A tribute to Les Carlyon



Australia is sad. Les Carlyon died last week.


I can imagine some of his colleagues and friends sitting at their keyboards wanting to write something, needing to write something, tears of sadness welling, feeling for the Carlyon family, burdened by the desire to do justice to him, and comforting themselves momentarily by a sip of whiskey, no ice, from a cheese spread glass. Then chortling at the memory of a Les moment, of insight, of dark humour, of triumph; reaching for one of Les’s books to find a line that somehow encapsulates him, and his view of the world, the night passing with the keys hardly touched, as one page read became a dozen, and then another story, and another. Until there was no whiskey in the glass. None in the bottle. Nothing left to comfort the obituarist but the nobility of Les’s words, the wisdom in his expressed understanding. Simply, people matter.


Many words have been written paying tribute to Les, words of respect, words of affection, words of gratitude, some (eventually) tapped out by those who knew him personally, some by those who didn’t, but knew him through his body of work, some by those in news rooms hearing of him for the first time.


I didn’t know Les personally. I met him a couple of times. But, no, I didn’t know him like that. Not well enough to bowl up to him at the races even though I wanted to. I would see him from a distance – somewhere around the mounting yard. He had smoker’s skin, the skin of bushies who could suck just enough calories out of a Craven A to get them through to tea time, and a distinctive brow. I recall thinking, once, when he was sporting longish hair, combed straight back, he had the ideal face to be a subject for one of those 1940s caricaturists. Sometimes he was with others, sometimes on his own. He was a lean-against-the-fence sort of bloke. I could imagine him leaning against the wall of a trench on the Western Front or a yard at the Dalby cattle sales or on the outside rail anywhere from Manangatang  to Flemington.


By then I had read him. And that’s how I got to know him. By his words. Like most others know him.


I heard of him late. I read him late. In the 1970s and `80s Les Carlyon was not a name I heard or saw in Queensland – although those Up North who sought out the southern papers (locals and expats) must have read him – and those who sought out fine racing writing too. That was my mistake.


When visiting Melbourne one time, I was talking to a friend, Bayden Findlay, who really knew racing. He raved about Les. He said I should read Chasing a Dream. I bought a copy of the thin hardback and sat down to read it. Les had me in an instant. The opening words of the Prologue read:


“John Steinbeck, who knew about these things, once said the craft of writing books made horse racing seem solid and stable. Here, then, is the ultimate folly: a book about racehorses and those who, like me, live in bondage to them. This bondage is itself a curious thing: one keeps volunteering for servitude.”


I folded the page over at the top corner.


And then a page further on:


“The great thing about racing in Australia is that it is rotten with democracy.”


Another folded corner.


But what happens when you feel you have to fold the corner one way for page ix and the other way for page x?


I got a 2B pencil.


Asterisks, vertical lines marking sections, notes. And I was on page 4.


‘The Rogue: a cult begins’ near the start of the book sealed it. I loved Vo Rogue and Vic Rail Les’s description (and discussion) of them were just so, so right. All gleaned from half an hour of “yarning down at Vo Rogue’s stall an hour after the Turnbull.”


Vic was explaining his simple methods while scooping up soggy chips from a cardboard cup.


Yes, his words captured Vic Rail, but it was the way that Les conveyed his respect for Vic. Not despite Vic’s eccentricities, but because of his eccentricities. He caught Vic’s freedom of spirit and in doing so he conveyed the sense that confidence in the stricture of convention is mere vanity. What do we know!


He also captured Vo Rogue. He really knew horses – their appearance, their nature, their character. He paid horses the respect they deserved. He loved them.


Of course people raved about Les! His words rolled like Vo Rogue rolled. And they had depth. He ruined the CUB Sportswriters awards by winning the first three years – 1996, 1997, 1998. Awards over. He was so good.


Still in Queensland, I looked for his words. I read them. New words. Collected old words. Books.


I read a good chunk of Gallipoli on a slow Turkish bus trip from Fethiye to Canakkele on the southern side of the Dardanelles and read the rest after visiting Gallipoli for the first and only time. I lived a few days in a state of heightened emotion, alert to the world. Les had nurtured my historical imagination, and my sense of being. I loved how he made his account about people. About who they were and where they came from. About their character. And the test of their character. About human folly. Arrogance. Vanity. Power and station. About courage. About leadership – some strong, some flimsy if not spineless. About respect. About love.


For me, Les’s Gallipoli sits alongside Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years as must-reads of Australian history and Australian life.


Gallipoli is typical of Les’s writing. It shows us he was a humble inquirer, observer, recorder. He was tough on some – those who probably deserved it. He could see through the crap. He could find those with heart, and encouraged many to find their heart.


His words broadcast a sense that every life is valuable – and must be valued. Every life has its own truth. Its own quiddity as poet Les Murray calls it.


There is no doubt that Les Carlyon’s did. His lot was to help us understand.


Vale Les Carlyon.


Read other pieces by John Harms HERE.


About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au. He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo13, Anna11, Evie10. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.


  1. Well played,JTH and I admit I’m not a follower of racing in general

  2. Yvette Wroby says

    Thankyou. Beautiful

  3. Bravo!

  4. Love it John. Les tutored cadet journalists and students undertakiing a journalism degree at RMIT in the early 80s. I was lucky enough to be selected into that cohort and privileged to have had some guidance and kind words from Les when I was learning how to put words together.

    He was definitely a “lean-against-the-fence-post” bloke – he would always be at the front of class leaning against the desk chain-smoking and imparting his writing wisdom with just the right economy of words. He was kind and encouraging and I think had a tiny soft spot for those of us from the bush.

    His legacy is a fine reflection of the man he was and the huge contribution he made to Australian writing and writers.

  5. Well played, JTH.
    As good a tribute to the great man as I have read.
    Vale, Les.

  6. Spot on JTH. First thing Monday morning in the 80’s for me was Les Carlyon in the Age. He made racing noble even when it wasn’t. And when it wasn’t he made it a poignant morality tale.
    He was the best of us.

  7. Like you, Harmsy, I’ve been to Gallipoli but made two day trips crossing from Canakkale each time.

    My understanding on how to pronounce the name of the Turkish town was confounded by Les Carlyon.

    One morning while on Jon Faine’s ABC programme Les was asked about his book ‘Gallipoli’

    He insisted on calling the town ‘Kanaka-lee’ rather than the ‘Charna-kahlee’ we were advised was the correct pronunciation. By Turkish people at the hotel we were staying at.

    Only a small point, I know, but one I’ve never forgotten.

  8. Hi Elijah. The ‘Ch’ pronunciation was the advice we got too. We stayed in a hotel there – the night before crossing the Dardanelles to visit the sites the hotel screened Gallipoli the movie and also the famous Chris Masters interviews of the Diggers which was a Four Corners program in the mid-80s. I have seen both again recently. Both stand up as fine pieces in my view.

    We were taken to Troy by a Turkish historian of ancient times, and to Gallipoli by a young Turkish historian. Both were outstanding.

  9. Dave Baker says

    Lovely piece J, Whilst I had a toe dipped in racing I enjoyed True Grit by Les (nearly as much as Memoirs of a Mug Punter) .
    Yes Gallipoli is a must read especially if you are privileged to make the sojourn to the peninsula. It brilliantly evokes the folly of the whole operation from go to whoa.
    Vale Les Carlyon

  10. Tess, I would love to have been in those lectures and tutes.

    “kind and encouraging” – what a compliment.

  11. Earl O'Neill says

    I discovered Les’ racing column in a Sunday paper around 1978. I’ve never had an interest in the sport of kings but read his column for the beautiful style. Gallipoli is a cracking read.
    Vale, Les.

  12. Anyone interested in racing should GOOGLE that old time classic SPIKE JONES AND HIS CITY SLICKERS with their famous race call – you know where BEEDLEBOMB is coming last until the winner is finally declared. Yes IT’S BEEDLEBOMB. Even today, it’s still great fun to listen to.

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