Biographer raises the $20 question
Decades ago, when I was a student at Melbourne High School, I was entranced by reading a battered biography of John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. First published in 1932, Flynn of the Inland was written by that vastly underrated Australian writer, Ion Idriess.
Now, 84 years and eight books about him later, yet another biography of Flynn, who was born at Moliagul, central Victoria in 1880, has seen the light of day. Self-published by veteran author Everald Compton, this is a peculiar but fascinating book
Blessed with a catchy title, The Man on the Twenty Dollar Notes, the book reveals that as well as creating the RFDS, in partnership with legendary aviator Hudson Fysh, Flynn helped found the School of the Air, pioneered the pedal-powered radio and built numerous bush hospitals throughout inland and remote Australia for the Australian Inland Mission.
Compton regards Flynn as a prime example of muscular Christianity and of faith in action. Indeed, as he notes, in 1912 Flynn — an ordained minister — was commissioned by the Presbyterian Church of Australia to create what it termed “a mantle of safety” across what was then for many non-indigenous people an extremely lonely continent.
In this clearly produced and well documented book, Compton confesses that he has been a huge fan of Flynn since he first learned about his exploits at bush Sunday schools in the mid-1930s.
Yet The Man on the Twenty Dollar Notes not an easy book to read or to understand.
Even though Compton claims, I suspect in the main rightly, that his tale is based on the known facts of Flynn’s life, the copious dialogue in the book is what he thinks would or could have occurred at the time, given what he says is his knowledge of Flynn’s “unforgettable personality”.
To take another example, the sermon in the book that Flynn “delivers” at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Brisbane is not the one he in fact delivered there shortly before his death in 1951. Instead, Compton admits, it is “an amalgam of words” based on selected themes from speeches Flynn made across many years, including some of the words that he actually spoke that evening.
While most of the characters in this book are real people with whom Flynn is known to is have lived and worked, others are invented. These include a young volunteer nurse Flynn “meets” just before his death and a handful of pilgrims who, decades after his death, relive and review Flynn’s life of service to others. The role of these made-up characters Compton endeavours to explain in a postscript, not altogether successfully.
One of the many pluses in this biography is how Compton documents and explores how Flynn’s successes were based on partnerships, not just with Fysh and Alfred Traeger — with whom he created a pedal radio that connected the bush with the wider world — but with the ‘‘cattle king’’ of inland Australia, Sidney Kidman, and also with leading politicians.
The latter included Country Party leader Arthur Fadden, who was famously prime minister for 40 days and 40 nights in 1941.
THOUGH CLEAR AND WELL DOCUMENTED, IT IS NOT AN EASY BOOK TO READ
Flynn also worked well with Liberal PM Robert Menzies, who publicly mourned his death, and especially with the ALP’s Jim Scullin, a devout Catholic who regarded the pioneering Presbyterian doctor as a mate.
From time to time Flynn also co-operated with Labor’s Ben Chifley and even with the notorious political turncoat WM “Billy” Hughes.
Even though I remain a committed atheist, it is hard to disagree with Compton when he concludes that Flynn leaves a great legacy and a fine example to modern Christianity, which so often continues to struggle with a crisis of belief.
But ultimately this is not a book about religion. It is based on what its erudite author calls “a power beyond ourselves” that manifested itself in Flynn’s life of service to others. This force or power Compton vividly describes in a non-religious way. He regards it as being deeply relevant to our secular society in the 21st century.
It seems to me that Compton’s creation is a vintage and authentic Reverend Dr John Flynn who, according to this well-written book, seldom preached but simply yarned with the diverse men and women he met along the way, including members of his many congregations. is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
John Flynn, left, helped establish the Royal Flying Doctor Service