‘‘The trouble with Les Carlyon is that it’s impossible to turn a line about him – or anything else – that he couldn’t do twice as well in half the time,’’ Andrew Rule wrote in tribute to his fellow journalist, also war historian and chronicler of the turf, who died in March last year.
Writing about writers who have died is indeed a melancholy and frustrating task, because they could do it so much better themselves, if modesty had not prevented them. But the turn of the year is nevertheless a good time to look back at the writers we have lost and the work they leave behind.
There have already been many tributes to Clive James, and deservedly so. I can’t think of many other writers who have shone in so many fields: poetry, memoir, fiction, essays, journalism, criticism. His caustic television reviews in Britain’s Observer newspaper inspired me to fumble through my own early attempts at reviewing. And then he went on to star in the medium he reviewed so well. He was a stupendously sharp, witty, charming clown who sent everybody and everything up, including himself; but he could also be serious and moving, especially about his approaching death.
Although Les Murray didn’t have James’ breadth of knowledge or his performance skills, I believe he surpassed him as a poet. The New York Times described him as Australia’s unofficial poet laureate, which is an apt line: everything about Murray was unofficial. We will also miss Andrew McGahan, who has left us his last novel, The Rich Man’s House, a thriller about an evil tycoon.