Infamous for stretching the truth, why did Australia’s first Hollywood idol make Port Adelaide a star attraction of his debut book?
In 1937, already one of the world’s biggest stars, Errol Flynn published his first book, Beam Ends. The opening scene was set in Port Adelaide. In the summer of 1930, Flynn and his S.S. Baltimore shipmates disembarked at the wharves and returned to their ship ‘roaring drunk’. Although no-one would challenge his claim of being drunk, whether Flynn actually visited the Port remains a mystery.
Flynn can be seen as a ludicrously entertaining raconteur, flexible with the truth, or simply a compulsive liar. In his life and writings, Flynn renegotiated the lines between fact and fiction. Perhaps he was ahead of his time. For neuroscience has revealed that our brains construct rather than capture reality.
Regardless, something intrigued Flynn about the Port enough to give it star billing in his first book, and it’s fascinating to speculate about what he responded to. It’s unlikely that Flynn was overly interested in Mary MacKillop (later, Australia’s first saint) who lived in the Port in 1871. He may have been aware of fellow writer and ship’s captain, Joseph Conrad, visiting the Port on the Otago in 1889. Incidentally, in 1893, Conrad (who Portite wharfies described as ‘the foreign bloke’) befriended Nobel Prize-winning author John Galsworthy on the Torrens clipper in Port Adelaide. These titans of literature then proceeded to sail off into the salmon and pewter sunset. Galsworthy was famous for his Forsyte Saga books, and Flynn played the lead in a 1949 Hollywood adaptation, That Forsyte Woman.
Christine Courtney, author of Venetian Voices and co-proprietor of the fine shop Sea-Witch Images, where fridge magnets of Flynn are available, suggests why Flynn visited the Port: “His sense of adventure. Any sailor is attracted by ships.” She adds, “He might have charmed the single Irish girls living here. If they saw the twinkle in his eye, they would have been done … And so would I!”
In 1930, the Port had around 30 pubs. This oasis of cirrhosis would not have been repulsive to Flynn, an Olympic-standard drinker, whose image SA’s Hardy’s Wines once used to promote their RR range. Historian Errol (‘“Like Flynn?’, people always ask me,”) Chinner says “the pubs Flynn could have gone to include the Globe and the Port Admiral”, but it must have been a daytime escapade, for “the six o’clock swill was still on in those days”.
David Koch, lateral-thinking Chairman of Port Adelaide Football Club and co-host of Sunrise, is not surprised by Flynn’s attraction to Port Adelaide: “Cities were built around trade, and the wharves and the clippers, and expanded out from the ports. They were full of wheelers and dealers and colourful people of every class. They were really cosmopolitan.”
Flynn played Aussie Rules as a teen (possibly with his schoolmate, future PM, John Gorton) and if aware of it, would have respected footy’s importance to Portonians (upper-class) and Portites (workers). According to Koch, “We’ve been who we are since 1870, and the club became known for playing hard and having a bit of swagger about them — like Flynn. Flynn was a bit of a lad and the character that would fit Port Adelaide. He was debonair. He was sharp. He talked the big game.”
A rebel against conservative thinking, Flynn was beguiled by other rebels. He may have read about William Lane, Mary Gilmore and their band of 236 merry shearers, carpenters and teachers who left Australia in 1893 and founded Nueva Australia, a socialist colony, in Paraguay. Some Port locals’ grandparents recalled this socialist ship putting in at Port Adelaide en route to Paraguay.
As a cadet patrol officer in New Guinea, Flynn read all of Marx’s manifesto and later supported a Cuban presidente-in-waiting, Fidel Castro. Flynn, the ultimate screen Robin Hood, boldly visited the real-life Robin Hood, Castro, in the Sierra Maestra jungles and coached him on public speaking (yes, he’s the bastard to blame for those seven-hour speeches).
Silly claims about Flynn being a Nazi spy have since been discredited. Far from being elitist, and despite his privileged education and suave manner, Flynn was characteristically Australian in that he disliked snobbery. He was equally comfortable playing cards (and drinking) with a film crew as he was consorting with Russian princesses (and of course, when I say consorting, I mean having his buttocks spanked with a steel hairbrush during sex).
Flynn would have appreciated later Port characters, such as former mayor, Roy Martin, who allegedly took a gun to council meetings. Or the late Bon Scott, AC/DC’s cheekily charismatic late frontman. In the ’70s, Scott painted ships on the Port’s wharves … in pink overalls. Another über-successful wild man, Jimmy Barnes, was no stranger to Port Adelaide pubs. Cold Chisel cut their teeth at the nearby Largs Pier, which Barnes immortalised in a song, Largs Pier Hotel. Flynn would have smiled crookedly at Mel Gibson, who acted nicely and acted nice in Gallipoli, some of which was filmed near Hart’s Mill, with Peter Weir at the helm.
And what about now, when the Port’s on the cusp of again becoming a cosmopolitan contender? We’ve already established that Flynn embraced any opportunities for drinking. Flynn would relish the stylish new wine bar, Michonne, and the re-imagined Port Admiral Hotel, with its Tasmanian oak, in-house beer Port Local (from Pirate Life Brewing), hipster beards and beer keg urinals.
Flynn, whose independent mind was his charm and curse, was unpalatable in some ways (yes, I’m talking about his penchant for riding (in the nude) turtles on the Great Barrier Reef ) and progressive in others. He was non-judgmental about people’s sexuality; he would be as cool about seeing the rainbow flag flying triumphantly atop a Lipson St house as he would about seeing the Jolly Roger unfurled. Speaking of rainbows, Flynn described himself as a touch of colour in a prosaic world and would enjoy the Wonderwalls of colour and fantasy around many street corners.
Koch says of the emerging Port, “In the main drag, we need those shops to be buzzing and filled. We need to put more residential development there, which will bring its own feel to it.” Along with more housing, bars and restaurants, a new Port must incorporate its main asset: its (unbuyable) history. This can work with visitors’ imaginations to make the Port wildly magical. The Living in the Port app, which provides an educational tour through the streets, is a good start.
But I propose a series of thought-activated, moving holographs along the wharves, showing Heroes of the Imagination in Port Adelaide: Errol Flynn, Joseph Conrad, Mary MacKillop, Bon Scott, David Koch. The beauty of this unique tourist draw card is that it would not be for people who just see the Port as grey streets and brown buildings, rendered with the excrement of industry and pigeons.
Rather, it would reward people who see derricks as dinosaurs, who use their imaginations to transform their worlds, and recognise that reality and fantasy are often the same thing.
Dr Michael X Savvas is an editor and senior lecturer.