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Pinney, Peter Patrick (1922–1992)

by Richard White and Claire Petrie

This article was published online in 2016

Peter Patrick Pinney (1922–1992), traveller, writer, and soldier, was born on 10 June 1922 at Epping, Sydney, younger child of Victorian-born Charles Robert Pinney (1883–1945), civil servant, and his New South Wales-born wife Mary Desmond, née Murray. Young Pinney had been given the second name of Plunkett at birth but he used Patrick throughout his life. Mary was the daughter of (Sir) Hubert Murray, the lieutenant-governor of Papua. Charles had joined the Territory’s Lands Department in 1906. In World War I he served in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), rising to captain and being awarded the Military Cross. After the war, he returned to Papua and later held office as administrator of Norfolk Island (1932–37).

Apart from early schooling in Port Moresby and school holiday visits to Norfolk Island, Peter and his sister spent their childhoods in and around Sydney, their mother with them for some of the time. Despite distance, Peter was close to Sir Hubert, acquiring his habit of diary keeping, but cooler towards his father. Both men shared his enthusiasm for photography. He boarded, lonely and alienated, at St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, from 1934 to 1939. As a teenager he gained a reputation for dangerous escapades, such as hanging upside down from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and spent holidays hiking in the Blue Mountains and hitching rides in trains and trucks to Grafton and Albury, and to Cairns in Queensland.

Craving adventure, Pinney volunteered for service in World War II, enlisting on 9 July 1941 in the AIF. He spent a few months in the Middle East, then, as a signaller with the 2/3rd Independent Company in New Guinea, took part in the 1943 Wau-Salamaua campaign, during which (Sir) Ivor Hele sketched his portrait (Australian War Memorial collection, Canberra). Back in Australia, in September 1944 he was court martialled for striking an officer. He told his family that he ‘was looked upon as a malcontent and military revolutionist merely because I want to go away and fight’ (UQFL 288). Military life, which had appeared an opportunity to escape the claustrophobia—as he perceived it—of his teenage years, seemed merely its continuation. From November he served on Bougainville with the 2/8th Commando Squadron. He was promoted to corporal in January 1945 and was awarded the Military Medal for inspirational leadership in successive attacks in January-February. His series of illegal wartime diaries, camouflaged in khaki cloth, later provided the substance of a three-volume ‘narrative memoir’ by the imaginary ‘Signaller Johnston’: The Barbarians (1988), The Glass Cannon (1990), and The Devils’ Garden (1992). The diaries expressed frustration with what he saw as the inadequacy and mediocrity of some officers and the Bougainville campaign’s peripheral contribution to the war effort.

It was only after his return to Australia in October 1945 and discharge from the AIF on 9 May 1946 that Pinney was able to pursue the life of unfettered adventure he sought. Travelling the world, he worked in myriad jobs: as a crewman in a ship sailing from New York to Trieste, Italy; night editor for the Athens News; camera assistant filming Charles Chauvel’s Sons of Matthew; and broadcaster on All India Radio. He wrote constantly–diaries, letters, and stories–and published articles about his travels. His writing was self-aware and self-deprecating; claiming that ‘my main object seems to be to defeat dullness’ (UQFL 288), he honed a persona as an audacious rebel.

The first of his twelve books and the most successful, Dust on My Shoes (1952), recounted his journey overland (1948–50) from Greece to Burma (Myanmar). It established his trademark laconic and picaresque style, and celebrated his haphazard, anti-authoritarian mode of travel. Carrying little documentation, he enjoyed having to persuade, bribe, or evade border authorities. In the Middle East he used a pass that identified him as a Dutch engineer, endorsed by the Netherlands ambassador in London: ‘the reward of two hours’ labour with typewriter and pen at the house of a Damascene in [Turkey at] Kayseri’ (Pinney 1952, 79). He often travelled with women or men he met on the road. In Dust on My Shoes he eulogised Robert Marchand, his Dutch-born ‘peerless companion’ (Pinney 1952, 312); an adventurer who shared Pinney’s wanderlust, he drowned in the flooded Chindwin River in 1949 on their way to Rangoon (Yangon).

The book was well received in Australia and abroad. Orville Prescott, the New York Times’ principal reviewer, attested to Pinney’s ‘high rank among modern travellers,’ and wrote: ‘a brasher, more daring, more foolhardy and resourceful young man would be hard to find anywhere in the world. Also a tougher or more slippery one’ (1951, 29). In subsequent years Pinney reported meeting—occasionally staying with—fans who had pursued their own adventures after reading his books. He was a prototype for the hippie-trail-style travellers of later decades, and he criticised those tourists who stayed in luxurious hotels and rarely discovered the charm and vitality of ordinary locals. In contrast, Pinney travelled with a string bag, often on foot or hitchhiking, and survived on odd jobs.

Yet Pinney’s ambition as a writer set him apart from most drifters. His seeming fearlessness and his encounters with the law were interwoven with his writing. As he told his mother, ‘I’ve never outgrown that tingling scary thrill I get when I’m on the wrong side of the law and the cops appear’ (UQFL 288). Jailed at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, in 1951 for attempting to smuggle gold to India, he claimed to be seeking ‘colour for his stories’ (Kalgoorlie Miner 1951, 4) but the magistrate condemned his ‘idle and useless life’ (Age 1951, 7). He used the experience for an unpublished novel, ‘Outside the Law’.

In the 1950s and 1960s, while wandering in Africa and the Americas, Pinney published more travel books, including Who Wanders Alone (1954) and Anywhere but Here (1956), and a novel, Ride the Volcano (1960). In Costa Rica in 1958 he married Alice Brown, an American copywriter and radio journalist; their daughter, Sava, was born in 1959. They sailed a yacht through the Caribbean, smuggling whiskey and cigarettes. In the British Virgin Isles they ran the Tortola Times, the local newspaper. When Sava almost died from dysentery, they decided that she and her mother would join Peter’s family in Australia; the two arrived in 1960. He took about a year to follow and he and Alice subsequently divorced, acrimoniously.

Pinney settled in Australia and produced travel writing based on his trip home and expeditions to North Queensland, the Northern Territory, the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, and Europe. From 1963 he lived with Estelle Margaret Runcie, first in a houseboat on the Brisbane River, then aboard a cray-fishing boat in the Torres Strait, and finally in Brisbane. They married in November 1968 at Daru, TPNG. Together they wrote Too Many Spears (1978), a semi-fictional account of Frank Jardine’s adventures at Cape York from 1864 to 1874. Pinney’s earlier travel books had sold well but by the 1970s many more Australians were having backpacking adventures abroad, and his idiosyncratic and often exaggerated style was less warmly embraced by publishers; his manuscript ‘Europe’s Full of Foreigners’ was rejected in 1978. In his later years he wrote scripts for television series, including episodes of The Sullivans and The Flying Doctors. Survived by his wife and the daughter of his first marriage, he died from prostate cancer on 22 October 1992 in Brisbane and was cremated.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Gaoled and Fined £300 in Gold Case.’ 10 January 1951, 7
  • Fryer Library, University of Queensland. UQFL 288, Papers of Peter Pinney
  • Kalgoorlie Miner. ‘Illicit Gold Case, Evidence of Smuggling.’ 9 January 1951, 4
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX38335
  • National Archives of Australia. B2455, PINNEY CHARLES ROBERT
  • Pinney, Peter. Dust on My Shoes. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1952
  • Pinney, Sava. Personal communication
  • Prescott, Orville. ‘Books of the Times.’ New York Times, 14 November 1951, 29
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 3269, Collection 03: Angus & Robertson Ltd further records, 1880–1974, including publishing correspondence and business records

Additional Resources

Citation details

Richard White and Claire Petrie, 'Pinney, Peter Patrick (1922–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pinney-peter-patrick-18951/text30565, published online 2016, accessed online 20 December 2018.

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