1925 - 2013 | VIC | Columnist, sports writer
Dunstan was one of Australia's most durable columnists. For 30 years, from 1958, his daily column 'A Place in the Sun' was almost an institution in the Sun News-Pictorial. Earlier he wrote a column for the Brisbane Courier-Mail, and later another for The Bulletin under the pseudonym "Batman". Dunstan, son of William Dunstan VC, joined the Herald and Weekly Times, in 1946 after service in the RAAF. He wrote whimsically and well about cricket, and became renowned for his cycling exploits and his Anti-Football League. His many books included the autobiographical No Brains at All. He won the Melbourne Press Club's inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.
By the time Keith Dunstan cleared his desk for the last time at the old Sun News-Pictorial in Flinders Street he had been writing his famous column, A Place In The Sun, for three decades. Sun scribe Wayne Gregson stepped gingerly into those giant shoes but the legend hung heavily. When a commissionaire led a school group through the building six months later they stopped behind the APITS desk. “See in there,” said the commissionaire, gesturing in Gregson’s direction, “that’s where Keith Dunstan used to sit.”
Yes, Dunstan was a legend but he remained a modest man to the end. When he died of cancer in September 2013, son David found a self-effacing obituary that his father had left behind. Stuff like “he was one of the RAAF’s least successful pilots” and “he has written 30 books – occasionally they sold”. Barry Humphries, in a tribute to his old friend, remarked: “Keith remained as acute, gentle and generous of spirit as he ever was when I, a brash young actor and would-be satirist, first came across him.”
In fact, Dunstan was a writing machine whose typewriter, his children recalled years later, could be heard from 5 every morning, tapping away in his study. For many years Dunstan turned out the equivalent of a column a day – his APITS column Monday to Friday, a Saturday feature with Jeff Hook and his weekly column in The Bulletin magazine which, because it was in the opposition Packer camp, ran under the name “Batman’s Melbourne”.
Dunstan’s marathon innings in journalism –he was still writing at 88 – began surreptitiously. His father, Victoria Cross winner William Dunstan, was general manager of the Herald and Weekly Times but was not keen on his son entering the newspaper trade. However in 1946 Keith applied directly to the Herald editor-in-chief Archer Thomas and landed a job. When William Dunstan found out he was furious. “I’ll tell you what will happen to you,” he roared. “You’ll finish up as a sub-editor, working late at night, bored out of your mind and on miserable wages”. The war hero was way off the mark. His son was destined to become the Don Bradman of Australian newspaper columnists, his APITS column recording the life and times of a fast-expanding Melbourne for 27 years. Dunstan cast his whimsical eye over everything from architecture – he introduced the UGH (UnGodly Horror) awards for offensive design – to sport, founding the Anti-Football League (AFL) as a protest at the near-insane devotion to Australian Rules in the southern capital. It was supreme irony when the Victorian Football League went national and was rebadged as the Australian Football League with the same AFL acronym.
Dunstan dreamt up all manner of stunts to brighten up his daily offering. In 1983 he filled a column by playing a Hoover vacuum cleaner in a satirical orchestral performance at the Victoria College of the Arts (Fred Parslow played a floor polisher). They played the Grand Festival Overture, pricking the pomposity of the genre, with Dunstan complaining later that his instrument had had only three notes: “Low, medium and shaggy”.
In 1964, during a public transport strike, Dunstan borrowed a Malvern Star bicycle and tried pedalling to work as a stunt for the next day’s column. He was astonished to find he arrived earlier than normal and thus began a love affair with two-wheelers that lasted the rest of his life. He co-founded the Bicycle Institute of Victoria the same year and by the time he died, Melbourne was one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world.
Dunstan’s career as a columnist can be traced back to a stint as a HWT foreign correspondent, first in New York and then in London where his reports on cricket, one of his passions, were noticed by Colin Bednall, editor of Brisbane’s Courier-Mail. Bednall hired Dunstan to write his paper’s daily column, Day By Day. “He thought anyone who could write about anything as odd as cricket,” recalled Dunstan, “should be able to write a column.” However, Bednall quit during the Dunstan family’s five-week voyage back to Australia and the tyro columnist felt obliged to ask editor-in-chief Ted Bray if he still had a job. “He told me that if I didn’t come, they’d sue me,” said Dunstan. After entertaining Brisbane for four years Dunstan – with wife Marie and four children – moved to Melbourne to be closer to his widowed mother. He was hired by the HWT to take over APITS, the column that had appeared in The Sun News-Pictorial since its first edition in September 1922. Dunstan made it his own.
While most of Keith Dunstan’s career was spent in the knockabout newspaper era when (mostly male) journalists smoked, drank and lived hard, he remained both a gentle man and a gentleman. When other wordsmiths were heading for the pub Dunstan would be crafting his prose – or heading home to his family. Such was his marital devotion that he would refuse any after-hours invitation that did not include Marie. It had been a romance carefully plotted by Keith’s mother and her best friend – and it lasted 64 years. “Never was an arranged marriage so successful,” says daughter Kate. Dunstan, OAM, was a journalist of energy, integrity and creativity. “He didn’t talk about his principles, he lived them,” says Kate. “If we did something wrong as children, punishment was irrelevant. Just knowing we had disappointed him was enough.”
Lawrence Money is a Fairfax journalist who has twice won the Melbourne Press Club Quill for Best Columnist/Blogger, an award named after Keith Dunstan following his death.
Courtesy of News Limited/Newspix.
No Brains At All, An Autobiography, Keith Dunstan, Viking, 1990.
The Paddock That Grew: The Story of the Melbourne Cricket Club, Keith Dunstan, Cassell Australia, 1977.
No Brains on Tuesday, Keith Dunstan, Schwartz and Wilkinson, 1991.
Knockers, Keith Dunstan, Wilkinson Books, 1992.