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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Peter Ryan (1923–2015)

by Rowan Callick

from Australian

Peter Ryan, who died on Sunday aged 92, was a rare hero, of both words and action; a great Australian, convivial and combative, and a persistent reminder of the days when Australia was inextricably — and in Ryan’s view, epically — linked with its difficult and brilliant colony, Papua New Guinea.

He never forgot the PNG villagers who acted as his guardian angels when, aged 18 to 20, he was deployed to garner intelligence behind Japanese lines in the jungles west and north of Lae.

He described how “at the end of a week of being hunted by the Japanese, assisted by tracker dogs, I sought refuge by climbing a stupendous dry cascade of huge boulders, as it ascended ever higher up a mountainside” to about 10,000 feet (3048m).

A great voice seemed to boom in his ear: “You’ve reached the end of the Earth!”

His answer was: “If ever I get out of this, I’ll never travel anywhere again.” And he kept his pledge. No tours of America or Europe.

But he did return again and again to thank, and simply to chat in pidgin with, those Papua New Guineans.

In one village he helped fund a new primary school, which the grateful recipients named in his honour the Peter Ryan Memorial School, which he relished officially opening.

On another such visit, he was staying overnight at the Gateway Hotel adjacent to Port Moresby’s Jacksons airport, preparing to fly on to Lae the next morning, and thence up into the mountains.

He was dining alone, and he noticed that a half-dozen Japanese men of similar age were eating at a nearby table. They were struggling to communicate their orders in English but managed much better in Tok Pisin (pidgin).

Ryan guessed, correctly, that they also had done war service in PNG, and introduced himself after their meals were completed — all speaking in Tok Pisin.

They were members of a signals platoon that had been based at Salamaua. He then explained his role.

One of the Japanese recalled the morse code radio call sign used by an Australian whom they had viewed back then as a particular pest, always evading the patrols they sent to silence him.

Em mi tasol,” revealed Ryan. “That’s me. If it’s taken you 41 years to find me, it’s no wonder you lost the bloody war, isn’t it?” Roars of laughter all around.

The former enemies drank whisky together and reminisced well into the night.

Ryan was one of the reasons I migrated to Australia from PNG, where I had worked for a decade, and where he had sought me out on his visits for chats. If there were more Australians like him, I thought …

But of course there was only one Peter Ryan.

When I arrived in Australia, he arranged lunches at his favourite haunts — old-world classic Italian restaurants such as the Latin and the Society, where all the staff seemed to know him.

His extraordinary life started to emerge, piece by piece, in the context of my broader education in the ways and the characters of bohemian Australia and beyond.

Ryan grew up in Glen Iris, in eastern Melbourne. His father Ted taught him to speak Tok Pisin, having served in World War I as a lieutenant on the staff of the “Tropical Force”, which garrisoned Rabaul, then capital of German New Guinea, after its capture.

Ted Ryan died when Peter was just 13 — inevitably leaving him, says historian Bob Murray, with “a lasting pain”, as well as an enduring sense of longing for the country that had so attracted his father.

Peter Ryan left school at 16 and was working at what he called “a dull job” as a junior clerk in Victoria’s Crown Law Department when he enlisted, soon before Japan entered the war in 1941. He was rapidly sent to Port Moresby after completing basic training.

He wrote the Australian World War II classic Fear Drive My Feet when he was 21, soon after the events it enthrallingly relays. It took Ryan a further 14 years to have it published, but since then it has been through several editions and has been republished this year as a Text Classic edition.

Its title derived from the Book of Job, 18:11: “Terrors shall make him afraid on every side, and shall drive him to his feet.”

For the bravery and persistence with which he overcame the fear driving his feet, he was awarded the Military Medal.

Ryan writes in the book: “Nobody thought it very strange then, least of all myself, to send someone into that country without such basic necessities as food, maps and compass.

“When you are 18 the fact that quite stupid people can play chuck ha’penny with your life doesn’t seem too unjust. This is partly because the thrill of the adventure is more dangerously intoxicating than liquor, and you aren’t too closely in touch with reality.

“You stride down the jungle trail full of confidence, a pioneer, a new David Livingstone; you feel exactly like your favourite hero from the Boy’s Own Paper.”

But “the hangover from this kind of binge is unpleasant”. The excitement vanishes, “leaving behind an empty flatness that was only one degree removed from despair”. Ryan thus swiftly came face to face with reality, with the need to marshall skilfully the resources — including his PNG comrades — on which he would depend for survival.

He retained a close interest in the constantly colourful ravelling and unravelling of PNG, and kept in touch as best he could with the PNG police constables and others whom he first met during the war, until they faded as he lived on.

Ryan, while a constantly engaged and amusing observer of human foibles, was overall a glass-half-empty kind of analyst, especially about governments, politicians and others with tickets on themselves.

In his last communication with me a few weeks ago, inevitably interspersing Tok Pisin with English, he wrote of a recent, slightly upbeat article of mine from Port Moresby: “My gut feeling is that most of it will wash up fairly badly. But then, after all it is PNG.”

Peter Pierce, editor of the Cambridge History of Australian Literature, writes in his introduction to the republished book, which he views as Australia’s finest war memoir, “This is a visceral but also an expressionistic journey — into a landscape of terror and exhilaration …

“Ryan’s youthful spirit is tested relentlessly: he has to judge whom to trust, what path to follow, where danger might lie.”

The book concludes: “Man is very brave. His patience and endurance are truly wonderful. Perhaps he will learn, one day, that wars and calamities of nature are not the only occasions when such qualities are needed.”

Ryan himself certainly enlisted those qualities during his long and varied working life, which had not even begun in earnest by the time he had written his magnum opus.

After the Japanese were expelled from PNG, Ryan taught Tok Pisin at Duntroon in Canberra, where he became a friend of politician-poet Paul Hasluck. He was then invited to join the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, which provided policy advice out of Melbourne’s Victoria Barracks.

This “oddball unit”, as Ryan later described it, was commanded by Colonel Alf Conlon, whom half a century later he regarded as “even today, mysterious”.

Still only 21 when the war ended, Ryan took a history degree with honours at the University of Melbourne, studying alongside many other war veterans. He joined the Labor Club, helping defend it against communist takeover attempts.

He also in this period married the indefatigable Gladys Davidson — always known as “Davey” — and they raised a daughter, Sally, and a son, Andrew. All survive him.

Ryan was a dapper dresser, an urbane figure who nevertheless loved, besides his family and his books, the countryside, horses and dogs.

Over the dozen years after graduating he made a living by writing and by small-scale publishing, managing for “a small syndicate of well-off Melbourne lefty journalists” Atlas Publications, which included Captain Atom comics, Miss Young Romance comics, Heart-Throb photo-novels, Gunsmoke western novelettes, and a racing guide.

Murray describes Ryan as “a man incapable of writing an ugly sentence”.

He became account executive at Melbourne’s largest advertising agency, handling companies such as Heinz and Shell.

During this period, he also wrote the witty and spiky Melbourne Spy column in the fortnightly liberal publication Nation, run by Tom Fitzgerald — enjoying the considerable speculation as to the Spy’s identity.

He moved into more corporate glamour by becoming public relations chief for ICI, working from 1958 in the company’s 20-storey HQ in East Melbourne that was Australia’s first great modernist building.

In 1962, Melbourne University Press boldly appointed 38-year-old Ryan as its publisher. The gamble — “the luckiest break of my working life”, he said — was successful, with Ryan helping deliver a wave of important and profitable works across the next 27 years, until he retired in 1989.

Ryan was excited by publishing, having, as he wrote in his memoir Final Proof, passionately shared with Edward Gibbon “the early and invincible love of reading”.

His MUP authors included Macfarlane Burnet, Gus Nossal, Norman Lindsay, Alec Hope, Michael Cannon, Ken Inglis, Hasluck, Geoffrey Serle and David Malouf. He also published his own pet project, the magisterial Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, and Manning Clark’s six-volume A History of Australia.

It would be disproportionate to weigh Ryan’s remarkable life solely by his having first published, then rubbished, Clark.

But when he wrote in September 1993 in Quadrant — where he soon began a regular column that he continued until his death — that Clark’s work was “an imposition on Australian credulity — more plainly, a fraud”, he would have anticipated the unfriendly fire that would result.

Ryan had studied under Clark at Melbourne University. The History was a valuable money-spinner for the press, which was contractually committed to completing its publication. And Ryan admitted to liking Clark, “the camaraderie somehow enduring from our earlier roistering days”.

He was appalled to discover, chatting as the final volume was awaiting birth, that Clark — who had presented Labor leader Bert Evatt “in a saintly light, ‘the image of Christ in his heart’ … but his opponent RG Menzies as an imperialistic booby” — after reading the Menzies diaries and papers, was having second thoughts.

“He was, as always, imperturbable. ‘Ah, yes … Well, I don’t think my readers would be greatly pleased now to see me praising Menzies’ … It was the last straw.” Eventually, Ryan could contain his critique no longer.

By then he had become secretary of the board of examiners for Victorian barristers and solicitors in what for others might be twilight years.

No quiet life for him, though, as he fought in his columns the history and culture wars. Ryan’s eyes remained bright with mischief until the end. A quintessential brave Australian.

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Citation details

Rowan Callick, 'Ryan, Peter (1923–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 April 2024.

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