Born in northern Victoria in 1942, he began his career as a cadet reporter with the Sun News-Pictorial (now The Herald Sun), was editor of The Age at the tender age of 33, and in the early 1980s, having spent time as a visiting lecturer in journalism at RMIT, became editor-in-chief of the Herald and Weekly Times.
Though he was considered a fine editor and shaper of young journalists, it was always the words that defined him.
A straight-talking man, he declared himself opposed to political correctness because it killed curiosity and “says, in effect, you’ve got to look at the world through a keyhole, not a big bay window”.
Carlyon wrote about everything: often horses, which he loved; sometimes war and, always, people.
He was the author of Gallipoli, a history that generated an enormous billowing of renewed interest in that old military disaster at the start of this century. He followed it with the magisterial The Great War, about the horror of the Western Front, for which he won the Prime Minister’s Prize for History in 2007.
His words on paper seemed effortless. They weren’t, of course: great writing hides great effort. Carlyon didn’t want you to know about the sweat. He insisted that the reader shouldn’t notice the writer.
“It’s simply to portray what you saw, what you heard, what you smelled,” he said.
Les Carlyon loved the race track, the dew on the turf at a Flemington dawn, the fine lines of thoroughbreds, the snorting power of tonnes of horseflesh throwing themselves towards a winning post. And he knew and watched with the keen eye of an artist the characters of the track: the spivs, the swells, the winners, the losers and those who, like him, were there for the appreciation, the near adoration, of horses.
He immersed himself like few others in the subjects that took his fancy. He spent seven weeks walking Gallipoli, breathing its dust in sunshine and shivering among trenchlines during a snowstorm, before setting to the job of writing about it.
And once he flew to New Zealand to sit by the grave of a stallion, Sir Tristram, that had been buried standing up. He wanted to feel its spirit to assist him in writing about the stallion’s son, the great Zabeel, a prodigious sire.
Another great man of Australian journalism, Harry Gordon, gone now too, once said of Carlyon: “He’s been called Australia’s Damon Runyon, but that tag is far too limiting to do him justice. Certainly his turf stories are usually character-driven gems. But read him on Anzac Cove, or Bradman, or Ted Whitten, or any part of the essence of this country. He writes with gritty elegance.”
Carlyon, a modest fellow who never much cared for frippery, would, you might imagine, have approved. Gritty elegance.
Two perfect words that summed up the man and his life’s work.
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.