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Long, Gavin Merrick (1901–1968)

by A. J. Sweeting

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Gavin Merrick Long (1901-1968), by unknown photographer, 1943

Gavin Merrick Long (1901-1968), by unknown photographer, 1943

Australian War Memorial, 052009

Gavin Merrick Long (1901-1968), journalist and historian, was born on 31 May 1901 at Foster, Victoria, eldest of six children of George Merrick Long, clergyman, and his wife Felecie Alexandra, née Joyce, both Victorian born. Gavin was educated at Trinity Grammar School, Kew, All Saints College, Bathurst, New South Wales, and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1922; Dip.Ed., 1925). He planned to follow his father into the Anglican priesthood, but turned to teaching (1922-23) at The King's School, Parramatta, where he also coached rowing. In 1924 he tried his hand as a jackeroo.

Next year Long travelled to England. He worked for nine months in the migration and settlement office at Australia House, London. The trip abroad had been largely prompted by his courtship of Mary Jocelyn Britten, daughter of a master at King's, who was holidaying in Britain. Gavin and Jocelyn were quietly married on 5 September 1925 at the register office, Kensington. She sailed for Australia a fortnight later; he left for Europe and returned home in March 1926. They were remarried on 24 September that year at St Peter's Anglican Church, Melbourne.

Long's interest in journalism had been stimulated by the publication of his casual contributions to newspapers and journals. Following a stint with the Daily Guardian in Sydney, he was employed (1926-31) as a junior on the Melbourne Argus. Even in that tough field his talent for accurate and objective reporting shone out, as did his enterprise and broadening versatility. His earnings from spare-time journalism for the Argus and the Australasian were considerable, amounting to about two-thirds of his salary. From June 1927 he wrote a weekly column on films for the Australasian. In November 1928 the Argus promoted him to general reporter. Little more than a year later he rose to senior reporter, only to be reduced to his former status because of the Depression. Accepting an offer of appointment as a senior with the Sydney Morning Herald, he began work as a sub-editor in July 1931.

In 1932 Long began writing a weekly page on films for the Sydney Mail and soon branched into theatre, music and art criticism for the Herald. He served (1933-34) on the federal council of the Australian Journalists' Association. From 1936 he was chief cable sub-editor on the Herald, handling major stories from overseas. Leaders, articles on defence issues and book reviews came within his ambit. In 1938 he was posted to the Herald's London office. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II he was appointed a war correspondent with the British Expeditionary Force in France. Evacuated from Boulogne in May 1940, he then reported on operations involving the Royal Navy. In November the Herald sent him to Egypt; he covered the campaigns of the 6th Australian Division in Libya (December 1940-February 1941) and Greece (March-April). In mid-1941 he was recalled to Australia. He resumed his articles and editorials on defence, and visited Darwin and Port Moresby.

In March 1943, on the recommendation of Charles Bean, Long was appointed general editor of the official history of Australia in World War II. Based at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, he spent the last thirty months of the war in planning, consulting, and recruiting authors and staff. He also drafted a narrative of the Syrian campaign to test the adequacy of the official records and his own capacity to write about a theatre in which he had not witnessed events. When not thus engaged, he went back and forth to the front, staying at different headquarters and interviewing participants from past and present campaigns. More than one hundred of his notebooks and diaries—a treasure trove of information about Australia and Australians at war—were filled in this way.

The official history eventually comprised five series which totalled twenty-two volumes—seven on the army, two on the navy, four on the air force, five on the home front and four on medical matters. It was the largest historical project ever undertaken in Australia. Long was to write three of the army volumes; thirteen other authors were to write the remaining nineteen volumes. A concise volume was also planned, to be written by Long. With the task barely under way, he contracted cancer but continued to work.

Long was 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall, dark and slender, with hooded brown eyes. He had poor eyesight and looked straight ahead when he walked, conveying an aloofness which was foreign to his nature. In the 1940s he had strong black hair and a close-clipped moustache which contributed to his youthful looks. Although grave and scholarly in appearance, he had a ready wit and a lively sense of humour. He was generous, yet lived austerely. His patched trousers—the repairs only partly concealed beneath a striped, unfashionable, double-breasted coat—and the cold showers which he took until late in life were the products of his upbringing and his aversion to waste. With a preference for simple things, he deplored the passing of the 'horse and buggy' days; he did not like motorcars and did not drive. Shy and sensitive, he recognized those feelings in others.

In conveying messages to his writers and staff, Long used homely phrases: 'too much dressing spoils the salad' (to one author fond of colourful prose); 'hard writing makes easy reading' (to another). And he applied such principles to his own work from the outset. He wrote brisk, clear narrative, with an unerring sense for the appropriate word. His style was 'robust and eminently readable'. By leaving the facts 'to speak for themselves', he stirred the reader's imagination 'to produce the comment which [he] had inspired but left unwritten'. Usually accessible, he established a friendly but cautious relationship with his team of writers, winning their respect with wise guidance and quiet encouragement. He thought nothing of drafting a chapter or chapters for a struggling author. His close involvement imposed on the separate monographs a unity of purpose and method which brought the massive detail into perspective while preserving the individuality of each of his authors.

The first two of Long's own volumes, To Benghazi and Greece, Crete and Syria, were published in Canberra in 1952 and 1953 respectively. Both were thrice reprinted, with sales exceeding 20,000 copies. The acclaim which they received on publication was echoed, thirty-four years later, by David Horner in his introduction to the third reprint of To Benghazi. He described Long's handling of the battle of Bardia as 'thrilling, lucid, vividly realistic' and 'told from the perspective of the men in the front-line'. To Benghazi 'set the tone and standards for each of the subsequent volumes of the official history'. These appeared in steady progression until 1977. Each was the subject of a leader-page article or the principal book review in almost every Australian metropolitan newspaper. In Britain most were warmly and widely reviewed. Long was appointed O.B.E. (1953) and a member of the Greek Order of the Phoenix (1956).

In March 1963 Long retired, 'characteristically dismissing' himself when he decided that the history had reached the stage at which his full-time employment was no longer justified. The third of his volumes, The Final Campaigns, was published that year. In 1963-65 he was a research fellow with the Australian Dictionary of Biography at the Australian National University. A member (1943-68) of the War Memorial's board of management (later trustees), he was that institution's principal adviser on history and films, and an initiator of its research scholarship and grants programmes. He had been critical of the standard of Australian government publications and joined other experts in producing the official Style Manual (Canberra, 1966). A prolific contributor to the Canberra Times, he wrote over ninety articles and book reviews. His MacArthur as Military Commander (London, 1969) examined General Douglas MacArthur from an Australian viewpoint. The Six Years War (Canberra), Long's concise history of Australian involvement in the 1939-45 conflict, though finished much earlier, was not published until 1973.

Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Long died of lung cancer on 10 October 1968 at his Deakin home and was cremated. He had been struggling to finish MacArthur and was sedated against discomfort and pain: discomfort, he said, was when he was unable to sleep at night; pain, when he had to bite his lips to stop himself from screaming. He had taken his death sentence quietly, expressing the hope that he would not linger and risk being charged with 'loitering'. When his time arrived he left without fuss, 'closing the door quietly behind him', as (Sir) Paul Hasluck remarked, 'like the gentleman he always was'. Long's brief death notice in the Canberra Times was devoid of padding and humbug. It lacked the customary public declarations of devotion, but it would be hard to find a man who privately was more loved. His bust by John Dowie is held by the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • Stand-To (Canberra), vol 8, no 2, Mar-Apr 1963, p 3
  • S. Jamieson, Gavin Long—An Appreciation (transcript, Australian War Memorial)
  • Gavin Long papers, 1937-78 (Australian War Memorial)
  • Official History 1939-45 War: records of Gavin Long, General Editor (Australian War Memorial)
  • Long family papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. J. Sweeting, 'Long, Gavin Merrick (1901–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/long-gavin-merrick-10856/text19269, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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