Sometimes, even scribes like myself underestimate the enduring and unique charm of the written word. Selfishly take it for granted.
Then, on a sad day, we get a swift kick up the you know where when an absolute master of the craft is suddenly taken from us – as was Australia’s iconic Les Carlyon last week aged 76. I stress his age because it matches that of the demise of another of Australia’s iconic wordsmiths, Banjo Paterson.
Paterson was christened Andrew Barton but traded in those formal monikers as a tribute to his favourite pony. In a tribute to the nation he penned a treasure trove of poems, short stories and books celebrating life in the outback, the bravery of Commonwealth soldiers and the lyrics and music for Australia’s unofficial anthem, Waltzing Matilda.
“I have always admired his ability to explain in one sentence something for which others need 10 pages.”
Banjo Paterson died on February 5, 1941; Les Carlyon was born in June the following year. History will label them as blood brothers, despite no genetic connection.
This week I asked New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame member John Wheeler to explain his great and well-known admiration for Les Carlyon. The answer was succinct and to the point.
“It’s right here in one of his books I’m holding,” he said referring to the preamble promoting the seal of Carlyon excellence, using the words ‘always poignant, always incisive’.
“To that,” the man from the Naki said, “I would add I have always admired his ability to explain in one sentence something for which others need 10 pages. Also he was a genuine horseman, perfectly capable of providing a better description of Poetic Prince than I could myself. Just a wonderful wordsmith and bloke; absolutely the best.”
Before our conversation drifted to whitebait fritters and crayfish tails I felt impelled to share with John Wheeler my most telling Les Carlyon moment.
It was during a Cox Plate eve dinner in the 1980s where Les Carlyon was charged with proposing a toast in honour of Australia’s weight-for-age championship. At the time I was fully aware of his significant standing as a journalist, but I was taking him on trust as a raconteur.
To my lasting delight I was treated to a magic carpet ride into the very heart and essence of Australia’s thoroughbred racing world, the history of the great race and the significance of the Cox family which the race honours.
Somehow this slightly built, unobtrusive man magically moulded simple words into putty, bedecked them in gold plating and strung them together with a silken thread before serving them up with the dessert and port.
As he took his seat the room rose as one and delivered a standing ovation. Not a dry eye in sight.
Over the past few days countless admirers in the mould of John Wheeler will have reached to library shelves to enjoy tangible memories of his greatness. As a fellow journo, I was caught in the throes of searching for the reason he was such a paramount figure among our chosen craft.
The simplicity of the truth is almost embarrassing. The Les Carlyon modus operandi was to accept personal responsibility for being his own man and doing things his own way. His hidden gift was that his way happened to be better than anyone else’s.
Among the six books he authored were the best-seller Gallipoli, its companion publication The Great War, also True Grit, a salute to champions of the turf, and a Bart Cummings biography.
In keeping with his dedication to detail, he once flew to New Zealand to stand beside Sir Tristram’s grave and get into the required spirit to write about the stallion’s champion son Zabeel.
At just 21 he was a leader writer on Melbourne’s prestigious morning newspaper, The Age. By 33 he was the paper’s editor and subsequently editor-in-chief of rival publication the Melbourne Herald.
He won numerous literary awards, was a willing mentor who launched a raft of media careers, was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia, and was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame and the Australian Media Hall of Fame.
Legends of his ilk were never designed to rally behind the beat of a drum – Les Carlyon was born to be the drummer.