Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Whatever happened to mateship

 Whatever happened to the sentiments of mateship?

[Photo, left: courtesy of The National Weekender, National newspaper, library.]

Storyboard could not help asking that question after reading Malum Nalu’s review of Graham Pople’s The Popleography (Weekender, Friday 18th June). What really drew storyboard’s attention to that article was the description of quiet and peaceful settings of the Highlands region – of places such as Liagam, Kainantu, Minj, Banj and others. Though the descriptions were offered from the point of view of a kiap trying to explore the Highlands, they could also reflect the experiences of the Highlanders themselves in their venture to the coastal areas just to find out what was there to be discovered about their country.

Naturally, there was much of that exchange involved in sharing of sentiments, ideas and the search for new horizons that concerned the Territory itself in those days. Aside from the kiaps, a lot of coastal people went up to the Highlands as evangelists and generally church workers, while at the same time a lot of Highlanders came down to the coastal and islands areas in their capacity as interpreters, church college students, plantation workers and as participants in the Fuzzy Wuzzy camps of the last war. Some bond of friendship developed during those movements throughout the Territory, including movements to Australia itself.

Storyboard’s point in mentioning all this is that very little of this idea of sentiment sharing appears in the literatures of both Papua New Guinea and Australia. The fuzzy wuzzy sentiment does appear, but this is usually restricted to a single poem of a young Australian soldier and one supposes that it is only recited on Remembrance Day and not in a year-round kind of literary activity. This boils down to word that we want in this article: mateship.

In literature proper, be that literature Australian or Papua New Guinean, the word is mentioned only once. And that is in Ian Downs’ The Stolen Land. In that novel Joseph returns to PNG after completing school in Australian, but his involvement in politics drowns every possibility of this idea of mateship developing between Australians and Papua New Guineans. In ordinary conversation, be it in a pub or a rugby league oval, the word is used a million times over. But it would be nice if the same word appeared an equal number of times in print through novels, short stories, poems and plays, including memoirs and biographies. That would help us look back at places like Liagam or Kainantu less nostalgically than patriotically, the latter being what we truly want.

There is no denying, however, that things did happen wondrously in those days gone by. Look at the brilliance of engineering that Graham Pople captured through a photograph of a bridge at Liagam. Should not that be a “re-model” of the Sydney Harbour Bridge by any chance? I asked Graham of this possibility in engineering (Tuesday 22/6), but was advised that the people who had constructed the bridge at that time might not have heard much about Sydney or the bridge. That happened about sixty years ago, says Graham. That aside, it is good to share Graham’s recollections of our country in its infancy that way and well, too, that someone should offer to publish Popleography. Storyboard would prefer to see that done locally. Good on you, Graham. Believe storyboard: you deserve a Logohu for that (if you haven’t got it yet).

In that short telephone conversation also, storyboard asked Graham if he would agree that the word mateship by now has lost its true value and meaning. And he said that he did. Storyboard thinks along the same lines as well, not only of the word’s loss of value among Papua New Guineans and Australians but among Australians themselves. If the word maintained any of its values at all today then we would not be hearing stories about certain slurs at the Blues training camps when preparing for that battle with the Maroons at Suncorp Stadium. That’s sad.

Five months after he had turned nineteen, and when he had legally come of age, storyboard was invited to a party held in his honour at a local suburban Melbourne pub called The Sentimental Bloke. The people doing the invite were his class mates of Balwyn High. The party was considered special because they had all completed the Victorian Matriculation Examination Certificate successfully, thereby qualifying to enter any university in Australia. It was all the more special because Russell Soaba was the only Papua New Guinean (the Territory then) and a black man at that at Balwyn High School. As part of the party storyboard was given a guitar and asked to stand on a diving board of the pub’s swimming pool, without tilting or falling, and sing Slim Dusty’s A Pub with No Beer. He did, halfway, when all of a sudden – plop – into the pool, with the guitar, the suit and all. The rest of his mates joined in and it was fun. Patrons of the pub: well, mostly parents of Soaba’s class mates, including one or two young teachers from the school.

The sentiments of mateship were sealed then. This was Melbourne in the late 1960s. It was a decade when sentiments of high intellectualism were sweeping throughout Australia. There weren’t much of those “cult” activities such as “flower people” and “free love” evident at this time. Most adolescents that storyboard had come in contact with had only one ambition in mind: to reach the highest of stations in education and life. And they read the classics in literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Swift, Blake, Byron, Tennyson, Coleridge, Wilde, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Camus, Sartre et al. Since this was predominantly a bourgeois setting most of storyboard’s class mates have ended up overseas, one becoming a court historian at Buckingham Palace.

From out of this experience in mateship storyboard would further look for a model to follow and he did: in Sir Charles Perkins, who became the first Aboriginal Australian to gain a university degree.