Kerry Dillon's account of life as a young lawyer in Papua New Guinea in 1969 is a fascinating account of ordinary life and justice on the island

Kerry Dillon left Tasmania for Papua New Guinea in 1969. Picture: Papua New Guinea
Kerry Dillon left Tasmania for Papua New Guinea in 1969. Picture: Papua New Guinea
  • The Chronicle of a Young Lawyer, by Kerry Dillon. Memoir. Hybrid. $35.

Barely out of law school, Kerry Dillon abandoned the second most beautiful island in the world to live and work in the most wonderful island of all.

Kerry Dillon left Tasmania for Papua New Guinea in 1969, to take up a job as a defence counsel in the Public Solicitor's office in Port Moresby. Though the bureaucratic title sounds prosaic, the work was anything but. Had Dillon graduated then sought employment with the Foreign Legion or David Attenborough, he would not have matched the excitement, variety, novelty and joy he encountered in PNG.

Australia, so fond of commemorating war, should take time to celebrate the achievements of Australians who brought at least a modicum of peace and order to much of PNG before independence. Patrol officers turned policy-makers like Tony Voutas could write splendid memoirs. For his part, Dillon does well recalling his 22-year-old self, evoking again the abundance of surprise, innocence and curiosity which sustained him in his legal duties.

Dillon advises that, "largely untouched by the rest of the planet, the country was a world apart". That is an understatement. Apart from those Australians who had fought the Japanese throughout PNG, going to the Highlands, the islands or up the Sepik must have seemed like a visit to the planet Mars. When I first visited PNG, four years after Dillon arrived, I was stunned by the scale and diversity of its natural beauty. As Dillon found, if you ever tired of pristine beaches, there were fabulous mountains, rivers and jungles to burn.

Dillon is consistently excellent at capturing a sense of place. He looks out the smudged windows of light aircraft at the Sepik (unfurling "like a great brown serpent"), lethal mists (flying through the dangerous Tari Gap) or vegetable plots. He relishes minor earth tremors from Rabaul's volcano, dissects the differentiations among penis gourds, and remembers fondly (as I do) both the perfect setting and the abundant drinks at Madang's Smugglers' Inn.

More importantly, Dillon exhumes the cases which he dealt with between 1969 and 1971. Having never previously appeared in a courtroom, Dillon was required to defend those charged with offences ranging from wilful murder to petty theft.

We have seen another perspective on this world before, in justly renowned films by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson. The drama in First Contact (1983) and Joe Leahy's Neighbours (1988) is here replaced by the tension of court proceedings, even when those courts convened in the Lae Botanic Gardens or a haus tambaran.

Dillon recounts case after case, one defendant after another. In doing so he brings back to life a society - its customs, values and superstitions - now vanished. To borrow the title of Albert Maori Kiki's autobiography, the defendants whom Dillon represented had moved through 10,000 years in a lifetime. We may peruse photographs of convicts at Port Arthur, hoping to decode their expressions or decipher the meaning of their lives. Papua New Guineans might choose to do the same with Dillon's memoir.

The legal system within which Dillon operated might now seem rough and ready. Some buildings were distinctly makeshift. Accredited interpreters were scarce, medical examinations rare. Defending counsel often met his client for the first time just before trial. The court and its officers dispensed justice in a land still replete with "rubbish men", payback killings, cannibalism, the kidnap of women, tribal fights, axe killings and sorcerers' magic.

A patrol officer might provide a similarly intense, intimate portrait of PNG on the eve of independence. That perspective, though, would necessarily be more limited in range than Dillon's - geographically, because he traversed so much of the country, and socially, as a function of the bewildering miscellany of cases before him. In this "chronicle", in Dillon's clipped and laconic language or his fuzzy old photographs, an older world is exposed.

Not all other Australians in the Territory come off particularly well. Dillon is alert to any hints of racism, prejudice or condescension. Dillon's stories about the leaders and intentions of the Mataungan Association on the Gazelle peninsula will be especially useful to historians. He is always keen to make sense of his context, attempting to set both crime and defendant within the framework of their own notions of how society should work.

Those seeking a synthesis about the development of PNG or more considered reflection over a longer time-span can turn to the work of Sean Dorney and Hank Nelson. Those wanting a detailed account of ordinary life and its rickety intersection with justice should start with Dillon. Who knew that a case involving stealing a tube of Tarzan's Grip, then worth the princely sum of 32 cents, could be turned into riveting reading?

This story Ordinary life and justice in PNG first appeared on The Canberra Times.