1942 - | VIC | Reporter, editor and historian
Carlyon is universally admired as a superlative descriptive writer. He has been a reporter, editor, historian, educator and mentor. But above all he is a gifted storyteller, combining elegant prose with a laconic irreverence and biting analysis. He was briefly editor of The Age and editor -in-chief of The Herald. He shone as a turf writer and war historian. He quietly mentored a generation of Victoria's best journalists, won two Walkleys and is the only journalist to receive Lifetime Achievement awards from both the Walkley Foundation and the Melbourne Press Club. In 2014, he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia.
The trouble with Les Carlyon is that it’s impossible to turn a line about him – or anything else – that he couldn’t do twice as well in half the time. Not that Les would ever sing his own praises. He has published probably two million words over five decades in which any reference to himself is as scarce as mistakes or clumsy phrases.
A lesser writer than Carlyon, and there are many, once wrote of him that he “has the sweetest pen”. If “pen” means a soft-lead pencil and a worn keyboard then that’s perfectly true. Words flow from it in a smooth stream, as natural and pure as a mountain spring. Even his handwriting looks as elegant on paper as a stanza of poetry – and that tells you about the writer. He wants words to look good. They should “sing off the page”, he says.
Of course, Les will tell you he has to refine every sentence until it is as clear as that pane of glass that George Orwell says writers must polish for readers to see through. You believe that for a while – right up until you see something he has written on deadline. Then it dawns: he’s just as good when the pressure’s on and time is short. It pains him to produce anything less than his best, from shopping list to military history.
When Les gave a eulogy for his fellow artist Roy Higgins in early 2014, he said: “No-one could bring so much art to desperation”. He was describing how cool “Professor” Higgins was in the helter skelter of riding a tight race finish. That line could describe his own writing: few journalists bring so much class to urgency as Les does. He delivers the right words, the right length, right on time.
Carlyon went to Tasmania after the Port Arthur massacre and wrote what he saw as he walked the killing ground. He watched Princess Diana’s death unfold, as did the rest of the world, and in a few hours wrote a piece that still resonates.
He wrote perhaps the definitive 50th anniversary piece on Hiroshima. He has written about Bradman and Blainey, Patrick White and Teddy Whitten, Muhummad Ali and Bob Santamaria, Kerry Packer and Clive James and those great stayers Kingston Town, Cliffy Young and Bart Cummings. And about business and politics, sport and war.
The professional Carlyon is a watcher and listener; he’s as intent on catching a likeness as a courtroom sketch artist is, then slips away to write those cool, clear words. No matter who wins and loses, the story comes first and no one does it better.
Not everyone touched by genius is as generous as Les is: he has guided a generation of journalists who seek his advice. For them, he is a yarn spinner and conversationalist, mentor and coach – especially if his callers stay up between late evening and dawn, as he does.
If writing brilliantly and helping others write better were all Carlyon had achieved in more than 50 years of journalism, it would be enough. But the restless talent that made him a leader writer at 21 and editor of The Age at 33 lured him back from writing and lecturing to be editor-in-chief of the Herald & Weekly Times in the 1980s. The spell in Mahogany Row got him ready for his greatest achievement – apart from his family, which now extends to a flock of grandchildren.
In early 1998 Carlyon went to Gallipoli, weeks before the growing number of young Australian pilgrims got there for Anzac Day. The powerful piece he wrote evolved into an extraordinary and extraordinarily successful book, Gallipoli. Its success led in turn to a monumental work, The Great War. In a conflict that convulsed the world and changed the course of history, he found a subject worthy of his ability and produced best sellers that were critically acclaimed.
Few write so distinctively and so truly that their work doesn’t date and can never be mistaken for someone else’s. Pull Carlyon’s story file as far back as the 1970s and you find old friends that haven’t aged, as satisfying in the re-reading as they were the first time. Every May you remember his lyrical description of steeplechasers streaming down the hill under the pale winter sun in the Warrnambool Grand Annual. Each Spring Carnival echoes with his words about the Melbourne Cup and its cast of characters, on two legs and four.
Carlyon writes everything he tackles with grace, wit and verve. About racing – meaning horses and people, not “the industry” – he writes with something like love, though this does not blind him to its faults.
To read his pen pictures of the dawn rituals of the stable and training track is to be there, to smell “straw and wet horse hair, sweet hay and sour urine, and the cattle dog on the chain”. Hard bitten trainers and scallywag track riders, whose idea of professional analysis is to grunt “He went good”, know just how right he gets their world. Like the best poets, he finds words for things the rest of us feel but can’t quite say.
At the time of writing, it’s nearly twenty years since Les published a collection of racing pieces, True Grit, which has hardly been out of print since – a publishing phenomenon in a market where anthologies vanish like last week’s form guide.
His stories are wise and witty: often funny, never corny; often touching, not cloying. Holding it together is the insight that comes from growing up around horses and horsemen near Elmore in northern Victoria, observing what he calls racing’s Closed Society. He recalls the country-town Australia of his childhood with affection but, like his contemporary Roy Higgins, escaped it young. Some talents need a bigger canvas.
As a reviewer once noted, Carlyon nods to his favourite writers – Twain, Liebling, Runyon, Red Smith and Joe Palmer – but none did racing with more authority than he does. He matches the best American and British columnists but can spin a line in hyperbole and dry observation that’s as Australian as gum trees and Steele Rudd.
He once wrote that, as a youngster, he thought writing was a puzzle to be solved – “which of course it isn’t”. He was paying tribute to Tolstoy and Henry Lawson in an admiring piece about that fine Australian author Peter Temple. When Tolstoy describes a Cossack village in a few taut sentences, or Lawson sketches a lonely bush selection, or Temple a tired Fitzroy pub, none does it better than Carlyon describing a race field at Stony Creek or a battlefield on the Somme.
Few carry the burden of talent so lightly. Few temper perfectionism so well. And no one champions so heroically the creative powers of black coffee and tobacco. Words like “hero” and “champion” have been debased by counterfeits but in journalism Les Carlyon is the genuine article.
“We need them, these genuine heroes. We can look up to them. We can pretend that, if the circumstances arose, we could be like them – all the time knowing damn well we couldn’t”.
Nice line? Les wrote it … about someone else, of course.
Andrew Rule is a Hall of Famer who has worked at each of Melbourne's daily newspapers as a sports and crime reporter, columnist, feature writer and investigative reporter. He became deputy editor of the Sunday Age in 2007 and returned to the Herald Sun as associate editor in 2011. He is the only Victorian to twice win the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year award.
Courtesy of Fairfax.
Les Carlyon with Peg Perkin, 1993.
Courtesy of News Corp/Newspix.
True Grit, Les Carlyon, Mandarin, 1996.
The Great War, Les Carlyon, Pan MacMillan. (Gideon Haigh review).
Gallipoli, Les Carlyon, Pan Macmillan, 2001.