Les Carlyon Literary Prize at the Australian War Memorial: $10 000 prize for first-time authors

We missed this earlier when it was announced in Anzac week, but here are the details. The prize will be awarded biennially for an author’s first book or major publication relating to Australian military history, Australian social military history, or war history, with entries open to works of fiction and non-fiction published in 2018–20. Entries close on 30 June.

Les Carlyon AC died in 2019 after a long and distinguished career as a journalist and author. He was a long-term member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial. When the refurbished First World War galleries opened at the Memorial in February, 2015, Carlyon gave a speech which included these paragraphs:

It is hard to under-estimate the place of that conflict in Australia’s story. It was perhaps not quite the nation-building event that some claim for it. Rather it was one of many. We had done some fine nation-building in the thirteen years after Federation.

We had created a unique society – the best of the British heritage but without the feudal hangovers. Ahead of the rest of the world we gave women the vote and the right to stand for Parliament. We introduced the secret ballot. We had a Labor Government in 1904, twenty years ahead of Britain. We said there had to be a minimum wage. We said there was something honourable about the self-made man.

We didn’t invent mateship, but we had developed a peculiar version of our own, based largely on the truism that it was just about impossible to survive in the bush without mates. The Great War interrupted those splendid beginnings, checked the creative tide. It became the worst trauma in Australian history, and still is.

At the time of Carlyon’s speech, the Memorial was running the slogan, ‘Every nation has its story. This is ours‘. That is, the single story told at the Memorial. Carlyon clearly had a broader and more sophisticated view than that.

Carlyon also said this in the same speech:

Peggy Noonan became famous as the speechwriter for President Reagan. The second-most famous speech she wrote for him was for an anniversary of the Normandy landings. When she was drafting the speech White House staffers kept coming up to her saying: “It’s got to be like the Gettysburg address – it’s got to make people weep.” She tired of people telling her this and eventually rounded on one of them and said: “The Gettysburg address doesn’t tell you to weep – it tells you to think.

That, I believe, is the wonderful thing about these new galleries, their overarching virtue – they make you think.

After a period when too many of the Memorial’s offerings have been marketed as ’emotional’ it is timely to recall Les Carlyon’s words. Perhaps their spirit will find its way into the entries for and the judging of the prize bearing his name.

David Stephens

1 June 2020



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