longreach (which is pretty remote) where she came and saw us.
The last time we saw Mu she was living in a unit surrounded by more PNG artefacts than you would find in the National Museum. That is the way I’ll remember her—my friend for over fifty years.
Some people just live, others live useful and productive lives. RIP Mu.
And if you get bored with resting in peace you might give some consideration to finishing my dinner service. u
Muriel Larner passed away on 18 April 2019, aged ninety.
UV: In 2009 Muriel gave an address in Brisbane, entitled ‘Mi meri Tolai: Born and raised in Rabaul’. Her address was published in full on the PNGAA website in September 2015.