In these times it seems that heroes are acclaimed readily and easily. A single television appearance coupled with a politically correct question elevates the newcomer to heroic status in the twitter universe. Only days later, it seems too often the case, a modest due diligence reveals our latest ‘hero’ actually has feet of clay.
But David Bowie was absolutely right in his Heroes album: it is possible to be a hero just for one day.
John Flynn, the subject of Everald Compton’s engaging new biography, The Man on the Twenty Dollar Notes: Flynn of the Inland was an authentic Australian hero, who bequeathed the nation a very great deal by virtue of good judgement, hard work and continuing sacrifice. Flynn is best remembered as the founder of the forerunners of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which has saved countless Australian lives through bringing medical care to the most remote corners of Outback Australia. However, this is but one of Flynn’s achievements, in a life seen as perhaps even more remarkable when viewed at a distance.
Born in Moliagul, Victoria in 1880, John Flynn developed an early affinity and affection for the Australian bush and its people. While in theological school, he worked on a shearer’s mission, resulting in the 1910 publication of his ground breaking Bushman’s Companion. Ordination in the Presbyterian Church followed and two comprehensive reports on the Northern Territory, on the needs of indigenous and settler communities, convinced the Church to appoint Reverend Flynn as superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission, founded also in the year of 1912.
With a handful of staff and a modest base at Oodnadatta, Flynn’s remarkable service began, eventually entering Australian folklore. Flynn and his organisation’s achievements would earn his team international acknowledgement. Most significantly, both Flynn’s reputation and legend endure to this day.
It is the legend which draws Everald Compton to his subject, as he intersperses the historical record of Flynn’s life with imagined conversations with other great and good Australians – from Prime Ministers to Presbyterian leaders; from figures in the landscape of our national identity like John Bradfield or Hudson Fysh to those dedicated men and women who built the AIM & the RFDS.
Compton’s metaphor is a train journey, with Flynn travelling back from a Church Conference in Adelaide to his home in Sydney. The train has been used by creative artists as different as Heinrich Boll or Alfred Hitchcock to Agatha Christie. It has direction and purpose, always contrasted with the possibility of surprise, as Compton understands, having Reverend Flynn meet Ben Chifley on a platform at Albury Railway Station, as the passengers disembark to change trains, courtesy of the interstate railway gauge lacking uniformity.
Everald Compton is a character of the Australian outback himself, having been inspired by Flynn’s story while attending bush Sunday Schools in the 1930s. Compton endorses Flynn’s practical Christian faith, getting things done while downplaying doctrinal imperatives. Compton admires Flynn as a great nation builder, and he too has sought to build railways and to see Bradfield’s vision of turning rivers inland to water the continent, finally realised.
And like Flynn, Compton knows the value of bipartisanship. Flynn counted ALP PM’s Scullin and Chifley among his friends, along with Queensland Premier Forgan Smith. But equally, PM’s Menzies, Hughes and Fadden were close to Flynn and supported his initiatives, to bring a mantle of safety to remote Australia.
Great strengths of this book lie in the tales describing how it all began. The best is the story of Jimmy Darcy, badly injured in a cattle stampede in the Kimberley and taken to Hall’s Creek where there was perhaps hope but no doctor. The year was 1917.
Hope rested with Fred Tuckett, the Halls Creek Postmaster, who was qualified in First Aid courtesy of St John’s Ambulance in Perth. His tutor had been a Dr Holland, whom Tuckett telegraphed for advice on what to do. After answering Holland’s questions, Tuckett was staggered by the response.
‘All the evidence makes me believe he has a ruptured bladder. You must operate immediately. I will send step by step instructions.’ Tuckett sank to his knees, his face wrapped in a look of sheer agony. He reluctantly rose so he could send a message back to Holland. ‘I am only a first-aid man and have never done an operation in my life. I will kill him.’
‘If you don’t operate he will die. This way you give him a chance,’ Holland pleaded. ‘I have no scalpel.’ ‘Use a pen knife.’ ‘The patient will have to stay awake.’ ‘May God help me?’. ‘He will.’
The whole country followed Jimmy Darcy’s agonising struggle, courtesy of repeater stations and newspaper bulletins. The need for a flying doctor service was beyond argument.
And Reverend Flynn knew how this might be achieved, for a young lieutenant in the Australian Flying Corps, Clifford Peel, en route to Europe during the Great War, had written to him, outlining how it could be done. Tragically, Peel was killed in action, but he left a bequest for the service and he was an inspiration to Flynn.
So too was Mrs Jeannie Gunn, author of We of the Never Never, who drew Flynn’s attention to the problem of isolation in the outback. Again, couple Flynn’s drive with Alfred Traeger’s insatiable curiosity and inventiveness with radio, and the ‘community of the air’ was born.
At times, it is difficult to discern where Flynn ends and Compton begins, so closely aligned are the famous Reverend and the Presbyterian Elder. At times, too, the dialogue is a little stilted, while nonetheless conveying meaning.
Nonetheless this is a very good book, reminding every Australian of just how tough life in the Outback was, and still can be, and of the need for a voice for those Australians far from urban comforts.
One of Flynn’s critics, Charles Duguid, consistently argued that Flynn’s Mission had neglected indigenous Australians but the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Flynn was no saint and Compton does not suggest so. But he was justly deserving of Ion Idriess’s famous description; Flynn of the Inland.