Just over a century ago, in June 1903, an impatient young man with big ideals signed up for the Presbyterian ministry. Over the next half century John Flynn’s career would shake up the church establishment, challenging the boundaries between social activism and church neutrality. He would create a network of outback hospitals, bush padres and, in 1929, the Flying Doctor Service, his enduring monument. In the early 1930s he had been immortalised in Ion Idriess’s Flynn of the Inland as the camel-riding padre in the desert—’my mythical self’, Flynn would always say later with a laugh. By the time of his death in 1951 he was a stock heroic figure to the postwar nation, a ‘modern Apostle Paul’ as Robert Menzies called him a few years later.
Back in 1903 he was simply a young idealist: ill-at-ease with the formal training at Ormond College, he waited until a new vocational ministry was set up that enabled him to work in the slums of Melbourne while studying. He had been a student teacher: a free spirit with a bicycle and a camera, touring the country roads of Victoria and publishing his photos in the Illustrated Weekly under the jaunty nom de plume ‘Sprocket’. In many ways he never left that sense of independence behind. In training he was constantly distracted by his own projects and barely scraped through his degree: ‘they let the slip-rails down to get me through’ he would often say later in life. His sense of being an outsider would serve him well when it came to yarning on a bush fence with stockmen and dingo trappers. His correspondence boxes in the National Library contain touching letters, laboriously written, from men like these. Their confidence had been won over by a serious, reserved bloke in a dark suit with a gift for conversation and trust, and a capacity to imagine a future in which practical idealism was the keynote to social reform. Fred Booty, a Pilbara cattleman, wrote to one of Flynn’s outback nurses in 1929, extolling Flynn’s example:
The ‘Gospel of Deeds’ is right—we see it every day in the bush. One gets so sick of politicians and talk; the regeneration of mankind must come out of man—by deeds, not words. Follow the golden rule and put your back into your job and you are an apostle—tho’ you pose as an atheist.
Flynn’s life has become an emblem of an Australia that has vanished. Yet his great preoccupations live on: the relationship between metropolitan and rural people; the creation of unity within a diverse continental nation; the renewal of community in the face of social rupture and change. Flynn’s story speaks of recurrent patterns in Australian culture. They are patterns that history-making can highlight, and they provide rich material for conversations about the future as well as the past. This is why history matters to contemporary Australia, not only because of our tense racial politics, but because it touches on the broadest questions of what kind of society we wish to create. Every society is in a continual process of decay, transformation and renewal, as the old gives way to the new, and Flynn felt this acutely in the early twentieth century. It was a time of much national anxiety and yet of tremendous optimism for the future. Flynn’s great achievement was to take the anxieties of the age and transform them by the alchemy of his idealism into creative social change.
We find ourselves in a time that has uncanny echoes of Flynn’s world. Rural decline and the drift of population to the cities are regular headlines and the cause of public inquiry. Drought is once again stalking the land, and city people oscillate between indifference and alarm about the fate of our rural landscapes and their peoples. It is a political climate in which the boundaries of the nation are anxiously, even brutally, patrolled. Our navy is deployed with the express purpose of turning back the desperately unseaworthy boats of would-be immigrants. The Empty North is once again a focus of our longstanding fear of Asia, a fear much sharpened by the Bali bombing and its subsequent revelations of Islamic fundamentalist activism in Indonesia. As conservative politicians tighten our migration laws, others exhort Australian women to bear more children to fill this land.
These issues are all remarkably reminiscent of Australia a century ago. People bemoaned the ‘townward tendency’ and the growing cities were the cause of much bitter talk. Natural population increase was slowing dramatically, provoking a Royal Commission into the Birth Rate (it berated middle-class women for their use of contraception). Invasion novels were a popular literary fad, imagining cells of Japanese or Malayan intruders being established in the unguarded north. Commonwealth legislation was introduced, tightening the immigration regime in order to protect the integrity of an insecure white nation adrift in a sea of unfriendly faces.
Flynn subscribed to all of these anxieties. Yet he was also impassioned by a belief that the twentieth century opened with an opportunity to shape a completely new Australian society, marked by equality, boldness, community and progressive ideals. He hoped that the materialistic, get-rich-quick values of the gold rushes had faded in the brutal 1890s depression. He was inspired by American writers such as Richard Ely, Liberty Hyde Bailey and Warren Wilson, who believed that the coming century offered a new vitalism to Western civilisation and an opportunity to take industrial societies beyond class strife and competition to an era of cooperation and evolution. Like other vitalists Flynn was excited by a continual optimism that ‘great things were near at hand’ with a ‘new epoch just opening’. They were naive, it is true, yet they sought a way to recognise humane values within a modern capitalist society. It was a recognition that our own economic rationalists are beginning to make, in the name of ‘social capital’, in the sense of trust and interdependence that underpins a civil society.
Flynn allied himself with the Progressives, a loose movement of reformers throughout the English-speaking world. The Progressives believed in active government intervention and campaigned vigorously for the creation of new social services and structures including kindergartens, national parks, maternal health facilities, the control of food quality and the regulation of labour conditions. They believed that human nature was malleable and evolving towards higher things. The poor were not genetically destined to be so: nor did the rich have any special claims to moral or intellectual worth. At their best, Progressive reformers pulled up the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism and created systems of social support that we now take for granted. When I take my child to the maternal and child health clinic, when I enrol her in an inexpensive inner-city kindergarten, when she is vaccinated free of charge, when we visit a national park, we are enjoying the fruits of the Progressive commitment to public health and welfare. At their worst, Progressive reformers dictated middle-class values to the poor and failed to recognise the economic inequalities that underpinned much poverty and disease. It was their distinctive role to take the tools of modernity— science, medicine, technology—and turn them to the traditional social ends of creating and sustaining community and relationships. Flynn’s Flying Doctor Service is a perfect expression of these twin ideals. Progressives believed that a people treated humanely would be better citizens for it. As Flynn declared to critics of his spending on outback hospitals, ‘What is “comfort”? Is it luxury merely? Surely it signifies conditions favouring the highest human efficiency.’ A vital nation was a humane one.
There was certainly a dark side to Flynn’s ideals, and it centred on his hostility to city life, and his racial assumptions. Flynn had profound suspicions about modernity, yet he was fascinated by its freedoms. Like many middle-class regulators and policy-makers he was deeply at odds with a rapidly urbanising nation, yet he spent his adult life in the cities, the locus of money, power and political influence. The ‘social capital’ that most captivated Flynn’s imagination was rural people. ‘Nothing’, he wrote to his father in 1912, ‘comes to its best in the city.’ This was a popular view, yet it was also an outcome of his personal history.
Born on the goldfields, Flynn had lost his mother at two, then spent most of his childhood in 1890s Depression Melbourne. He spent his early teens at school with the factory workers of Sunshine, and rambling in his spare time in the paddocks that still characterised Melbourne’s fringe. One of his most powerful and formative experiences was his time as a missionary to the children of South Melbourne, organising trips up the Yarra River and camps for white-faced, pigeon-chested boys from the slums. His lantern slide collection contains poignant pictures of these boys at a seaside camp, performing physical exercises, their ribs showing in the early morning sun.
Flynn was an ardent reader of C.E.W. Bean, who would later become a war correspondent and Australia’s official historian of the First World War. Bean had written in the Sydney Morning Herald (8 June 1907) that:
The fate of a city-bred people of any consequence the world has known has invariably been the same … as soon as a nation begins to shut itself up in cities it begins to decay. First its bodily strength and along with that its moral strength declines … the nerve of a nation, its level-headedness and fitness for national emergency desert it as they are deserting the modern Londoner.
What was so frightening about the city? Flynn and his contemporaries believed that it was essentially an artificial social arrangement, not a natural or organic one. People in the city were thrown into close proximity and forced to conform to timid and derivative social conventions. In the journal he edited, the Inlander, he asserted (September 1924):
For over a generation ever so many people have been turning their back on Australia, huddling themselves in capital cities on the edge, with their faces and ears set to catch the models of frocks and cars and sentiments of every country but their own.
There is no doubt that Flynn was also a racist, in that he believed biology to be a great shaping force of history, and was prone to generalisations about the character of ‘racial’ groups. This belief had some dark consequences, including his adulation of the bushman as a reservoir of racial vitality for the nation, and his ignorance and neglect of indigenous peoples. In 1922 he asked: ‘How can we hope to solve the supremely difficult problems of those lands with citizens reared in the cities? Pioneers who have inherited their stern worth from parents hardened before them can alone supply the national service that is called for.’ He referred to the stockmen of the MacDonnell Ranges as hardy and sure-footed like the horses, and even called the inland bushmen ‘our Al human stock’. He believed that it was a national tragedy for such fine stock not to breed. His fascination with eugenics echoes that of many of his contemporaries from the Nazis to the Bloomsbury set and the American Progressives. Racial theory was so decisively discredited by the Second World War that it is easy to forget how pervasive it was in the 1920s and 1930s. Many Western thinkers wondered what would happen in the wake of a profound demographic transition to small families, accompanied by rapid urbanisation: would they be overwhelmed by the teeming hordes of the non-industrial world? Such fears gave rise to defensive nationalism and racial hyperbole, including the widespread anxiety in Australia that the ‘white race’ could not flourish in the tropics, but would ‘degenerate’ into torpor and passivity.
Although Flynn did occasionally use such images in his fund-raising journalism, his vision of human nature was essentially an optimistic and evolutionary one. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not regard indigenous people as lower in some absolute racial hierarchy, although he was scathing about traditional indigenous culture. He believed in the ‘uplift’ of Aboriginal people through their acculturation to white norms. He eagerly told stories of respectable, forthright, articulate Aboriginal people as an exemplar of the possibilities of a less divided nation, yet he was unable to appreciate traditional indigenous culture. His assimilationist beliefs now seem narrow and paternalist, but at the time they represented a step forward from a Social Darwinist belief in the inevitable passing away of an inferior race before a superior one.
This optimistic view of human nature as essentially flexible and adaptive rather than fixed by heredity was the basis of Flynn’s vision of national evolution, of a ‘new epoch’ in which nation-building would be ‘largely conscious’ rather than the ‘unconscious’ competitive activity of the past. This vision gave Flynn the room to extol the virtues of diversity, although he struggled to realise it in his own institutions. On telling a story of an Aboriginal woman’s donation to the fledgling Flying Doctor Service he exclaimed ‘that’s unity’, while he criticised governments for their neglect of elderly Chinese miners, who ‘have made their homes alongside our own’ yet found themselves with no family and no state support because of immigration restrictions.
Flynn imagined that the freedom to travel between remote and metropolitan Australia would be at the heart of overcoming prejudices between the two. He told his supporters that they were all ‘Inlanders sentimentally’: that their sense of relationship to remote Australians was the key to creating a modern nation in which all had access to the benefits of modern medicine and communication. He believed that travel to the inland would be a ‘leaven by which our national loaves may be saved from heaviness’. He was one of the first to write about the pleasures of journeying through central Australia. He believed such travel would create an intimacy between people and landscape that would constitute a real emotional possession of the land—a connection that might be modelled on that of indigenous people, if likely also to ignore and eliminate this. Along the way Flynn was able to imagine totally new forms of neighbourhood, such as church services presented over a wireless network in central Australia, and the School of the Air. Such connections are all precursors to the virtual communities in which we live today, connected by e-mail and the web. Like Flynn’s wireless and flying doctor planes, they do not take the place of face-to-face living, but they enable a highly scattered population to create a sense of community while maintaining the freedom from a homogeneous metropolitan culture that Flynn so disliked.
Infused with various ideas about national character—that it was evolving, that it was intimately linked to landscape, that it must move beyond the materialism of the nineteenth-century goldrush society, Flynn began to imagine a nation where the tools of modernity—aeroplanes and wireless—were used to create a sense of community across vast distances. He envisaged a place where white settlers, Aboriginal people and Chinese miners all contributed to a Flying Doctor Service: a service that enabled them to access modern medicine while remaining in their geographically isolated communities. It would be a country in which people might travel freely between the cities and the remote landscapes of the inland, where inland children could have holidays at the urban seaside (a pet project) and jaded city dwellers would be refreshed and reinvigorated by the open spaces of the interior. At his best, Flynn had a national ideal that still has power: of a society that preserves and celebrates, and does not seek to eliminate, the paradox of difference and diversity under the banner of nation.
Image credit: AlixSaz