Practical knowledge · Prologue

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The ‘sharp, cruel teeth’ of Rex the Alsatian were ready to tear into any who dared intrude upon the mysteries of Stanton Farm. Located somewhere in the Dandenongs, east of Melbourne, the farm seemed run-down, disused almost—except for the barn. There, two young men were working in secret upon ‘a sleek, crimson-coloured aircraft’ of unusual design. The wings seemed too small, and the engines were missing, and yet this streamlined craft conveyed an ‘overwhelming sense of power and speed’. More rocket than airplane, this was ‘the most amazing aircraft of our time’—the Firefly. 1

The designer and builder of this remarkable craft was Simon Black, hero of a series of children’s books written by Ivan Southall in the 1950s. Simon Black was an inventive genius, who combined his work as a motor mechanic with daring deeds in defence of country and empire. Together with Rex and his trusty navigator, Alan Grant, Simon piloted the Firefly above and beyond the frontiers of Australian imagining: into space, into Antarctica, even into China.

The Simon Black books were squarely fixed within the genre of boys’ adventure fiction, jostling with the likes of Biggles and Mettle in a manly contest of derring-do. 2 But there were other influences as well. Like his fictional hero, Southall served in the RAAF during the war, an experience reflected in Simon’s aerobatic exploits. Simon was, Southall later admitted, a ‘super me’. 3 The design of the Firefly obviously drew upon wartime developments in rocketry, although the image of the lone inventor manufacturing revolutionary marvels in his backyard shed was hardly new. As Andrew Ross notes, ‘the erector-set-inspired amateur inventor’ was a popular figure in the science fiction of the thirties, even as the growing domination of large corporate laboratories consigned the technological whiz-kid to economic obsolescence. The ‘inventor’s autonomy over the creative use of gadgetry’, Ross argues, ‘was an attractive alternative to the feeling of loss of mastery over technology to the new corporate technostructure’. 4 The adventures of Simon Black might have offered similar comfort as fifties Australia pursued rapid industrialisation, embracing the power of global capitalism.

But there was a familiarity too in the image of the frontier hero, lending his ingenuity and practical nous to the needs of national progress. Adaptability and improvisation were believed to run strongly through the Australian national character, bred of the hardship and isolation of bush life. 5 Simon Black represented the inventive Australian, the make-do bushman. Even as science was transforming the world, leaping beyond the ken of ordinary mortals, an Australian tinkering in his dilapidated bush shed could build a rocket plane to startle the experts. The resilient myth of the inventor-hero challenged the burgeoning authority of science, reasserting the value of experience over theory, practical knowledge over academic research.

On his very first mission, Simon Black rockets to the rescue of science when an eminent geologist, Stanley Castleton, mysteriously disappears in darkest New Guinea. Castleton, it is eventually revealed, ran afoul of evildoers while investigating a ‘luminous green fluid’ that might be ‘one of the most important revelations in the spheres of medical science and nuclear research’. After the requisite number of scrapes and surprises, Simon, Rex and Alan emerge triumphant, piloting the thankful scientist back to civilisation. As the Firefly nears home, Castleton sadly muses that while ‘lives of adventure still stretched ahead’ for Simon and Alan, he was too old and tired to continue. The scientist’s time was done, it was for men like Simon, men of action, to tackle new challenges, new dangers: ‘Young men fought with fists and guns and endless enthusiasm; Stanley Castleton fought with his mind’. 6 Even in the Atomic Age, it seemed the hopes of Australia rested with the sturdy virtues of the practical man.



Notes:

  1. Ivan Southall, Meet Simon Black, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1950.
  2. Stella Lees, and June Senyard, ‘Cold War, hot books: an analysis of boys’ adventure books published during the 1950s’, Journal of Australian Studies, no. 13, November 1983, pp. 3-17.
  3. Quoted in ibid., p. 15.
  4. Andrew Ross, Strange weather: culture, science and technology in the age of limits, London, Verso, 1991, pp. 125-7.
  5. Russel Ward, The Australian legend, paperback ed., Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 87-8.
  6. Southall, Meet Simon Black, p. 205.

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