by Sasha Uzunov
Online opinion,
Tuesday, 11 August 2009

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.)

The prose that Carlyon uses in the book Gallipoli makes you feel as though you are actually there. Not many writers without actual combat experience are capable of such empathy with their subject.

On April 25, 2005, the 90th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, Carlyon was interviewed by legendary war reporter Peter Harvey, the man with the trademark gravel voice, on television current affairs program 60 Minutes. Carlyon summed up the Anzac legend as thus:

“Every nation needs a foundation myth and Gallipoli turned out to be ours. These men who went ashore on the wrong beach in a hopeless position and are literally caught defending cliff ledges, up on escarpment there and somehow they endured, they hung on there when they had no right to for eight months.”

Harvey, who spent two years as a reporter for Newsweek magazine in Vietnam but did not serve as a soldier there, in a sombre and moving manner said: “Les Carlyon wrote the book Gallipoli, which should be compulsory reading for every Australian student.”

Harvey concludes his moving sermon on the Mount of Gallipoli: “It’s been said that Captain James Cook didn’t discover Australia, Australia found itself at Gallipoli. Don’t forget – Australia had only been a nation for 14 years. We were just into our teens, like so many of the boys who lied about their age to get here.”

Considering such passion and such empathy for the Anzac Legend, Carlyon was asked why he had never volunteered to fight in the Vietnam War (1962-72). But he has declined to answer despite numerous polite requests.

Tom Hyland, a journalist at The Sunday Age newspaper, hints that it is sacrilegious or even misguided to ask such a question of Carlyon. Those who do so, according to Hyland, are on some “curious crusade”.

Carlyon, in his unique position of having been editor of both major newspapers remains a force to be reckoned with. If Carlyon is the Damon Runyon of Australian journalism, then surely Martin Flanagan and Patrick Lindsay are Australia’s equivalent to the American Will Rogers – famous for his homespun humour.

Flanagan, born in 1955 and a senior writer with The Age newspaper, sees himself as a “Tasmanian yarn teller”. Time Magazine in 2003 described him as a “legend of Australian journalism”. Flanagan has co-authored a book with his father, Arch, a World War II prisoner of the Japanese, called The line: a man’s experience; and a son’s quest to understand.

The man responsible for updating the Anzac legend by writing about veterans from recent conflicts is Patrick Lindsay, former TV reporter and author of books on World War I, Fromelles and The Spirit of Gallipoli; and World War II, The Essence of Kokoda. His The Spirit of the Digger book brings the Anzac legend up to date with accounts of Australian soldiers under fire in recent conflicts such as East Timor and Iraq and has become a best seller.

Lindsay, in that typical Australian manner for blunt honesty, much appreciated by war veterans, tells of his own awakening to the importance of the Anzac legend:

“My old man fought in the Middle East and New Guinea and Borneo in WWII. My grandfather fought in the Boer War and WWI for the Kiwi (New Zealand) army and in WWII for the Australian army.

“I was in one of the last call-ups for Vietnam but my number didn’t come up. At that stage I was just a young dope who didn’t think about much besides cricket, football and girls. By the time I woke up to the importance of the sacrifices made by our Diggers down the years I was too old to be of any use to them, even if I’d been good enough to become one. So now I’m content to try to keep their stories alive.”

No list of Anzac legend chroniclers would be complete without mentioning the silver haired, dapper John Hamilton, author of Gallipoli Sniper, and the late but great Peter Charleton and Patsy Adam-Smith. All three are rarities in that they actually served in uniform: Hamilton in the Navy, while Charleton balanced a career with being an Army Reserve officer in command of a semi-regular infantry battalion; and Adam-Smith in the Women‘s Army during World War II. Adam-Smith was a remarkable woman ahead of her time.

The questions now remain will Paul Daley replace Les Carlyon as the new Zeus? Will Tom Hyland become Hermes, the messenger of the gods? Should all correspondence intended for these three be addressed to Mount Olympus?