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Clune, Francis Patrick (Frank) (1893–1971)

by Julian Croft

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Francis Patrick Clune (1893-1971), by unknown photographer, 1930-33

Francis Patrick Clune (1893-1971), by unknown photographer, 1930-33

State Library of New South Wales, Original : P1/C (BM)

Francis Patrick (Frank) Clune (1893-1971), author, journalist and accountant, was born on 27 November 1893 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, son of George Clune, a labourer from Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Theresa Cullen. Educated in Sydney at St Colombkille's and St Benedict's Catholic schools, Frank grew up at Redfern and took a job as a newsboy. He left school at 14, and claimed to have worked as a messenger-boy in the government printer's office, to have run away to become an itinerant bush labourer and to have had twenty-five different jobs by the age of 17. After joining the United States Army in Kansas on 26 October 1911, he subsequently deserted and was a seaman when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 10 May 1915. Serving with the 16th Battalion at Gallipoli from 2 August, he was wounded in both legs five days later and evacuated to a hospital in Cairo; he returned to Sydney in November and was discharged on 29 March 1916. At Woollahra in a civil ceremony on 31 October that year he married a tailoress Maud Elizabeth Roy; they were divorced in 1920.

Employed as a commercial traveller, Clune married a 21-year-old saleswoman Thelma Cecily Smith on 9 May 1923 at the district registrar's office, Waverley; she was to appear in his columns as 'Brown Eyes' and to become the proprietor of an art gallery. At night he studied accountancy and in 1924 established a tax consultancy, registering Clune Accounting Systems Ltd in 1928. He lived at Vaucluse from 1930 and belonged to the New South Wales Golf Club. His adventures at sea, as a trooper in the American cavalry, at Gallipoli, bootlegging in Canada, touring Queensland in the chorus of an opera company, and as a mouse-trap salesman provided the basis of his first book, Try Anything Once (1933). It was an immediate success and sold tens of thousands of copies.

From 1933 to 1936 Clune developed the formula which he was to use for many other books: Rolling Down the Lachlan (1935) and Roaming Round the Darling (1936) were speedily-written accounts of his travels as a tax-consultant in western New South Wales and of an expedition to Coopers Creek, Queensland. His combination of historical detail, narratives of explorers and contemporary political observations found an eager market. Following the example of Ion Idriess, Clune used a rough-and-ready prose style and expressed his sense of nationalism. His travel books, again employing his trusted formula, covered Europe, the Pacific, the Middle East, Asia and North America. By 1952 he estimated that his twenty-three books had sold over a half a million copies.

Clune (and his supporters) took his writing seriously, seeing it as an expression of simple Australian virtues and unvarnished Australian speech. Others were more sceptical. Kenneth Slessor met him in Cairo in 1942 and wryly noted that Clune, although an honorary commissioner of the Australian Comforts Fund, spent most of his time arranging free travel and collecting guide books as sources for Tobruk to Turkey (1943); Clune donated the royalties (£750) to the fund. He 'left a very bad impression' on General Sir Thomas Blamey—as much for his self-conferred rank of major as for his 'irregular methods and indiscreet utterances' about the British 'only playing at war'. Blamey ensured that Clune was subject to military censorship and, when Clune managed to get to New Guinea in 1943 through the help of the U.S. Army, had him smartly returned to Australia.

With a strong sense of his public, Clune did not confine his enthusiasm for travel, adventure and history to books. When he had been auditioned, officials of the Australian Broadcasting Commission found that his 'voice is not all good', but from 1936 he badgered (Sir) Charles Moses (on a golf course) to arrange for him to give a series of radio talks. Clune wrote for newspapers and magazines, including Smith's Weekly and the A.B.C. Weekly, and continued to broadcast; his regular show on the A.B.C., 'Roaming Round Australia' (1945-57), boasted an audience of one million.

There were more critical responses to Clune's apparent insouciance with evidence when he wrote what purported to be orthodox history rather than travelogue. Starting with Dig (1937), an account of Burke and Wills, he worked his way through Australian history, writing accounts of bushrangers, 'crooks' and other romantic figures. The Viking of Van Diemen's Land (1954), its narrative full of action and dialogue, was thought to have more in common with historical novels than history; Clune and his collaborator P. R. Stephensen were taken to task for passing off conjecture as fact in the life of Jorgen Jorgenson. The book had come from notes which Clune had made over eighteen years and from the work of researchers employed on contract, and was written up in a dramatic manner. With its impressive bibliography, it illustrates Clune's strengths and weaknesses: an ability to ferret out information, but a desire to embroider it. Nevertheless, in books such as Dig and Wild Colonial Boys (1948), where he took care, he handled complex narrative and evidence comparatively well.

While his defects as a historian and a literary stylist are obvious, Clune's readability and his capacity to sound like an enthusiastic representative of the ordinary traveller brought him wide popularity. He wrote in a pre-television era when men, in particular, read for entertainment and vicarious adventure. As he said in the first number of his short-lived Frank Clune's Adventure Magazine (1948), 'We don't want stories of snoopy sex, written by anaemic lounge lizards and pub-crawlers. Action is the password to these pages. This is reading for men with red blood in their arteries'.

Although his fifty-ninth (and last) book appeared in 1968, he had continued to practise as a tax consultant, in partnership with his elder son from about 1959. (Sir) William Dargie and (Sir) William Dobell painted portraits of Frank Clune and he bought examples of their work, as well as paintings by other artists. Dobell's portrait emphasizes the bluff, steel-coloured, short-cropped hair, and the energy, confidence and humour in his eyes. Clune was appointed O.B.E. in 1967. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 11 March 1971 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was buried with Catholic rites in South Head cemetery. The travel books remain valuable social records and the histories, although contentious, gave rise to some Australian mythologizing; Jimmy Governor (1959) was the inspiration for Thomas Keneally's novel, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972). The portraits of Clune are held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Adamson, Frank Clune (Melb, 1943)
  • K. Slessor, The War Diaries of Kenneth Slessor (Brisb, 1985)
  • ABC Weekly, 23 Dec 1939, p 8
  • People (Sydney), 12 Apr 1950, p 21
  • Walkabout, 1 Mar 1953, p 40
  • Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), 3, nos 2 and 3, 1954, pp 28, 52
  • Biblionews, 8, no 2, Feb 1955, p 4, no 4, Apr 1955, p 11, no 7, July 1955, p 22
  • Clune papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Clune files, especially SP 1558/2/0 box 36 and 244/1/463 (National Archives of Australia)
  • F. Clune, manuscripts and working papers of several unfinished books (University of New South Wales Library)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Julian Croft, 'Clune, Francis Patrick (Frank) (1893–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clune-francis-patrick-frank-9769/text17263, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 April 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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