Fairfax newspapers self-appointed defence expert Paul Daley has a potential best selling, but controversial, book called Beersheba about World War I out on the market in time for Father’s Day. In doing so he has joined the pantheon of Anzac legend bards, of which legendary newsman Les Carlyon is the Zeus, God of Gods.
The Anzac legend has become a literary goldmine for Australian writers and journalists in the past few decades. To their credit they have preserved a slice of Australian history that might have been lost with the passing of a whole generation of war veterans. Some have focused on World Wars I and II, sidestepping Vietnam completely.
At the top of the Anzac legend chroniclers list sits Carlyon, an award winning journalist. Born in 1942 Carlyon, in an extraordinary feat, went onto become editor of both major Melbourne daily newspapers, The Herald Sun and The Age, which sit diametrically opposed to each in their politics. He is described as the “Damon Runyan”, an American 19th century newsman, of Australian journalism.
His books, Gallipoli and The Great War, have been hailed as both critical masterpieces and commercial successes in military history. This is all the more remarkable when you consider he is not a trained historian but an old fashioned newspaperman, horse racing writer, turned military expert. He is also a board member of the Australian War Memorial, considered holy ground by war veterans and established by Carlyon’s journalism hero, Charles Bean, the main proponent of the Anzac legend.
In a book review of The Great War, Garrie Hutchinson, the anti-Vietnam War activist turned Anzac legend preacher, believes that Carlyon has outdone the master, Charles Bean, in retelling the Anzac story:
“Carlyon has walked the terrible beauty of the battlefields of France and Belgium and orchestrated the stories for a new generation. Bean accommodated the Australians on the Western Front in four stout volumes totalling some 4000 pages - too thick perhaps with detail: just about every casualty is accorded a footnote.
“But no one except the truly dedicated reads Bean today. Carlyon gives us the essential story in lucid prose over 800-plus pages.” (Sydney Morning Herald, November 13, 2006).
A reporter with the left-leaning The Age newspaper wrote in gushing terms (“Carlyon, a character-driven gem”, by Gary Tippet, December 4, 2004):
“Even among journalists, who often are rated down below the used car salesmen, venal politicians and annoying telemarketers, there are occasional living treasures. Or, if you like, one or two pearls among the swine.
“One such jewel, according to strong consensus among his colleagues and - more importantly to him - his readers, would certainly be long-time reporter, turf writer, editor, author and educator Les Carlyon.”
From the other side, the late Lyle Turnbull, then managing editor of the Herald & Weekly Times (publisher of the Herald and The Sun), wrote of Carlyon in 1982:
“First of all, he can write; he has worked at all levels from reporter to editor, and has proved his skills to his peers; he has objectivity, but does not lack the right passions; he is perceptive; yet his ego does not get in the way of those perceptions, a quality not universally to be observed in the newspaper business.’’ (Quoted in Les Carlyon - 2004 by Andrew Rule - Melbourne Press Club citation for award.)