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Tuesday, 2 April 2019
Page: 14453

Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongLeader of the Opposition) (14:37): In the weeks since Les Carlyon's passing, colleagues, proteges and admirers have all sought to find the words to say what he meant to them and our country. But, in truth, for Les, there will never be the right words. John Harms is a great sportswriter himself. He recalled the first time he picked up a copy of Chasing a Dream. A phrase caught his eye on the first page, so he folded the corner down to mark the place. He then turned to page 2 and realised he couldn't fold the paper both ways. So John went to work with a pencil—there were asterisks and square brackets—marking sections and making notes. I think that sums up Les Carlyon: magic in every sentence, a gem in every paragraph. He never spent a sentence in vain. There was artistry and craftsmanship in equal measure. There was nothing 'for the sake of it', though; there was no ornamentation in his writing.

I am lucky enough to be the member of parliament for Flemington and Moonee Valley race tracks. And Les wrote as he liked to see the horses raced: 'gamely, for speed, not overburdened by the science of strategy'—just the right words. All his working life, Les possessed a brilliant knack for finding the right words—and a visceral loathing for the wrong ones. For example, he couldn't stand it when people spoke of racing as an industry. After all, he'd never heard anyone on a train home from Flemington talking about what a great day they'd had at the industry. As he put it: 'Packaging is an industry, yet no-one stands alongside the production line to applaud a cardboard box. No-one suggests a cardboard box has character.' Really, that was the essence of Les's work: character—the character of unfashionable, unstoppable winners like Vo Rogue; the character of Galleywood, who rose from his fall at the Warrnambool Cup like Lazarus on four legs; the character of wily trainers like Vic Rail or the brilliance of Bart. Les said that if Bart Cummings ever took up fishing, the trout would leap from the water to impale themselves on naked hooks. He wrote of the character of famous racers—of Kingston Town's third Cox Plate: down past the school, around the tight corner, moving in a few strides 'from has-been to immortal'—and through it all the character of our country.

Great disservice is often done by people who compare sport to war, and in fact it takes a very special gift to write about both. Les was a great historian for the same reasons he was a wonderful sports journalist. He didn't blunder off into lazy cliches or indulge in cheap sentimentality. He didn't write backwards from a conclusion that he'd already formed. Les was an observer, a student of behaviour, someone who understood heart and passion and luck and triumph and disaster. He could see a deeper truth and share it with us all, whether it was watching Bonecrusher move into the gates, eavesdropping on Bob Hawke and Andrew Peacock exchanging pleasantries at the mounting out on derby day, or bringing to light the letters and diaries of diggers long gone, finding the humanity amongst the unimaginable death and devastation of Gallipoli and the Western Front, deriving for us some sense of what Australia truly lost on those battlefields and what we might yet gain.

I remember in 2016, when we were in this House marking the centenary of Australia's first battles on the Western Front, I rang Les and asked if he would look at the draft of some remarks I was preparing. I sent it through and waited with some anticipation for some of Les's vivid prose. He rang me up soon after and said: 'Thanks for that, Bill. It reads well. The Western Front was probably the worst tragedy Australia experienced. You might want to give some thought to all those healthy young men who came home missing a limb or disfigured or with their lungs ruined by gas.' That was it. For me, that was Les Carlyon: simple, profound observations and then another layer of insight, a different perspective, a more compelling angle—the right words. His words will always be with us, and for that we should be grateful. May he rest in peace.