Bi­og­ra­pher raises the $20 ques­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

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.


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

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