Mostly Guilty: A low-flying barrister’s working life
Mostly Guilty deals with the workings of the lower rungs of the Australian legal system. It’s about the down-to-earth cases that happen daily in Magistrates’ Courts. It does so through the experiences and anecdotes of a low-flying criminal barrister. While the cases are from Victoria, the book makes reference to other states and has relevance and interest Australia-wide. The style is light, punchy and informal, with lots of direct speech and many funny yarns. Some of the book is tongue-in-cheek (and even politically incorrect) but it also makes serious points throughout. It’s entertaining as well as informative. Most legal memoirs are by big-shot advocates or retired judges. Mostly Guilty is different, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Very Highly Recommended!
It is often funny. Laugh-out-loud in surprised disbelief funny. But never cheap laughs. Not at anyone’s expense — or no more than is deserved when the facts are made plain.
Challinger’s tone as author, and character. . . is often sympathetic, wry, and wise . . . His compassion throughout, for his hapless (and sometimes not so hapless) clients, and their suffering victims, is clear on every page — balanced with humour, and told simply and powerfully.
Very highly recommended!
Michael Challinger’s latest book, “Mostly Guilty”, is a book of cases remembered from Challinger’s long and diverse career, mainly defending people appearing in Magistrates’ Courts, in Australia and Papua New Guinea, charged with relatively low-grade crimes — no mass murderers and high-flying corporate swindlers and serial rapists and paedophiles. Instead, his clients are often petty career-criminals, or poorly educated opportunists tempted by an open garage door, or slower-thinking short-tempered small-scale psychopaths inclined to make a surprise attack on an unsuspecting victim, or someone caught in a feud that spirals helplessly out of control, …
Three outstanding features of the book must be mentioned.
First, it is often funny. Laugh-out-loud in surprised disbelief funny. But never cheap laughs. Not at anyone’s expense — or no more than is deserved when the facts are made plain. For example, in the opening chapter, the break-and-enter thief who repeatedly responds with self-defensive, outraged and profane disbelief, denying every accusation about his alleged crimes, is simply told he is clearly visible on the CCTV footage. It shows him having broken in, and helping himself … When his outraged ego deflates, you just have to laugh! Who needs witnesses when there is CCTV? Indeed!
Second, it is often sad. Many of the crimes, however petty, have serious consequences, and criminals and victims alike suffer — often through little actual fault of their own. Many of the “mostly guilty” convicted criminals came from such impoverished (financially, educationally, and emotionally) backgrounds that they never stood a chance from miserable childhoods in abusive homes, with drunken parents.
Third, it is practical. Michael Challinger has lived with the Law, at its best, and at its worst, when justice is poorly served by the strict letter of the law — dry as dust, formal, technical and academic. He understands the good intentions of the law, and its failures, and offers strong suggestions for broad improvements — but never in a preaching way.
Challinger’s tone as author, and character — the mild-mannered barrister who knows exactly what he is doing! — through his memoir, is often sympathetic, wry, and wise. He has earned this. His compassion throughout, for his hapless (and sometimes not so hapless) clients, and their suffering victims, is clear on every page — balanced with humour, and told simply and powerfully.
Very highly recommended!
Anyone who likes “Law & Order”, or “Rake”, or “Rumpole of the Bailey”, or other popular TV programs, and related books, will really like “Mostly Guilty”. Not only is it very entertaining, and informative, it is ALL TRUE. (Only the names have been changed to protect the identities, …)
This is a major true-life addition to Challinger’s earlier books, including his stories about expatriate and national relationships in Papua New Guinea, “Port Moresby Mixed Doubles”, and his farcical PNG novel “Shore Line”, and his excellent true-history of the Australian soldiers who volunteered at the end of World War I to go to Russia and help the White Russians (the pro-Czarists) fight against Lenin’s Communist Reds, “ANZACs at Arkhangel”.
Challinger writes entirely without pretension as an advocate of long experience. He enlightens as he entertains and has something important to say on many aspects of the law. The book is an easy read and, in parts, very funny.
It’s a terrific read by a lawyer of his life at the low end of the law . . . and his innate sense of humour and skill as a wordsmith lend credibility and readability as a serious social commentary.
The book should be compulsory reading for law students at universities and colleges of law.
I think the review of Michael Challinger’s book (LIJ, May 2021) Mostly Guilty didn’t do the book justice. The reviewer has misunderstood the author’s purpose: to open the public eye to daily life in the country’s most heavily worked court, the Magistrates’ Court. It’s a book that has been a long time coming.
Challinger writes entirely without pretension as an advocate of long experience. He enlightens as he entertains and has something important to say on many aspects of the law. The book is an easy read and, in parts, very funny. But he also tells it as it is.
I have read many biographies of lawyers and judges during my 48 years in practice. Without any exception that readily comes to mind, these tend to be highfalutin accounts of illustrious achievements by men in high castles. For the most part, they are tedious reading and utterly irrelevant to the lived lives of ordinary men and women in the community, and almost certainly of no present interest to them whatsoever when looking for a good read.
Challinger’s book, on the other hand, with its striking cover and title, will almost certainly catch their eye and see their hand move to their kick with alacrity after flicking a few pages in the expectation of good read. And they won’t be disappointed.
It’s a terrific read by a lawyer of his life at the low end of the law, which is the end by far the more important to the reading public.
Challinger doesn’t shirk from saying what he thinks and his innate sense of humour and skill as a wordsmith lend the book credibility and readability as a serious social commentary.
The book should be compulsory reading for law students at universities and colleges of law.
The book is a collection of anecdotes of legal practice over the past 40 years or so.
I’m genuinely surprised and impressed that he can remember in detail so many matters.
Barristers and solicitors of all persuasions will find this so familiar, the worn carpet, the clients and benches, so it will appeal to those and also to our friends and neighbours.
I’m sitting on a decrepit seat in the back of the Children’s Court of Victoria when a lawyer hands me his business card. Later, after we finish our matter, an unsuccessful costs application against the police, I don’t see him again.
A decade later that man writes a book. It’s Michael Challinger.
The book is a collection of anecdotes of legal practice over the past 40 years or so. Each is generally a paragraph or two spread over nearly 300 pages. I feel bombarded. His practice has spanned the world’s stage – London, Port Moresby, Traralgon – and is now mainly focused on the criminal list of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, assault, trafficking and stealing. I’m genuinely surprised and impressed that he can remember in detail so many matters.
Some of it is uncomfortable reading for me. Chapter 13 is entitled ‘Greeks and other ethnic clients’. This is not an isolated case. There is a chapter or two on the Children’s Court where I have spent the past ten years. Challinger says. ‘It’s stressful, it’s demoralising it’s alienating. You wonder what the world is coming to . . . I don’t know how they do it. Most of us can’t stand the place’.
I read it all and pretty quickly. Barristers and solicitors of all persuasions will find this so familiar, the worn carpet, the clients and benches, so it will appeal to those and also to our friends and neighbours.
Anzacs in Arkhangel: The untold story of Australia and the invasion of Russia 1918-19
In November 1918, as World War One was coming to a close and soldiers were returning home, a small group of Australian men signed up for more fighting. Yet this time, the enemy was Russian Bolsheviks instead of Germans, and the frontline was the wild and frozen wastelands of far north Russia. With humor and an eye for irony, Michael Challinger tells the story of how this group of 150 Aussies was seconded to help protect the British from a rear guard attack from northern Russia. Stationed in the small town of Arkhangel, the soldiers became embroiled in what was to become the Russian revolution, as they battled not only the Bolsheviks but also extreme cold, hostility from locals, and a 25-kilometer front line. Two of these Australians soldiers went on to win Victoria Crosses and are perhaps our most neglected war heroes. Anzacs in Arkhangel brings Russian history into focus and reveals how easily the First World War could have been lost. It is a fascinating account of part of the Anzac legend that is not so much forgotten as never known.
This tale is fascinating on so many levels. It’s a little-known story of 150 Australians who fought the Bolsheviks in far north Russia at the tail end of World War I and after the Armistice . . .
Challinger’s book adds a new dimension for Australians interested in military and political history.
A fascinating book . . . Superbly researched in Lonndon and Canberra, well-written and enlivened by photographs virtually nobody will have seen.
This is a fascinating history of a little-known aspect of the Australian experience of the aftermath of World War I.
This is an informative and lively account of British and Allied military involvement in northern Russia in 1918-19 . . . Challinger details who the Australians were, the tough campaigns they fought and includes new information on the use of gas by the Allies . . .
The book is written with the exciting edge of an adventure story. The many photographs throughout,
together with a lively text, bring the Anzac presence in Arkhangel to light.
FEW today know that Australians fought in northern Russia from 1918 to 1919; few Australians in those days knew either. The first soldiers arrived towards the end of World WarI after Britain invaded its supposed ally to secure movement of troops and supplies. Nine Australians joined the secret mission. After Britain decided to withdraw, from Russia, about 150 more Australians were among the British troops that arrived in June 1919, the month the armistice was signed. Churchill had proposed a ‘‘relief force’’ that would ostensibly aid in the withdrawal but which was also to fight the Bolsheviks.
Michael Challinger has brought together the stories of the Australian Anzacs who participated in the two missions. Two won the only Victoria Crosses to be awarded, but the Australians endured terrible conditions and poor military organisation and most left Russia unconvinced of the legitimacy of their mission. On return, the veterans, received little recognition for a role that was ‘‘not so much forgotten as unknown’’.
Challinger makes the background history and politics accessible, leaving him free to focus on his true interest: writing a book ‘‘simply about the Diggers’’.
The Australian role in the North Russian intervention is known to historians, but is lost to the awareness of the broader public, and even to the families of the men involved . . .
Michael Challinger has told this remarkable story for a new generation . . .
The author and Russophile Michael Challinger explores an action that was virtually unknown to Australia at the time.
If it is your pleasure to read a great deal of detail of this bizarre enterprise, well researched and written in engaging prose with individual characters to the fore, this is the book for you.
A formidable piece of research from a man who has clearly explored every possibility and documented every fact behind this story.
Challinger’s account livens up a strange and colourful story.
Great story, very well written on history that should not be forgotten.
Very informative of events that happened so long ago. It took you to the locations.
Remembering ANZACS in the Rusian Civil War
Many thanks to the author! Good read!
I spent a fair bit of time on research related to the Australian participation in the Russian Civil War, and there are references to my website in this book.
Although Mr. Challinger allocated a fair bit of attention to the other parts of Russia where ANZACs either fought or served as military advisers to the Whites, a lot more can be written. The author mentioned Transcaucasian region but didn’t mention a very interesting story written by ANZAC captain Cecil Judge about fighting near Baku.
Also some interesting stories were told by the Aussies who chanced to find themselves in the Revolutionary Russia after escapes from the German captivity (Tommy Taylor) or Turkish one (Thomas White). All the stories written by Aussies in their diaries and memoirs can help create quite a big picture of the Russian Civil War and the whole extent of doom which accompanied the White cause from the very beginning.
Those who have read this review are welcome to visit my website which has a few stories about the Aussies in Russia in 1918-1920.
Historic Court Houses of Victoria
Many of Victoria’s court houses are historically significant. Some are architectural gems and all have local interest. This book details every one of Victoria’s remaining pre-1945 court houses, providing a photograph and description of each building and accounts of some of the cases heard in them.
It was not only murderers and criminals who passed through these buildings. Ordinary Australians, too, were sentenced in them. They were jailed for flying a red flag or riding a railway on a wagon. They were fined for ironing a shirt or rescuing a pig – for overcharging on mutton shanks or swimming in the Yarra on a Sunday.
As the author writes, “Each has been the stage where a thousand human dramas have been played out and where some hint can be found of lives otherwise unrecorded.”
From the bizarre to the tragic, the cases afford a telling glimpse into the law and social values of the past. A fascinating book where history, law and architecture meet.
Barrister Michael Challinger has given voice to the courts of Victoria in this fine book . . . In describing every one of Victoria’s remaining pre-1945 court houses, with photos and details of each building, Challinger has performed an excellent service.
Some books sneak up on you and enmesh your attention when you suspected you were about to enter the boredom zone. Michael Challinger’s Historic Court Houses of Victoria is such a book . . . This fine book deserves to be on the shelf next to your most thumbed volumes.
Historic Court Houses of Victoria doesn’t stop at the great court doors. Challinger has also assembled a remarkable collection of court and law-related cases and incidents that accompany his photographs of the court houses. These historical, often hysterical and, sometimes horrible accounts enhance the book’s study of architectural developments . . . Challinger says of the court houses’ individual histories: ‘Each of them has been the stage where a thousand minor human dramas have been played out and where something can be found of lives otherwise unrecorded’.
Where fascination, law, architecture and anecdote meet, Michael Challinger is to be congratulated for preserving a most important part of the state’s absorbing history.
Challinger’s lively tour ranges from the magnificence of the Supreme Court of Victoria to the most modest brick or weatherboard court buildings throughout the State. His strategy of letting small stories create the big picture succeeds marvellously.
This is not a book of photographs, but a well-researched account of those courthouses which first administered justice in the colony and then later in the state . . . In each entry Michael Challinger provides a history of the court house and an anecdote of some event that occurred . . . This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, well-written and indexed, bound and presented. It will have an attraction to a wide range of people, not only for those who are concerned with the law, but also for those who are interested in the historical development of Victoria and its towns.
Shawline Shipping is in deep water. It owes money everywhere and has enemies in high places. Wilbur Shaw, the company’s raffish and unscrupulous founder, enlists help wherever he can find it: a thuggish black seaman, an uncouth right-hand man, an inexperienced young lawyer whose moral scruples are tested as rigorously as his legal skills. Wilbur thinks Shawline needs an injection of Asian capital and management expertise. He gets both in a manner of speaking. From Singapore — or is it Taiwan? — comes the unflagging optimist Danny Wong. He offers Shawline a way out. Who knows, it may actually work.
Challinger can write delicious, disturbing satire when he wants to…
I recall making the suggestion, in my 1993 review of Michael Challinger’s Port Moresby Mixed Doubles, that there was doubtful value in resurrecting the old Louis Becke-style colonial story genre.
In fiction, Papua New Guinea has suffered more than a century of white male adventurer characters doing their violent, racist things in tropical island settings. And it suffered too a bevy of enervated tropics-imprisoned white women disparaging the hausboi and extolling the ascendancy of Western cultural values. In other words, I was saying that the relevance of the European-inspired colonial discourse had had its day.
But I was wrong, apparently. According to the Brisbane Courier Mail review at the time, the rush for copies of Port Moresby Mixed Doubles depleted bookshop shelves in PNG and caused a stir amongst Moresby residents.
I presume that was because the expatriate population was keen to see who had been characterised (or caricatured) in Challinger’s old-fashioned fictions and liked the idea of an outdated stereotypical mirror being held up to post-Independence white society.
But Challinger is persistent. He has now produced another fiction proudly announced as ‘a novel from the author of Port Moresby Mixed Doubles’ and published again by his supportive, recalcitrant Melbourne publisher, Pasa Press.
The major difference I can see between the two books is that the first was better – because at least its precedents have some historical significance. Shawline, unfortunately, is a simple B grade entertainment, in spite of two wonderful chapters which show that Challinger can write delicious, disturbing satire when he wants to.
(Footnote: I can see it now, Challinger’s next book will run a quotation from ABR: ‘Challinger can write delicious, disturbing satire’.)
Shawline tells the story of Wilbur Shaw, a bumptious, self-centred, incompetent shipping company owner. He owes everybody money. He plays politics with a farcical, charming vengeance. His employers pilfer, drink and give away significant proportions of his company’s cargoes. He runs his own ship onto a reef.
Shaw snares into his web of operations an innocent young Australian lawyer, a crooked Singaporean financier, a tough Aussie ship’s master and several unpredictable Papua New Guineans, including a parliamentary Minister.
Of course, there is some doubt about who is snaring whom. And from the antics which arise between these characters and their equally unscrupulous government official opponents, there is meant to come a percentage of the humour. Indeed, there are some funny bits. But the required reader’s sense of comedy is generally placed below the intellectual belt.
If you laugh at a description of a lawyer pissing out the window onto a legal opponent who is trying to steal important documents from a rubbish bin, then this is the book for you.
If you cackle over the description of a judge’s jowls being ‘red and wrinkled and pendulous as a scrotum in hot weather’ then rush out to the bookshop shelves now.
On the other hand, if you want to buy a 37 chapter book and read just Chapters Six and Eleven for their truly interesting satire, I can recommend Shawline wholeheartedly.
( Footnote: There’s another quotation: ‘I can recommend Shawline wholeheartedly’.)
Chapter 6 involves a very funny account of a fictional afternoon-long Port Moresby Artsfest. ( ‘There’s a limit to the amount of culture you can take in a hot climate,’ the book says.) One must express concern, however, about the description of the parliamentary Minister who is in attendance: ‘He was black and shiny as fresh licorice. And as slippery…’ To Challinger’s credit, he does in the same chapter insist that the whites are even bigger rogues and dolts than the blacks.
Flicking over to Chapter Eleven, the reader there finds a disturbing account of the aforementioned parliamentary Minister suffering the atrocity of imminent attack from his white hosts’ uncontrollable Dobermans at a dinner party. Trained to go for the throats of any National, the dogs don’t recognise the difference between a Parliamentary Minister and a rascal.
Challinger rectifies the political correctness of the situation by showing that the dogs would also go for a white victim set up as a trespasser in the swimming-pool area of the dinner party hosts’ Government-provided, palatial home.
Chapter Eleven is not funny, and the critiquing of outmoded expatriate values is telling indeed. But the rest of the novel plays ambiguously with those values and, in the end, supports them.
The white (and Asian) rogues and dolts get away with their scams, they go through the adventurer paradigm of tackling the inhospitable terrain and surviving, and they are left at the end en route to the Marianas (spelt ‘Marijuanas’ in the book) where it is threatened they can start the whole adventure again.
Have I missed the point? I don’t think so. Shawline is Louis Becke meets Robert G. Barrett. Unfortunately, Robert G. Barrett is better.
Life without heroes
Very funny . . . Challinger’s staff is satire and, with the expat community in Port Moresby as his target . . . he hits the mark deftly and skilfully.
. . . the lively panorama of rogues and naifs dances entertainingly across the pages towards the satisfying disastrous ending.…with the expat community in Port Moresby as his target, there is plenty of scope for this. Whether at an absurd dinner party where the rottweilers smell the blood of a non-English man, or in the dingy motel room of a backwater town that reveals to a gullible young lawyer there is a price to pay for gullibility, he hits the mark deftly and skilfully.
This was a really satisfying book on a number of levels. Exotic locale – Aussie expats in PNG. Humorous. Well-written. Perfect pitch, excellent dialogue. Great characters. Finally, and most importantly, tightly written and well plotted. A really, really good read that I didn’t want to end.
Reminded me of the best of Evelyn Waugh . . .
Port Moresby Mixed Doubles: Stories of Expatriates in Papua New Guinea
Much has changed in Papua New Guinea in the years following Independence, but much as remained the same. White expatriates still form a rich, privileged but impermanent minority. Few of them have a long-term commitment to the country. The local inhabitants are often relegated to roles as domestic servants, subordinates at work, or as partners in brief sexual flings. Among the expatriates themselves, relations are complicated by boredom, jealousy and self-importance. These highly readable stories range from the tragic to the ribald. They reflect expatriate life in urban PNG and illustrate some of its major preoccupations: insecurity, money, drink, sex. Originally published in 1992, this edition includes a new preface by the author.
Colonial crassness in Papua New Guinea
Reading this lively collection of stories about expatriates, mainly Australian, in Port Moresby is like a night of too much wine and too much smoking. It is a guiltily pleasant experience with a somewhat bitter after-taste.
The expatriates still dream of Empire, and look on independent Papua New Guinea as a nightmare with some amiable special effects,……Like house boys, high salaries and readily available women who are usually ‘Nationals’. In unassuming prose, Challinger writes nicely shaped, old-fashioned stories, even yarns, often with considerable satire and some comedy, sometimes with a deft punchline.
The irrelevant Spanish consul, whose empathy with Spanish culture lies in his desire to try Spanish fly as an aphrodisiac, thinks he may be able to use his high office to start a business in metal-lined coffins for Japanese tourists. An Australian businessman manages to get a just salary for his efficient secretary by convincing the wise men down south that she is an Australian, not a National. The boys at the club drink like dipsomaniacs, fantasise about nymphomaniacs, indulge in sordid sexual romps, and talk about cricket and the good old days.
In ‘Bighead’, the only first person narrative, a village boy gives a strong account of the tragedy that follows when a kindly Australian teacher makes another boy obsessed with one of the ultimate male colonial fantasies, becoming a famous cricketer. The collection ends with a powerful story about the failure of a Christian mission, where two missionaries show two quite different kinds of obtuseness to the culture around them.
The bitter aftertaste comes partly from Challinger’s vivid accounts of colonial crassness. But the taste is more complex than that. Challinger is keen to show that his heart is in the right place, but sometimes that heart misses a beat with a disturbing arrhythmia. As a narrator, Challinger doesn’t always know where to stand. He barracks for an Australian woman – ‘Good on her’ – when she thwarts her husband’s excessive demands on the household staff. Yet it is difficult to find a distancing when National women are presented as coarse and slatternly.
Challinger presents himself as a post-colonial butterfly, but comes trailing caterpillar memories of racism and particularly of sexism, that most ecumenical of all religions. An Australian woman is described as ‘nosy, malicious and smug’. Add ‘cunning’, ‘manipulative’ and ‘sexually predatory’, and you have enough epithets to describe almost every woman in this book.
Of course, the boys who will be boys who want to be pigs don’t come off much better. But there are differences. On the 19th hole, the boys are innocents abroad, even victims. The National men who serve them have a dignity that would have delighted Rousseau. But the women, Nationals and Europeans, are mostly lacking any dignity at all. Even in a story in which a National woman is shown to have superior skills to an Australian woman, the narrative patronises her.
Challinger can tell stories with genuine satire, comedy and poignancy, but sometimes he trips over, an ungainly Somerset Maugham uncomfortable in his thongs.
Insights, icons and images of Pacific pessimism
. . . When we move closer to home, with Michael Challinger’s Port Moresby Mixed Doubles, there is even more to be concerned about, for almost every story concerns the lack of care and decency exercised by Australian expatriates in Papua New Guinea.
Challinger describes the worst kind of colonialism, where every native (or national) woman is considered to be a sexual chattel and every male national is to be abused and humiliated at whim….…When an expat is hauled into court for adultery he buys his freedom at the expense of a small fine; when an expat kills a national child in a car accident, his wife commits perjury to place the blame on the child. In one story a national secretary proves herself to be more efficient than the imported expat and finally achieves an expat rate of pay, but this is only through chicanery on the part of her supervisor. In another story the cultural antagonisms are between an Australian expat and an Englishman, who brings a foolish feud to a head in an inane bar wager.
Challinger writes well, despite minor, illiteracies such as ‘laying’ for ‘lying’ and ‘draw’ for ‘drawer’. Only the raw material is discouraging and Challinger is probably writing the truth of the situation.
Telling tales of bawd abroad
Just what do high-profile Australians – including business leaders and diplomats – get up to when they are away from friends and family?….
Melbourne barrister Michael Challinger lived in Papua New Guinea for several years and has written a fictional account of wild Aussies abroad.
And other Australians who spent time in PNG or are still there are snapping up the book to check if Challinger has included any real-life stories about them.
The book Port Moresby Mixed Doubles, tells of:
- A senior banker who borrowed a mate’s house on Wednesday afternoons to entertain his mistress – unaware that his wife and her boyfriend used it on Tuesdays.
- An accountant who took a beautiful 16-year-old girl and her 20-year-old aunt back to his house and allowed the aunt to watch sport videos while he and the girl disappeared into his bedroom to 30 minutes.
There was trouble when they emerged. ‘Auntie wants a f . . . too,’ the girl told him.
- An Australian who was approached by a native delegation threatening to ‘court him’ unless he paid $2000 compensation for ‘sexing’ one of their wives.
When the case went to court, the Australian admitted sexing the woman five times. The magistrate decided $10 per ‘sexing’ was appropriate and set compensation at $50.
‘The stories are not really true but so many people read themselves into them,’ Mr Challinger said.
In Port Moresby, where the sale of Mixed Doubles is restricted to adults, there has been a run on bookshops by Australians.
‘They all want to see if they are in it,’ Mr Challinger said.
‘When I lived there, most of the Australian men were lazy, drunken slobs who chased black girls around.’
Mr Challinger writes of a young Australian banker who went shopping on a Saturday morning and returned with a thick-set woman from a Highland tribe that smear their bodies with pig fat and ashes for warmth.
The stink was unbearable but that didn’t worry this fellow.
‘She was content now, and wrapped her thick mountain-climbing thighs around him. The large splayed-out feet with soles as tough as crocodile hide were interlocked at the small of his back,’ Mr Challinger writes.
Too bad a newly-arrived, church-going do-gooding cousin and her 10-year-old daughter choose that moment to pay a social call.
Cheating. Lying, Fornicating, Drinking, etc.
Michael Challinger’s eighteen stories about contemporary adventuring (in sex, business and religion) in Port Moresby and other parts of Papua New Guinea, are ‘highly readable’ and ‘entertaining’. The cover blurb says so. And it’s pretty well correct…In the tradition of the stories of the 1910s and 1920s by colonial writers such as John Russell and Beatrice Grimshaw, Challinger seems to presume that those interested in human dramas with tropical settings will not want to learn too much or too deeply from them. The tropics? Good heavens! No literary pretensions, please! No complexity! Just nice shallow stuff to paddle in. A shock or two of the cultural exotica kind is okay. But don’t forget the twisty endings!
No matter how hard he tries, Challinger can’t cover up the fact that he really is a good writer with a complexity of moral and social points to make. And while some of the individual stories almost succeed in being entertainment at the level of 7 o’clock sitcom TV programmes, the collection as a whole betrays its ironic stance and serious intent.
The collection maps the range of attitudes white expatriates have adhered to in PNG during the twentieth century – adhered to in spite of huge political and social change.
Neatly (and I think very effectively) Challinger shows how the self-aggrandising, self- mythologising mentality of the early colonial adventurers still exists especially among the young, white and single Australian males in Moresby today. The difference is that the white adventurers no longer go on patrol into inaccessible, unknown corners of the country hunting for gold. Instead they go in their four-wheel drives around the well-known corners of Boroko hunting for cheap black fucks. (Three of the eighteen stories revolve around this theme.)
It is inevitable that in this study of the persistence of colonial attitudes the white male ocker voice and values should dominate.
It is an instructive voice. It is constantly accusing, constantly self-unaware, constantly self- preserving, and of course it constantly constructs ‘us’ and ‘them’. It tells how to describe the stink of a Highlands prostitute. It tells how to bite through the knuckle of a rascal gang member to get his fingerprint. It tells how to throw in the black girl when selling the fridge to make the deal attractive.
But as the collection unfolds, the intrusions and reversals this obsolete narrative voice encounters signal the gradual wearing away of the voice’s supposed authority. White males, in their attempts at manipulation, are themselves outmanoeuvred and out-manipulated, sometimes by white women and other white men, but mainly by black women and black men.
These white male characters, sensing that the colonial era is in fact over, realise that the idea of ‘beating them’ is no longer tenable. So ‘joining them’ is the alternative. In ‘Two Tea-boys’, two white businessmen cooperate in the corrupt dealings of one of their Papua New Guinean employees for the sake of the company.
In ‘An Important Consular Duty’, a Papua New Guinean coffin-maker rips off an old expat, so the old expat rips off his new expat employer, and the new expat employer passes on the rip-off to the Japanese embassy. The corruption equalises the Papua New Guineans and the Australians. The Japanese are identified as the new colonial authority.
In ‘Expatriate Rates’, the exasperated white businessman is taught sympathy and unalloyed admiration for his moody, grubby, unpredictable Papuan secretary. He discovers she is ten times better at her work then the new expatriate woman he employs effectively to replace her.
Then, in ‘Entertaining Mary’, a cretinous young Australian male finds that a Highlands prostitute, in spite of her formidable body odour and brash belligerence, has a much better grip on human values than do his bigoted white relatives. The reader realises that the girl’s simple honesty and forthrightness show up the hypocrisy and double-dealing of all the whites in the story.
Allied to the gradual erosion of the superior white male viewpoint in the collection is the expected emergence of the theme of white male post-colonial guilt..
In ‘Bighead’, a story narrated in nicely fractured Papua New Guinean English, an expat cricket coach takes on the blame for an after-match Gestetner-fluid drinking party which kills the team’s star batsman and blinds two others. As an allegory for pre-and post colonial experience, this is an interesting story.
But it is the last and longest story in the collection, ‘Jisala Mission’, which most powerfully and decisively calls into question the entire colonial endeavour. In the context of this story, the other stories reveal their ironic stance and satiric stances.
Cox, a hot-shot young missionary, takes over a dilapidated, undeveloped mission in an isolated Papuan valley. He succeeds in ousting the old missionary, Dodds, who had spent most of his time studying and recording the valley people’s language and customs. Cox does away with Dodds’ ‘human touches’ which included letting the people keep on with their old ceremonies, and letting them steal the occasional pick or shovel or bag of rice from the mission’s scant supplies.
Cox institutes a competitive, powerful new regime of no-nonsense Christianity. He builds proper housing, a road to the airfield, introduces electricity, and invites a stream of wealthy and generous American believers to see Christianity in action in the tropics.
Unfortunately, it is God’s plan to have the mission minibus plunge off a mountain road, turning Rahe, the mission’s outstanding convert, into a paraplegic. It is also God’s plan to arrange that Rahe’s legitimate compensation claim is so large that it will bankrupt the mission. Fortunately, Reverend Cox realises at last, that it is God’s plan too that Rahe would die, letting the mission of the hook. So poor Rahe, already a victim to Cox’s obsession with the power of religion and modernity to ‘improve’ things, becomes a sacrifice to the still uncontrolled progress of the insensitive and even murderous white male juggernaut in PNG.
The story states compellingly that the time for an end to colonial attitudes is well and truly overdue in PNG. These attitudes simply have no political, economic or moral relevance any more.
The characters in this collection, whether black or white, seem to spend all their time cheating, lying, scheming, fornicating, drinking, or being violent or greedy. The same was true for Russell and Grimshaw seventy years ago (with some censorship applied to the fornication). This used to be the accepted formula for what goes on in short stories set in the tropics. Challinger casts contemporary PNG in the old stereotypical mould to good effect; he portrays a dying discourse, a genre’s last gasp.
While being highly readable and entertaining stuff, it is also instructive, even if the cover blurb is too embarrassed to say so.
Barrister’s saucy book stirs up PNG Aussies
Australia Day parties in Papua New Guinea will be abuzz today with talk about a newly released book by an Australian barrister.
Illicit sex romps, alcoholic binges, bar-room brawls and violent tantrums by Papua New Guinean mistresses are a few of the more notable of the 18 stories in Port Moresby Mixed Doubles by Michael Challinger….‘The characters and incidents described in these stories are entirely fictional and are not intended to refer it in any way to real persons, living or dead,’ says a preface note.
But no one seems to be entirely convinced and the rush for copies in PNG has depleted bookshop stocks.
‘If the book is all fiction then why has the author failed to include his biographical details on the flyleaf like normal?’ said one cynical reader who described the stories as anecdotal.
Efforts to track down the author failed and telephone listings for either him, the publisher Pasa Press, the book’s printer or the distributor named inside front cover could not be found.
Mr Challinger, a barrister, worked for several years in Port Moresby in the 1980s but has long since returned to Australia. But his stories seemed to ring too true to old hands in the PNG scene for the tales to be purely imaginary.
‘It has certainly caused a ripple around the place,’ said Frank Mills, who has run a PR company in PNG for seven years.
‘Everyone wants to get hold of the book and see if they are in it. It really is a case of there is only one thing worse than being in it and that is not being in it.’
The places Mr Challinger writes of still exist and provide the main social network for the 25,000 or so expats still in PNG, which is down from a peak of about 50,000 in 1971.