I wrote Beyond the Coral Sea
Travels in the Old Empires of the South-West Pacific
The conception of this travel book took place in London one wet and windy morning as I sat on the 73 bus on my daily grind down Oxford Street to work in Victoria. The glittering car showrooms along Park Lane lurched past the misted windows unnoticed, Hyde Park was wintry dull and I had long since ceased attempting to peep over the wall into Buckingham Palace. I was a zombie staring directly ahead. After years on the treadmill, I was bored rigid with the regularity my London existence despite being a competent musician and professional language teacher with a host of good friends and an active social life. My youthful period living on Norfolk Island among the descendants of the mutiny on the Bounty, a thousand miles off the eastern Australian coast (sublimated in my historical novel Point Venus), had created a permanent obsession with the isolation of Pacific islands. Once more I dreamed of escape and adventure, but this time I would act, not luxuriate in impotent nostalgia and reminiscence.
As a boy of 13 at Public School in Australia, I had visited a pal whose father owned a copra plantation on the island of New Britain. At that time the colony was known as the Australian Mandated Territory. It was an impossibly exotic and adventurous holiday which I never ever forgot. Many young Australian men, bored with a ‘safe’ suburban existence, harboured secret Errol Flynn dreams of venturing into the wilds of Papua New Guinea (he spent his wicked youth there). I decided to travel to the most remote and unvisited islands I could think of, those of the Bismarck Archipelago and Solomon Sea. Up to 1914 the region was the German New Guinea Empire. This group of islands is north of the mainland of Papua New Guinea, a couple of degrees below the equator. They would be truly exotic, the culture bizarre and fascinating, the challenge to my 'civilised' existence clear. No-one had written about them as a group for almost a hundred years and I already had an interest in the German Pacific Empire.
I spent nine months in detailed planning, reading voraciously in the British Library, counting my pennies and preparing a careful proposal for a publisher. Boredom fled. The book was commissioned - one of life's miracles as Papua New Guinea is so entirely misunderstood and carries with it a bloody history of savagery and cannibalism. It lacks ‘bestseller appeal’. I ignored all the warnings and discovered that the modern country, particularly the island provinces, my destination, could not be further from this unfortunate conception. Travel writers, for reasons that completely mystify me, seldom choose the diverse and achingly sensual atmosphere of the tropical Pacific islands as their subject.
I took voluntary redundancy from the Swiss Educational Foundation I worked for in leafy Eccleston Square in London. The severance package partially financed the expensive expedition. The result of that incredible journey is this book, written in Sydney and London. It took me almost four years. I feel absolutely rejuvenated and have hardly boarded a 73 bus since returning to London from those enchanted islands. If you feel life has forced you into an inescapable rut, just take courage and follow your dreaming heart – the satisfaction is priceless.