From his hospital bed Peter’s last words were spoken to his wife, Davey. “I have to get back to my desk.” In the last day of his life all he wanted to do was work on his next Quadrant column
| ‘Soldier, Writer, Publisher’: Obituary of Peter Ryan
| Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 2015
SYDNEY - It was once said of Peter Ryan that he climbed many mountains in his life and that his view of things was invariably an elevated one.
His death on 13 December 2015, at 92, has removed quite a remarkable Australian – a war hero, a gifted writer and columnist, publisher, raconteur and mischief-maker.
Ryan was born in Glen Iris, a suburb of Melbourne, on 4 September 1923, attended Malvern Grammar on a scholarship and at 18 joined the Australian army.
He spent 18 months behind the Japanese lines in New Guinea on dangerous intelligence work and was subsequently awarded the Military Medal (MM) and Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD).
That war-time experience left him with an abiding interest in the development of Papua New Guinea and a great affection for its people.
After his return to Australia Ryan wrote Fear Drive My Feet which was not published until 1959 but has been in print ever since.
In the latest Text Classics edition, writer and academic Peter Pierce described it as "the finest Australian memoir of war".
In 1946 Peter Ryan (recently demobilised) and a future editor of The Age, Creighton Burns (still in the navy but not in uniform), attended their first lecture together at Melbourne University.
They would be close friends for the next 62 years.
Ryan studied Australian history, under Manning Clark and graduated BA (Honours).
Years later, when Burns was still an academic at Melbourne, he suggested to Professor ‘Mac’ Ball that his friend Ryan be considered for the vacant post of Director of Melbourne University Press (MUP).
Ryan got the job and occupied the position for 26 fruitful years.
“No one ever did me a better turn,” he once told me.
On his watch the MUP list grew steadily in both range and quality "its policy being to publish across the whole world of scholarship, but to publish nothing but the best".
After retiring from MUP Ryan, then 65, returned to the Victorian Supreme Court where he had been a clerk as a teenager, just out of school.
He became Secretary to the Board of Examiners, the body which grants or refuses admittance to legal practice in Victoria.
Yet first and foremost Peter Ryan saw himself as a writer and he estimated that he wrote well over two million words for publication in his lifetime.
It is not only unusual for a successful publisher to be a prolific writer – it is little short of astonishing that just about every word was handwritten.
There were books, newspaper columns – including As I Please in The Age – magazine articles and monographs.
Author and journalist Les Carlyon said that as an essayist, Peter Ryan "had the gift of the gods. He was compulsively readable, whether admiring the poetry of AE Housman or explaining how willy-wagtails build their nests in the hills behind Heathcote".
His pieces collected in Lines of Fire and Brief Lives showed him to be one of the finest essayists Australia had produced.
A tribute in Quadrant to its "beloved columnist" described Ryan as a man incapable of writing an ugly sentence.
Peter Ryan had an enormous capacity for mischief, for story-telling and for dining out.
Asked at the Savage Club table one day about his active social life he replied: "It's been so busy I'm thinking of putting a boy on."
Max Suich, the Sydney journalist, recalled how Tom Fitzgerald, founder of the now-defunct journal Nation supplied Ryan with opportunities for fortnightly but anonymous mischief when he agreed to him succeeding Cyril Pearl on the Melbourne Spy column.
But it was in Quadrant magazine in 1993 that his mischievous, controversial and to some, scandalous, attack on the value of Manning Clark's A History of Australia was published.
"This essay", he wrote, "is an overdue axe laid to the stalk of a tall poppy".
Ryan was astonished (his word) at the storm of controversy that erupted.
Peter Ryan is survived by wife of 68 years ‘Davey’ (as everyone knows her), their daughter Sally and son Andrew.
He had spent a lot of extremely productive time at desks and in the last days of his life wanted to work on his next Quadrant column.
It was going to be an attack on the Australian Republican Movement in the course of which ARM chairman Peter FitzSimons would be getting a good "seeing to."
JOHN TIDEY, A FORMER JOURNALIST AT THE AGE, WAS A FRIEND OF PETER RYAN