Keith Dunstan and his place in the Australian sun

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In time to avoid the grand final frenzy he famously deplored, Australia loses one of its great journalists, writers and voices — the inestimable Keith Dunstan. Contributing editor-at-large Tess Lawrence provides a touching tribute.

Keith Dunstan in 1987 (Image via Wikipedia)

KEITH DUNSTAN, as befitting the quiet man with the bow tie who co-founded the Anti-Football League, surely timed his departure from this mortal coil to avoid non-attendance at today's Grand Final, considered a defiant act of notorious calumny and civic treachery in this State of Victoria.

Ostensibly, anyone who is someone will be there barracking alongside anyone who is no-one, rubbing shoulders with couldabeens, wouldabeens, hasbeens and still mightbees.

There will be big noters, note-takers, notables, non-entities and notaries squiring Zegna-suited business moguls from the lower end of town, stuffing their corporate wallets with the takings of lost sweat dreams from punters big and small.

Certain privileged members, sponsors, cartels and coterie will man hug and butterfly kiss in corporate boxes and entertain politicians, civic leaders, socialites and social heavies.

They will be quarantined from the hoi-polloi to protect the Great Unwashed from infection and peptidal wave infarction.

In today's clash between two faux tribes, manufactured from the same unashamed processed commercial ingredients, laced with additives, humectants, hype and hyperbole, some attempt will be made to conjure up the nobility of what was once perceived as the Worker's Game.

Boys and men once trained, played, refereed and coached for the honour and glory of their Club and familial allegiance.

There was a time when transfers came out of a cereal packet and not a chequebook; when loyalty and respect were both earned and not bought; when kids had stars and not dollar signs in their eyes.

Supplements fell out of newspapers and were not injected into confused bodies and sometimes confused minds by clear-thinking proponents.

Pep talks not peptides inspired and motivated players; when players and coaches were seen and not Hird.

Decades earlier, Keith Dunstan saw the writing on the footy banner. The then Victorian Football League was beginning to wrest the hallowed game from the people and he despaired of it. And for it.

The VFL was to transmogrify into the Australian Football League, pilfering Keith's acronym in the doing so, making millions of silken purses out of the sow's ear and bladder.

In 1967, when Keith and eminent brother journalist on the then Sun News-Pictorial, Douglas Wilkie founded the real AFL, it was deemed an act of insurrection and insolence tantamount to a rebellion of Eureka Stockade proportions.

Founding secretary of the Anti-Football League Keith Dunstan burns a football at the MCG in 1972. (Image via

It was not only un-Victorian; it was un-Australian. It was an assault on Melbourne itself, where  Keith's internationally famed column, A Place in the Sun, first shone through Venetian Blinds.

And it was anti-establishment. OMG.

In those days, of the Victorian Football League (VFL), the four incestuous media pillars were the Sun News Pictorial, The Herald, Channel Seven and Radio 3DB. They were football incarnate. Only Keith Dunstan could have got away with it.

Dunstan's and Wilkie's AFL was in a league of its own. It was a League of Gentlemen. It was indeed a revolutionary act that surprised everyone by the enthusiasm with which Melburnians embraced it.

At one stage, the Anti-Football League had more members than the Collingwood Football Club!

If proof positive is needed of the esteem and affection in which Dunstan was held, you will find it in the paradoxical fact that despite putting the boot into football, in 1992 this favourite son was made  King of Moomba!

Crikey, Keith even wrote a history of the first 25 years of Moomba.

In due course, life and circumstance changed and interest and membership in the Anti-Football League waned. It was euthanased in 1997. But a decade later, in May 2007, riled by the reports of drug taking and other misdemeanours by footballers, Keith and his grandson Jack resurrected the AFL.

eith Dunstan with his grandson Jack, August 2011. (Photo: Neil Bennett / The Age)

Keith Dunstan not only found his place under Australia's sun, he found his way into dissecting and somehow replicating its collective psyche.

Somehow, Keith magically captured Australianism, even though to this day, we remain unsure and divided as to what that means.

His fine and incisive pen was like a stethoscope monitoring the heartbeat of the nation — its foibles, follies, idiosyncrasies and triumphs.

An astute historian and social commentator, he was closer to Studs Terkel than the likes of Samuel Pepys or Gore Vidal; his on-the-road travel writings more akin to Jan Morris than Jack Kerouac.

Within hours of his death, libraries of his prolific body of work appeared for sale on Ebay, many of them personally signed. Since then, listings seem to have further increased.

He would enjoy the irony in this and no doubt it would provoke an humorous column about the paradox of creative works increasing in value after the demise of their creators/authors.

With Keith's death from cancer, Australian journalism is one revered and respected elder down and the wider community, in the words of his daughter Kate, has lost a "gentle man and gentleman".

So many of us dearly loved him. Really loved him.

Writing from Dublin, IA contributor and journalist Angela Long said:
'RIP Keith. A major influence on me, and my desire to embrace journalism!!'

Phillip Adams (Image via[/caption]

Phillip Adams, who was on the board of Keith's AFL, described him as a 'lovely human'.

He was.
Like everyone in Melbourne I loved dear decent Keith.

No journo understood his community better.

He gave kind encouragement to a young columnist, we worked together on two of his books — and blew up footballs.

Compare him to the endlessly angry pundits of today ... and weep.

Weep we did. And do, Pip. I am weeping even as I write this.

In the funeral service booklet for Keith, another of our cultural luminaries, Barry Humphries, wrote:
'He remained as acute, gentle and generous of spirit as he ever was when I, a brash young actor and would-be satirist, first came across him.'

He was so supportive. He was generous with his vast contact book to those of us struggling to find a place from the shadows of obscurity.

He shared his place in the sun with us. He encouraged us. And encouraged us to remain true to one's self, as well as the reader.

In IA's early days, to support us and because he loved and practiced a rebellious spirit, he wrote an article on Melbourne's Grand Prix for this publication.

He was a master at seizing a topic and inter-weaving it with acute observations about politics and the human condition.

As in:
CAN you hear the Grand Prix cars from your place?

We can hear them mightily from Malvern; we can hear them brightly from Brighton, calamitously from Carlton, and even wildly from Williamstown and, as for South Yarra, the volume there is superb.

The distance the sound carries is amazing. I would like to make an experiment. If we lent the Grand Prix to Sydney, would we still hear the noise from there?Now the Sydney powers-that-be have mentioned they would love to have the race. So let’s give them the chance. Surely there’s a nice park that they wouldn’t mind desecrating for three months each year. Of course there is one available right in the city, Hyde Park. Maybe it is not as beautiful as our Albert Park, but it is delightfully central.

The Formula One things could whip down Elizabeth Street, turn left into Liverpool Street past the Museum, which would be wonderful for viewing. Then they could thunder up College Street to St Mark’s Cathedral and catch all the crowds coming out of Sunday Mass. From there they could angle into the Domain along Art Gallery Road through the Domain. Now that is where I would recommend they build the Pits.

But wait a minute, there’s a drawback. The NSW State Government is virtually bankrupt. There’s no way they could afford to lose $50 million a year, like we do. Hang on. Here’s another idea. Alice Springs would be the place.

It is beautifully flat. The weather is incredibly reliable. They could put down a track, all the grandstands, bridges, catering rooms and junk and not have to move them in and out every time. What’s more, in those wide open spaces it would be so much easier to give an accurate estimate of the crowds, something we have never been able to do in Melbourne.

Managing Editor, David Donovan said on our behalf:
IA was hugely honoured to have someone of the stature of Keith contributing to our website. And as a cricket and tennis player, I couldn't agree more with his Anti-Football League activism.

Keith will be sorely missed.

Keith was an activist, make no mistake.

Few people are aware that Keith Dunstan's links with (Sir) Keith Murdoch and the Herald and Weekly Times, stretch back to his father William, who was only 20 years old and already a Corporal when he was awarded the VC for his courageous actions on August 9th, 1915 at Lone Pine, Gallipoli.

Such heroism loomed large on the family's legacy.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="246"] Keith's father, William Dunstan (Image via Wikipedia)

After the horible Lone Pine experience, William went blind for nearly a year.

This excerpt from Wikipedia  is also quoted on some military sites and is deserving of reading in full to try and comprehend the predicament and courage of Dunstan, Tubb, Burton and fellow soldiers.
He was 20 years old and a Corporal in the 7th Battalion (Victoria), Australian Imperial Force during the First World War when he was awarded the VC for his actions on 9 August 1915, at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, Turkey: The enemy made a determined counter-attack on the centre of the newly captured trench held by a lieutenant (Frederick Harold Tubb), two corporals (Alexander Stewart Burton and Corporal Dunstan) and a few men. The enemy blew in the sand-bag barricade, leaving only a foot standing, but the lieutenant and the two corporals repelled the enemy and rebuilt the barricade. Twice more the enemy blew in the barricade and on each occasion they were repelled and the barricade rebuilt.

Dunstan was blind for almost a year after Lone Pine. He later achieved the rank of Lieutenant. Before the war, Dunstan had been a messenger boy in a draper's shop. After the war he became the general manager of Keith Murdoch's The Herald and Weekly Times newspaper group. He died 3 March 1957.

His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, Australia. In 1995 a Memorial to Dunstan was erected in Sturt St, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. The "Dunstan VC Club" at Puckapunyal is named in his honour. He is the father of prominent journalist and writer Keith Dunstan.

Three years ago in The Age, Keith the master storyteller wrote an honest, compelling and moving article about he and his siblings living in the shadow of their hero father.

Here is an excerpt:
NOW this is an admission that makes me feel ashamed. I have never marched on Anzac Day. This is no slur on the Anzacs. Anzac Day is now our true national day and our grandchildren understand it better than we did.

So why don't I march? It is a feeling of guilt. I spent three years in the RAAF, did pilot training, including a year in Borneo. But this was nothing. The real war took place in 1914-18. This was the time of real gallantry, of real suffering, when the pages of The Argus and The Age were filled with column after column of casualties.

My sister Helen was in the navy, the WRANs. We only found out recently that she had been doing secret code work. She received a medal, 65 years after the event. She has never marched. My brother Bill spent six years in the army and saw a great deal of action. But he hasn't marched either.

Keith Dunstan and grandson Jack Dunstan. (Image via Herald Sun)

The shadow of our father hangs over us all. We have on our wall a very large picture. It is dated June 9, 1916. The scene is the steps of Parliament House, Melbourne, looking exactly as it does today, with this difference: the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson, is presenting my father William Dunstan with the Victoria Cross.

Everyone is superbly turned out. The Governor-General is in a general's uniform. My father has highly polished leggings, polished boots and he is in the uniform of a lieutenant. But how young he is - he turned 21 only three months earlier and he was 20 when he won his VC.

They are all wearing black armbands. Four days earlier, Lord Kitchener had drowned. His ship went down on the way to Petrograd, sunk by a German torpedo.

Also in the picture are the Acting Prime Minister and Minister for Defence George Pearce, bowler hat on his head and a splendid gold watch chain across his stomach. Then there's a shadowy figure in the background - Dame Nellie Melba.

See what I mean ?

If there is anyone who has inherited Keith Dunstan's mantle in Melbourne, it is Lawrence Money; although any comparison between the two columnists is unfair to both.

Throughout the years, Lawrence maintained contact with Keith and last lunched with he and Marie, his intrepid partner in cycling and life, six weeks before Keith died.

Lawrence Money (Image via The Age)

Of the funeral service, at St George's Anglican Church in Malvern, Lawrence wrote in The Age:
Keith Dunstan dearly loved his wife Marie and he also loved her cooking. "When Marie made cakes for the church stall, dad would follow her all the way and immediately buy them back," daughter Kate Dunstan told his funeral service in Malvern on Friday. "He was simply and totally devoted to her."

The 64-year marriage of the Dunstans was a recurring theme as mourners at St Georges church heard something of the family side of the famous Melbourne wordsmith. It had been a marriage cunningly promoted by Keith's mother and her best friend as a match-making exercise.

"Never was an arranged marriage so successful," said Kate. "Dad was not only a gentleman, he was a gentle man. He didn't talk about his principles, he lived by them. If we did something wrong as children, punishment was irrelevant. Just knowing we had disappointed him was enough."

Among the huge congregation there was a noticeable smattering of bow-ties -- a Dunstan trademark -- and there was many a familiar newspaper face. They included former publisher Peter Isaacson: former editors Les Carlyon, Mike Smith, Bruce Guthrie, Leigh Stevens and Rod Donnelly; current Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden; former Melbourne Cricket Club chief John Lill; Dunstan's long-time colleague and cartoonist Jeff Hook; and one of Dunstan's favourite "ratbags", cartoonist and chef Peter Russell-Clarke.

There was, of course, much sadness but there were also many smiles for here was a writer who had gently tickled the funnybone of Victorians for as long as many could remember. In his columns in the Age, in his Batman's Melbourne page in the Bulletin magazine, in his 27 years writing A Place In The Sun in the Sun News-Pictorial -- and in around 30 books -- the indefatigable Dunstan wrote with a rare wit and knowledge. His last book, completed but yet to be published, is on the Kiwi shoe polish company. "When Keith became sick he offered to hand the job to someone else," said friend Kate Baillieu, "but they insisted they wanted Keith."

Son David Dunstan recalled the familiar sound of his father's typewriter hammering away at 5 in the morning, a craftsman at work. "He never really retired," said David, "there were always more books to write."

Keith Dunstan, son of Victoria Cross winner William Dunstan, was 88. Said David: “What a difference he has made to this staid old Melbourne town.”

Keith Dunstan with Lawrence Money

The week before, Lawrence wrote an article quoting from Keith's own words, found on his computer:
Keith Dunstan, droll master of words, the Don Bradman of Australian newspaper columnists, has died of cancer at 88 – but, true to his craft, he left a whimsical obituary ready to hit the presses. “Yes, he wrote it a couple of years ago,” said son David Dunstan.

So herewith, the late Keith Dunstan according to Dunstan: “Born in East Malvern in 1925 and started at Wadhurst, junior school of Melbourne Grammar, in 1932. A worried parent then decided to change course and put him in boarding school, Geelong Grammar.

“He served with the RAAF during World War II in Morotai and North Borneo. He was one of the RAAF's least successful pilots. In 1946 he started with the Sun News-Pictorial and worked as a correspondent in New York, London and Los Angeles. He had a long career as a columnist working with the Courier Mail, the Sun News-Pictorial, The Age and The Bulletin.

“In 1967, he started the Anti-Football League, which, although it failed to suppress football, ran for 30 years. In 1972, he was founding president of Bicycle Victoria. He and wife Marie rode bicycles across the US in 1976. He has written 30 books, some of them readable, including The Paddock That Grew, Knockers, and No Brains At All. Occasionally they sold.”

Dunstan, a self-effacing man with a unique talent, called his autobiographical book No Brains At All after a comment on his academic skills by a science teacher years before. But as a journalist he was outstanding. For many years he wrote a column a day – his famous A Place In The Sun (APITS, as he called it) Monday to Friday, a humorous feature illustrated by Jeff Hook on Saturdays and his Batman's Melbourne column in The Bulletin. He was gentle, polite and generously encouraging to those (including this writer) who aspired to the columnist's treadmill.

Through APITS, Dunstan became the voice of Melbourne, casting a laconic eye on the Yarra village's feats and foibles. It was an irony that did not escape him when the Victorian Football League went national and pinched the acronym of his own counter-movement AFL. In 1992 he was crowned King of Moomba and in 2003 he was inducted into the Melbourne Cricket Club Media Hall of Fame. He was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 2002.

Perhaps the best measure of his giant status as a Melbourne columnist was apparent several months after he finally departed APITS. Successor Wayne Gregson, bravely filling those giant shoes, was sitting at the APITS desk in the old Herald building when a school group toured through. “Over there,” said the commissionaire, “is the reporters area. And over there, the sub-editors who check the copy. And in here,” said the commissionnaire, gesturing towards columnist Gregson at his computer terminal, “this is where Keith Dunstan used to sit.”

Keith Dunstan is survived by wife Marie, four children and 13 grandchildren.

Keith Dunstan was back on his bike in 2010 (Photo by John Woudstra via The Age)

In his tribute to Keith on the Bicycle Network website, former CEO Harry Barber acknowledged:
Many journalists write to bring about change in the world. Keith Dunstan’s words changed the history of bike riding in Melbourne, and became part of cycling folklore. One of the founding fathers of Bicycle Network, Dunstan’s presence in the fledgling Bicycle Institute of Victoria as it was then known, added credibility and standing to the organisation.

In 1976, along with his intrepid cartoonist colleague Jeff Hook, Dunstan rode across the USA as part of the Bikecentennial celebrations. It would become the inspiration behind the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride and make bike riding part of the popular culture. Dunstan’s reports from the US ride in his Sun News Pictorial column A Place in the Sun attracted millions of readers. As did his later promotion of the Great Vic Bike Ride.

He was very influential and really made bike riding a normal, fun, sensible thing for everyone to do...

There was something boyish about Keith, who always reminded me of the English actor Kenneth More, who starred in the 1959 film, The Thirty Nine Steps.

There was about him a sense of the child within; a great wonderment with Life and I was lucky enough to interview him for my book, Les Adultes Terribles.

In our long conversations, Keith would sometimes say he was a believer and other times, not.

I do know this: sometimes in Life, one is lucky enough to come across a human being who imparts a sense of goodness and decency, as Phillip Adams says.

It was a great pleasure and privilege to meet you, Keith Dunstan, on The Great Journey and I thank you for letting me tag along for part of the way.

Thanks go to The Age columnist Lawrence Money for permission to republish excerpts from his articles.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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