My earliest memory of a Christmas holiday is of driving up to Darwin with Dad in his first car, a Mini Minor. Just him and me, always special to a son, with mum and my brother to fly up after us from Adelaide to our new home. It was a bright and vast new world I was seeing through the windscreen of the Mini, and north of Tennant Creek we stopped at the memorial to Flynn of the Inland.
It’s John Alexander who reminded me of Flynn. Has there ever been a time when a joke told 22 years earlier threatened to destroy the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia? It is the unfortunate Alexander who created that history, telling a wrap party of the Gladiators show in 1995 some unfunny joke about a witness at a rape trial. Nothing in this was new – certainly not the joke nor the YouTube clip of Alexander labouring through it – but during the by-election campaign for his seat of Bennelong the video resurfaced, along with the now-familiar contest to express the most outrage about Alexander ‘telling a rape joke’. The poor man apologised abjectly to sanctimonious journalists half his age and confessed this had damaged his campaign to retain a seat on which the sagging fortunes of the Turnbull Government hung.
So what’s the link with Flynn? Well, everything seems linked this Christmas, now that I’m on another history binge. The sad truth is that there was no shortage of witchhunters to condemn Alexander, who, until that moment, long enjoyed a reputation for being a courteous man, even when smacking tennis balls in the age of loudmouths like Connors, Nastase and McEnroe. But now we are in an age of mere seeming, with a booming industry in denouncing people in 140 characters or less – in proving our own goodness by simply vilifying someone else. Alexander once won trophies for Australia. Now his head is the trophy for Twitter moralists.
Flynn, on the other hand, represents an age when goodness was measured not by who you trashed but who you helped. Since that age is now as dead as historical memory, I should explain that Flynn was the missionary who founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the world’s first air ambulance. That’s not something done in the seconds it takes some wild-beard calling himself the ‘The Awkward Leftie’ to type out: ‘Rape culture supported by John Alexander.’ Yet I fancy Flynn did more people more good, without getting as high as The Awkward Leftie on his superior morality.
My daughter rings again from Britain, where’s she is happily studying. She’s just up the road from the home town of John McDouall Stuart, the explorer whose six great expeditions into Central Australia were honoured in the naming of the Stuart Highway, by which the Flynn Memorial sits. Unlike Burke and Wills, Stuart never lost a man, he was that good.
More connections. My daughter tells me one of her friends accidentally stepped on the PH that marks the spot at the university where Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake in 1528, on a day so windy that it took six hours for the fire to burn hot enough to kill him. He was just 24. My daughter is excited because she loves traditions, and stepping on those letters means her friend is doomed to fail her exams unless she breaks the spell by running into the North Sea at dawn on May 1.
We here risk failing something else: the test of our commitment to the free speech for which Hamilton died, refusing to take back his criticisms of church corruption. I can’t pretend Milo Yiannopoulos is Patrick Hamilton. He says he’s a Catholic, but I doubt his preoccupation is our straightest way to heaven. But we cannot pick and choose whose free speech we should defend, because where’s the credit in defending only the most agreeable? In this case, though, Milo was chosen for me. I watched the West Australian Premier, Mark McGowan, pompously and unfairly denounce Milo as someone who ‘defends paedophiles and associates with Nazis’, adding: ‘We shouldn’t have [him] delivering lectures and performances to West Australians.’ I am anti-social and not attracted to making a spectacle of myself – which makes my television and radio career astonishing to me – but I got so cross that I blurted out on air that I would travel to McGowan’s capital and be MC for Milo’s Perth show, just to make a point about free speech. Let McGowan stick that up his kilt.
But maybe McGowan is just making more connections. After all, Perth is named after the city where some of the nearly 4,000 alleged ‘witches’ to be killed in Scotland were sentenced to death. But he shouldn’t try so hard to be a modern witch-burner. He’s actually from the Irish McGowans, and I thought the Irish had more respect for blarney. I fly to Perth hoping McGowan’s mobs are held back by McGowan’s police. I’m not cut out for any Patrick Hamilton stuff, but Virgin has let me into the chairman’s lounge which at least makes martyrdom more comfortable.
You might have guessed that this Christmas I’m travelling nowhere but in my imagination. Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples will be my guide and holiday project, although I’m rather hoping to get courage instead from a book I have of Churchill’s paintings, plus his essay Painting as a Pastime. In short, his advice is to just grab that brush and go for it, rather than, as I do, freeze before a blank canvas. I’m hoping my daughter will push me. She’s back for Christmas and I can’t wait for the family to be whole again. Even better, relatives are descending from Holland, Adelaide and Molong. The magpies now drop by daily for mince, and if the koala turns up, too, where would I rather be? How much more connected could I get?