When, in the 1960s, I lived in Canberra (’23 suburbs in search of a city’) I was recruited to design a village courts system for the prospective independent state of Papua New Guinea.
On an early research trip I was landed by helicopter somewhere between West Irian and Mount Hagen. Typically, none of the locals had encountered a white – in my case, Suffolk-pink – person, so I was surprised that the first group (of hunters) to contact me were not impressed by my pigmentation. We walked for a day and most of a night to their village – frond and stick huts – where, at about 4am, I was shown an open entrance and crept in. Someone was asleep. I flicked my lighter and was startled, as was he, to find a European of my own age.
Tempted to blurt ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’, I said ‘Bernard Brown, ANU Canberra’. He replied ‘Michael Brown, Melbourne, in PNG as Director of Health, Bougainville – but across here researching malaria’. It was odd, here in the ulu, to meet another Brown. It would get odder.
I said that I was in PNG via Australia – out of England. He said ‘Ditto’ but added that, although born in England, his folk had brought him to Melbourne as a boy. I mentioned that I was born in Suffolk. He said ‘Snap – almost’. He was born in London and christened at a place named Ipswich. I pressed him further and he said ‘a Presbyterian Church in Tacket Street’. I one-upped him by inquiring ‘The Reverend Shrubsole?’. He didn’t know, but allowed me to say that I was christened by him there in 1934. So, I guess, was he.
His father, an Aussie, had attended medical school in London and had met Michael Brown’s mother, a singer at the D’Oyly Carte (Gilbert & Sullivan). The plot thickened because my mother, Beatrice Welton of Providence Street, had gone for an audition to the D’Oyly with another Ipswich girl in 1930 or ’31. My mother was unsuccessful; the other, his mother, was accepted. She married a doctor in London and brought Michael back in 1934 for his Ipswich christening.
She had been in the Tacket Street choir and the Girl Guides with my mother – and, in our native hut in the back of nowhere at dawn at the other end of the world, we rehearsed names that we had heard at maternal knees, names such as Flora Baines, Miss Kathleen Gibbons (Gibbons Flour Mills), Kitty Day and even more Browns: Bill and Gladys. Bill, with my father Syd, was a Boys Brigade member in a Tacket Street group led by Frank Goddard – of Goddards the Builders.
We shook hands as he, Dr Michael Brown, donned an enormous backpack and walked off in the general direction of the Fly River. We agreed to write. But never did.
On returning to Canberra, I wrote to my mother, then living in Hadleigh. By return post, weeks later, she sent an old photograph (‘I want it back’) of young mothers at Tacket Street Church reunion circa 1936 with me in a pushchair next to Michael Brown in one with our respective mums. I seem to remember him saying that his mother’s name was Effie.
Does it ring any bells with readers? Effie would be about 118 years old! She would have been a darned good soprano.
What are the odds of two Tacket Street mums’ little boys meeting in a nameless New Guinea village thirty-odd years later?
My only recent contact with the church was attending a service in the 1980s with my cousin Eileen Wyard (neé Welton), a ‘regular’ all her life.