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Today's quote:

Thursday, July 23, 2020

"What would Noel have done?"

Rest in Peace, Noel! Your memory lives on at "Riverbend"


Almost no day goes by when I haven't pondered something or faced some decision and asked myself, "What would Noel have made of this?" or "What would Noel have done?"

Marcel Proust believed that spending an hour with a friend was "to sacrifice a reality for something that does not exist; our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive" and that friendship in the end is no more than "a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone."

My friendship with Noel was more akin to Proust's comparison to reading --- "In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original parity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to" --- because, while we first met aboard the liner PATRIS in late 1967 when he was going on a European holiday and I was returning to Germany, much of the next twenty-seven years until his untimely death in 1995 was spent in writing letters, he from his home in Wewak in what was then the Territory of Papua New Guinea, and I from my countless abodes around the world.

My friendship with Noel played no small part in my resolve in 1969 to leave a promising and secure career with the Australia & New Zealand Bank for the wilds of New Guinea. I worked there for several years, during which time I visited Noel on his small country estate outside Wewak and Noel came to spent Christmas 1973 and Christmas 1974 with me. Or at least he tried because by the time he arrived on Bougainville in 1973, I was in Arawa Hospital being prepared for an urgent appendectomy; and when he came to see me in Lae in 1974 I was already packed up and ready to fly out to my next assignment in Burma. Then it was my turn to spend Christmas 1975 at Wewak but I could only stay for a few days as I was already booked to fly out to Tehran in Iran.

We kept up a regular correspondence during all those years which Noel spent mostly in Wewak in the Sepik District, before PNG's Independence in 1975 and old age forced him to return to his homestate Queensland. Our paths crossed more frequently after I had temporarily come back to Australia in 1979. I visited him several times and observed with some concern his struggle to make himself at home again in Australia, first at Caboolture, then at Mt Perry, and finally at Childers. He never quite succeeded since, as he put it, after a lifetime spent in PNG, "my spiritual home will always be New Guinea", which was the closest he ever came to complain about his life which had been full of hardship.

We never talked about the past, I because I didn't have one yet and Noel because, as he once confided, "Talking about it makes it more real", and so I knew nothing about his joining the Army when still in his late teens and being sent up to New Guinea to take part in the Bougainville Campaign, his unsuccessful attempts to grow coffee and tea in the New Guinea Highlands, and the subsequent years spent in mainly lowly-paid casual jobs with various government departments. As he once quipped, "I must be the longest-serving casual public servant in the Territory."

He epitomised the typical 'Territorian' with his Devil-may-care attitude and his unconcern about the future, about money, and about a career. Somehow, for him, the Territory provided everything he wanted from life and the rest of the world was a place that he visited once every so many years after he had saved up enough money for the fare.

His stoicism, his strength in the face of adversity, were a role model for me as I tried to make my own way through life. From afar, he observed my stumbling, my going from bust to boom and back again, which once prompted him to compare me to the proverbial cat with nine lives.

Noel was my last connection with a time in which I became what I am today, and my memories of that time are inseparable from my memories of him, and so thinking of him has become a kind of code for thinking of many other things that happened to me during those years and which I would rather forget because talking about them make them more real.

What would Noel have done? I think he would've done the same!

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