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Donald Ernest (Don) Charlwood (1915–2012)

by Michael McGirr

Don Charlwood, one of the great craftsmen of Australian literature, has died in Knox Private Hospital, aged 96.

Australian readers of a certain age will have affectionate memories of Charlwood's All the Green Year, which for two decades was a regular feature of high school English.

He enjoyed one of the things that writers most covet: thousands of young readers, who often form deep and lasting relationships with books in a way not common in adult years. All The Green Year, set in 1929 on the south-east of Port Phillip Bay, observes Australian childhood beautifully. It sold more than 100,000 copies and will be re-published as a fresh edition in September as part of a series of Australian classics.

Charlwood was a man of great warmth whose memories were precise — an asset in the decades after his RAAF service as a navigator of Lancaster bombers in World War II, and later as an air traffic controller at Melbourne airport, where he went on to select and train generations of air traffic controllers. This period also yielded a popular book that was re-published several times, Take-off to Touchdown: The Story of Air Traffic Control.

Charlwood wrote 11 books, but he could claim a writing career spanning more than 80 years — some kind of record, possibly rivalled only by Mary Gilmore or Rosemary Dobson.

In later years, he wrote a lot about ships and the sea, but it was his first book, No Moon Tonight (1956) that flagged his arrival as an author of note. As a bomber navigator who survived a full tour of 30 missions over Nazi-controlled Europe, he wrote of the experiences of Bomber Command crews — men who faced ''nearly an inevitable fate''. Of the 20 men he signed up with, only five survived the war.

Earlier this month, Charlwood laid a wreath at the Shrine of Remembrance for fallen crew at the first Bomber Command commemorative event of its kind at the Melbourne landmark since the war. In April, he published a substantial essay for Anzac Day in local newspapers in Warrandyte (where he lived) and Mornington, in which he returned to the theme of No Moon Tonight. (A companion on the same theme, Journeys into Night, had followed). Some enthusiasts of the genre feel Charlwood's wartime books are in the same bracket as The Dam Busters, the classic by another Australian writer, Paul Brickhill.

Charlwood, the eldest boy among five siblings born to Emily and Ernest in Hawthorn, moved with the family to Frankston when he was eight years old. In school he had dreamed of being a writer — once even approaching newspaper boss Keith Murdoch who lived nearby — but had to settle on work at a market and estate agency when he finished school in 1932, before moving to the Western District as a farm hand.

Poems such as Tennyson's Ulysses meant a great deal to him. But even more significant was Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He loved the idea of being like the mariner, metaphorically grabbing the hand of a stranger and fascinating them with a tale, so much so that they couldn't move.

All the Green Year may well have its origins in Charlwood's first published work. At school in Frankston, his history teacher, Mr Moody, asked him to write a history of the town. His mother, Emily, who had grown up in Frankston, drew up a list of senior residents of the district and he set off to interview them. The resulting oral history appeared in instalments in the Frankston Standard. Charlwood was just 14, and was already investing his imagination in the Frankston of that era. Later, while he was working on the land at Nareen in the 1930s he completed a short-story course by correspondence with the London School of Journalism and had a number of stories published, sometimes under the pseudonym E. K. Dwyer.

For his 21st birthday he received a copy of Drinkwater's Outline of Literature and Art, which he used to choose the books that the State Library would send to Nareen. These works fed his longing to tell stories, but it was not until he was part of a lucky minority that survived the war that he found himself in the position of the ancient mariner, in possession of a story he felt compelled to share.

He volunteered to join the RAAF in 1941, mainly because the son of the family with whom he was working at Nareen had also volunteered. After being trained in Canada, where he met his future wife, Nell East, he was posted to 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds in north Lincolnshire. There he first flew Halifax bombers before converting to the Lancaster, in which he completed his 30 missions as part of the crew led by the pilot Geoff Maddern. They were the first crew in the squadron to survive a nine-month tour.

At the end of the war, Charlwood returned to Edmonton, Canada, to marry Nell, and they travelled together to Australia.

Even after the phenomenal success of All the Green Year, Charlwood said that No Moon Tonight was his personal favourite, simply because ''it is a book of sorrow and companionship''.

All the Green Year, which followed No Moon Tonight after an interval of nine years and is a very different work, celebrates the invincibility of youth. The young characters have physical confidence and their story, despite its many challenges, is told with a lighter heart.

There is a sense in which the book is a balm for the hurt of war. The book has a wise innocence. It knows what life was like after the Great War, during the Depression, for boys in fear of bullying teachers and infatuated by pretty ones, at a time when adult life beckoned yet a livelihood was hard to come by. It also knows what it is like to be a boy with an open heart but a lot to learn. More importantly, his writing career began from a discovery of the relationship between people and place.

By 1965, when he came to write All the Green Year, he and Nell had four children, including two teenage daughters. The world was full of the Beatles and the Vietnam War. One night he threatened to put his noisy girls in a book to serve them right. But, when he thought about it, he knew he couldn't.

So he turned back to another time to write a wonderful story about boys. In so doing, he made a unique contribution to the exploration of boyhood in Australian writing, a rich vein that stretches at least from Norman Lindsay's Redheap (1930) and Saturdee (1933) to Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones (2009).

For all its quintessential Australianness, Charlwood's voice is very much his own. It is strong, resonant, compassionate, unsentimental and yet affectionate.

He won a number of literary awards, and in 1992 was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to literature.

He is survived by Nell, his wife of 68 years, children Jan, Sue, Doreen and James, five grandchildren, and his brothers Arthur and Philip.

Michael McGirr, head of faith and mission at St Kevin's College, interviewed Don Charlwood in April for the introduction to Text's re-issue of All The Green Year. Gerry Carman contributed to this tribute.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael McGirr, 'Charlwood, Donald Ernest (Don) (1915–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

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