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On Air.

On Air

Author: Mike Carlton

Publisher: William Heinemann Australia, 2018

ISBN: 978 0 85798 780 8

Hardback, 550 pages

Price: $49.99

"Say your prayers and beware the daughters of Eve--otherwise you could end up like Jimmy Carlton."

This was the kind of warning given to us seminarians at Corpus Christi College, Werribee in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was probably echoed at the time in other Australian seminaries and men's religious institutes.

James Vincent Carlton had been a high profile priest and member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSCs). He had caused a sensation in 1945 after the media discovered that, aged 36, he had walked away from his Congregation's monastery in Kensington NSW and, five days later, married 23-year-old Enid Alison Symington, whom he had been instructing as a potential convert to Catholicism. The fact that the marriage was performed by the Anglican Vicar of Chatswood in his church added to the shock for devout Catholics.

While other priests in those days had in comparable fashion left behind their commitment to celibacy, Church officials, claiming such so-called "deserters" were few in number, thought it best to say little or nothing about them. They had become what the author of a pious book described, in awe and sorrow, as "shepherds in the mist".

In Jimmy Carlton's case, however, there was little chance that his marriage would escape public attention. When he had made his decision in 1932, at 23, to terminate his career as one of the country's top sporting performers in order to train for the priesthood, it was headline news. The same applied to his ordination by Archbishop Daniel Mannix in Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral in July 1939.

Carlton had been one of the world's fastest short-distance sprinters. As a 19-year-old, he had been a member of Australia's team at the Amsterdam Olympic Games in 1928. Although he did not reach any of the finals there, possibly handicapped by illness and inexperience, his form in the following few years had been so remarkable that Australians expected him to do very well at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. Instead, he amazed followers of sport, disappointing some while edifying others, by choosing to respond to a higher calling.

The story of Jimmy Carlton's journey to and away from the priesthood from 1932 until his premature death in 1951 at the age of 42 has been told well and with deep feeling in the opening 40 pages of this autobiography by the older of his two sons, Mike Carlton, a writer and broadcaster whose renown in Australia comes close to equalling that of his father, but in different fields.

The author, who was only five years old when his father died, has relied for details of his parents' romance on his mother's private, carefully typewritten account of the affair, which he and his brother read after her death at almost 93 in 2015.

For Enid and Jim, it was a classic love story. From the moment she met him she "wanted only him". The attraction was clearly reciprocated. His early death, barely six years after they met and married, must have been shattering for her then and throughout her remaining 64 years. In her son's words, Enid "carried a candle for Jim for the rest of her life". Mike Carlton continues to obey her wish for him to place a dozen red roses on his grave in Sydney on every anniversary of his demise.

The couple had to face bigoted interpretations and judgments about their actions, as well as what must have seemed a total lack of understanding and sympathy at first in Catholic Church circles. Early on their wedding day, Jim answered a call to the office of an influential Catholic lawyer, Eric Miller KC, where several Church leaders, including his MSC Superior, having discovered what was pending, awaited him and tried unsuccessfully to prevent or delay it.

As time passed, attitudes in the Church were to change. One early sign of the coming thaw might have been the willingness of the MSCs in 1951 to cover the cost of Jim Carlton's Catholic burial. But an initial decision at his old Marist Brothers' school, St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill ("Joeys"), where his name had been held in the highest regard because of his sporting and academic success, had been to treat him, after what was deemed to have been a scandalous disgrace, as a non-person, with records of his numerous school achievements erased.

Later, when Jim's widow, with her two sons, was struggling in her at times difficult-to-live-with parents' humble Chatswood home to meet education costs for the two boys, Joeys was prepared to take Michael without charge, but the offer was not extended to his young brother, Peter. This was not acceptable to Enid, who found that the Anglican private school, Barker College in Hornsby, was willing to educate both boys for nothing. Barker was where Jim Carlton had worked successfully and happily as a popular teacher and sporting coach for several years after his marriage and following a short stay in a kind of voluntary exile in Melbourne, where Mike Carlton was born on 31st January 1946 and where his father had him baptised in the very cathedral where Jim had been ordained only six-and-a-half years previously.

What the author calls his father's "rehabilitation in the Catholic community" occurred at Joeys in 1985 when the generous-minded headmaster. Brother Joseph McMahon, who had invited Mike to open an art exhibition, introduced him by singing the praises of his father as one of the school's greatest old boys. Mike Carlton quotes this comment by Father Edmund Campion on the event: "That night the glory came back to Hunters Hill. Here surely was a new, more adult Australian Catholicism." With his mother's consent, some of Jim's sporting memorabilia were given by the family to the school for display, while the Carltons also donated a prize, the Jimmy Carlton Cup, to be awarded each year to the school's best all-round athlete.

The complete reversal in the Church's attitude to Jimmy and Enid Carlton and their story was exemplified by Joe McMahon in his time as a Marist Brother and later (now called Marshall McMahon he is still a Catholic teacher but no longer a Religious). His speech and actions helped Mike Carlton to adjust his own thoughts about the Catholicism which he never practised in spite of his Melbourne cathedral baptism. The author was also grateful for the generous assistance given to him by Father Tony Caruana and other MSCs when doing research for this book.

Although his memories of the parent he lost at a very young age are fragmentary, one wonders if carrying the genes of a multi-talented former priest has had a significant influence on him during an eventful and fruitful life as one of Australia's ace communicators. Certainly his father was always for him a significant figure, as the words in passing of no less a figure than Gough Whitlam reminded him more than once.

The great part of this long and fluent memoir contains much detail about Carlton's career and its highs and lows, first as an ABC journalist, This Day Tonight team member in that program's heyday, foreign correspondent, Vietnam War reporter and then for many years as a forthright current affairs commentator orally (on radio and TV) and in writing, notably for the Fairfax press. The book is full of his characteristically shrewd, pungent, controversial and witty observations about events, many historic or tumultuous, and personalities, including national and foreign leaders, colleagues, rivals and critics, some of them his friends and others the recipients of crushing putdowns.

I am reminded how, over at least two decades, I eagerly awaited at weekends Mike Carlton's instructive and wickedly humorous columns in the Sydney Morning Herald, parading opinions that I often but not always shared. I recall too my sense of loss when, confronting the Herald's intention to suspend him, he got in ahead of the Fairfax daily by leaving it on his own volition. This happened following and at least partly resulting from unfortunately offensive exchanges he had with some readers who had claimed, unjustifiably in his opinion, that one of his columns about Gaza's sufferings under bombardment and some of his replies to objecting readers contained traces of anti-semitism. Thereafter my weekend reading missed a cherished ingredient in the absence of Carlton's lively and colourful articles.

In retirement from the hectic world of written and spoken journalism and commentating, Carlton, as he describes in the memoir's final pages, lives peacefully and actively by Pittwater with his second wife and family. After working on the autobiography, he has concentrated on fulfilling a long-held wish to write naval history. In a short time this has so far produced three books on the subject.

Reflecting in the end on his parents, he writes first of his father, wondering what Jim would have made of him: "I am certain James Andrew Carlton would have loved me, but would he have liked me, would he have approved of the life I have led? On the few times that I put these questions to Enid, she was oddly evasive. Yes, he would have been proud of me, but she would never offer anything more. For reasons she would not explain, she stubbornly refused to reveal to me what his politics were, or if his Catholic faith had been strong to his death. In the end I gave up asking. Would I have turned out differently with a father's guidance? It puzzles me still."

As for Enid, a "strong, vital woman", who suffered from dementia in her final years, spent in care in Queensland, Mike calls her "the brave, proud, intelligent and loving single mother who had taken on the world to protect and rear her two boys. Jim's sons".

After her death in June 2015 and cremation in Brisbane, Mike took her ashes to her beloved Blue Mountains and scattered them there: "On a cold but sunny winter's day, standing on a jutting ledge of rock in the bush, I sent her drifting away on a light breeze. Nearby, a silvery waterfall splashed down a golden sandstone cliff to the eucalypt forest dark on the floor of the Grose Valley. We are sure Enid would have approved."

More than being a conventional and fascinating autobiography, On Air serves as a fitting memorial to James and Enid Carlton, demolishing finally, one hopes, any false or unjust thoughts about them that might have lingered in minds lacking either information or compassion and understanding.

Reviewed by Michael Costigan (*)

(*) Michael Costigan was Associate Editor (as a priest) of The Advocate (Melbourne); founding Director of the Literature Board of the Australia Council; and first Executive Secretary of the Australian Bishops Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace. He is an Adjunct Professor of Australian Catholic University.
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Author:Costigan, Michael
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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