Personal remembrances of Professor Hyland Neil (Hank) Nelson AM (1937-2012) by Gavan Daws, former Professor of Pacific History in the Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (precursor to ANU’s College of Asia and The Pacific).

Photograph (clockwise from left): Dr Hank Nelson, Andrew Pike, Prof. Gavan Daws, John Waiko, Stewart Young – working on the Angels of War documentary (1982) [image first appeared in ANU Reporter 12(8), p.3].

Hank and I go back more than forty years. I first sighted him in the late Sixties, briefly, during a visit to Port Moresby. The next time we met was when I came to work in the Coombs Building at ANU in the mid-seventies. Hank’s office was in one hexagon and mine was in the other – different countries, different turfs and territories. But we bumped into each other on the stairs one day, got to talking, and found we had some things in common.

We were both country boys from Victoria, Hank from Boort, me from Dimboola. Boort was less urban than Dimboola. The population when I was growing up there was into four figures – just, but still . . . Boort when Hank was a kid was only seven or eight hundred.

Hank was definitely more country than me – I wasn’t a farm boy; he was. He came into town to go to school – horses tied up in the yard, and boys with definitely country nicknames: Snakebite, Doughy, Curly, Tudda, Knocka, and Big Barney, built like a country dunny. Hank: “we had kids who would carry a lizard in their shirt.”

Come high school time, Hank and I each played country cricket, in different leagues, on Malthoid, with the ladies of the CWA serving lamingtons at the tea break. Country tennis, on clay. And country football. And we each went to the Saturday night dances at the memorial hall: progressive barn dance, Valletta, Tangoette, and Schottische. A cultural note: Hank told me something I never would have intuited – there was a “Boort Schottische” on sheet music, dating from 1865.

Here is Hank on the Saturday night dance after the football, away, at Woosang. “the Woosang ground was a clearing, probably ‘mown’ by sheep. A galvanised shed for a changing room, galvanised dunnies, and a lean-to where savs could be boiled. No showers. The visiting side was invited to a dance afterwards at the Woosang hall. By the third dance or fourth dance, as the blokes swung into the jolly miller, the combination of sweat, training oil, and cigarette smoke was so dense that frail girls floated in the haze and ruckmen had to grab them and force their feet back onto the sawdusted floor.”

At the Boort home ground – while Hank was still young, short of high school – he was appointed the team’s chip heater fire lighter, and then score board attendant: “I thought this a more responsible and prestigious position. I have not added it to my cv.”

Moving on through the stages of life: Hank and I each went to Melbourne University on an Education Department Scholarship, the only way we could have got there. Here is Hank on the transition from Boort to the big smoke: “one advantage of being a farm boy was that farmers were almost classless. We were not squatters or graziers; we owned our farm, we grew wheat and ran a few sheep and cattle. A disadvantage was that those of us who left came to Melbourne still wearing the hat with corks dangling, carrying a canvas water bag and chewing a piece of straw. I did not go to a public library until I went to the one in Swanston St.”

Another rite of passage, at age eighteen – National Service, at Puckapunyal. Basic training, the first steps to qualifying as baggy-arsed diggers. I was in the second intake, 1951, Hank a few years after that. We each had pommy drill instructors. Mine was a bone-ignorant Liverpool Irishman, scared of snakes. Hank’s was called “Fookin Joomp” – “when I tell yers to fookin joomp, you fookin joomp!”

Back at university, we each graduated BA, Dip.Ed., and went off to teach high school. And after some years, each of us took off for the Islands, Hank to PNG, me to Hawaii. And after more years – quite a number – each of us, by now on the cusp of early middle age, came back to Australia, to ANU, to the institute, to the Coombs.

I read everything Hank wrote, and listened to him give seminars. Off his own bat he was the goods, and as well it sounded to me like we had some ideas in common about doing history. By good luck and good timing, a window of opportunity opened up for me to bring him into my department.

We were colleagues for the better part of fifteen years, and he was the best possible colleague. If I was designing the optimal person to work alongside, I would use Hank as the template. He had common sense, an attribute not evenly distributed among academics, in Hank’s case raised to the highest degree. He was toughminded and easygoing at the same time: he could figure out what needed to be done, and get it done, along with other people, at low decibel levels, never speaking just to hear the sound of his own voice. And with no drama – he had a pitch-perfect sense of humor.

And he had a sense of the common good. He was not in it for the greater glory of Nelson. No big-noting; no putting on the dog; no careerist politicking, jostling or scheming for position or preferment: Hank never needed to be seen leading the parade. He was a man of good character, genuine all the way through.

In person, Hank was plain style. On the page too. He cared about writing, and about being read, the balance between style and substance; he never wanted to have the writing get in the way of the reading, the way so much academic writing does.

He wasn’t a theoretician: he was all for starting with the facts – then look for the meaning. And for Hank, the meaning was always human meaning.

He was interested in story, as in hi-story. And interested in how to tell the story. He liked the sound of voices, all kinds of voices. This led him to oral history. And he was interested in audience. This led him to radio, eventually to the two series he did for the ABC, with Tim Bowden: Taim Bilong Masta, and then P.O.W.: Australians under Nippon – both great successes, for style and substance.

Hank was open to collaborating, and so was I. I had seen him road-tested with Tim. I started talking with him about doing documentary films – which for the Coombs was pretty adventurous, but we liked the idea of extending the reach of Pacific History by way of technology. We settled on World War II in Papua New Guinea. Hank knew about that. We recruited Andrew Pike, who knew about producing films. I had some thoughts about structure and pacing. And off we went. And out of this came Angels of War.

Making a film with Hank and Andrew was the best time I ever had as an academic: the three of us, with different experiences, different aptitudes, and different metabolisms, all wanting to get the work done – and done well – and have the product go out from the Coombs into the world.

Angels of War got done, and it did well. It won the Australian Film Institute award for documentary, the gold medal at the major European documentary festival, and the ATOM award of Australian Teachers Of Media for best film in the social sciences. Thirty years on from when it was made, it has a continuing life, in five language versions, including Tok Pisin. It has probably been seen by a million people, including Papua New Guineans. In 2008, when a PNG government TV station went on air, on independence day, angels of war was picked as one of the first films to be shown. All in all, a good use of academic-salary taxpayers’ dollars. You can hear Hank’s voice on the soundtrack.

Hank’s body of work, growing steadily over the years, got him elected to the Academy of the Social Sciences. And his singular value as an academic who paid attention to the bigger world earned him well-deserved recognition in the Order of Australia.

I was not there to celebrate this with him. In 1989 I left ANU, academic life, and Australia, and went back to Hawaii. But by technological good fortune Hank and I were able to keep in touch: email came along. Over the years, and until just a few months ago, we sent and replied pretty much nonstop. I archived the lot. Our back and forths number well over a thousand. I have spent the last two days re-reading and remembering.

From Hank’s side, there is a lot about PNG, from Errol Flynn, to tourism on the Kokoda trail, to Sepik people going to England and getting on Facebook, to his wish that there was more written about individual Papua New Guineans like the ones he taught in 1966 and what became of them: “two became prime ministers, one became assistant secretary to the permanent organisation of the British Commonwealth, at least one went to jail, and one robbed and rorted outrageously and flourished.” From there to gun violence in Moresby and Lae and the highlands; I told him it wasn’t as bad as in the US.

When Hank saw America for himself, he sent good reports, very Hank-like, scrupulous about facts and interested in larger meanings. Here he is at Padow’s Deli, contemplating buying a sandwich. “36 possibilities on his menu wall, not including mile highs, combos and subs. Then there was a choice of nine breads (not including ‘biscuits’ which looked like scones or small dampers) and six cheeses (including pimiento spread which technically may not have been a cheese). So Padow’s had a choice of 1,944 sandwiches (not including biscuits, mile highs, combos and subs). I was so beguiled I wrote all this down.” And his observation of Starbucks: there was one every five acres – the same ratio as for sheep in the Mallee in a bad year.

Other travels took him to Asia. One of his books, about the Burma Railway, done with Gavan McCormack, was translated into Japanese, and Hank was pleased to hear his name rendered as Hanku Neresu. There was also a pirated English-language edition, done in Thailand, this one went into a second printing, and Hank toyed with the idea of including this in his CV – pirated editions being an unusual academic distinction. [Ed: see the bootlegged Chinese edition of A Short History of New Guinea.]

Up to his retirement and beyond, he never got any more comfortable with academic jargon, especially the cultural studies kind – “all of that interrogation of the articulate space between words, the unpacking unraveling nuancing deconstructing of the hegemonic canon.”

He kept writing, in plain style, for audience, and for usefulness. Here is an email from just a year and a half ago.” In the last couple of months I have written 2500 words on the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, 3000 on Kokoda, was team leader on a 120 page report on Kokoda for the Govts of Aust and PNG (I wrote 20 or so of the pages and helped pull the lot together), wrote a talk to give to 100 aircrew who fought in Europe, other short pieces, and briefed a couple of journalists on present PNG.

“I often publish where it is close and quick. Now a lot goes out as discussion or working papers for State Society and Governance in Melanesia (nominal chair, me). I must have written six or seven pieces for SSGM. Wise people ask me why. But to publish in a ‘learned journal’ will take many months – perhaps 18 – and the editor will send me the comments of the referees and in my preciousness and arrogance these will annoy me. To publish in the scholarly journals is grief and delay. And the SSGM publications are read in the region by scholars and policy formers and implementers and immediately released online.”

“I have not been working hard – never been writing late at night. I have painted much of the house, and I have read novels.”

We emailed back and forth about Australian writing: Peter Carey, Peter Temple, Tim Winton, Les Murray, and Douglas Stewart’s poem, “the mice of Chinkapook.” Alex Miller, two-time winner of the Miles Franklin, living at Castlemaine – Hank: “there are more writers than miners on the old goldfields.” The human differences between Ken Inglis on the Stuart Case and Chloe Hooper’s Tall Man – “creative nonfiction.” Stephen Pyne and Tom Griffiths on fire history. And from there to droughts and flooding rains. Water rights around Boort, arguments in the drought years escalating to fist fights and talk of dynamite, and in the wet years, schoolkids standing on a bridge to see the Avoca River flowing for the first time in their lives.

Hank also emailed about watching a lot of AFL and cricket. By technological good fortune, I could too, online, courtesy of ESPN. I benefited greatly from Hank’s commentaries, based on a lifetime of paying intelligent attention. So – cricket from late Bradman to late Ponting, Ben Hilfenhaus hooked up to a heart-rate monitor, delivering real time stats to TV watchers, the moods of Mitchell Johnson, and the streaker who ran out onto the Gabba, heading for Andrew Symonds, wearing only a stubbie cooler tied to his wrist. Football from Ron Barassi to women goal umpires, and Buddy Franklin and all the other twenty-first-century six and a half footers – Hank looking forward to the first Sudanese ruckman.

In my email archive I must have some hundreds of thousands of words in the style of Hank. It is a great Australian voice, and a lot of it is about his life. I wished he would write a memoir. I kept telling him this. But he never did, more’s the pity.

What we do have is some choice bits, winding all the way back to the boy from Boort. Hank at the show, the star attraction being Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tent, the abos – they were Abos then – standing with gloves on and dressing gowns around their shoulders, Jimmy calling for whoever is game to go three rounds, and a big drunken lair jumps up on the platform and kinghits a lightweight. Hank on a cricket Saturday, a home game, and the visitors’ fast bowler is measuring off his run, coming to the end of his twenty paces and throwing down his false teeth as his marker.

And the one I like best of all. Football, from Hank’s high school teaching years. He was in the great tradition of center half backs of yesteryear. Take a mark in the middle of the pack, walk back, steady yourself, deliberately execute a fifty-yard drop kick past midfield, watch it in flight, pull up your socks, even if they are already pulled up, and stand in front of your man with your hands on your hips and your elbows out.

Hank’s man this day is a nasty piece of work, hacking Hank behind the play, running his boot sprigs down Hank’s shins. Everybody sees it except the umpire. Hank, being Hank, stays calm for three quarters. Halfway through the fourth, there comes a perfect moment, and Hank, within the rules (as always), lays the bloke out, legally, conclusively, concussively. And from the boundary comes a cheer – a kid Hank teaches at school, his voice just broken: “good on yer, Mister Nelson!”

That seems like the right salutation. Ave atque Vale, as we used to say in the Wimmera. Good on yer, Hank.

[Other tributes to Emeritus Professor Hyland Neil (Hank) Nelson AM (1937-2012)].


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