ON A WRITER’S TRAIL
Unfashionably dead, white and male, Alan Moorehead inspired a generation of Australian writers, says Les Carlyon
You had to admire his self-belief. Alan Moorehead, a young reporter on the The Herald in Melbourne in the early 1930s, saw himself as a man of destiny, even though his career spoke of competence rather than genius. He was determined to become a famous writer like his idol Ernest Hemingway, and certain that if he stayed in his native land, hanging around courts and boozing with colleagues, he would end up a bore. As he later wrote, he needed to get to the centre of things and events. So, in 1936, aged 25, he escaped — his word — to London on a one-way ticket. Destiny or bust.
When Moorehead died in London in 1983, having never again called Australia home, the Sunday Times obituarist had trouble classifying him. Moorehead was anything but a bore; he earned fabulous royalties from being incapable of writing a boring sentence. He was one of the best writers of nonfiction in the world. His name was what these days would be called a brand. But where did he fit? What was the genre?
He was a polished travel writer with a quiet style and an eye that worked like a camera. He was an outstanding popular historian — think only of Gallipoli, The White Nile and Cooper’s Creek — with a mellow voice that never harangued the reader and after a few pages began to cast a spell that led to the compulsive turning of pages. He had dabbled in biography with modest success. And before any of this he was the distinguished war correspondent whose African Trilogy still stands as literature, even if Moorehead’s prose style in 1943 was not yet fully formed.
African Trilogy is loaded with small and telling details that are incidental to the to-and-fro battles along the North African littoral: flaring pink sunsets, Bedouin tribesmen running from their sack-and-kerosene-tin settlements, dust as fine as baking powder, camels that plod moodily. These asides give Moorehead’s prose texture and verisimilitude and turn a war story into a human story. They say he was actually there. Joseph Conrad once said that his task as a writer was, above all, “to make you see”. He had envisioned Moorehead.
But critics had been puzzling over Moorehead’s place long before his death. CP Snow talked about a new category of literature that would take in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise and some of the nonfiction of Arthur Koestler and Aldous Huxley. “Let us call it high journalism,” Snow wrote. “Of all its practitioners, Mr Alan Moorehead is one of the most masterly.” Professional historians, as is their wont, said Moorehead was not scholarly enough.
It was all a nonsense, this casting about for labels. Moorehead wasn’t trying to be scholarly; he was trying to be a writer. He knew that producing books for a general audience was about more than dates, documents and footnotes. He knew it was also about aesthetics, about arranging words to create a “pleasant object”, as Evelyn Waugh once put it. In other words, it was about style, about creating a voice, conversational and intelligent, that carried the reader Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead By Thornton McCamish Black Inc, pp336, $39.99 along. And Moorehead knew history read better if one walked the ground in the hope of communing with ghosts.
One of his legacies has been to inspire others. He nurtured the young Robert Hughes, who said Moorehead was the person “I wanted to be”. Hughes’s style ended up more boisterous than that of his hero, but one can discern the Moorehead techniques, particularly that of boots on the ground, at work throughout The Fatal Shore. Clive James is an admirer, notably of Moorehead’s control of tone, as were Manning Clark and a generation of Australian journalists in the 1960s. David Attenborough, entranced by nature like Moorehead, has acknowledged a debt to the Australian’s books, saying he was ahead of his time. And now we have Thornton McCamish and Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead.
This book is a delight, about as polished and readable as Australian nonfiction ever manages to be, and the secret is the quality of the writing, the quiet authority, the flashes of wit and a refusal to bow to the conventions of biography. Which means, like Moorehead’s corpus, it is hard to classify. It is biography, and exhaustively researched, but with an admitted bias.
McCamish tells us early on he’s a fan, besotted by his subject and the things he did in a world long gone. He suspects that “at some murky, furtive daydreaming level, I wanted to be him”. But hero-worship doesn’t stop McCamish from acknowledging Moorehead’s failings: the lack of humour in his prose, his carelessness with small facts and his bad books, notably The Russian Revolution and several clunky novels.
McCamish, a freelance journalist and former editor of The Big Issue, also has an agenda: to rescue Moorehead’s work from obscurity, although among older readers Moorehead — “unfashionably dead, white and male” — may not be as obscure as McCamish presumes.
The writer takes a considerable risk with his approach. The perpendicular pronoun first appears on page two and is there throughout. This is a book about McCamish and his quest as well as the dead white male. Yet, improbably, the device works, perhaps because McCamish uses the personal pronoun discreetly, doesn’t take himself too seriously and never (as someone once said) becomes the piano that thinks it wrote the concerto. It is similar to the technique Helen Garner uses so deftly in her nonfiction. It
Alan Moorehead in 1966